Has Black History Month become a pale reflection of what it should be?
The series of events this October have the ringing endorsement of that well-known anti-racist Boris Johnson.
He tells us that “for countless generations people of African and Caribbean have been shaping our nation’s history”, and that this year he will joining us to help celebrate them.
Across Britain, councils will put on specifically sanctioned events that give the appearance of participation but which, in some cases, are little more than tokenism.
What will a soul tribute band performing the hits of the 1960s in a farthest east London hall contribute to people’s understanding of black liberation?
It’s a far cry from the rebellion of pupils, parents and teachers that helped put black British history on the map, if not the school curriculum in the 1970s.
Back then, the way that the education system treated African, African-Caribbean and Asian children was a cause of huge anger.
Black pupils were disproportionately labelled as “subnormal”. Not only that, what was being taught seemed specifically designed to leave out their history and their stories—so rendering them as “outsiders”. Parents created supplementary schools and unofficial extra classes to try redress the balance. But there was always a strong feeling that state education should be forced to change.
That mood drew on the movement for black liberation in the United States. Students and educators at Kent State university initiated their first “Black History Month” event in 1970. That was just weeks before troops were sent onto the campus to shoot down anti-war protesters.
The idea had grown out of the radical Civil Rights and Black Power movements, but also out of similarly-styled events in the 1920s. By the mid-1970s, there were related activities yearly at many schools and colleges.
It was ten years later before something similar happened in Britain. But by then the initiative had passed from grassroots parents and pupils to elected officials from the Greater London Council.
The radical movement for black liberation in Britain had from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s comprised militant street demonstrations, strikes and riots.
In the process, the argument for “political blackness” advanced. As a category of struggle, it was a way of grouping together all those groups that suffered racism because of the shade of their skin.
But as the movement retreated, its power increasingly leached to local councillors and other “people in power.” It also fragmented along ethnic lines.
So when Black History Month transferred to schools in Britain it was a contradictory affair.
It had elements of the radical resistance to racism within it. But it was a muted vision that would be more palatable to school heads and local education authorities.
At its best black history taught in schools could give people a sense of place and belonging.
The effect of this should not be underestimated in a world were black and brown children were constantly insulted.
It could also show the ways that black and white people’s lives in Britain have for hundreds of years been intertwined, and improved most when they have struggled together.
In that sense, Black History Month is important for white children too.
Knowledge of colonial slave rebellions in the Caribbean, the radical abolitionist movement in Britain, the fight for freedom from British colonialism—and the great urban rebellions of the 1980s—can inspire all those searching for justice today.
That’s why black history should be a weapon in the class struggle, not a box-ticking exercise for politicians.
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