The origins of Black History Month within the UK seems to be a wide-ranging debate.
However, according to Reni Eddo-Lodge, Black History Month began with Linda Bello and Ansel Wong who pitched the original ideas of Black History Month to Linda. Linda is a British born woman of mixed heritage (Nigerian and British). She was a leader of South London’s Lambeth Council and chair of the London Strategic Policy Unit (part of the now-defunct Greater London Council). In 1970 Ansel organised the month, and Linda hosted the event, it was a London-wide affair and the guest of honour was Sally Mugabe. Prior to this in 1987 local authorities began putting on events to celebrate black history, but there was no dedicated month.
The reasoning behind the choosing of October as BHM is varied, however, Linda states there was no real reason for the choice of this month apart from logistical reasons. However, it proved important that it would be distinct from February (which is black history month in the US). Other commentators have noted that October was chosen because it coincided with the Marcus Garvey celebrations and London Jubilee.
So, what really is Black History Month?
Linda highlights that BHM is here “to celebrate the contribution that black people had made in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t about hair . . . it was history month, not culture month ” (Lodge: 2017, 14). While Linda is against what black history month has become, black history month is a wide-ranging month of activities. From marches to carnivals, fashion shows and more, as well as October being educative it has also become celebratory.
Again, while some people have become sceptical of this move, I have come to understand and truly embrace it. Whether I like it or not, my blackness is a political statement. My choice to wear natural hair is a defiance of institutional codes and conducts, my mention of race insights danger against the establishment of white privilege, my use of my native tongue on a bus runs to decentre the normativity of ‘whiteness in Britain’. And so yes, I do want a month where I can be black, just for being black sake, without it turning into a televised debate.
Some misconceptions about Black History Month.
Is it not unfair to have a month dedicated to black history?
It is also unfair to live in a society established and bound in racism, but here we are! Really, our society is bound in whiteness, and often the voices and simple visibility of black people never occurs, BHM is all about giving black people a platform to acknowledge themselves and their heritage. If you want a [whatever your marginality is month] set one up and leave black people alone. I will also make the comment since it has become relevant, Black History Month should be distinct from OTHER ethnicities. While I do understand the complex Asian and Black relationship of Black History, it is important to acknowledge the specific struggles of Black people.
Did black history in the UK start with Windrush?
No, it did not. Black people have been in the UK since the Roman empire and possibly prior. Shakespeare’s Othello? He was a black man, Fredrick Douglass a freed slave, in 1845 was travelling to Ireland, Dido Elizabeth Belle, a daughter born from an enslaved mother and the white Sir John Lindsay, she lived in the UK from 1765 as an heiress. And my favourite Sara Forbes Bonetta! A West African (Yoruba) princess who was enslaved and liberated becoming Queen Victorian’s goddaughter lived in the UK. Windrush was a moment of mass migration, but it was not the beginning of the black presence in Britain.
Can only black people can celebrate the month?
One of my favourite quotes is by Ambalavaner Sivanandan
‘We are here because you were there’
It is becoming more and more important that people decide to care about issues that do not affect them. In Renni Eddo-Lodge words, “Lukewarm acceptance” is no better than “outright rejection”. Within the climate, we are in solitary and allies are fundamental, all people should be taking an insight into the history of blackness. It is the same way everybody has to mandatorily learn about the Saxons, Tudors and World War One, it is time we place that mandatory nature on black history, black history and black people have and continue to shape culture, economics and politics, our history deserves to be listened to, it deserves to be praised.
Are black history and American history are the same?
The British education system has taught us that racism and prejudice only happened in America, that Americans are the ones with the ‘race problem’. In reality the British are the same, the same way lynching occurred in America is the same way ‘Nigger Hunting’ was the mainstream culture in Britain, let’s not put Britain on any kind of pedestal. There is a neglected history that Britain consistently wishes to repress, but it is a history that we must explore. It is a history that is dark, gruesome and dangerous but it has the potential to open doors of understanding race relation in the UK better, understanding cultural isolation, knife crime and so much more. While Black people share similar experiences, it is important to express our differences, an event such as Notting Hill, Windrush or even Bristol Bus Boycotts are personal and unique experiences that other diasporic black people may not be able to feel connected to or engaged with.
Last modified: 18th October 2019