Introduction by Tanisha Douglas, BME Student Officer:
Black History Month UK is held in October to empower students at the beginning of each academic year. This year, with the help of some fantastic students, we were able to do just that. We were not only able to connect students on campus but also the people within the Manchester community. This year’s theme was to empower, enlighten and celebrate, and this is what we achieved through our events. October may now be over, but that does not mean we should wait until next year—every day we should continue to empower, enlighten and celebrate the diversity of each and everyone’s cultures for each is worth celebrating.
Here are some articles from students on campus to share with us what Black History Month means to them.
Black History Month is a time when society takes time to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions and achievements that black people have given to the world. It’s a time to learn new facts, discuss important issues, look at ways forward and educate others and myself about black history and racism that still exists, either in an in-your-face fashion or in a hidden, closeted way. Black history, to me, is much more than just one month a year, it’s part of an identity that impacts on us on a daily basis, for example in social situations—how others react to you—first impressions (i.e. if I wear a hoodie because it’s cold and wet, others may think that I am doing it for negative reasons), the educational system, employment, criminal justice, and accessing services and the media.
So the issue of race and racism are important factors because of the historical context that certain words and events have had and still do have, permeating into today’s attitudes and stereotypes, e.g. “the angry black man/ woman,” “all black people are good at sports,” “all black people love chicken,” “all black men are womanizers.”
We need to discuss the issues around societal and institutional racism that still exists. Why is it that if the UK’s population is around 60012456 and the black population is 1521400, which at a rough estimate makes up 3.01%, Black or Black British people make up 13.4 per cent of the prison population? This illustrates a huge overrepresentation and yet only four senior judges, out of 161, were known to be from a BME community. One senior civil servant out of 52 working for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was known to be from a BME community, and three per cent of the senior police officers in England and Wales were from a BME community. In regards to the education we need to ask how come in Liverpool only 22 out of 4192 teachers were from an African or African-Caribbean background. As recently as 2010, there are just 85 black professors out of a total of 18510 in the UK, making up 1.6 per cent.
We need to learn from the past, however uncomfortable it is, as to grow and learn you need to first move out from a position of comfort, which will allow open discussion. It’s not about bashing people and making them feel bad, it’s about looking at statistics and facts and then working together on both sides to make positive differences. I think we can all start the process even if its just by reading one book on black history of figures, attending one event taking place at the university or in the city in general, or having proper open discussion to see the true experiences of your black friend who will most probably not be offended, just to get an insight. We can then continue to make progress. Don’t get me wrong, we are in a better place than we were in the 1950s and 1960s, and I am grateful for that, but there is still progress to be made. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Benjamina E. Dadzie:
Black History Month should be every month. We should talk about Black History every month of every year, because we need to understand and to learn.
As young people is our responsibility to educate, empower and celebrate our multicultural society, embracing our differences and making the most out of it, in order to do better than how our great-grandfathers did; or to do what they didn’t have the knowledge, means and authority to do.
Although Black History Month is not every month of the year, I’m glad we have one out of twelve: one to understand, to talk and to share those burning issues we avoid voicing out and that are consuming our social relationships.
This month is to inspire and to educate, and as such, it is our duty as community of people who know better, to bring to the table the things we do not feel comfortable with. This is the moment to talk about race, to enlighten about stereotypes and demonise ignorance. It’s a chance to share and to try to understand what is and where the line between racism, ignorance and curiosity can be found and what we, as people who struggle every day to change the conversation, can do to make the difference. It’s the moment to educate those who often fall into racist/ignorant situations, transforming what could be an angry and unproductive confrontation, into a moment to learn and to correct one’s social manner.
We live in a multicultural society and while one would gladly notice what brings and shapes us in togetherness, sometimes we are reminded with uncomfortable truth the similarities we will never have. So it happens that there’s a constant battle within, a battle that eats up the good in us and transforms us into categories rather than people.
This month is the time to learn how we can coexist, how we can stop defining ourselves according to our appearance, but in accord with our being and doing.
Ask anyone about influential figures in Black History, and there’s a good chance that the names Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X will pop up. Many would be hard pushed to name anymore.
Most of my knowledge of Black History is usually based around civil rights activists from mid 20th Century America, and I suspect that it’s probably the same for anyone who went to school in the UK. While African American civil rights activists should definitely make up part of the curriculum, growing up as Black Londoner, this small slice of black history we learn about has always felt a little distant.
It’s only through my own recent research that I’ve learned more about influential black Britons. For example, Paul Stephenson, a prominent Bristolian civil rights campaigner, who led a 60-day boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company, after they refused to hire any BME drivers or conductors in 1963. Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved Nigerian, who alongside other African Londoners campaigned to end slavery in the 1780s. Mary Prince, who was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography in the UK, wrote a book titled ‘The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave’ detailing her experience of slavery.
Black British individuals making history today are also often overlooked. Baroness Doreen Lawrence set up the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (a trust set up in memory of her son who was murdered in a racially motivated attack), which aims to campaign against social injustice. Malorie Blackman, current Children’s Laureate, is working to highlight the lack of diversity in children’s book. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, space scientist and mechanical engineer, often tours inner city schools giving talks on how she became a scientist while overcoming dyslexia and challenging stereotypes.
As Black History Month 2014 comes to a close, it’s important that we think beyond this month, and focus on how we can make improvements to the black history that currently makes up the curriculum. Given the contributions a lot of these black Britons have made to society, it’s a shame that many people have never heard of them before.