In our latest ARE guest blog, Lee Pinkerton, a Communications and Media Specialist and a Routes2Success role-model, shares his views on Black History Month and the bigger picture beyond this yearly celebration.
It’s October so once again we will be treated to the annual spectacle of Black History Month (BHM), where schools and other institutions display their commitment to ‘equality and diversity’.
Though first observed in the United States in the 1970s, Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in October 1987. So for the last 30 years, for one month of the year (October in the UK, and February in the US) tribute is paid to Black heroes of the past such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela.
Though this may seem like a good way to redress the balance, I have to declare that Black history is too urgent to be reduced to a token gesture.
I am not against the teaching about these historical figures, but more against the fact that they are taught in isolation and only for one month. I am one of an increasing number who believe that Black history, and the contribution of Black and Brown people through the ages, should be weaved into the national curriculum and taught all year round.
You should not be teaching children about the British Empire without explaining how this Empire was made possible by colonialisation and the exploitation of those colonies.
You are only telling half the story if you teach children about the industrial revolution, but you do not explain how this was fuelled by the raw materials (like cotton and sugar) taken from the Southern States of America, the Caribbean and India.”
In 20th century history, you should not teach about the formation of the National Health Service without teaching about how mass migration from the Caribbean was necessary to staff it.
I am not alone in this thinking. Over the last couple of years, we have seen the campaign to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ gain momentum.
The Windrush Review of 2019 recommended that colonial and migration history should be taught in school. Social enterprise The Black Curriculum was founded the same year by young people to address the lack of Black British history in the UK curriculum. Fill In the Blanks is another campaign led by students from former British colonies seeking to mandate the teaching of colonial history.
The TIDE Project by the University of Liverpool and race equality think tank, The Runnymede Trust, published a report calling on the government to make the teaching of migration, belonging, and the British Empire, mandatory in secondary schools, and to provide teachers with the practical support and resources necessary to equip them to teach these topics sensitively and effectively.
These organisations are not asking for more school assemblies celebrating the lives of African-American civil rights activists from the 1960s. What they want is for the centuries-long presence and contribution to the UK of those from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia to be incorporated into the history curriculum 12 months of the year.
It’s about teaching young people how the British Empire and Colonialism led to the multi-racial Britain we see today. Black History is a part of British History and should be acknowledged as such.
Teaching of the Transatlantic Slave Trade should not just be about what happened in Africa and the Caribbean but how the massive profits of the trade helped to finance the British Empire.
Likewise, it is not good enough to celebrate the works of African-American authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou in October. Why aren’t Black British authors like Malorie Blackman, Zadie Smith and recent Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo, permanent fixtures on the English literature reading lists?
What the campaigners want is not more tokenism, but genuine inclusion. And that applies not only to the school curriculum, but modern life in multi-cultural Britain.
It is no longer enough to tell us about Arthur Wharton, the first Black man to play professional football in Britain. It is not even enough for the Football Association to put Black Lives Matter banners in stadiums. We want the FA to address why there are still so few Black managers in the senior leagues.
It is not enough to tell our children about the heroic efforts of Mary Seacole, the Jamaican businesswoman who provided care for British soldiers during the Crimean War. It is not even enough to erect a statue to her outside of St Thomas’ Hospital. We need to address the fact that, despite a generation of Caribbean migrants dedicating their whole working lives to the NHS, so few of their daughters and granddaughters can reach the levels of senior management within the institution.
Because, despite what those who jump to defend their version of British history in the fake culture wars argue, the BLM movement is not about the removal of statues of white people to be replaced by ones of Black people. We don’t want tokenistic representation or monuments to change; we want structural and long-lasting change.
Lee Pinkerton is a Communications Specialist, specifically focusing on supporting the race equality sector. He previously led on the CREME Project (Communicating the Race Equality Message Effectively) for ROTA, ARE and the Runneymede Trust.
You can find him on Twitter @Da_Media_Guy