Black History Month by Shirley McGreal

Black History is longer than a month . . . This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Black History Month, but do you know how this annual celebration came about in the UK?

Black History Month, also referred to in the US as African-American History Month, is an annual celebration that takes place in February (in the US and Canada) and in October in the UK for events and people in the history of the African diaspora. It is a time to honour and celebrate the achievements of Black men and women throughout history.

In the US, the precursor to Black History Month was ‘Negro History Week’, created in 1926 by historian Carter G Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The second week of February was chosen, as it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th February) and of social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass (14th February). Black communities had celebrated both of these dates together since the late 19th century.

In February 1969, Black History Month (BHM) was first proposed by Black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University. The first celebration of BHM took place one year later, in February 1970 at Kent State University. Six years later, Black History Month was being celebrated all across the US, when President Gerald Ford recognised Black History Month during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

In the UK, Black History Month was first celebrated in 1987. It was organised through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council (GLC).

In an interview in the New African Magazine, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo tells how the inspiration for Black History Month came about when a colleague came to work one morning, looking very downcast and not herself. She explained that when she was putting her son Marcus to bed the previous night, he asked her: “Mum, why can’t I be White?” The mother was taken aback and was so shocked that she didn’t know how to respond to her son – the son, who had been named after Marcus Garvey, had asked why he couldn’t be White!

This concerned Akyaaba, as he had previously worked in the US, lecturing schoolchildren and their parents about the African genius, moral codes, traditions and African contributions to work civilisation. Session after session, some children and their parents would come to me attesting their new-found faith in themselves as Africans, and the change that the encounter had brought to their homes,” Akyaaba told New African Magazine.

So when this incident with Marcus took place in London, it dawned on me that something had to happen here in Britain. I was very familiar with Black History Month in America, and thought that something like that had to be done here in the UK because, if this was the fountainhead of colonialism, imperialism and racism, and despite all the institutions of higher learning and research and also the cluster of African embassies, you could still find a six-year-old boy being confused about his identity, even though his mother had tried to correct it at birth, that meant the mother had not succeeded because the wider society had failed her,” he continued.

That also meant that the world out there and the happenings in it, particularly in the playgrounds and classrooms of the various schools in the UK, were so strong and powerful that they denigrated that person’s identity, which made that child question his identity as an African or being Black,” he added.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo set to work. He drew up a strategic plan, discussing it with his colleagues at the then GLC, which was to get some resources approved to support contributions of Africa and Africans to the cultural, political and economy in the UK. He organised a series of lectures during 1986-87 involving key African American historians who gave talks at the GLC, and in Birmingham, Manchester and cities across the UK. The lectures were compiled into a book called Our Story, which was edited by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and his colleague, Ansel Wong.

He organised a week of cultural events at Wembley Arena and the Royal Albert Hall, with musicians and artists from the UK, USA, Africa, the Caribbean, Ireland and India, performing to schoolchildren who listened to inspirational music and talks. It was then decided that the idea must be institutionalised, and the concept for Black History Month was born.

Although Akyaaba Addai-Sebo initiated the idea of Black History Month in the UK, he recognises that it was a collective effort, and gives credit to his many associates and to the organisations involved, such as the London Strategic Policy Unit (established in 1986 after the Thatcher government abolished the GLC); to individuals Ansel Wong, Linda Bellos, Paul Boateng, Margaret Hodge, Anne Matthews, Narendra Makenji, Peter Brayshaw, Drew Stevenson, Bernard Wiltshire, Herman Ouseley, Ken Martindale, Vitus Evans, Chris Boothman, Lord Gifford, Bernie Grant, Shirley Andrews and Edward Oteng – among many – and to politicians from all over the UK who contributed to make Black History Month a reality.

On 1st October 1987, the first Black History Month event in the UK was held. “October was chosen, because apart from its significance within the African calendar – the autumn equinox – October represents the harvest period, the period of plenty, and the period of the Yam Festivals. It was the time in history when Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia, for example, were the cradle and breadbasket of civilisation. October is also a period of tolerance and reconciliation in Africa, when the chiefs and leaders would gather to settle all differences,” said Akyaaba.

This was also the time to examine one’s life in relation to the collective, and to see if the targets set for oneself and the group during the past year had been achieved or not. You know that Africa gave the world the calendar. Our ancestors built the Pyramids, knowing about mathematics, architecture and astronomy. October was therefore chosen because of these factors. Black History Month is a reconnection with our source,” he continued.

We were also thinking about the children, and what to bequeath to them. October is more or less the beginning of the school year; their minds are refreshed and revitalised, so they can take in a lot of instruction. This was also one of the reasons that October was chosen. I believe that, after 17 years of existence, Black History Month has become a major contributing factor in the building of tolerance and harmonious race relations in the UK,” he concluded.

Some would question the need for a Black History Month celebration in the UK but, for many, it’s a great time to recognise the incredible achievements and contributions to the UK of African and African Caribbean people.

So let’s celebrate Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, and enjoy Black History Month UK!

For more information about Black History Month events around the UK during October, visit the official Black History Month website at www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk.

Every Generation                                            www.everygeneration.co.uk

Black History Studies                                      www.blackhistorystudies.com

Keep The Faith would like to acknowledge Ian Thomas, Patrick Vernon OBE, London Metropolitan Archives, Black History Month, and the Akyaaba Addai-Sebo interview in New African Magazine for reproduction of parts of this article.

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