Empowering Inclusive Education: Black History Month's Role in Britain

Empowering Inclusive Education: Black History Month's Role in Britain

20 October 2023

The idea and practice of separating Black History from British history in the form of Black History Month and/or celebrating Black History (Month) often sparks debate. Does Black History feature prominently in British, European and global history as it is? Is it a necessary platform until progress in the practice of writing history has been achieved? Perhaps both? In this blog, we invite you to explore the significance of Black History Month - why it is important and what we do in the Department of History, Politics and Science to promote diversity and inclusion in adult education.

Black History (Month) emerged as a cultural response to the grind of lived experience

The emergence of Black History Month in the USA 

The concept of celebrating Black History emerged in the US in 1926 when The African American academic, historian, author and teacher Carter Godwin Woodson initiated the tradition of week-long celebration of African-American contributions to US history.

Woodson’s aim, he stated, was to create ‘not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice’. Lectures, poetry readings, music, parades and general celebrations all became popularly associated with the event, as they do in both the USA and Britain today

Also looking to connect readers, publishers of Black History such as, for example, Jessica and Eric Huntley and John La Rose, were also key to the reach, influence and impact of Black History. 

Having gained momentum across the US, Woodson’s Black History Week became Black History Month in the 1970s.

Portrait of African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson as a young man.Portrait of African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson as a young man.
Portrait of African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson as a young man.

Having gained momentum across the US, Woodson’s Black History Week became Black History Month in the 1970s.

Black History & Black History Month in Britain  

In Britain, historians with different backgrounds, most of them Black, have for decades worked to bring Black History to British society. Amongst these, Edward Scobie, Ron Ramdin, Folarin Shyllar, Peter Fryer, and Paul Gilroy all stand out as Titans for their work from the 1960s onwards; their works created new narratives that came to inform both the next generation of historians of Black History, their readers and the broader public, inviting people to explore and understand both distant and near past and present on the one hand, and connections between the British Isles, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas on the other.

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo pictured after a 2022 interview with AKADi Magazine in the United KingdomAkyaaba Addai-Sebo pictured after a 2022 interview with AKADi Magazine in the United Kingdom
Analyst and journalist, Akyaaba Addai Sebo
Educationalist, Len Garrison's clay bust in progressEducationalist, Len Garrison's clay bust in progress
Educationalist, Len Garrison
Wales' first black head teacher Betty Campbell.Wales' first black head teacher Betty Campbell.
Betty Campbell, Wales' first black head teacher

Other notable figures where instrumental in raising awarenes off the significance, social and cultural achievements, and challenges faced by Black People in the past.

Teachers and Headteachers who understood the need to expand and diversify the curriculum such as, for example, Betty Campbell in Wales and Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in London, have also played fundamental roles in inspiring children and young people of all backgrounds.

Lenford Kwesi Garrison’s initiatives, the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton as well as the EMACA (East Midlands African Caribbean Arts), have enriched the variety of primary sources available to historians and shown a multitude of expressions of Black art and culture.

All of these individuals, together with fledgling and often struggling campaigning organizations helped to create the space and momentum needed for Britian’s Black History Month, when, in 1987, Akyabba Addai-Sebo in the Greater London Council’s Ethnic Minorities Unit secured support to see Black History Month introduced in October to coincide with the African Jubilee Year, the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation and the centenary of the birth of Marcus Garvey.

Since then, Black History Month has become officially and annually recognised by the UK Government and events are held annually in schools, colleges and libraries across Britain.

Where is Black History Month today?

Today, Black History Month is acknowledged for bringing attention to the history of Black people in Britain since Roman times and the contributions of Black people across all spheres of British society: health, education, research and scholarship, technology, business, defence, sport, culture and beyond.

While it is widely recognised that Black History – and Black History Month - has helped people understand their own place in British history and counter stereotypes, it is also not without criticism.

Criticisms Black History Month

A significant critique has been how it separates Black History from British history and emphasises it only one month each year, and often also becomes tokenistic with music, food and speeches but little depth; another that Black History Month often turns Black History into a monolithic entity, thereby rendering invisible significant differences in backgrounds, heritages, experiences, perspectives, and faiths of the many Black communities across the country with roots in and links to, for example, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia or Somalia. 

