Why Black History Month Matters
‘If a race has no History it has no worthwhile tradition. It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.’ So said Dr Carter G Woodson who is the originator of Black History Month (BHM) across the African Diaspora. Woodson came from ultimate humble beginnings, being the son of enslaved parents. He embarked on a programme of self-education working by day and studying by night to become an educator and activist. Woodson argued that increasing social and professional opportunities between people of different backgrounds and races would help reduce racism. He also stated that black history was “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’’ In this guest column to launch BHM 2019 I outline what BHM means to me.
For a variety of reasons BHM has had controversy attached to it. Many like myself bemoan the fact that black history is packaged into one month. To us it can feel like it is too neatly commodified and just like a Christmas tree put back into a box for the rest of the year. I have however reflected on several conversations over the years that have helped me to re-think its overall contribution.
The Case For Black History Month
We are fortunate In Bristol to have a strong vibrant black community to supply events with networks built up over decades of contribution, connections and activism. However, many others new to the black experience or have felt on the edge of that experience are not so fortunate. For them BHM provides many platforms of entry. A white parent who brought up a child alone pointed out to me that there was very little educational support to help bring up the child in a way that reflected the child’s heritage. Another young black man, who had grown up in a rural countryside also confided to me that BHM had helped him understand more about his identity, provided links of support and boosted his confidence. Not everyone has a deep-seated knowledge of their background. Social commentator and activist Patrick Vernon OBE says ‘BMH has influenced and inspired the equalities world to organised similar months, exposing the hidden and excluded histories.’ These include LGBTQ, Disabled and Women’s History Months.
Of course, we can’t confine anybody’s history let alone black history to one month and that argument should be obvious to all concerned. I respect anyone for taking a proverbial NFL knee and sitting out BHM, whilst they ensure black history is represented throughout the year. For me, in my activism there is a practical and pragmatic need to do both. To ensure that the culture that gives us so much pride and inspiration reaches as many influencers and audiences as possible. We need more than ever opportunities that bring us together. During these divisive times we can tackle new emerging themes of intersectionality and demographic changes within and beyond our communities.
Tackling the Barriers of Exclusion with Education and Inclusion
The outcomes, gaps and barriers due to solely the colour of one’s skin are clear and exist across issues of education, employment, the criminal justice system, health and housing. BHM on its own isn’t going to change that, but over the month it does make a compelling case for achievement, celebration and putting these issues to the top of the agenda. All of this work helps to take forward local issues including one of the recommendations from the 2017 City Conversations to have a more inclusive curriculum which reflects the needs of more than 20% of its pupils. Champions like Alisha Thomas an Educator at City Academy, Sibusiso Tshabalala of Cognitive Paths are working with the Bristol One Curriculum Forum and making progress.
Education is always a central tenet of BHM and provides a range of opportunities to learn of the presence and contribution of people of colour in Bristol and Britain over centuries. I can’t wait to see fellow creative Black Bristolians such as Dionne Draper (DAWTA) and Lawrence Hoo (CARGO) who along with many others host contemporary challenging art that will enlighten and entertain.
Sure, we don’t have the numbers of state sanctioned police killings of unarmed black men and women as in America. That does not mean however we should wait for the bar to fall to those deplorable depths. Instead we must tackle the complacency, lack of action and continuing economic and social divides between Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and their white counterparts. A range of academic studies has shown that racism and inequality causes premature deaths, increases, mental health and directly affects the future life chances of our young.
Until that set of circumstances changes every action count and every opportunity must be tried and taken. This is why Black History Month matters to me. To build awareness and as an engagement campaign to fight against the daily injustices of racism…all year round.
Roger Griffith is an Author, UWE Bristol Lecturer, broadcaster and CEO of Ujima Radio. Libraries West have just published his booklist of 19 books for 2019 https://www.librarieswest.org.uk/client/en_GB/default
For a full list of Black History Month events go to https://issuu.com/cognitivepaths1/docs/black_history_month_magazine_online