Why do we still need to celebrate Black History Month?
1 October 2021
The Revd Karlene Kerr, Bishop's Adviser for UK Minority Ethnic Affairs asks some important questions about black history and why we still use each October to explore our shared and varied history.
At the start of Black History Month (BHM), my ambivalence about commemorating this event surfaces.
This celebration began life in 1915 by notable African American historian Carter G Woodson and a prominent minister Jesse E Moorland. Together, they founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
In 1926 the group sponsored ‘Negro History Week’ and although black history events were celebrated by a number of mayors as a municipal event, it wasn’t until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month – calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.” The British version was first observed in October 1987, and has continued to follow the October dates since.
Below, the Rt Revd Jane Steen, Bishop of Lynn, and I have looked at three questions I have posed about Black History Month and the significance of black history to us.
Why do we still celebrate Black History Month?
Bishop Jane: “For me, there are two main reasons. One is that we have some amazing black people in our history, and it is incredibly important that we don’t think that having black or mixed-race people in the UK is a recent phenomenon. I’m thinking of people like James Townsend, Olaudah Equinano and Mary Seacole, to name but three well-known ones. The other is that I think UKME people feel invisible and undervalued in British society now and I really need to think we need to dispel that and remind everyone who lives in our country of our varied cultural histories.”
The Revd Karlene: “My ambivalence for Black History Month stems from the fact that a) once again peoples of African descent are being separated off – put into a different camp to everyone else, b) the emphasis on BHM suggests that the history of black people and white Europeans occurred independently of each other and c) I am reminded of the all-encompassing history I was taught in Jamaica about the part played by peoples of African heritage, the Amer-Indians, the English, Irish, Scots, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, East Indians, Syrians, Lebanese etc.
“The fact that in Britain and other Western nations, there is still a need to acknowledge, highlight and promote the contribution of black peoples to world history, other than that of subservient victims or totally absent or non-contributory, points to the fact that schools, colleges, and university curricula still have a way to go. In the meantime, we await accurate, balanced and inclusive historical accounts which neither place one group on a pedestal, or completely overlook others.”
Name an event from black history, recent or past, which has had an impact on you?
Bishop Jane: “Oh, well, that would have to be the superb black women ordained in the Church of England: Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Rosemarie Mallett and more recently Margaret Sentamu are obvious examples.”
The Revd Karlene: “The event, or to be more accurate events, which have had the most impact on me have been the Civil Rights movements in the US and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It reinforced to me that no matter what, justice is always a cause worth fighting for, and that there will always be individuals who will be prepared to not just fight, but to give their lives if required. I learnt early on that the history of black people was not just one of being oppressed and dominated.”
Which black historical figure has most inspired you?
Bishop Jane: “Three bishops but I wouldn’t want to choose! I’ve always thought of St Augustine of Hippo as black and African, and his writings and theology have been hugely influential. Then on and off throughout my own life and ministry, Bishop Wilfred Wood. And from a distance, but nevertheless important, the last Archbishop of York. I’ve been very lucky to know them.”
The Revd Karlene: “So many but I always go back to the Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Activist Sojourner Truth.
“Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner became one of the most powerful advocates for human rights in the nineteenth century. Her early childhood was spent on an estate owned by a Dutch American slaver. She experienced the miseries of being sold and was cruelly beaten and mistreated. Around 1815 she fell in love with a fellow slave named Robert, but they were forced apart and Isabella was instead forced to marry a slave named Thomas, with whom she had five children. After her master failed to honour his promise to free her, Isabella ran away. Soon after, she experienced a religious conversion and became an itinerant preacher, changing her name to Sojourner Truth. During this period, she became involved in the growing antislavery movement, and later the woman’s rights movement as well. At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”