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The history, controversy and success of Black History Month in the UK

Black History Month is an annual celebration of influential and successful Black people throughout history. This observance originated from Negro History Week in 1920s USA and now takes place for the month of October in the UK and February in the USA. Each year focuses on a specific theme; this year was African-Americans and the Vote. 

In October 1987, Black History Month began being celebrated in Britain. The Ghanaian employee for Greater London Council, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, used Black History Month as a collaboration in partnership with her role as special projects coordinator. 

When Black History Month was first recognised in the UK, it was only the obvious and well-known African-American activists who were being mentioned. This included Rosa Parks and her bus boycott, and Martin Luther King and his unforgettable ‘I have a dream’ speech. These individuals made infamously remarkable contributions to racial equality during the US Civil Rights Movement; however, there were also significant events supporting racial equality rights in the UK. 

For example, the Bristol Bus Boycott was lead by British activist, Paul Stephenson, in response to the on-going refusal and lack of Black and Asian bus drivers in Bristol. The 1963 sixty-day protest proved successful as the employment ban was lifted on 28th August that year, the same day King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was first performed. 

In addition to this, the feminist and activist, Claudia Jones, founded The West Indian Gazette, thus amplifying the voice of the Caribbean society residing in London. Furthermore, Jones founded Notting Hill Carnival, which created inclusivity for those who had immigrated from the West Indies to London in the 1960s, and continues to fulfil its mission today. Unfortunately, when most people think about influential and important Black people, they lean towards African-Americans rather than Black-British activists who deserve the same recognition. 

Black History Month has also caused some controversy. This is not due to the observance celebrating Black people’s victories, but due to the fact that it is impossible to recognise the history of Black people in the UK without discussing slavery and the future effects it has brought to the Black community, both in the UK and across the world. 

Thus, those who identify as Black-British have to go through discussions of the grief caused by their forced participation in the slave trade and imperialism, which have been swept under the rug for the rest of the year. The education of Black history is the key aim of Black History Month, and these uncomfortable discussions surrounding race prove why the observance is so important. If society keeps pushing these conversations aside, white privilege and the impact of slavery on the Black community will never truly be understood. 

Since the murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020, educating people on the struggles Black people have faced in the past and still face has become more important than ever. There are now calls for the UK history curriculum to include Black history, thus leading to conversations surrounding slavery and colonisation in schools. By doing so, the future generation will be educated on racial issues. 

This year’s Black History Month became more recognised than previous years as networks like Channel 4, universities, and schools created a centered focus on Black history both within the UK and the USA. The success of this observance is echoed by its official government recognition in the UK, USA, Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland. It will hopefully grow in success in the coming years and one day lead to a racially aware society. 

However, there is still more that can be done to educate people about the successes within the Black community in the UK and the on-going struggles they face each day due to racial prejudice within the justice system and society around the world. We must let Black History Month be an opportunity to educate ourselves more, and discuss the uncomfortable conversations surrounding race year-round. 

Image: ekavesh via Pixabay