A Message on the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Black History Month in the UK

Our Story[1] is the story of individuals and peoples of African origin, classified as “Blacks”, and their contributions to the development and growth of civilisations from antiquity to the present. And in the specific case of Britain, our Black History Month UK is our stories as chronicled and retold of our seminal achievements and innovative contributions to the social, political and cultural development and well-being of the United Kingdom.

These achievements and contributions of Africans, “both at home and abroad”, must no longer be hidden under the bushel. Hidden by omission or denial from our children, black or white, growing up in post-Brexit UK. Denied being fed and nurtured in the communion of these accomplishments and contributions for the security of succeeding generations and the stability of our common wealth.

Black History Month was refashioned to give meaning and teeth to the Race Relations and Equality Acts in the UK. It is the institutional recognition and propagation of the contributions of peoples of African descent to the value systems and way of life of British society that will make black life to matter. It is the assertion and affirmation that “Black Life Matters”.

Black History Month thus presents an engaging space of mutual reflection, examination, evaluation, planning and action to free society of the vestiges of imperialism and colonialism in order to reorder society in our collective national interest.

On the thirtieth year of its establishment in the UK, Black History Month calls on the nation to pull out of their archives, basements and lofts the evidence of their ancestors’ encounter with Africa and its Diaspora. To reveal the historical treasures of these encounters – hidden hereditary motifs, cultural insignia and family narratives – to heal, reconnect and celebrate our common humanity, giving meaning and real value to Great Britain.

This common humanity can be enriched by the awakened consciousness of the African Diaspora in the UK by a conscious intermingling and distillation of our common purpose and destiny, by securing our one humanity, our common historical antecedents, our collective destiny and a shared historical encounter and journey enriched by our contributions, then and now.

Black History month seeks to establish shared communal platforms upon which this common purpose is elevated with shared values, a collective re-ordering of British society based on freedom and justice, an unequivocal commitment to the aspirational goal of equality and a validation of the political, social and cultural signatures of the country’s BAME communities.

In addition to the 30th anniversary of Black History Month, there are two such signatures that need to be acknowledge and commemorated this year.

The first is the Notting Hill Carnival; one of the most celebrated members of a vast diasporic network of Carnivals in the major cities of the world. The Notting Hill Carnival is a refashioning and reinterpretation of the Trinidad Carnival and represents the most iconic signature of the Black presence in the UK. This event encompasses the extremes of performance culture. It is not a singular art form but an integrated framework for live performances in public spaces that are rooted in a diversity of art forms involving the human body, space and time.

Over its 50 plus years of existence, the Carnival’s integrated framework includes every aspect of the imprinting of this Black presence on the social, political and cultural landscape of the UK – resistance, resurgence and artistry. From the resistance of black youths to Police Brutality in 1976 to showcasing the artistry of Carnival in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee parade along the Mall.

The second signature worthy of special mention is the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 bringing 492 passengers from the Caribbean.

Significantly, many of the 492 passengers were military personnel, deported after World War 11 when injured white military personnel refused to share hospital wards with any black military personnel.

Lord Millner, the Colonial Secretary, is reputed to have said, “The deportation of wounded military personnel from the West Indies in one of the greatest travesties of justice, imposed on a people who have and were prepared to lay down their lives in defence of Britain.”

The majority of those who paid £28 10s fare to travel to Britain, were therefore war veterans. They belonged to a distinguished cohort of black military personnel contributing to the country’s war effort.

Over 15,000 people from the Caribbean volunteered to join the fight against Hitler with thousands more serving as merchant seamen. The RAF had more recruits from the Caribbean than any other part of the British Empire: 400 pilots and air crew and 6,000 ground staff.

Black History Month acknowledges these signature moments in the history of the UK. For the next 30 years, it is our hope that young historians and activists will accept the baton that is being passed on to challenge the rest of British society every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every week and month as made manifest by the cyclical month of October or the period of the Autumn Equinox so propitious to the communal life of the African.

Our original goal was to first create an enabling cultural space in the UK celebratory calendar and after public acceptance and recognition extend the observance of October as a month to a Black History Season. To make Black History Season a celebration of the magnificence of cultural diversity and the enriching value in peaceful co-existence. To the African mind, to achieve harmony – both the black and white keys of the organ in tune.

[1] Our Story: A Handbook of African History and Contemporary Issues, ed. Akyaaba Addai-Sebo & Ansel Wong, London Strategic Policy Unit, 1988