BLOG: Why celebrating Black history in Britain is important
Co-Chair of BAME Network and Assistant Director, Resident Services at Peabody
- 22 October 2020
In writing this article, I reflect on criticisms continually made about the existence and usefulness of Black History Month (BHM).
For me, the focus on history can be lost and this celebration should be all about Black history, contributions made, and a critical discussion on the progress made to advance racial equality in Britain.
When the focus of BHM is on history, October can be used as a wonderful platform for enriching and enlightening our communities, especially younger members, about our Black British past.
In 1987, when Linda Bellos introduced Black History Month to the UK, she did it to encourage awareness and celebration of the African and Asian contribution to British history. And it’s important this isn’t forgotten.
Without Black History Month, students in our schools wouldn’t learn about British Black history; instead they’d learn about African-American history. As recently as 2017, history students at Oxford University had a curriculum that was referred to as overly ‘white’. Following several complaints, as well as the #RhodesMustFall campaign, students are now required to sit at least one exam paper focusing on Black, Asian or other non-European history.
Following the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrations and debates continue to fuel an awareness of the need to understand our history and has sparked widespread debate about Britain’s colonial legacy, racial inequality, and the significance of our public monuments.
As we celebrate Black history, we must remember all the Black people who have died for this country, boosted its economy and cared for its people. BHM is an opportunity to remember and celebrate those who have made and continue to make a difference. In particular, three key areas of British life have benefited from us being here.
Since World War I, Black people have fought and died for Britain. Today, over 7,000 Black Britons continue to defend the nation in the Armed Forces. One of these is Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry. In 2005, Beharry was formally awarded the Victoria Cross by The Queen, the highest military decoration for valor, for saving members of his unit during an ambush in Iraq. At that time, he was the first living recipient of the Victoria Cross in over 30 years.
Since the Second World War and The Windrush Generation of 1948, Black people have been pivotal in building our post-war economy. In 2018 the Federation of Small Businesses found that businesses run by entrepreneurs from Black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds contribute as much as £25 billion to the UK economy each year. This is despite Black people still being held back by barriers that hinder their growth, such as access to funding, information or support from financial organisations.
There’s a long list of Black health professionals who’ve cared for the sick and injured, and the late Mary Seacole is one such person. Originally born in Jamaica, she set up the ‘British Hotel’ during the Crimean War, providing care for wounded servicemen on the battlefield. Over 153 years later, without the contribution of Black and Asian people the NHS would struggle to care for all of its patients.
While it may be difficult to fully assess the tremendous impact and contribution Black History Month has had over the last 33 years, what is clear is that it has influenced and inspired other minority groups to organise similar 'months' exposing hidden and excluded histories, such as Disability and Gypsy and Traveller History Months. This can only be a good thing as we continue to change the perceptions of how people of African descent are viewed in society and explore our self-identity and racial pride.
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