Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Other Side Of African/Black History Month

The Other Side Of African/Black History Month
By: Awula Serwah & Kwaku
First published on on 12 September 2011

Awula Serwah & Kwaku reflect on the challenges and progressive way forward for African history Month in the UK.

We have mixed feelings when we hear or read that some councils are reluctant to celebrate African/Black History Month (A/BHM). Why? Because much of what’s put out as A/BHM fare is often devoid of history. It often entertains but seldom increases knowledge of African history. So for example, we did not join the bandwagon last year demanding that London Mayor Boris Johnson reinstates his massively slashed A/BHM budget. But on the other hand, we did not oppose those who were campaigning for the budget to be re-instated.

This is because public bodies such as councils, have a duty to celebrate initiatives such as A/BHM. The 1987 African Jubilee Year Declaration, which most London councils signed up to, enjoined them to mark A/BHM. The Declaration drew its strength from sections of the 1976 Race Relations Act, strengthened by the 2000 Amended Race Relations Acts, which enjoins them to “promote race equality, equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups”.

The Declaration recognised the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK, and called upon councils to recognise this fact and take their duties as enjoined by the Race Relations Act very seriously, and to do everything in their power to ensure that African* children did not lose the fact of the genius of their African-ness.

We have to acknowledge that a lot of events billed as A/BHM events have little to do with history, and donot improve knowledge of African history. Face painting, fashion shows, singing and dancing etc. taking place in October, are billed as A/BHM events, when in reality they are simply entertainment.

There is nothing wrong with singing and dancing, and it has its place, but A/BHM is not about entertainment. It is an opportunity to learn about African history and achievements, which are largely absent in the mainstream. By focusing on pure entertainment, we perpetuate the perception that our areas of expertise are limited to entertainment. Besides, we have a regular diet of entertainment and culture throughout the year.

We can of course argue that we do not want one month or a season to focus on our history, and that our achievements should be in the in the curriculum and mainstream 12 months of the year, and not just in October.

This is a valid argument. However, if we are arguing that councils have a duty to celebrate A/BHM, then we must ensure that where possible, informed Africans are in the driving seat or part of the decision-making process, and that A/BHM events improve knowledge of our history from an African perspective.

The Right Focus: African History Speaks 2010
The Right Focus: African History Speaks 2008

Africans have achieved

It is unfortunate that some A/BHM events focus on enslavement, as if our history starts with enslavement and that there are no other worthy stories to be explored. Others simply regurgitate information on the “usual suspects” - Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and now President Obama, etc., overlooking what has happened in Britain.

Perhaps some of our young people will show more respect for their elders when they learn what has been achieved through sacrifice and activism of their elders and forebears in Britain.

It’s not just Boris Johnson’s City Hall cuts we should be focusing on - after the hullabaloo in 2007, where all the London councils were involved in promoting Wilberfarce and A/BHM events, some councils have since either reduced or totally cut their A/BHM budgets.

Hillingdon for example, does not support A/BHM, which has been replaced with a patchy Hillingdon History Month in October. An African councillor in Hillingdon, Cllr June Nelson*, is putting forward a motion for the Council to re-instate A/BHM. Also, this year, Westminster has cut its A/BHM funding. It had done some good work in the past, particularly in making accessible the rich African history within its archives, and providing talks that highlighted key historic figures who operated within the borough.

Boroughs can be brought to account, if there is the will within the community to seriously engage with such structures. A case in point is Harrow Council. Thanks to the intervention of informed Africans, A/BHM in Harrow is now about the history of Africans, and it is made clear that the term African refers to the continent of Africa and its diaspora. Whilst the process is driven by Africans, the aim is for everyone irrespective of race, to participate in the events, and improve their knowledge of African history. In addition, there is an annual theme for funded events, which must have clear learning outcomes for participants.

A/BHM should always offer an opportunity for all sections of the community to learn something positive about the history of Africa and its diaspora. Perhaps before each A/BHM event, a short statement should be read, reiterating the reasons why A/BHM came into being, lest we forget. (Click to see Harrow position paper).

