November marks the end of the UK’s Black History Month (BHM), which is celebrated annually during October, with this year’s theme ‘Proud to be’. The month saw organisations holding workshops and talks as a way to promote the learning of black individuals’ history, including the University of Exeter hosting online events to ‘inspire and inform’. But what is the purpose of BHM? And does it really achieve its aims?
The origins of BHM go back to 1926, when Carter G. Woodson created national Negro History Week in the US as a way to recognise the achievements of African Americans and their role in US history. By 1976, it evolved into Black History Month and was recognised by the US government and celebrated every February. Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987.
In 2021, BHM’s purpose is much the same, with added political motive. For some people, BHM is a time to relate stories of oppression as well as to ‘centre our joy’. According to the Black History Month website, BHM is an opportunity to celebrate the ‘achievements of Black people’, and to ‘tackle racism, reclaim Black history, and ensure Black history is represented and celebrated all year round’. The website also provides resources for schools to learn about interesting and important black figures in history.
In an interview with GB News, Dr David Starkey sympathised with the aims of black Britons to find roots and belongings through discovering their history during BHM in the UK. However, he described that such history is propaganda, in that a lot of the history is ‘bad history’, fabricated to create a feeling of belonging. For example, Mary Seacole is often presented in a similar light to Florence Nightingale, but she was in fact not a nurse, and had set up a hotel for officers as a way to create a profit but ended up bankrupt. The narrative that she was a nurse and set up a hotel for sick soldiers is, as Starkey claims, a ‘manufactured past’.
Furthermore, BHM oversimplifies history and how it can be learned. Firstly, it is questionable how far a dedicated month can actually achieve widespread understanding and appreciation for an area of history that is said to be overlooked. As Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall describes, ‘we must squeeze 100s of years of our story, the story of Black people, into 31 days that can never be enough time’.
Secondly, the term ‘black history’ itself is arguably oversimplistic, as it seeks to encompass a huge range of history over time and space. Some sources discuss Mansa Musa, the King of the Mali Empire in the 14thcentury, claiming him to be ‘the wealthiest person ever’. Other sources discuss Mary Seacole,the Windrush generation, the slave trade, and so on.
The term ‘black history’, then, is an incredibly vague term that simply means history of individuals that were not white. This assumes that the history and actions of black individuals can somehow be separated from the rest of history, and also necessarily values the race of the individual and not what they achieved. It creates the narrative that white and black individuals are so different to one another that their very histories are separate and cannot be learned or appreciated together.
Ironically, Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall argues that the ‘cherry picking of history’ means that we are ‘poorer in thought and knowledge’, yet it seems that BHM is guilty of cherry picking in that it only seeks to discuss history so long as the individual was not white. As Ernest Owens eloquently puts, ‘[c]ommodifying racial groups in such a binary way condones the very racism that Black History Month attempts to combat. Black history is history. Period. To treat it as anything separate is reductive and racist’.
Similarly, Starkey argued that black Britons do not need to have a separate history; they have a stake in British history ‘because they’re human beings’. The problem with BHM, he continues, is that they ‘identify with simply a characteristic and desperately quest for that’, rather than appreciating the history for its own sake.
Black History Month was created with the intention that it would soon not be needed, and that the history of black individuals would become part of American or British history. Yet, it seems to me that the very essence of BHM would not lead us to achieve such an aim. BHM focuses on the race of the individual and separates history by race, rather than appreciating history as it is. Of course, it is important to ensure that the history we learn is thorough, rich, and well-rounded. Topics in history should not be avoided simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Similarly, our learning of history should not be swayed by current political motives: we should be interested in historical figures not because of their race, but because of what they achieved.