Black History Month: what is it, historians on its relevance, plus 6 articles you should read

Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK every year in October since 1987. Here, we explain what it is, ask three historians why it matters, and highlight a handful of features about British black history you can read right now

Sara Forbes Bonetta (seated besides her husband James Davies was brought to England in the late 1840s by a Navy captain. Presented to Queen Victoria, she impressed the monarch so much that Victoria became her godmother

Black History Month’s roots in the UK stem back to a chance conversation that its founder, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, had with a downcast colleague in the mid 1980s.

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The colleague’s seven-year-old son was named after black activist Marcus Garvey. And she told Addai-Sebo that as she was putting her son to bed, the boy had asked a simple and heartrending question.

“Mum, why can’t I be white?”

It was this innocent query that caused Addai-Sebo, then a special projects coordinator of the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council, to investigate how black children viewed their identity – and ultimately convinced him that Britain needed an event that acknowledged the contributions of Africa and Africans in global civilisation.

What is Black History Month?

Celebrated every October since 1987, Black History Month is the annual event that Addai-Sebo led the creation of. Officially recognised by the British government, it remembers and champions the history and achievements of the African diaspora, and educates and informs on black heritage and culture in Britain. Since its inception, it has provided a catalyst for these stories to be told across the UK, in schools, museums, libraries and myriad other venues.

The first event was held on 1 October 1987 – the speaker was Dr Maulana Karenga, who founded the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa – with several more held in London in short order.

These efforts were bolstered by the launch of the African Jubilee Year Declaration that same year. It entreated local and national authorities “to recognise the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK” and to enforce the Race Relations Act 1976 – and one way authorities around Britain could do that was by adopting Black History Month.

Is it related to Black History Month in the US?

In name only. In February 1926, historian Carter G Woodson founded Negro History Week in the US – a month he picked to coincide with the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the first being the US President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the second the famed escaped slave turned statesman and abolitionist.

In the late 1960s, amid the changing perceptions of race following the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements – and the assassination of Martin Luther King – it was expanded and renamed as Black History Month.

Addai-Sebo was aware that the US Black History Month existed when he considered a British version, but they are not officially linked.

Are there other Black History Months held elsewhere?

Yes, official Black History Months are also held in Canada (since 1995) and Ireland (since 2014).

Why is Black History Month celebrated in October in the UK?

With the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass holding less significance in Britain, October was chosen as Britain’s Black History Month.

This is largely because of its importance in the African calendar, being a time of plenty, in the form of the harvest. But also, as it is close to start of the British academic year, it was supposed that schoolchildren would be more receptive to learning about black history at this time.


Black History Month: what do historians say?

We asked three eminent historians – Stephen Bourne, Sonia Grant and Sadiah Qureshi – what they thought of Black History Month, and its relevance in the UK today

Stephen Bourne, social historian specialising in black culture and the author of Under Fire – Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45 (The History Press)

Our young are more likely to learn about African-Americans from history. Black History Month offers opportunities for grass roots community historians like myself to offer an alternative black history, one that relates to this country

“I am always worried when criticisms are made about the existence and usefulness of Black History Month. In some respects, this is justified for I have grown increasingly concerned about the distribution of limited Black History Month funds being awarded to groups which stage events that bear no relation to history. The focus on history can be lost. However, when the focus is history, October can be used as a wonderful platform for enriching and enlightening our communities, especially the younger members, about our black British past. However, though I would agree that black history events need to be held throughout the year, not just October, I am doubtful that support will be given for this.

“Without Black History Month, British schools and academies will not be presented with opportunities to learn about the history of black people in Britain. Black Britons are not officially included in the history curriculum. Our young are more likely to learn about African-Americans from history. Black History Month offers opportunities for grass roots community historians like myself to offer an alternative black history, one that relates to this country. It enables us to showcase our work.

“In 2020 I am celebrating 23 years of participating in Black History Month. I have quite a few events lined up, albeit online instead of face-to-face.”

Sonia Grant, independent historian and author

It is unfortunate that George Floyd’s death has given Black History Month additional impetus

“Black History Month affords the black community an opportunity to carve out safe spaces to not only have these uncomfortable conversations among themselves but also, importantly, keep the door open for allies — irrespective of race — to participate. It is a time to show off and celebrate, too: the black community is not homogenous or one-dimensional and, all-too often, outside of the confines of Black History Month diverse perspectives and nuanced arguments are conspicuously absent. This is one reason why Black History Month should be a misnomer and become a year-long occurrence.

