The beginning of October marked the start of Black History Month, an awareness event that takes place primarily in the UK and the USA. The event stems from the argument that the histories of the African Diaspora and Africa itself have been neglected in traditional education. Black History Month was established in 1987 in the UK, created by the Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and the Greater London Council as a way of promoting racial unity across communities and celebrating the city’s diverse heritage. LS looks at how Black History Month has progressed and what it means for students at Leeds.
Black History Month can be interpreted both as a celebration of black history and as a reaction against the way in which black history is often taught in the West. By paying tribute to the diversity of black history, cultures and narratives that are usually touched on in a simple, repetitive tone or otherwise ignored it brings to the fore all the black culture offers. It was created primarily by and for diasporic communities and perhaps continues to be of the most importance as a way of remembering and passing on lived experiences and stories.
However, Black History Month does, of course, seek to engage with and open the minds of those who might not necessarily know or regard black stories as equally important to the history taught in schools. The Euro-centric style of teaching that is common in the education system disregards black history and culture, essentially labelling it “slavery” and covering it as a topic for a week or so at school. This is arguably a method of oppression, as it erases the positive contributions to society that people of black heritage have made, and keeps people of different ethnicities from uniting.
In the UK the term ‘Black’ is one of inclusivity. The NUS Black Student’s Campaign defines blackness,’ as a political term. That is to say: “any- one of African, Asian, Caribbean, Arab etc. background”. The ‘Peo- ple of Colour’ that are historically immigrants to Britain mainly arrived after 1948, when the Empire Windrush docked, bringing with it the first wave of Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the country. This history of unity across communities of colour is what marks Britain out from the USA and others; the black struggle in the UK has been one of working together to advance not only individuals but the black community as a whole.
Focusing on an inclusive approach to Black History Month is, ultimately, what will continue its success by enabling more peo- ple from racialised communities to relate to the collective struggle. Divisions along racial lines within black communities are stratifying the liberation movement and only serve the purpose of alienating and oppressing the black community further. By recognising that, despite differences in culture and custom, we all fight on the same side, we can all overcome the structural racism that seeks to keep us down.
Although there are certainly arguments surrounding the ways in which Black History Month has been commodified and can be said to have taken a path of less radical politics since its inception, the all too common argument that the event is ‘unfair’ or weighted in favour of a particular community is flawed. The whole point of having a single month set aside to remember and celebrate black history is because of the oppression that Black people face in society. A good answer to the often heard question of ‘When’s our White History Month then?’ is to say: ‘Easy: it’s all the other 334 days of the year.’
And this is no exaggeration; where it seems as though black figures are (albeit rarely) mentioned in the history books, the Coalition government is now seen to be doing its best to eradicate them.
In January 2013 the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, a member of the Conservative Party, attempted to airbrush black people out of history by removing Mary Seacole from the national curriculum. This example of black contributions being omitted from the way in which British culture is taught continues the pattern of dismissing black people and bypassing the positive roles they have historically played. Of course, in teaching Churchill and Cromwell to school students Gove would probably prefer no mention of Churchill’s ‘gulags’ in Kenya, where 150,000 Kikuyu were forced at gunpoint into detention camps for resisting his post-war rule, or Cromwell’s notorious massacres of the Irish Drogheda being but two examples.
There are however, several critiques than can legitimately be made of Black History Month. There are two main issues with the event as it exists in its current form: firstly, the commercial way in which it has come to be celebrated. Jerk chicken and good music are not the only things Black communities have brought to the UK. Celebrating our cultures is a great way of getting people involved but Black History Month must be politicised as well. We shouldn’t ignore black history and the continued struggle for equality. Black History Month is the ideal way to get the message across. Secondly, there is a problem with the tokenistic way in which all black events and round, then why is the long and rich history of all other communities confined to 31 days of the year? While the situation is not ideal, it is an important way of challenging society’s assumptions of what is worth prioritising. So, yes, the lives and works of black communities are too many to fit into just one month– but that does not mean we should scrap Black History Month imminently.
At Leeds University Union this year there is a great programme of events that aims to include and educate people from any community: Lee Scratch Perry performed at the Union last week, there is amazing food every Monday in the Refectory, a panel debate discussing the relationship between feminism and women of colour, and there’s the launching of a ‘Women of Colour Society’.
We are trying to branch out from the traditionally tokenistic way in which Black History Month is celebrated, to make it about society, history and culture. Hopefully in the future we can make black history something that is included in traditional fields, rather than rejected and ignored, and smash racism in all its forms. So come and find out what’s going on our leaflets and posters, try the food on Mondays, check out the ‘figures from Black history’ poster campaign in the Union, and get involved!
Black History Month | Dates for your diary
Wednesday October 23
Bradford University’s Great Debate – the biggest university debate tour debating on a number of controversial topics in conjunction in with Leeds Met, Hull, Bradford, Sheffield and York.
6.30–9.30pm. Coaches leaving from the Parkinson steps at 5.45pm. £3 including coach.
Saturday October 26
Cultural Showcase – an evening jam-packed with entertaining performances from students and headliner acts.
Doors open at 6.30pm (7–10pm). Riley Smith Hall. £7.
Monday October 28
Panel Discussion: Is Feminism Too ‘White’? – students and academics will be discussing the issue central to where the feminist movement goes next.
8–9.30pm. LUU Room 6. Free.
LUU Feminist Society.