October is Black History Month (BHM) in the UK and here, EUSA has organised events for the occasion. The first such event, ‘The Big Debate’, was last Wednesday, and on Monday 13 the journalist, poet and broadcaster Musa Okwonga gave a talk entitled ‘Beware the Black Sainthood’. This upcoming Monday sees a screening of Kashmir’s Torture Trail and on 27 October a ballet performance, featuring Vincent Hantam, the Scottish Ballet’s first non-white male dancer, will conclude the events.
Convener of the Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Campaign, Faatima Osman, involved in organising the events, stated on the student union’s website, “Black History Month is a great opportunity for our members to both celebrate the successes of black people and those from minority ethnic groups, and recognise the challenges still to overcome.”
Some, however, would question the limiting of the conversation about black history to October, and whether it is necessary to distinguish ‘black’ history at all in the 21st Century.
The idea originated in the US in 1926. Carter G. Woodson, the founder, was a scholar who dedicated himself to studying the overlooked role of black people in history. His idea was to educate people about this missing history, culminating in October being named Black History Month in the UK in 1987.
Woodson envisioned a world where BHM would become unnecessary. He wrote, “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
Opponents claim it segregates history, confining a segment to one month. Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman said in an interview for American news programme 60 Minutes, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” There is also a fear that complacency will slow efforts to get more of black history recognised in the curriculum.
However, there are many who still see it as important. Malia Bouattia, the Black Students’ Officer for the National Union of Students, recently wrote on a blog for the Union: “October should be looked on as a period of renewal for black people to connect to their identity, culture, communities and recognise how much has been achieved so that we are inspired to continue creating such spaces and discussions.”
However, not everyone feels strongly about the month. First year anthropology and archaeology student, Trinity Velinor, said that she didn’t feel being black made her view the month differently. She said: “I often don’t even remember that it goes on, but I understand why it happens […] I haven’t looked at the events but if they appeal to me then I most likely will [go].”
BHM is a time when children are educated about important black figures in British history; has it worked? Asking a group of Edinburgh students to name black figures from British history may be unscientific, but it garnered interesting results; pioneering nurse, Mary Seacole was mentioned, but students struggled to name any others. Black figures like Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who became a successful author and prominent abolitionist, were not recognised at all.
Perhaps this shows that BHM still has a role to play at university. Knowing about Equiano probably won’t solve any of the world’s major issues, but perhaps it is the intent behind BHM that is important.
In the words of Carter G. Woodson wrote, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Learning about the important contribution of black people in history is important for the whole UK. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey showed three in every ten people in the UK admitted being racially prejudiced.
It seems there is still progress to make and both sides in this debate want the same outcome; a fairer society, where everyone’s contribution is recognised.