Black History Month: Looking back and looking forward

    Published: 05 October 2020

    Looking back…

    You’re online, so no doubt you’ll be very well aware that (British) Black History Month is now underway, stretching across October just as it has done, to varying degrees, since 1987.  As educators we are well aware of its place in the calendar, but how well aware are we of its roots and aims, its definitions and modes of operation?  To get a bit meta, how well aware of the history of Black History Month are we?  I ask this question because it’s only recently that I realised I was not fully aware of its history.  As a teacher, it was perhaps something we “did” more than “discussed”.  There certainly were discussions. Discussions around how we might mark the month, what we might do, who and what we might celebrate or illuminate. And certainly, these discussions invariably led on to discussions around the boundaries this placed around the inclusion of black people in the study of history, and more particularly and pointedly given a bias towards American history, the contributions made in British history. Why just a month? Why weren’t we doing more to make more sustained, year-round changes to what we taught, and to what we focused on? In the course of those discussions, we were no doubt making plenty of points, but it is questionable how much progress we were making, to borrow from Nesrine Malik’s We need New Stories.

    This question of progress, in relation to the representativeness – or more accurately the completeness – of our history teaching is playing out once again as I type. Certainly on Twitter (my chosen platform, for better or worse) and no doubt elsewhere.  In this debate the same concerns are aired, and at the same time, there is some acceptance that Black History Month is still as necessary as ever.  This in itself takes us full circle back to the question of progress. Perhaps this Black History Month might be just the time to press pause on the forward planning, and instead take a reflective look at the extent of progress that has been made.  Are we satisfied that there has been enough?  How can we be sure?  How can we be really sure?  What conversations do we need to have?  What avenues do we need to explore? Then we might consider our next steps.

    I’ve already mentioned my own gaps in relation to the history of Black History Month.  Let’s add another level of meta-ness to this look at history.  This awareness was raised by Renni Eddo-Lodge, in Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, in a chapter fittingly called Histories.  Histories starts with Eddo-Lodge acknowledging and seeking to address her own formative gaps in knowledge of black British history. The chapter moves on to look at the treatment of black people in the study of British history, and the ways in which such study is responded to. During the course of this exploration Eddo-Lodge highlights the tendency towards ‘American-centric’ educational displays.  This caused my own reflective pause.  I’ve tweeted and blogged before about my passion for picturebook biographies as a way of swiftly broadening the spectrum of history learning in school. They are a rich, but time-efficient way of sharing more and more of the various threads of the fabric of humanity over time.  A quick check of my library confirmed my suspicion that every book focused on a notable figure in American history (or in the case of Josephine Baker, American and French history).  That’s relatively easy to fix. Eddo-Lodge also explores how much work she needed to put into satisfying her quest for more information about black people in Britain, post-slavery. That inaccessibility of available information is something that will need a more sustained, collective effort to address.

    In discussing the work that had to be done in order to uncover more of a not-that-distant history, Eddo-Lodge moved on to the history of Black History Month, and spoke to Linda Bellos who led the first programme of events to ‘celebrate black contributions to Britain.’ In the book, Bellos restates the intent to focus on history above all else:

    "I thought Black History Month was a great idea.  What I wasn’t going to do was make it like the American one, because we have a different history…There’s so many people who have no idea -  and I’m talking about white people here – no idea about the history of racism.  They don’t know why we’re in this country."

    A great idea springing from no idea. It’s clear from the chapter  - which goes on to discuss and question the nature of Black History Month in its current form - and from online debate, self-reflection, observation, and listening, that there are still way too many gaps, too many hidden stories. With necessary work still to be done, let’s change the direction of travel of this blog.

    Looking forward…

    An obvious place to start, if talk of Black History Month is giving us pause to revisit our curriculum, is the Black History Month UK website. A current editorial by Catherine Ross offers a timely starting point:

    "Black History Month 2020 is also a time to look forward and celebrate the here and now – and the future possibilities. In years gone by, October has been the only time of year when the UK talks about the achievements of Black people in Britain. Hopefully, the events of 2020 will be a catalyst for Black history to be shared much more widely – in museums, galleries, schools, universities, public spaces and communities.… Black history isn’t just a month to be ticked off a calendar dominated by a white-washed version of history." - Catherine Ross

    You can read the full editorial for further insight. 

    The site itself is packed with content, commentary, links to further resources, events and more.  Serious time would be needed to properly do it justice – a collective effort perhaps -  but as far as education is concerned there are dedicated streams, and easy to navigate portals, to various strands of history (Windrush, pre-colonial, slavery, civil rights) that should support critical re-evaluations of exiting history plans, and help widen the lenses that we bring to bear in revisiting the past. If you don’t already, you can follow Black History Month UK on Twitter @BhmUK. Long term planning for change – for making history in our own way – needs thoughtfulness.  There’s plenty of food for thought here.

