Saturday, 9 October 2010



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

Reflecting On 2007 For Kilombo Magazine

Kilombo Article
by Kwaku

I’m the founder of and Black Music Congress, which are focused on developing the British black music sector through debates, networking, and music industry education.

Perhaps more relevant for readers of this magazine is BTWSC, a pan-London voluntary organisation I run with its Ghanaian-born barrister and co-ordinator Ms Serwah. BTWSC uses the creative arts to develop potential, raise aspirations, and promote social inclusion. I also teach, write, facilitate courses and community events.

I would like to use this article to give some background about myself, reflect on 2007, and round up with what’s in store for 2008.

Although I’m British-born, I’m very proud of my Ghanaian and African heritage. I use one name – Kwaku, because it’s the only name I have that tells people that I’m African. It was a conscious decision I made in the late 1980s, when I started in the journalism game.

Now, I enjoy using just one name, because I also love telling people who ask for a surname that I only use one name.

Why should I bother with a surname? Of course I do have one. But it’s European – something to do with colonialization, and besides it carries no weight in England, although in Ghana, it has the advantage of being a fairly well-known name.

A year ago most of us were marking – I will not use the word ‘commemorating’ – the Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act of 1807 and Ghana’s 50th anniversary of ‘independence’.

I will start by concentrating on the 1807 Act. We organised and spoke on a few Abolition-themed events last year. BTWSC is part of Truth2007, a grassroots organisation set up to put forward the African/African-Caribbean perspective in contrast to the British Government-backed Abolition activities. The latter was referred to by some of us as Wilberfest, on account of the overwhelming focus wrongly put on the British MP William Wilberforce as an Abolitionist and the man who freed enslaved Africans.

By the way, as a way of marking the legacy of those enslaved Africans, I’ve vowed that as of 2008, the descriptor to use for people of African descent, irrespective of where their antecedence is located, should be African, instead of black.

One of the founding members of Truth2007 is Ligali, the London-based African rights and media monitoring group. It was Ligali founder Toyin Agbetu who interrupted the Abolition memorial service at Westminster Cathedral, and requested the Queen, the Prime Minister, and the Arch-bishop, apologise for the role of the monarchy, Government and church in the trans-Atlantic ‘trade’ of enslaved Africans.

Agbetu was writing about how we were in line for a commemoration of the Abolition that would white-wash the facts long before 2007. He also tried unsuccessfully to engage the authorities in order to have the roles of Africans properly reflected in the Abolition story.

Indeed, my interest in the whole Abolition issue stemmed from reading an article Toyin had published in one of Britain’s African newspapers.

I then published articles in the African press in 2006, which basically stated that as we get ready to mark the bicentennial of the Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act and the twentieth anniversary of Black History Month in Britain, we must take from it two things.

Firstly, everyone of African descent would do more to honour the memory of the enslaved Africans if they referred to themselves as Africans or African-British. I pointed out the Asians born in Britain or from east Africa, refer to themselves simply as Asian.

Secondly, I pointed out the Black History Month concept was introduced to Britain in 1987 during the African Jubilee Year, as a way of highlighting Africa’s contribution to the world’s civilisation and uplifting people of African descent. So I called for Black History Month to be African and history focused, as opposed to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural celebration, which provided little or no African history content.

Back to the Abolition – Ms Serwah and I spent much of 2007 correcting individuals, newspapers and websites that the 1807 Act did NOT seek to abolish enslavement. We also conducted lectures on enslavement and the Abolition for university students and local authority staff.

It seemed hardly anyone had read the 1807 Act. Had Africans read it, they might not have celebrated it – the worse ones being a dinner & dance and a football tournament, to commemorate an Act that enshrined discrimination against Africans by stating that Africans who served in the King’s army were not entitled to pension!

BTWSC organised talks programmes, ‘Abolition Truths’ and ‘Putting Abolition & Slavery Into Perspective’, and edu-tainment music programmes, ‘Then To Now’ and ‘From The Talking Drums To Rap And Grime’, aimed at raising awareness that the 1807 Act did not abolish the enslavement of Africans, and it was efforts by African abolitionists in Britain like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, and leaders across the colonies such as Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti, Nana (Nanny) and Sam Sharpe of Jamaica, and Bussa of Barbados to name a few, that brought about the 1807 Act and the 1833 Abolition Of Slavery Act.

Indeed, because of the misunderstanding and mis-information, BTWSC will be publishing an Abolition primer this year for young and old alike, to find about the basic facts.

Regarding Ghana’s golden jubilee, someone said the fact that the country had survived that long without any major skirmishes was reason enough to celebrate. It did not seem reason enough, until one saw what has been happening in Kenya. One hopes that the maturity that has followed recent elections in Ghana continue after this December elections.

That said, I find very little to celebrate. I’ve already highlighted many of the issues in my Travelogue feature in the January 2008 edition of New African. All I’ll add here is that it worries me when our leaders think the way to develop is either to sell our assets to foreigners or continually ask for foreign aid. Also, not having a handle on the way Accra, for example, has expanded without adequate infrastructure, which results in regular interruption of water and electricity supplies is unacceptable for a nation that aims to be the hub of the sub-region.

I marked the jubilee with a small Ghana @ 50? display of Ghanaian goods during the BTWSC Abolition events, and An Evening With Mr K B Asante, where the esteemed former Ghanaian diplomat read from his ‘Voice From Afar’ book, and fielded questions ranging from his time working with Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah, to the vision for Ghana.

We launched the BTWSC Professor Allotey Science Prize in London in October. The Prize, which is named after the renowned eponymous Ghanaian mathematician and physicist, aims to popularise the sciences among young Africans in Britain and Ghana. The Prize, which has a laptop computer as the top prize, will also be presented to the best student at Professor Allotey’s wife Ase Allotey’s alma mater Aburi Secondary School in April 2008.

I started 2008 as one of the panellists on the Ghana We Can Do Better Conference, which highlighted some of the work done by Ghanaians in London, and sought ways in which we can positively impact upon Ghana.

One of the suggestions I put forward was that if we who are overseas have ideas that we believe will benefit Ghana, we have to be mindful not to drive it through in a patronising manner, and that it would be an advantage to work through local personalities or agencies to champion the idea.