It is amazing the number of times, in defending the maintenance of A/BHM, Africans say things like “We don’t know our history” or “They didn’t teach us African history in school”. It will be irresponsible of Africans to wait each year for BHM to learn about their history. There are a numerous and free resources available that provide information on African history from an African perspective. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves and our children on African history. We can decide to buy our children books and resources that will raise their self-esteem, or buy them the latest electronic games - the choice is ours. Finance is no excuse. There are families on minimum wage or benefits who raise their children with positive African values, history, and knowledge of who they are.

It is important for us to acknowledge what Africans have achieved in spite of the barriers. We should not, like the mainstream, continuously tell the one or two stories, such as the poor and helpless story, or the under-achievement story. Also in light of the August 2011 incidents, African pundits and teachers should be mindful of pushing the notion that Africans did not suffer loss, because they do not own property or businesses.

Africans have owned property and businesses in Britain for centuries. One of the Sons Of Africa abolitionists, Ignatius Sancho, voted in the 1780 parliamentary elections. In those days non-property owners could not vote, and Sancho was able to vote because he was a business owner – a shopkeeper, in Westminster.

We cannot afford to rob our children of hope by regurgitating the tired story of Africans in Britain as powerless victims of the system, who do not own anything. We are the descendants of overcomers, the likes of Nana of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Paul Stephenson, etc. It is important that we tell the story of Africans who have navigated the system, own businesses and property, and have broken the glass ceiling to demonstrate that whilst we must redouble our efforts to remove barriers, some Africans have been able to jump over the barriers and achieve. We do not lose anything by hearing their stories, and they can sow the seeds of inspiration to achieve great things.

Click to find out about the NARM (Naming And Role Model) African British Civil Rights History BHM 2011 events across London

* Press release following Cllr June Nelson A/BHM motion, which was defeated in Hillingdon Council, issued by the Labour Group Office:

Press Release

At the full council meeting on Thursday 8th September Cllr June Nelson gave an impassioned speech in moving a Labour Motion calling for the Council to re-instate October as Black History Month. This is because the internationally recognised Black History Month has, for the past few years, been renamed in Hillingdon to “Hillingdon History Month” and the commemoration and celebration of the achievements of African people has been watered down considerably.

The ruling Conservative group on Hillingdon Council, who are responsible for the renaming of the month and the move of focus away from Black people, voted the motion down on a very flawed argument that they were being inclusive by dedicating the month to all the residents of the borough, rather than just those from the Black community.
The Conservative group also called for a recorded vote, so that they could use their flawed argument against the Labour group in their political propaganda.

This one issue highlights just how badly the Conservatives in Hillingdon understand what it means by being inclusive and cultivating true community spirit across all strands of our society.
What they just don’t understand is that in order for communities to come together and breakdown barriers, they must understand and celebrate their differences.

During the debate Cllr John Major highlighted the flawed thinking of the Tory group be illustrating that throughout the year there are a number of days and weeks dedicated to one particular group or another, but none of these are at the exclusion of others, but they serve to focus attention on that particular group or issue, so that everyone understands and that any myths or fears of what makes us different are dispelled.

After the meeting Cllr Mo Khursheed, Leader of the Labour Group, said

“The flawed thinking of the Tory group is exactly what creates tensions and issues amongst our community. The renaming of “Black History Month” to “Hillingdon History Month” on the basis that it includes all residents and not just the Black ones amounts to the same as renaming “Christmas” to “Hillingdon Winter Festival” on the basis that it will include all residents and not just the Christian ones.


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The Tories used to claim that it was the “loony left” that was to blame for political correctness gone mad, but the flawed thinking of this Tory council proves otherwise.”

Cllr Khursheed added

“I am glad that the Tories called for a recorded vote because you only have to look at the makeup of the Labour Group to see that we represent the whole community, and as such we welcome diversity and anything that will help different sections of our community understand each other, celebrate our differences and break down barriers.”


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