Black History Month was first created in America. The main aim for it was and still is, to raise awareness of black achievement and contribution to society. When it was adopted in the UK in the 1980s, the founders had the exact same aim in mind.
At the time the status of black people in the UK was still being openly questioned and challenged by far right groups. Police harassment of black people was rife and led to civil unrest in inner cities. In schools black kids were being stereotyped as low achievers and excluded at alarming rates and young people – particularly black men – were facing high unemployment and criminalisation. In addition, the majority non- black people were unaware of the positive contributions black people had made and continue to make to life in Britain or beyond (1).
Black History Month presented an opportunity to show a history that existed but was hidden. It was intended to provide a more positive model of the way things could be with a view to dissipating inter-racial tensions and fostering better relationships across races over time.
In many ways it seems Black History Month has drifted away from its central aim. It seems more like a cultural celebration with a strong focus on the arts; with the media bringing an even more narrow focus on the Notting hill Carnival (not even held during Black History Month) as an example of black contribution to British life. The big music, rich colour, delicious food, revelry and festival vibe of the carnival can be an important bridge, an easy way to connect, but is not a one size fits all answer to fostering good relationships across racial divides, as it doesn’t appeal to all, and carries the risk of reinforcing often narrow, frequently unhelpful steroetyopes propagated by the media.
In reality, the black contribution to British life (and to the world at large) is much much broader and diverse, reaching far more meaningfully and universally than mere dancing in the streets. Black people have contributed to politics, to international development, to the running of the United Nations, to science, to medicine and allied professions, to space travel, to the military, to finance, to public life, to education, to sport, to the fine arts, to fashion, to journalism to name some highly respectable areas of life. In short, black people are blooming (pun intended) everywhere, at all levels, doing great things!
There has been a lot of debate about the abolition of Black History Month recently. I dare say it may likely be coming from certain sections of society suffering from a lack of meaningful insight into its potential (or quite possibly suffering from a very very clear insight into its potential). Indeed two London Councils both of the same political persuasion, have already ended it.
I don’t know what you think but in my view, the reasons Black History Month began are still with us today. Take the Windrush Scandal for instance. Wasn’t the status of black people from the Caribbean brought into open question by the very nature of that debacle? Aren’t black kids still being excluded from school at a higher rate than their non-black peers? They are in certain boroughs. Aren’t black youth over represented in youth offending services and amongst those going into the care system? Things have changed since the inception of Black History Month but at the same time, in many ways, they seem the same.
Instead of asking whether it’s time to abolish Black History Month, we should first be asking has Black History Month made a difference? Do we as black people even have a shared understanding of what it’s for? Can we even articulate the difference we want it to make? Are we using the opportunities it offers to the best advantage? Have we really held to it’s founding principles? What are we doing with the other eleven months to prepare our children to be the next generation of achievers? To raise their expectations of themselves? To facilitate them in releasing their potential? To teach and model to them how to take full responsibility for themselves and their own future?
I believe the onus is not on the system or whether Black History Month exists or not. The onus is on us as a people to get ourselves to a place where it doesn’t matter whether there’s a Black History Month or not.
I of course could be wrong. I would love to know your views. Please share them in the comment box below and or email me at email@example.com
Keep your head on straight and your heart on strong!
H Michelle Johnson
1. https://www.theguardian.com/comment is free/2017/Oct/26/proud-black-History-Month-30-years-rethink