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Why we still celebrate Black History Month

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As we enter Black History Month (BHM), my ambivalence about commemorating this event resurfaces. 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 BHM – 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.

Why do we still celebrate BHM?

My ambivalence stems from the fact that a) once again peoples of African descent are being separated off – put into a different camp to everyone else as if their experiences is only of significance to them and have no bearing on other people’s history, (b) the emphasis on BHM suggest that the history of black people and white Europeans occurred independently of each other  – it omits the huge part slavery and colonialism played in British history 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 in the Island’s heritage.

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 curriculums still have a way to go.

In a multicultural increasingly diverse society, this is simply unacceptable. It’s not enough to teach half history/half-truths with a topic such as for instance, the Industrial Revolution. What about the role North American slaves played in producing the cotton on which the English Northern mills so depended? In the eighteenth century, sugar was king – the most important commodity in the world, in much the same way as oil in the twentieth century. It revolutionised taste in Europe, diets changed, and on the back of this success whole cities such as Bristol expanded and thrived while, at the same time, millions of black Africans suffered brutal lives and an early death.

History has for too long been viewed through a White Eurocentric prism i.e., their story speaks for all. As Christians, we do not read the New Testament in isolation to the Old Testament.

We are all connected – your history is mine and vice versa. So, until accurate, balanced and inclusive historical accounts that neither places one group on a pedestal or devalues or overlook others, Black History Month will continue to be a necessity.

Professor David Olusoga describes it very well.