A position paper prepared for the Harrow BHM 2010 Steering Group by Kwaku
Last year, I read a run-down of how Black History Month came about, having started in America in 1926. A summary can be found on page 4 of the Events Programme.
This year, I’d like to focus a bit on What is Black History Month or BHM? And Why it is needed.
The start of BHM in Britain can be traced to a young African boy of Caribbean heritage, who asked his mother: "Mum, why can't I be white?"
Ironically he was named Marcus, in honour of the great pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey. That not withstanding, we can see how negative impressions or lack of positive images and achievement had impacted on the boy’s psyche, identity and self-worth, at such an early age.
A colleague of the boy’s mother, Akyaaba Addai Sebo, who was then working at the GLC, decided to do something to combat what was causing inferiority complexes in some of our African children.
Incidentally, when we use the term African in this forum, we mean anyone of African heritage where from the African continent or its diaspora.
Sebo decided to use history – African history to empower Africans to improve their self-worth and knowledge, and indeed for the wider community to also learn more about the achievements of Africans, which is not often found in mainstream education or media.
In short, the primary aim of BHM is to provide African people, who are generally marginalised and disadvantaged on numerous fronts, a positive environment to improve self-esteem and self-worth, and also knowledge about themselves.
This is what the late Bernie Grant MP said when BHM was introduced to the UK: "Ignorance of black history and heritage breeds low self-esteem".
At a time when Africans generally speaking tend to habit the lower ends of the academic league tables, and are over-represented within the criminal justice system, knowledge of self and respect for self and each other, are some of the tools we need in combating some of society’s ills and prejudices.
Recently, there has been both confusion and a move to have everybody that can be mustered under the black banner for BHM. However it is worth pointing out that BHM is singularly about the African experience. Which is the reason some refer to it simply as African History Month.
BHM was launched in London under the African Jubilee Year Declaration. The Jubilee year run from August 1987, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey, who was born August 17 1887, right through to 1988, marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation Of African Unity on May 25, and the 150th anniversary of the end of chattel enslavement in the British Caribbean, which was on August 1.
We should repeat here that unlike the supposedly “more humane” indentured servant system, the cruel chattel enslavement system was confined to Africans.
This is why in Harrow BHM is focused on African history, but with a British link, where possible, and is also driven by Africans, but for the whole of the Community to participate in. We also do things a bit differently by expecting participants to leave with at least a couple of clearly definable learning outcomes.
Back to the introducion of BHM to the UK, Statutory bodies such as Councils were convinced to buy into the Declaration, which consisted of a number of commitments. These included the demonstration of anti-racist, anti-apartheid, and human rights policies.
There was also a commitment to promote positive imagery, achievements and contributions of Africans at home and abroad over a wide range of endeavours, plus naming buildings, parks or monuments or streets after notable Africans, such as the CLR James Library in Hackney, and Mandela Street in Camden.
Finally, the commitment extended to solidarity with the freedom struggles across Africa. Remember, in 1987, countries such as South Africa and Namibia were not politically free.
The Declaration also bound Councils to undertake to organise events that publicise, encourage and implement the tenets of the Declaration and to encourage other Councils and statutory bodies to do likewise
However although the Declaration did not have legal backing, it was underpinned by an important section in the 1976 Race Relations Act, which is extended in the post-Steve Lawrence Inquiry inspired 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act.
The Act demands of statutory bodies such as Councils, and educational bodies to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination; and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between people of different racial groups. BHM is certainly an important plank when it comes to the last point. No doubt our Councillors and Council staff especially are aware of this.
Even without the legal requirement, BHM should be a catalyst for inspiring development of extra curricular activity in schools – and we don’t mean face-painting or “African dance”, whatever that means, encourage the formation of Saturday schools and African parents education/mentoring groups.
We believe BHM programmes should be designed to
a) educate the community, Africans and non-Africans, about African history and achievements,
b) not focus solely on song and dance, except where its primary aim is to tell or underscore history, rather than purely to entertain and
c) show that African History is much wider than enslavement. This is because although enslavement had devastating consequences, and its effects are still with us, it took place over a relatively short period of the African history time continuum, and there’s lots more besides that can be explored.
Finally, do we need BHM? Certainly Yes, so long as the mainstream arena, be it education, media or other social outlets, do not adequately reflect the histories and achievements of Africans.
A community that’s better informed about each other should hopefully make for better community cohesion based on informed views, rather than prejudices. This is the aim of Harrow BHM’s events starting from today, and hopefully beyond October.
Kwaku © 2010
Harrow BHM Steering Group