Every October in the UK and February in Canada and the USA, Black History Month is celebrated to highlight the contributions of black people throughout history. This month-long celebration was founded in 1926 by the black US historian, Dr Carter G. Woodson, and was initially established as a Negro History Week to honour Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. His goal was not only to educate his own community about its rich history but also to make American society more aware of black peoples’ heritage.
The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first put forward by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. One year later, the first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State University. In 1976, the US government officially acknowledged the informal expansion of Negro History Week to Black History Month.
However, Black History Month was not officially celebrated in the UK until 1987, after Akyaaba Addai Sebbo, who worked for the Greater London Council at the time, led the campaign in support of this cultural celebration. In addition, the Greater London Council selected October as the month to celebrate this event to coincide with the Marcus Garvey celebrations and London Jubilee. After this, the interest in Black History Month spread to other cities such as Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham.
Many argue that dedicating a month to recognising the accomplishments of black people has made a great impact on the countries in which Black History month is celebrated because citizens get a chance to learn about black contributions throughout history, and black individuals become more aware of their own heritage. For instance, in school, I remember learning about the cruise ship MV Empire Windrush as part of Black History month in the UK, which most notably brought one of the first large groups of post-war Jamaican immigrants to London in 1948. This was a great opportunity for me to discover more about my own culture and people.
However, I have recently started to question whether Black History month does enough to highlight the forgotten, and often, distorted history of black people. It is true that I do enjoy how black history month has exposed me to different facts about my community. Nevertheless, I feel as though I have learnt more about black history by doing my own research than I have due to Black History Month. Unfortunately, I still do know not nearly enough about black history as I would like to, but being exposed to it throughout a whole year instead of a month has helped me a lot. Therefore, I believe that a month-long emphasis on black culture will never be enough to really appreciate black history.
Furthermore, dedicating only a single month of the year to this cause, makes it seem as though Black history is separate from British history, and perhaps even inferior to it. In other words, it creates this “us” versus “them” dichotomy, instead of promoting cultural diversity. Well-known actor Morgan Freeman expressed the same sentiment in an interview on 60 minutes, an American news magazine television programme. He revealed that he did not want a Black History month because ‘[b]lack History is American History’. Likewise, black history is also British history and hence should take up more space than just one month.
This month-long celebration also seems like a tokenism rather than a celebration of black people, as it constitutes a minimal acceptance of the black community into the mainstream society. As an anonymous author in an article published in the American weekly magazine Newsweek contended, ‘the past of Black Americans is handled in an expedient and cavalier fashion denigrating the very people it seeks to honour’ during black history month. This author also argues that it is condescending to dedicate one month out of every year to commemorate the achievements of Black people. This is a valid point, as our achievements are astronomical and deserve more attention than just one month.
Ultimately, the aim of black history month is to highlight the rich history of black people, so would not including black history in the education syllabus be a more effective way of achieving this aim? Our vast, but unrecognised, accomplishments are only emphasised for one month out of a year like an afterthought. This devalues the contributions of these black figures in history, as they are studied in isolation instead of within their rightful historical context.
Black history month is just the first step of acknowledging black history. In fact, the founder of this celebration, Dr Woodson, ultimately dreamed that the time would come when Negro History Week would be unnecessary, as he hoped that contributions of the black community would become a focal point in history books. Therefore, perhaps it’s time to end Black History Month.
Getting rid of this celebration would be the initial stage in removing the idea that black history is separate from UK or USA history, and less important to it. The integration of black history into the national curriculum could also help countries like Britain and the USA combat the racism that continues to be a problem today.
Nonetheless, it would ideally be great for British and American students to learn about the history of the different cultural groups that make up their countries. They are, after all, multicultural and multi-racial nations. Therefore, their national curriculum should reflect this.