Is Black History Month an Outdated Concept?

Now you may very well think that i am the last person who should be writing a piece like this…but here we go!

Black History Month was started in 1926 in the USA by Carter G Woodson as a way to respond to the view that the Black Americans and others of African descent had made no significant contribution to human civilisation. This theory has been distilled over time into a variety of practices, perceptions, philosophies and downright lies regarding Black people and their worth. These lies have festered to the point where some Black people were less than comfortable about being Black and did all they could to distance themselves from this “cursed” definition….and there we have it; Racism was born!

Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987 and we in Southampton picked it up in 2005 and started to put together activities that recognised the presence of Black people in the UK’s historical past. “Slavery” was something we could all agree on because there was no dispute that it happened but some of the details were more to do more with the manner in which it was interpreted by those telling the story….and yes let’s not hold back many of us in Black communities were embarrassed! The thing is, the true stories of bravery, courage and survival were purposefully substituted by depictions of stupidity, savagery and naivete supported by associated images. Slavery was billed as this unfathomable mystery buried in the past and stories of the participants is shrouded in further mystery and rationalised as some glorious civilising adventure and slavery was an unfortunate consequence ; allowing the present-day beneficiaries to melt into the background.

When the UK started to celebrate Black History Month it was very often about Civil rights in America and standout individuals like Rosa Parkes, Malcolm X and of course Martin Luther King. Those mostly involved in the preservation of this history in the UK were from the Caribbean communities with perhaps the randominclusion of African American refugeesfrom the civil right movement and a sprinkling of Africans exiles from Southern Africa and this mixture contributed to the seeming authenticity of where we were coming from….the optics were good!

More recently, some have suggested that Black History Month diminishes the importance of Black History being celebrated all year round; and there is some truth to that. Unfortunately, some of these critics whilst making this argument do very little themselves and spend much of October mumbling about how tokenistic this exercise is, and this position is shared equally by those from Black & White communities. Of course, the other big issue is that our definition of who actually is Black is now a more serious matter of contention, as a significant number have reinvented themselves to the ”Brown” side (definition wise) either by political choice or re-evaluation of who they think they are, and the process of divide and rule continues.

It is only more recently that our African Brothers and sisters have joined the Black History Month celebrations in the city, and there is some evidence to suggest that our North African brothers and sisters are still struggling with the notion of being associated with what Black History Month has to say. However, I must confess that Black History Month’s preoccupation with the civil rights movement in the USA and the Black migration from the Caribbean and the struggles in South Africa has contributed to disassociations from other parts of the Black world and we all must take some responsibility for that. However, it can be argued that the struggle to find a voice to raise these issues and project these truths was always the primary objective.

The big question now is have we arrived at a point where we need to re-evaluate what the objectives of Black History Month should be. We must acknowledge that Black History Month was born from a time when race issues were very different…in a time when political and social allegiances were more predictable and very different. In the here and now assumptions about what we believe in need to be addressed not withstanding the confusion about who the “We” are! Furthermore, there is a view that we have made it too easy for individuals and organisations to tick the box in October and to use the month to stage a moment for a well-publicised act of virtue signalling, either consciously or sub consciously

Some would like to suggest that Black History Month is all about cherry picking what we see as deserving episodes of Black culture to demonstrate that these episodes are a credit to the Race. There is a school of thought that sometimes we gloss over more radical perspectives of the Black cultural tradition and avoid difficult matters that may infer that we are less homogenous than some of us may want to assume and that possibly interferes with some parties desire to integrate seamlessly; and not to make too much noise. Also, there are suggestions that we purposefully gloss over deep issues that have endured for over 50 years and perhaps even further back. The types of issues I am talking about include, over representation in the criminal justice system, the high proportion of Black Stop & Search, the increasing numbers in the mental health communities and the long-debated issues of “black boys” and the education system. Of course, some of you may say that we have successful people in all these fields, but if we dig deep, we may discover that sometimes “Even Salt Looks Like Sugar”. The avoidance of these issues may contribute to the argument that “racism” is no longer a significant factor and we should not play the Race card because that is seen as unprofessional. This position has stimulated the vehement attacks on the “critical race theory” an academic concept that suggests that that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. This thinking is like a red rag to a bull for right wing critics who are enraged by identity politics which reminds us all that we still have a long way to go and that there are those who benefit from this convenient amnesia!

My recommendation , for what it’s worth, is that every month in the year should be dedicated to an area of concern for Black communities. We are talking about issues such as education, health, business, and the list goes on. We should produce a 12-month manifesto calling upon the city each month to respond to a specific crucial issue in one of those areas and raise the issue publicly and stimulate conversations. I have always believed that if we don’t ask, we don’t get…and even refusal has a value because it compels individuals and organisations to come clean about what they are prepared to do or not do. This will ensure that there is continuous dialogue about the plethora of issues that are very often not raised let alone discussed. Racism does not take a holiday so why should we! Sadly, as much as i would like to see this happen, the problem is that many of us are probably too invested in the way things are and I guess some of us would rather hold onto what we have, rather than jeopardise what we think we have gained. Nonetheless, I am happy to be proved wrong!

Black History Month in October should be not only what is being done now but an evaluation and assessment as to the city’s response to issues raised during the course of the year. If these vital issues are not raised let alone tackled, then no amount of singing , dancing ,celebration and valuing the past will make up for the damage that is being done by us remaining very quiet and sometimes silent. The bottom line is that Black History Month is important, but it probably needs a refresh. Black History Month in Southampton is acknowledged as punching above its weight and if not for the personal commitment of the few presently involved it would have folded a long time ago. So, let’s build on what we have got and use that as a steppingstone to the next level. As suggested earlier, Racism does not take a holiday….so why should we!

Don John