Rethinking Black History Month

Perry Blankson calls for a new interpretation of Black History Month, one that acknowledges the ongoing presence of racism this side of the Atlantic.

In early June, the statue of local philanthropist and slave trade profiteer Edward Colston was toppled from its plinth and rolled into the nearby Bristol Harbour. It was a small justice that his statue would share the fate of many of his victims who lie nameless and forgotten at the bottom of the Atlantic, choosing death over a life of bondage in a foreign land. 

The removal of the statue occurred in the wake of the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in May and catalysed the toppling of controversial statues worldwide. One would be forgiven for thinking the removal of the monument to a human trafficker would be welcomed by a nation that proudly espouses its commitment to freedom. 

Still, the response of the British political elite was the opposite. Commenting on Colston’s removal, Home Secretary Priti Patel claimed that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about.” 

Far from a distraction, the uproar from the political establishment and sections of the British public has once again demonstrated that Britain has been either unable or unwilling to reconcile the dark, brutal history of the British Empire and post-colonial Britain with modern race relations.

The modern celebration of Black History Month has treated the problems of racism and race relations as issues experienced either across the Atlantic or in the distant past, rather than an ongoing struggle that has a long and storied history in Britain. 

Further, its relegation to a single month contributes to the bifurcation of ‘Black history’ and ‘British history’, when the two are inextricably linked. It is for these reasons that I believe we must critically reexamine the modern implementation of Black History Month to integrate what we perceive to be ‘Black’ and ‘British’ history. 

To achieve this, it is necessary to fully decolonise the curriculum from primary learning through to higher education, and re-centre the mid-twentieth century narrative of race relations from America back to Britain. However, before we can fully understand what is meant by decolonisation and how it relates to Black History Month, we must first explore how the latter came to be in Britain, and how we celebrate it today.

Black History Month began in Britain in 1987 through coordination between Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and the Greater London Council. Addai-Sebo was stricken by what he termed an ‘identity crisis’ that black children faced in the 1980s, conflicted between their British and Afro-Caribbean nationalities. Black History Month was intended to be “an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans and people of African descent to world civilization from antiquity.” Yet, its celebration today leaves much to be desired.

From primary through to secondary education my own experience of Black History Month, as well as that of my peers, was of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956. Ignored were the names of Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, and their organisation of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. I knew all too well of the lynching of Emmett Till, the brutalisation of Rodney King and the landmark Brown v. Board case. At the same time, I was blissfully unaware of the murders of Stephen Lawrence and David Oluwale, as well as the trial of the Mangrove Nine. It was not until many years later that I was able to educate myself, not only on these individuals but on the broader historical context in which they lived and the material conditions that informed their socio-economic positions in society.

“Decolonisation is a somewhat nebulous concept, and recent calls to decolonise the curriculum have been met with opposition from those who are not fully aware of the meaning behind the term”

As a child who had experienced first-hand the racial injustices and prejudice endured by minorities in Britain, I found it bizarre that when we finally did explore black history in a British context, the focus was often on figures from what seemed to me to be ancient history compared to the American civil rights movement. The hagiographies of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano were de rigueur whenever October came around, to such an extent that I had memorised the annual assemblies detailing their lives and achievements. Our only departure from the distant past was to celebrate the arrival of the Windrush – a story of harmonious integration soundtracked by the jovial calypso of Aldwyn Roberts’ (stage name Lord Kitchener) London is the Place for Me.

To me, these token black individuals, despite their exceptional accomplishments, signalled that racism and prejudice were problems that had been long overcome by a ‘tolerant’ Britain.

So how can the decolonisation of the curriculum address these issues? What exactly is decolonisation? Decolonisation is a somewhat nebulous concept, and recent calls to decolonise the curriculum have been met with opposition from those who are not fully aware of the meaning behind the term.

A recent paper by Mia Liyange, Master’s student at the University of Oxford, asserted that “decolonisation entails a fundamental re-evaluation of the existing forms of teaching, learning and pastoral support in higher education. It is about acknowledging how our institutions reproduce unequal social structures – so it is a larger project than simply the diversification of courses, for example.”

The removal of Colston’s statue briefly pierced the colonial veil obscuring Britain’s troubled past, forcing the public to confront the hard truth about the brutality of the Empire and its relationship to the present day. The decolonisation of the curriculum attempts to replicate this nationwide reconciliation within the education system by demonstrating the institutional and systemic inequalities that have been upheld by the state in every facet of society. In this way, a fully decolonised curriculum is the logical successor to Black History Month, which has become a cultural stopgap in addressing the turbulent past of race relations in Britain.

In the eyes of the government, my proposal would be at odds with their recent advice to English schools, instructing them against teaching “victim narratives” and “unsubstantiated accusations against state institutions” that “are harmful to British society.”

“Acknowledgement of the dark history of the British Empire and post-colonial Britain is a prerequisite to healing the deep racial scars present within our present society”

To the government and other critics, I would argue that decolonisation is not about perpetuating so-called victim narratives or assigning blame. Rather than contributing to “our cringing embarrassment about our history” and “self-recrimination and wetness,” in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, decolonisation ultimately achieves the reverse. 

Acknowledgement of the dark history of the British Empire and post-colonial Britain is a prerequisite to healing the deep racial scars present within our present society. The recent social unrest highlighting the racial inequalities in present-day Britain has demonstrated that for all its celebration of tolerance and diversity, Britain is a nation fraught with inequality and racial discrimination. While Black History Month began with a positive motive, it is evident we need fundamental systemic change in order to reach what the original celebration set out to achieve.