The story of Black History Month
2018 marks the 31st year of Black History Month (BHM) in the UK. This is a celebration inspired by Linda Bellos OBE, then leader of Lambeth Council.
In 1987 a conversation overheard at the Greater London Council provided the catalyst for Black History Month. A colleague of Linda’s had a young son who was experiencing bullying at school because of his race. Her colleague described how her son had asked whether he could “become white”; in his young mind, this may have seemed the only way to stop the pain he was experiencing! Horrified by the desperate plea from this child who had been made to feel inferior by his peers, Black History Month was developed to fill the huge gap in positive stories, images and roles models for people of the African diaspora in the UK. It was felt that diverse and positive narrative, so often missing in news, culture and indeed British history taught in schools, would provide much-needed balance and context. These were stories about the lives of Black Britons who had contributed to the UK but which the history books had erased forgotten or not recorded.
“We are not the makers of history, we are made by history.” - Martin Luther King Jnr
Black to the Present
So 31 years later in the 21st century, why do we still have or need Black History Month? Things are better now, right? Black History Month has grown year on year, with local government and private sector organisations increasingly recognising the value of the celebration for their organisations, and the community at large.
Linda Bellos, in her 2017 piece for The Guardian, notes that while proud of its achievements it is time for a rethink, particularly in how BHM is funded, curated and archived. I agree. I believe that one of the many reasons that the UK continues to have an issue with race and ethnicity, and what is perceived as ‘other’, is an approach to teaching and sharing history that is more akin to a highlights of Britain’s “Greatest Hits”, designed to please the British Establishment. I believe that everyone suffers with this approach; not just the children subjected to bullying, who have no sense of their place in the world; or the adults who live with a huge hole in their story that they should know about; but indeed the wider community which has been robbed of its full and complete history and is therefore unable to build a true and authentic identity for itself.
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” - James Baldwin
I think we still need Black History Month (and not a “Diversity Month” as some local authorities have branded it this year), until such time as the full story is entwined into the complex narrative of the UK, Europe and Africa.
Alongside this important work to collate, record and share past stories of the people who helped shape the UK, we need to ensure that present and future stories are embedded and captured. The mark of this success will be that every person educated in UK history gets to understand the full, unedited story, enabling them to construct an identity based on truth and not on a selective view of the past.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. - George Santayana
Here is a selection of just some of the great BHM construction related events and content
Stephen Lawrence Trust - Afrofuturism Gala Dinner
Royal Academy of Engineering - BHM 2018
Royal Institute of British Architects
Interview - Life as a BAME Engineer from Black History Month website