    Elsewhere, we might travel back to the physical or geographical roots of the British iteration of Black History Month and visit some of the sites springing from its Lambeth-based point of origin. Once again, plenty of good, hard work being done there to offer a range of events for Black History Month. It is not too late to get involved, take part, enjoy, and benefit from the programme of events organised by Lambeth Libraries, stretching across the month. In this sense we might be talking about short term plans, but there’s no reason not to have this as a catalyst to start thinking about the plans and changes that will extend beyond the next 31 days. I need to extend, upfront,  sincere thanks to Lambeth Libraries.  You can follow them on Twitter here: @lamlibs, and they have a related account devoted to Black History Month and their expertly curated events: @BHMLambeth

    Here’s the introduction from Councillor Sonia Winford:


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    Going back to the thanks, Lambeth Libraries have produced an eye-catching and extensive programme of events, and you will likely want to explore the full programme. But they have kindly allowed me to carve up this packed PDF, so that I can flag some events that are likely to be of special interest to our particular audience, focused as we are on children’s and young people’s literacy learning.  These events stretch across October, so it is far-from-too-late to take part from the comfort of your own school or home.  We are now far more comfortable in engaging with content, events, and other socially driven aspects of our work through remote channels. We might now be in a better position to appreciate some of the benefits of what we can access despite the constraints off geography.  No matter where you are based, you can join in the celebrations.  

    So, it’s not too late to get involved, but you want to act fast.  If you’re engaged with slightly older readers, you have already missed a live book launch for Alex Wheatle’s (Crongton Knights)  new novel, Cane Warriors.  Not too late to read the book though, and it looks gripping.

    Here are some other highlights for younger readers, their families, and/or their school communities.

    Let’s start where it all begins, where so much of the most important language learning occurs,  the Early Years.  If you visit  LEAP’s (Lambeth Early Action Partnership) event calendar you will find a range of events, all handily colour-coded to support the development of an early love of stories, rhythm and rhyme. You’ll know from our work elsewhere that we are obsessed with the powers of prosody as a route to true reading fluency.  Prosody is as much about rhythms of language as anything else, the stressed and the unstressed pattern of language. Here is a chance to boost an awareness of story, and the patterning of language that underpins a truly memorable read aloud performance. This is well worth flagging to the adults at home.


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    Then there is librarian Zoey offering her take on some of her favourite books by and about Black People. It’s only now I have come to assume that it was Zoey who kindly gave me the permission to carry out a cut up of the published programme. It is lovely to put a face to a name that showed kindness and generosity in our DM exchange on Twitter, not to mention further evidence that librarians really are a special class of person.  Please champion them and their places of work whenever you have the opportunity.  Especially if there are any kinds of local threats to their existence, speaking personally here, but I digress… Back to Zoey, pictured below, and fully ready to go with some excellent books.  The drive to enhance representation and diversity in children’s literature has made real gains in the past two years, helped no end by the efforts of CLPE and associates in their work on Reflecting Realities, not to mention a range of publishers and book sellers committed to ensuring that all children are properly served.   But, you’ve guessed it, there’s still work to do.  Why not enjoy a first-hand account of some wonderful books that more than deserve a place in your reading offer.


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    Zoey is also offering up a week of reading aloud sessions  – that most precious stand of our reading diet.  Best of all, you can sit back and relax as someone else does it for you.  Zoey will be reading from Catherine Johnson and Katie Hickey’s Race to the Frozen North. This is a half-term event, so worth flagging to adults at home who should welcome the chance for their children to benefit from the many, many good things that a read aloud session brings to reading and developing readers in particular.  But a read aloud session is good for all, and if you’ve yet to be convinced, you might want to revisit two of our earlier blogs, the Do the Voices duo part 1 and part 2. Given this event comes at the end of the month, there’s plenty of scope to give notice to parents and carers.  


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    Finally, to end the month itself, Winston Nzinga will be sharing folk stories, songs and music. Get ready to get percussive.  Perhaps it’s time to share some of those design and technology lesson ideas for making instruments so that the children can make their own at home, in readiness to join in. Reading aloud is one brilliant thing, storytelling is quite another. Why not treat your children to the best of both worlds, letting Zoey take you towards the end of the month’s celebrations, and then have Winston round it off with a storytelling extravaganza.


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    There’s so much else to do or to read, or to think about this month, that should take us further as we move beyond this year’s Black History Month. More locally to Herts, @HertsArchives have been collaborating with Hertfordshire County Council’s BAME staff network to produce the online exhibition Windrush and Beyond.  You can access part one online. You may also wish to revisit this blog which looks at the work of one school in learning about the history of Windrush and a wider look at migration through the study of Shaun Tan’s wordless classic The Arrival.  Lots of practical ideas for building meaningful links between learning in history and learning in English.  Plenty to keep us occupied in the short term, as we think more deeply about how we move further forwards towards acknowledging and attending to the time that has passed.

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