To rise above our past, we have to first acknowledge that it happened
Imagine growing up as a child and not knowing anything about your history. Or imagine as a child the first ‘lesson’ you have about your ancestors was via the TV series Roots where their story was one of disempowerment, being degraded and dehumanised as they were taken captive from their homes and loved ones, tortured and enslaved in foreign lands for 400 years. Or imagine as a small child, playing ‘house’ with your peers at school and because you were the only black person, you always had to be the servant.
This is something I don’t have to imagine because that was my reality, and also that of many other black people like me. Additionally, their lack of knowledge of black history meant, my peers as a child, imitated life from the history that they had learned and what they had observed on TV. A history that taught them that black people were subservient to them.
This month is Black History Month here in the UK, something that has been acknowledged and celebrated since 1987 following the racial tension and the rioting of Black Britons in the 1980s. Its origins however, go back to February 1926 in the USA, where they continue to celebrate it in the month of February.
Historian Carter G. Woodson wanted to challenge perceptions that Black people had no history and
enlighten descendants of slavery of their history. Back then it was a week-long celebration but with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black History Movement, one week was not long enough and it became a month-long celebration in 1976.
In the words of the late Jamaican political activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’. Imagine, what the generational, negative psychological impact is if the only history you have about your people is one of enslavement and torture.
Some question why we need to single out Black History Month if we are meant to be an inclusive society. In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to single out one group from society and celebrate them in this way. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go until such time as we can say our society is truly inclusive.
When it comes to socio-economic challenges, black people are disproportionately represented. The prisons, unemployment, mental illness, equality of opportunity in the workplace all reflect this.
Black History Month helps to give us a sense of pride about our cultural heritage. It also helps to bring to the awareness of non-black people, the issues and challenges black people have faced over the years and continue to face.
It also serves to increase knowledge of the rich contribution black people have made to society throughout history. Whether this be the innovation used to create longer lasting light bulbs with a
carbon filament by Lewis Latimer in 1887, or the improved ironing board invented by Sarah Boone in 1892, or refrigerated trucks invented by Frederick McKinley Jones in 1940 which means we can do our grocery shop online today and even though the produce may be in the van all day, it will still be chilled when it gets to us. Or it could be the many other inventions or contributions by black people over the years that we don’t ordinarily hear about because black history has commonly only been associated with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Many organisations realise the importance and significance of Black History Month and employee networks up and down the country are hosting various types of events. Some organisations have even taken to displaying the Pan African flag in recognition of it. For the first time this year, the Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW) are flying the flag for Black History Month. Greenwich council re-painted crossings that were painted rainbow for PRIDE with the Pan African colours, and Sainsbury’s have changed their icon on their LinkedIn profile to Pan African colours in acknowledgement Black History Month. These are just a few of the ways in which organisations have chosen to acknowledge Black History Month’s significance. Whilst Black history should not be taught for just one month of the year, having a dedicated month for it helps in instilling the significance of Black history.
Black History Month is a time to celebrate my cultural heritage, and with it being marked both nationally and internationally, it feels like an acknowledgement of the wrongs that have been done to my ancestors over the years and a celebration of the contributions they have made.
In the words of Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief at National Geographic last year, when acknowledging the decades of racist coverage by National Geographic, ‘To rise above our past, we must first acknowledge it’.