One of London's Black Lives Matter peaceful Protest from Vauxhall to Westminster in June 2020. Photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Flickr

‘Mom, why can’t I be white?’ Black History Month pays tribute to Black heritage and civil rights in the UK

The month of October is Black History month in the UK. This year, communities insist on Black history studies being a permanent part of the school curriculum.

In London, Black History Month was first celebrated in October 1987 after being organized by Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. The tale traces back to a simple question posed by his colleague’s son. “Mom, why can’t I be white?” 

The question convinced Akyaaba that England needed an event acknowledging the contributions of Africa and Africans to British society, as well as, in global civilization. Black female British Parliament member Dawn Butler said on the significance of the commemoration, “It is important that we look at Black History Month in all its forms, from inventors to creators, to thespians, to everything.”

During this month, historical books are dusted to create an understanding of the encounters faced by forefathers in Africa and the Diaspora. The month gives seats to newer generations, providing a sense of belonging, and purpose under race and equality. Hence, passing on the heritage to succeeding generations.

| Read: To detain and deport: A racist UK history revisited in Windrush Scandal

“A people without the knowledge of their history, origin, and culture, is like a tree without roots,” said Marcus Garvey, targeting Africans who had forgotten their culture. 

The 31-day observation has been speculated to align with the African calendar, October being a time of plenty in the form of the harvest. Correspondingly, Black History Month was set in October to be on par with the beginning of the school year, where students were initiated with Black history studies.

Yet today, it is widely believed that the national curriculum does not go nearly far enough in teaching young people comprehensively about Black history, culture nor experiences. Already, a 2018 report highlights racial and ethnic inequalities in the teaching and practice of History in the UK. 

In primary schools, children are almost solely taught about British history where legendary white figures are celebrated. At best, they will learn things pertaining to foreign Black people. “We learn about Black Americans and Africans, but we never really learn about Black British people,” a student commented. To support this, some educators had similar concerns. 

“We have a responsibility to be inclusive for all of our students and this starts with us ensuring that there is Black visibility for our children and young people. Not just Black children, but all children. It is crucial to recognise that Black history is all of our history,” lamented Oxford teacher and first Black national president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) union, Michelle Codrington-Rogers.

However, even in the absence of formal education on this subject matter, the young generation continues to “stay woke” as witnessed by the recent outcry on slave trader`s statues.

Slave trader statues pulled down

Over the years, Black History Month has notably evolved due to civil rights movements. The first Race Relations Act was passed in 1965 and made it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in public places. 

De facto, the 2020  Black Lives Matter UK protests were the largest in the world, outside the US. A cause that hit the bull’s eye on institutional racism there. “In the UK, we have had alot of discrimination with the police for a long time,” confirmed a protester.

As a consequence, protesters and activists formed a movement across the four nations, including to pull down statues in hopes to give other memorials attention. Namely, those that back the country’s history on slavery and racism. An example being the successful tearing down of British slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. 

One of the protestors expressed fury saying, “Black slaves built Briston, we have to walk these streets and see that statue everyday, that statue is a kick in the face for all Black people.”

The pulling down of statues continues to mark a momentous point in a broad debate.

. . . .
Protestors in front of Winston Churchill’s statute at London’s Black Lives Matter Rally in June 2020. “Churchill was a racist” was spray painted on the effigy. Photo credit: James Eades of Unsplash

British civil rights movements and roles in activism have substantially bedded constitutional rights that do not support systematic racism. 

Historical individuals such as Asquith Xavier campaigned to end the racial discrimination practiced by British Rail. Not only did he become the first non-white guard employee at Euston station, but British Railways announced the racist recruitment policy had been scrapped in 1966. 

To add on, anti-racist campaigns like the League of Coloured Peoples fought against the colour bar, a social system in which black people were denied the same rights as white people.

The UK Black History Month will definitely be a tool to share Black history, empowering forthcoming generations.

Nyawira Mithayo is a Journalism graduate with an interest in Community activism.

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