The importance of celebrating Black History Month in the UK

This year marks the 30th anniversary that Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK. Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926 in the United States when it was proposed by African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. It became Black History Month in 1969 when it was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University (big up American Kent) and began to be celebrated across the United States in 1976. Black History Month was first celebrated in the United Kingdom in 1987 when it was organised through the leadership of Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.

Black Americans and Black British people have a close but difficult relationship. Black British people are like the younger siblings of Black Americans. We always have love for each other in our collective struggle against white supremacy, systemic racism and oppression but there’s always a little bit of tension between us. Most black people in the United States are descendants of West and Central African slaves who were kidnapped and enslaved for hundreds of years. Black people have been slaves in the United States from 1619 to 1865, that’s almost 250 years that black people, humans, were the chattel of white people. They were tortured, killed, lynched, drowned, dehumanised. So though slavery in the United States officially ended just over 150 years ago we need to realise it’s not that long ago and we are still seeing the effects of that oppression today. Most African-Americans suffer from generational trauma as a result of slavery.

Let’s bring things home, we often forget that the transatlantic slave trade had a triangular route. Millions of Africans were captured from West and Central Africa, transported through Britain’s port cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and London between the 16th and 19th centuries. British ships carried an estimated 2,600,000 enslaved Africans in the 18th century to the Caribbean and the Americas. I remember learning briefly about the slave trade in secondary school in a single lesson yet we had several lessons on the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and World War II. I’m not undermining the importance of learning about the holocaust but at least 3 million Africans, likely much more, died as a result of slavery. Is that not genocide? In some ways I can’t blame the ignorance of most British people to the atrocities of the British Empire but that is really not an excuse in 2017. Schools have a moral responsibility to not skim over the atrocities of the British Empire but to address them soberly without whitewashing history. White guilt is not an excuse for the majority of British people to not know how 3% of their population got here. It’s a common misconception that the first black people to arrive in the Britain arrived in 1948 when the MV Empire Windrush landed in Britain carrying 492 passengers, the majority of which were from the West Indies (or Caribbean). Of course we recognise that was the beginning of large scale immigration of black people to the UK but it is now known that black people have had a presence in the UK since the Roman era. It should also be acknowledged that black people were also enslaved in the UK, of course not to the extent they were in the Americas and Caribbean but it isn’t to be ignored. Ignatius Sancho was the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election, he gained fame in his time as “the extraordinary Negro.” Olaudah Equiano was a freed slave of Igbo extraction from the eastern part of present-day Nigeria who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. I did not learn about these important figures until I came to university to study English Literature (and Film).

An article by Yomi Adegoke was recently published in The Guardian about Black History Month, its first line was “Black British” is often seen as oxymoronic.” And this couldn’t be truer. Speaking as someone who is a British citizen but was born in Nigeria, moved to the UK as a child and had to assimilate I consider myself Black British, British-Nigerian and a Nigerian-born British person all at once. It makes things difficult when I face resistance when I identify with a particular identity. Speaking to a black person about where they’re from is often very different to speaking to a white person. While most black people in the UK are descendants of African and Caribbean immigrants (or immigrants ourselves) who have been arriving in huge numbers since the late 40s. We’ve been here for centuries, we’ve contributed so much to this country and it’s time the rest of the country acknowledges this. Black History Month at University of Kent this year has been much better due to the passion and organisation of Kent Union BME Black Officer, Omolade Adedapo, the African-Caribbean society (ACS) and Student Success. I’m looking forward to an even better year, next year!