On Black History Month

Black History month (BHM) is perhaps now as ubiquitous in Britain’s inner cities as it is in the USA. The Americans have theirs in February and we have ours in October. It is one of the better ideas we have borrowed from our African American cousins. Here in the UK community organisations, colleges, schools, trade unions and local authorities have all embraced the idea.

For some local authorities, BHM is an opportunity to tick race equality boxes and earn brownie points. Others approach the occasion with the seriousness it merits. The London boroughs of Camden, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark jointly hosted a number of films this year, including one on HIV and another on climate change. Even the venerable V&A museum had a ‘black heritage season’ between August and November. Their events included a talk on Paul Robeson and Othello; a Caribbean film festival; a carnival arts lecture; story telling; and a jewellery making workshop.

Given the popularity of BHM, it was inevitable that it would become more than an annual series of events focussing on our collective past. The fact that it has become a bandwagon embracing all kinds of cultural and educational programmes does not diminish its importance. The Voice, the sole national black newspaper, publishes important historical facts and publicise events, as did their erstwhile rival, the New Nation throughout October. We also get, every October, the annual list one hundred most important black Britons – a list which some would argue is arbitrary.

‘Why is BHM important?’ I was asked that question by a student at the Bridge Academy in Hackney at an event I shared with talented wordsmith and actor, Bashy. I replied, ‘Because we’re British and black history is a very important part of British history.’ I should have added, ‘and because the subject is not taught in schools and institutions of higher learning.’ This is where we differ from the Americans. The year 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of African American and Black Studies in the USA. It was fought for and won during the black power struggles of the late 1960s; Cornell University the main battleground.

A few years ago, after a poetry reading somewhere in New York, a member of the audience asked me if BHM had become as commercialised in England as it had become in the USA. Not knowing the extent of the alleged commercialisation, I paused before replying, ‘Not quite.’

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