More recent initiatives such as, for example, the Black Curriculum have come to revolve around the students, whether children, teens or young adults, and have looked to promote Black History all year as a mandatory part of the national curriculum rather than Black History Month. 

So how do we approach the question of Black History and BHM in Britain? The questions we need to ask ourselves may seem simple; how we respond to them is not. 

  • Do we, or do we not, do history and memory work as democratic practice in Britain? 
  • If we do, how can we do more? 
  • If not, what do we need to do next, and then after that to ensure we move towards doing so?

Put differently, as a democratic and multicultural society, we are required to build awareness and do history and memory work as democratic practice.

This is necessary to confront racism, dispel ignorant stereotypes, and deal with the histories, consequences, legacies and memories of the British empire. 

If we do not succeed, we may not be able to leave our younger and future generations a democratic and multicultural society.

To be clear, the stakes are high.

What next? Where to go and resources 

The undertaking before us is vast, and none of us can figure it out on our own. However, there are thankfully many places to turn for resources and places to start.

If you are interested in books, your library and the bookshops New Beacon Books and Afrori Books (that also have websites) are likely to have copies of good books such as those written by Olivette Otele, David Olusoga, Akala, Hakim Adi, Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne to mention just some. 

You can also explore websites such as, for example, www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk and of the different associations mentioned above, e.g. Nubian Jack Community Trust, Sutton African Caribbean Cultural Organisation, Camden Black History Community Hub, Black Heritage Walks Network, Black History Studies and Black History Walks Edinburgh.

Online, you can also find a growing number of interviews and talks with the historians, guides, and staff from associations and cultural institutions mentioned here. Searching in Google or on YouTube as well as their websites would also help you on your journey.

At City Lit, we're also expanding our provision of Black history courses in the Department of History, Politics, Philosophy and Science.

More to come! Black History at City Lit

We have no illusions that we are joining a vibrant field and are in need of catching up.

As part of one of the largest adult learning institutions in Britain we have a responsibility to do so.

Within the broader challenge of doing history and memory work as democratic practice, we are humbly looking to contribute clearer realities about the global presence, cultural significance and historical contributions made by Black people around the world, whether in Britain, Europe, the Americas, or Africa.  

Wanting to look beyond Black History Month, we are working to incorporate Black History within the department’s different subject areas, and learners of all backgrounds with an interest in history are warmly encouraged to join us. In collaboration with the City Lit college library at Keeley Street, we have started to add Black history books across our subject areas to the bookshelves in the library on the mezzanine (more will follow). 

In African history for example, we offer courses on the rich African past. From ancient, medieval, and early modern eras in East Africa and the Congo Basin — to the modern era in which Africans across the continent put up fierce resistance against empire. In our own era, we also offer a course on Nigeria and Angola as modern African nations in global politics.

Looking beyond the global and significant history of the African continent, we also offer a course on Black European history, which explores migration, community and resistance .

In our Americas area, we offer courses on Black Latin America, and the Obama Presidency.

Closer to home, we also offer a course on figures in British politics and society you need to know!

Beyond these courses, several global and imperial history courses also weave elements of Black history into broader topics. Some examples could be our courses Civilizations in the ancient world, global history and the Portuguese empire. Others could be our courses on sugar, Maritime trade, Youth revolts and memories of colonial empire.

In our science area, our courses on ancient astronomy and the scientists you need to know will also explore African dimensions of their topics.

We will be looking to add additional courses and recruit more tutors over this year and the coming years. 

We hope to add regular courses and/or talks on Black British History, the Black Atlantic, key Black thinkers in Global History, Ancient African history, medieval West African kingdoms and empires, modern West African history, early modern and modern Caribbean History, Black figures across all sectors of British society and Commonwealth history.  

We also hope to add reading groups on both Black British History and Global Black History in addition to London Walks.

While some courses may not run due to, for example, low enrolment or changed circumstances, we are looking to build both a sustainable core of re-occurring courses, courses that will become part of a cycle that shifts between face-to-face and online formats and one-off lectures both with our tutors and external speakers.

We hope you will join us in this undertaking! 

Please also don’t hesitate to get in touch!