Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Why I'm sick of having to fight to celebrate Black History Month

To some people’s minds, black history is old news; ‘diversity history’ – whatever that is – apparently deserves its turn in the spotlight

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 03 October 2018 14:48 BST
Even the Windrush generation are being denied the right to celebrate their own British history as ‘diversity’ trumps blackness
Even the Windrush generation are being denied the right to celebrate their own British history as ‘diversity’ trumps blackness (PA)

You would think that 31 years after its establishment in the UK, we’d be used to Black History Month. The name itself is self-explanatory, and while its purpose should be too, year after year attempts to commemorate the lives and contributions of black Brits are thwarted.

Last year, to mark its 30th anniversary, children at a primary school in Newham were asked to dress as enslaved people, in a bizarre cosplay of sorts. “It might be an idea not to wash these clothes and stain them with tea or coffee to look more authentic”, read the letter sent home to parents, complete with assorted images of “slaves” – and no further historical context – for inspiration.

This year a number of local councils, along with some primary schools, have gone one step further by deciding to rebrand the month altogether. To some people’s minds, black history is old news; “diversity history” – whatever that is – apparently deserves its turn in the spotlight.

Apparently in 2018, the year in which the extent of Home Office hostility towards migrants (many of whom are black, some of whom belong to the Windrush generation) has come to light, we no longer need to focus on black people. Never mind the decades-long shortfalls of the British school curriculum, which to this day struggles provide a comprehensive education on black British history unless teachers themselves take the initiative to insist upon it in their own classrooms.

Wandsworth Council, one of the main culprits in the diversity month debacle, explained that alongside “recognising and celebrating Black History Month with a number of specific events”, it also prioritised acknowledging “all the different faiths, ethnicities, cultures and genders of all” residents in the borough during the month of October, apparently the only month of the year in which inclusivity can be recognised and celebrated. Other councils, such as Hillingdon in west London, abandoned black history-specific celebrations long ago. In 2007, as Get West London reported, Black History Month was abandoned to make way for generic diversity celebrations.

Hillingdon councillor Richard Lewis, a Conservative, explained his decision to vote down the Labour Party’s motion to reinstate Black History Month as an attempt to “root out discrimination” in general. “I believe social cohesion is achieved by integration and by opening up opportunities for all”, he claimed, apparently unaware of the fact that continuing to whitewash this institution isn’t much of a triumph against discrimination at all.

In Britain today there is, as there always has been, widespread discomfort with allowing black people to celebrate themselves, on their own terms, without the pressure to universally accept political blackness. The replacing of black events with “diversity” celebrations does not give “all lives” the opportunity to be heard, or to be championed. What these diluted celebrations do is to mute blackness to a barely audible cheer. The message to black people is this: yes, we can rejoice in our long-overlooked history, but we must be careful not to do it too loudly, or proudly.

Windrush citizen Anthony Bryan 'didn't know any airports in Jamaica' when asked which he'd prefer to be deported to

In fact, the official Black History Month website has had to withstand multiple cyber attacks in the past few days – just one example of the insidiousness of that widespread anti-blackness. For black Brits we know how this feels; people are growing frustrated with our presence in society, our success in society, even our attempts to recognise the pain that we have withstood because of society. Case after case of police brutality against us; the government’s appeasement of xenophobia and racism; an increase in hate crime. None of this is surprising to me, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

Efforts to keep our celebrations to a minimum, ignore the fact that Black History Month provides an opportunity to fill in these gaps.

When I was at school, the curriculum suggested that slavery was ancient history and had no lasting repercussions or ties to Britain today. Or that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, two African American civil rights heroes, were the only two black people in the history of the world that did anything of any worth. And if it hadn’t been for the efforts of my parents, I doubt the shamefully limited teaching of black history I grew up with would have in any way been enriched by the “sincere” endeavours of local authorities who proclaim their commitment to “diversity”. Even with my parents’ input, the encyclopedias and pamphlets, the exposure to Jamaican and Antiguan history, and black British history – it simply wasn’t enough. I’m still learning.

In fact, as so many black Brits also admitted on social media on 1 October, the sight of a Google doodle of Mary Prince – the first woman to have a slavery memoir published in Britain – was the first I had heard of her. Ever. Thanks to Google.

Let that sink in.

There is no doubt that this time next year we’ll need to revisit this conversation, when some council somewhere decides that Black History Month should be renamed “Inclusivity Month”. But until then, I’ll look forward to the day when I can bask in the month of October and all it means to me and millions of black Britons without having to explain why we deserve to celebrate it in the first place.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in