“I haven’t always been enthused by Black History Month. If I’m honest, when I was younger, I cringed and was embarrassed at the very notion; borne out of humble beginnings, what was on offer appeared amateurish and put together on a shoestring. Every year it seemed that it began and ended with one person: Mary Seacole. Fast forward several years: diehards, to their credit, persevered. Injections of cash from local authorities and charitable funding has greatly improved the substance and range of programmes. Also, importantly, greater access to archives has enabled researchers to unearth what I coin “hidden histories; untold stories; and marginalized voices”. Whatever an individual’s interests – with hundreds of events crammed into the month of October – there is literally something for everybody.

“Now, a reconstructed advocate of Black History Month, I believe this year the event has taken on even greater significance. It is unfortunate, though, that George Floyd’s death has given Black History Month additional impetus. Hopefully, the tragedy will be regarded as a teachable moment and medium through which different life experiences will no longer be dismissed as a group having ‘a chip on their shoulders’ but can broaden our understanding and ability to contextualise the complex, racially antagonist world in which we live.

“As a child of the Windrush Generation who faced immeasurable adversity as ‘immigrants’ it may be part of my genetic make-up to, perhaps subconsciously, choose not to take the path of least resistance. It necessitates drowning out noise generated by naysayers who, every year it seems, feel emboldened to display their resentment widely across social media platforms at the very existence of Black History Month and demand, ‘What about White History Month?’ — as if one were needed.”

Sadiah Qureshi, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham

Most history undergraduates leave university never having been taught by a Black professor or lecturer

“In 2014, Wandsworth Council rebranded Black History Month ‘Diversity Month’. After five years, it overturned its original decision.

“Over that period, other institutions have also been increasingly likely to treat Black History Month as if it was a chance to celebrate ‘diversity’ more broadly. Those in favour of this rebranding have claimed that it is more inclusive. Although superficially plausible, this trend fails to distinguish between the centring of peoples subject to sustained historical erasure and the outright exclusion of others.

“It is particularly unhelpful given that historians of African descent are some of the most marginalised and underrepresented in academia, with much important work done outside the sector. For example, in 2018, I helped co-author a report for the Royal Historical Society on race, ethnicity and equality that showed that history was one of the least diverse academic disciplines in British universities with Black staff making up less than one per cent of UK university based-staff.

“These statistics make it clear that most history undergraduates leave university never having been taught by a Black professor, or lecturer. Under the circumstances, it is important that institutions recognise the importance of supporting both Black history and Black historians.”


British black history: six stories to read right now

The great British civil rights scandal: the Bristol bus boycott

As Martin Luther King pursued his dream in America, a campaign for racial equality was making waves across the Atlantic. Three leading figures in 1963’s Bristol bus boycott explain how their crusade changed the face of civil rights in Britain.

Paul Stephenson and Guy Bailey

Bound for Britain: your guide to the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush

The arrival of HMT Empire Windrush on 21 June 1948 marked the start of an immigration boom that would change the face of Britain forever. Colin Grant charts this remarkable story.

HMT Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury Docks

Who was Olaudah Equiano – and why was his story of slavery so important?

Kidnapped, torn from his family as a child, and sold as a slave, Olaudah Equiano’s story would become a bestseller of its time, and a catalyst for the abolition of slavery in Britain.

Olaudah Equiano (Photo by Getty)

Christian Frederick Cole: England’s first black barrister

Born in rural Sierra Leone in 1852, Christian Frederick Cole fought his way to Oxford University and qualified as England’s first black barrister. Pamela Roberts applauds a singular character who took on some of the west’s most entrenched institutions – and won.

(Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare. Portrait of Christian Cole: ©The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, G. A. Oxon 4° 417, fol. 980)

The missing Tudors: black people in 16th-century England

They were baptised and buried in parishes across the country, and even attended queens at court. So why, asks Onyeka, do we continue to airbrush black Africans out of Tudor England?

Portrait of an African man, c1530

The African who transformed Anglo-Saxon England

When a Libyan cleric called Hadrian arrived in Canterbury in AD 670, Anglo-Saxon England was a wild and semi-pagan land. Michael Wood reveals how this little-known “man of Africa” helped lay the foundations of English culture.

Michael Wood reveals how Hadrian, a little-known “man of Africa”, helped lay the foundations of English culture
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This content was first published on HistoryExtra in October 2020. For more on Black History Month, visit the official website: www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk