Although, you tried so hard to stop us, put all kind of obstacles in our way, yet we still contributed. We still participated and we are still here. Paradoxically, we must squeeze 100s of years of our story, the story of Black people, into 31 days that can never be enough time. There is an opportunity for a concentrated focus on Black historical input and achievement, in the United Kingdom. It is also a period tinged with disappointment, when I reflect upon the limited time given over to this during the rest of the year. As well as to the extent of the whitewashing and omissions; for example, in the recent scandal surrounding the Windrush Generation, polls have shown that the majority of the population were partially or wholly ignorant of that aspect of British history.
It is also a time tinged with disappointment, when I think of the limited time given over to our story, yet every year we still only talk about Jesse Owens, Garvey, Mandela and Mary Seacole, whilst their stories are beautiful and need to be told, we have WWI and II heroes unheard of, the story of William Cuffey, the Black Chartist, languishing only on Google. We have contributed so much but go unrecognised. Because of this narrow focus the wider community still doesn’t understand us. As I mentioned earlier, in the recent scandal surrounding the Windrush Generation, polls showed that most of the population didn’t know about this. The truth is what the symbolism of The Empire Windrush presents, is that Black people came here at the invitation of a Conservative government as much needed vital labour to rebuild this country after the devastation and ravages from WW2. Sadly, this vital piece of British history has been for many years until recently been left out of the school curriculum and off our TVs. We are now playing 70 plus years of catch-up to try and educate a new generation and remind previous ones at the same time.
I am fortunate enough to be sufficiently informed in these matters, enabling me to teach my children (and 10 year old grandson) what the state has failed to do, saving them from such ignorance and instilling them with a sense of pride along the way. My aim, and that of my generation, is that all children will have at least heard the names and stories of our Black heroes and contributors.
Why is it important? Because Black history is British history. The cherry picking of history, the focus on only the palatable aspects of history, means that we are all poorer – poorer in thought and knowledge. We have presented history as Swiss cheese for years, with huge gaping holes, BHM is an attempt to fill some of those holes. It is also important because it allows the non-Black communities to learn or, at least, become aware of what essentially is part of their own history that they have been denied, given its absence from school’s curricula. The consequence of which is that history is being taught in a sanitised and exclusionary fashion.
What am I doing? Until 18 months ago, I worked full time, as a subject matter expert in diversity and inclusion for six years. However, I have been involved in this sphere for most of my adult life – from equal opportunity to diversity – through various voluntary (external) and corporate activities within the civil service. For example, setting up and running BAME staff networks. This owes much to my cultural and familial inheritance. My maternal grandmother was a founding member of Marcus Garvey’s organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that was first formed in Jamaica. I am proud that she served as Secretary for a regional branch in her Parish. Marcus Garvey, of course, was the Father of pan-Africanism and part of the UNIA’s philosophy was that “Black people should never forget that Africans had a history before slavery” and that’s the message that has been passed on to my grandmother’s descendants as part of our socialisation.
What is my wish? I would like to see the nascent campaign to debase and smear the objectives of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement fail. If these efforts succeed, we will continue to lament the exclusion of Black people’s contributions, the historical injustices perpetrated against them and the lessening of the price they have paid on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like BLM to flourish, bolster changes (or at least generate conversations) and to make Blackness visible; and shame on us if we allow this movement to wither. We need to shout from the pinnacles of society, all that we have done. The sharing of knowledge and revelation of lesser known facts shine a light on ignorance and offers us all an opportunity to eliminate group think, tackle xenophobia and reduce racism. We as elders have to be the ones to teach the younger ones. There is an African saying that “when an elder dies, we lose a library”, I ask all who are reading this page to ensure that you are the library, that you have left your knowledge for others to use.
I would like to see plans to mainstream Black history in history curricula, presented in historical and cultural contexts and certainly no further attempts to dilute or rebrand BHM as “Diversity Month”. Racism and Xenophobia are born of ignorance; therefore, if history is imparted at an early stage in the education sector, then people will understand, for example, why the Empire Windrush brought Caribbean immigrants to this country and there would be no need for them to question what they see. And, more importantly, the dissemination of outrageous stereotypes against a section of society would cease.
Maybe in the future there will be no need for BHM, because our books and TV screens will show us as we are, contributors to world history and not just for 31 days but every day.
Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall (PhD)
Sociologist and Visiting Lecturer in Social History