Yet, I never questioned why Black History Month is celebrated, whether Black History Month achieves its purpose and whether it is even still relevant, until now.
To begin, I think it is important to start with why Black History Month exists.
Origins of Black History Month
The roots of Black History Month can be traced back to Dr Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian, born to former slaves. Dr Woodson, who lived in a time of great prejudice, believed that it was "merely the logical result of tradition”. He was passionate about African American history and advocated for educating America on the history of blacks as a means to help Americans take a step away from misunderstanding and misrepresenting blacks and instead to take a step towards their equality. Dr Woodson recognised that history was skewed towards those who wrote it and hence his aim was to show history “void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice”.
Amongst his many contributions to equality, in 1926, Dr Woodson conceptualised Black History Week to coincide with the birthdays of former US President Abraham Lincoln and social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass - two prominent figures in social reform for African Americans.
This was later adapted to Black History Month, as it gained traction in universities and states with greater African American populations. Fast forward to 1987, the concept of a Black History Month in England was successfully proposed via the then Greater London Council. It was celebrated that October in UK and has been every year since.
What are we observing?
The purpose behind Black History Month is not merely to evidence the history of individuals of African, or Caribbean descent, but more importantly to show the history of the nation celebrating the occasion through the lens of black history. Furthermore, it was not conceptualised to serve as a reminder of slavery, imperialism or racism (I say this having done my own research now and can say I was not completely clear before myself). I am not suggesting for a moment that we should ignore the harder parts of our history and I fully recognise that over the years the initial agenda for Black History Month has morphed into a hybrid celebration of individuals, our wider history and the contribution of Blacks to the history of the UK– but Black History Month, as originally conceived, has a different agenda.
Black history is about celebrating the positive contributions of our people. Sure, we should celebrate the movement of Rosa Parks, the contribution of Martin Luther King and even the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though these are quintessential parts of black history, they reflect times of adversity between people, which we should remember, but not in isolation of our achievements outside of racial hardships.
During Black History Month, I think we should also be celebrating all forms of successes; sportspersons such as Dina Asher-Smith (various achievements including being the first British woman to run 100m in under 11 seconds), Mo Farah CBE (various achievements including being the record holder for fastest European marathon runner) and Marcus Rashford MBE (aside from his sporting achievements, he ensured about 1.3 million children in England would receive free school-meal vouchers over the summer holiday of 2020). We should be celebrating contributions to the arts of individuals such as Malorie Blackman (author of various award winning books, including the Noughts & Crosses series), and Sir Trevor McDonald OBE (nominated UK’s best journalist for several years). We should also celebrate all contributors to politics and all positive social reform.
So – is it still relevant?
Now that I am clear on why we celebrate Black History Month, I am in no doubt that it is relevant so long as Blacks are part of British history, American History, and wherever else has dedicated time to celebrate Black History Month. Black History Month is about Black culture and Black history within these nations. There is every reason to continue to celebrate these achievements.
Beyond this though, Black History Month’s initial aim is to educate, and we still lack a rounded education in black history in British culture, where it is an insignificant part of the curriculum. Black History Month completes a significant part of recognition and celebration but I’d argue we can do much more.