BHM: Why I'm not a fan

    Published: 04 October 2021

    I’ve never really liked Black History Month.

    I can feel your shock and bewilderment.

    I am Black.

    But I do have an issue with Black History Month and it’s about time that I explained why.

     

    Here are 6 things that rile me about Black History Month:

    1. It’s one solitary month.

    2. When done badly, it’s reduced to tokenism and stereotypes.

    3. There’s often an expectation of Black staff to do something for BHM.

    4. It can create trauma for Black people.

    5. It’s not celebratory enough.

    6. It rarely includes any discussion about race and racism.

     

    1.  So let’s start with the main reason BHM tends to rile me. I resent the idea that the history, contributions and impact of 57 individual nations in the continent of Africa, 13 countries in the Caribbean, let alone the wider diaspora should be confined to one solitary month. The histories and stories of Black people have not been included in history because we have not been the ones telling our story. One month won’t cut it. A bigger and deeper change is necessary.

    2.  The history highlighted during this month is sometimes negative and inaccurate. There is an over-reliance on slavery, African American history and civil rights movements, as well as the ubiquitous entries from Bob Marley (for music), Martin Luther King (for English, politics and history) and a collection of sports and music stars such as Mohammed Ali. Black history in the UK is not an integral part of our psyche and that’s why it feels like a strange adjunct and indeed why BHM had to be invented. There’s nothing wrong with highlighting these figures but it would be better to draw on relevant and relatable figures from a range of fields, with stories connected to the Black British experience.

    3.  A tentative voice is raised in a staff meeting and someone asks: ‘What are we doing for Black History Month?’ What happens next? Often Black teachers are just expected to ‘do something’. Whilst it might seem like the obvious choice, it’s riddled with over-simplistic thinking. Asking the Black teacher(s) is a genuine problem and not just because Black teachers – as detailed in the Runnymeade/NASUWT’s report (2016) – are paid less, face structural discrimination and are less likely to be promoted. In brief, they’ve already got a lot on their plates.

    Another reason why this request is unfair might come as a surprise to some: most teachers are not knowledgeable about Black history and that probably includes Black teachers. It’s simple really; British teachers are a product of the British education system and are unlikely to know much about Black people within British history such as their contributions to WW1 or WW2, let alone the kingdoms they created such as Benin, Kush and Carthage, unless they have put in additional work in their own time. So I don’t really blame Black teachers who, finding themselves suddenly called upon to take on extra work, from disengaging from BHM. It’s hard to teach something you may know very little about and tougher still to acknowledge this in the face of those who expect you to be well-informed, able and eager to make a contribution. It’s even more difficult when some of the subject-material is personal and likely to induce painful memories or to expose you to previously unknown traumatic experiences of people like you. Black people are often expected to share their traumatic history without the offer of true empathy or support. Producing something authentic, accurate and detailed requires time, interest and skill.  If schools and educational settings are serious about BHM being done, then they must give staff time to research, increase their knowledge first and work collaboratively.

    4.  I genuinely worry about the impact that BHM may have on Black children and young people. Imagine being a Black child in a class when a well-intentioned but misguided teacher decides to play a video depicting slavery, hostility towards Windrush migrants or racist booing during football matches?  Meanwhile the teacher recounts the statistics: numbers of Black people abused, stolen, beaten, raped, killed and thrown overboard. Your classmates react and you may be left feeling: upset, confused, ashamed, embarrassed, tearful and/or traumatised. You might wonder if your parents were consulted on how this topic would be handled or if, despite good intentions, the school just lacks empathy and sensitivity.  

    We live in a world where psychologists have been able to show that, by the age of 5, children are already aware of race and the implications of being racialized as Black and White. So BHM must not further traumatise Black children by only reminding them of a world and system which sees and treats people like them as inferior and deficient.  Instead let’s celebrate and explore uplifting achievements.

    5.  UK BHMs lack ‘Black joy’ and rarely celebrate positivity within the Black community. I know that, on the face of it, this underpins my other points but it’s important and, as it’s my piece, I’m going to give it the space I believe it deserves.

    We must make time to identify positive examples of contributions made by Black people and teach about the many and varied ways in which Black people have made this world better, through their creativity, innovation and leadership. Yes, I’m aware that, inevitably, due to structural racism - in every facet of society - these stories are likely to be triumph-over-adversity narratives, but it’s about time we spent more time trumpeting Black successes rather than being defeated by the cruel and painful acts carried out against Black people. Take for example contributions to our world by Black inventors: the three-light traffic light, the super-soaker gun and the home security system. If this is news, don’t be embarrassed.  It just reflects our flawed system. 

    So get hold of a copy of David Olusoga’s ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’, Atinuke’s ‘Africa Amazing Africa’ 

    or ‘Little Leaders’ (Bold Women in Black History and Exceptional Men in Black History)’. That’s where you will find that Black people have a lot to be proud of and a great deal to celebrate.  We must make sure that every child grows up with this knowledge so they can challenge our existing system.

    6.  Why don’t we spend more time explaining why BHM was created?  The absence of debate and discussion about racism before and especially during BHM is most odd.  The reason we have BHM in schools is because the current curriculum does not adequately reflect the history or contributions of Black people; therefore schools celebrating BHM must surely engage in discussions about race, racism, inequality, unfairness, injustice and the balance of the curriculum.

    Don’t get me wrong. I know why this isn’t discussed. It’s difficult, considered incendiary and it makes everyone incredibly uncomfortable because you’re encouraging people to see the status quo and acknowledge its unfairness, as well as recognise White people’s prominence and power and question the justification for this. But not being willing to discuss race and racism is a huge missed opportunity.  It shouldn’t be controversial to explore the Black Lives Matter Movement and its origins in school settings – this is the perfect place to allow students to ponder why people felt it necessary to create such a movement.

    On reflection, perhaps it’s time to admit that I don’t dislike BHM quite as much as I thought I did.  What I genuinely find difficult is what it usually looks like in schools across the UK: displays on slavery, photos of MLK, sports stars and rap stars, African drumming, steel pan bands and groups of young Black children suddenly thrust into the spotlight, feeling confused, angry and traumatised. BHM UK can and should be so much more than this and it so easily could be.

    An honest and true representation of Black history needs to be included and highlighted throughout the curriculum daily and does not need restricting to a solitary month.  Black history needs to be visible throughout schools throughout the year: in the books selected for libraries and text books; in the displays in every classroom and hallway; in the choices made by school leaders and teachers about what to teach and include; but ultimately and most importantly, in the approach, honesty and sensitivity of how topics are taught to ensure that the narrative reflects the reality of the event.

    If BHM UK can be a stepping stone to anti-racism in education then even I would be forced to respect the importance of its annual role in flipping the current educational script.


    Check out hidden black history and ways to diversify your curriculum on  blackhistorymonth.org.uk

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