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3 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:35pm

You can keep “Diversity Month” – black history is too urgent to be a token gesture

A real engagement with black history is essential. Unfortunately Black History Month has proved the wrong vehicle for that ambition.

By Kehinde Andrews

Wandsworth council’s decision to rebrand Black History Month as “Diversity Month” may be the final nail in the coffin for the celebration. It has already become so far removed from its original purpose that Zayn Malik was used by the University of Kent Student’s Union to represent the month in 2016 (the pop star has no African or Caribbean roots).

There have long been complaints about how the month is delivered, with some seeing it as a token gesture that further marginalises how we understand black history. Now it appears that we are in an “all history matters” moment, wherein the words of Better, the private company behind “Diverse History Month”, we should celebrate “the many and varied experiences and cultures” of Britain. Unfortunately, this is the logical conclusion of how Britain understands black history.

Carter G Woodson founded Negro History Week in the US in 1926 when he argued that “if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated”. This was no exaggeration, given that at the time eugenics was practised in universities across America and Europe. This same racial pseudoscience that justified the Holocaust was said to provide “proof” that black people were inferior. When Black History Month made it to Britain in 1987, it was against a backdrop of Africa being taught as a backward place with no history in official textbooks. Black issues were only ever taught about as a social problem and up until the Eighties handbooks for childcare explained that African Caribbean boys could not sit still because of the drumbeat in their heads. With the upsurge of student protests against the “white curriculum”, we deceive ourselves if we think that things have changed all that much. I heard about a school last year that had displays of children’s work on slavery and one of the posters was a debate on the “pros and cons” of the most brutal and murderous system of exploitation. One of the pros was that slavery had “taught the slaves discipline”. A real engagement with black history is essential if we are to face the challenges of the 21st century. Unfortunately Black History Month has proved the wrong vehicle for that ambition.

The worst kind of representation is that done as a token gesture, a nod to an issue without fully addressing it. Black History Month has become a local authority funded feature of the calendar, offering snippets of black history that usually include Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and some steel pans. Schools feel obliged to engage in the month, but in a school near me this meant adding to the dinner menu some “exotic” fruits, including mango and watermelon (yes, watermelon). There is no serious engagement with the centrality of black history to understanding the modern world, nor the debt that Britain owes those the nation enslaved, murdered and colonised. Black history is as an add-on, something supplemental and unnecessary to the rest of society.

If schools want to genuinely engage with black history then they can embed it into their teaching. For example, rather than teaching the industrial revolution as a triumph of British engineering alone, teachers should link it to the enslavement and colonisation of Africa, which was essential to British history. There is also nothing wrong with teaching the history of the rest of the world, which was just as pivotal to the development of Britain. But Black History Month came into being to address the specific erasure of the humanity of black people, something that unfortunately remains just as important to address today

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Black history deserves to be much more fundamentally engaged with and the kind of critical work on the subject that is needed, has existed in black community spaces in Britain for decades. The Black Supplementary School Movement, has been educating children at a grassroots level for more than 50 years, since it became apparent that racism in the mainstream schools was hindering black children’s development. Community organisations like Black History Studies, have been teaching the topic for decades, providing access to knowledge that is otherwise marginalised. We have started teaching the first Black Studies degree in Europe, a long overdue institutionalisation of the discipline. We have outgrown the need for token attempts to give black history a platform. Let’s use the opportunity of the “Diversity Month” debacle to fight for black history to truly transform how we understand the world.

Dr Kehinde Andrews is Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. 

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