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Why we must no longer wait until October to Teach Black History in the UK

Ife Thompson, BLAM UK Founder

‘The examination of Black cultures.. is necessary for several reasons. It shows something of the richness of cultural struggle in and around ‘race’ and demonstrates also the dimensions of Black oppositional practice which are not reduced to the narrow idea of anti-racism’ -Paul Gilroy

In order for us to fully examine the rich cultural impact of Black cultures globally we need a national curriculum that is inclusionary. Black history month was never meant to be a permanent fix for an exclusionary and eurocentric, white curriculum. By actively waiting until October to celebrate the vast achievements and accomplishments of peoples of African Descent globally, we are merely celebrating a system that continues to exclude and erase Black people all year round.

In this short piece I will make the case for the active need to incorporate Black history into every day teaching all year around.

The origins of Black History month in the UK

The origins of Black history month can be found into two strains of thought one by the work of Carter G.Woodson who is known as the Godfather of Black history month. He advocated and set up Negro History Week in 1926.

The second strain of thought is the development of afrocentricity, a resisting framework of thought to the notion and framing of White supremacy, that manifests its mastery through the concept of Eurocentricity. ‘Afrocentricity offers a social, economic and political framework that positions Africa and African Diasporic issues at the core of its vision and work, and it seeks to reclaim and uncover the suppressed contributions of African people, while working for the continued improvement of Africa, the world, and people of African descent and the broader human population/family.’

The 1st of October 1987 was the first official Black History Month in this country. In the UK we began to celebrate Black history Month work due to dedicated work and activism of Ansel wong, Akyaaba Addai-Sebo and many others. The creation of this month came as a direct result of the ‘ identity crisis’ that was apparent in the Black Community in the UK and a growing trend of ‘Ghanaians tried to mimick being Afro-Caribbeans and some Afro-Caribbeans would take offense being referred to as “African” due to the high levels of Afrophobia in society. There was also the issue of the effects of living in a eurocentity society, that became apparent to Akyaaba Addai-Sebo when ‘a colleague came to work one morning broken hearted and in probing her why revealed to me in confidence that her seven year old son, who she had proudly and purposefully named Marcus, after Marcus Mosiah Garvey (a foremost Black nationalist leader), before going to bed, had asked her: “Mom, why can’t I be white?”. The organisers of Black History month wanted persons of African descent to be proud of their long rich and powerful legacy.

Black history month was launched as a stepping stone to create a culture in which we would see Black history taught in schools consistently. Although I myself have loved the month as it was of great value to me when growing up, this “value” however was ocharested. If Black history was taught all throughout the year, as it should be. I would not have had so much reverence for it. I would have understood my history to be what it is- a historical legacy that deserves to have a permanent place in our school books.

The current state of things

The education system remains a white space, this ensures that ‘ the borders of whiteness are policed very actively…the interests of white people remain center stage’ one such border that remain unhinged is the eurocentric education system, by relying on Black history month we are actively engaging in the concept that eurocentric history is all encompassing as “normal history” and that Black history is to be othered. This is a very untruthful and unhelpful premise to base learning on, as firstly Black history is part of British history and further we deserve to know the history and the stories of Africa- the oldest civilization in the world.

A recent report by Teach First found the following ‘Pupils could complete their GCSEs and leave secondary school in England without studying a novel or play by a non-white author. The largest exam board in the country, AQA, does not feature a single book by a black author among set texts for its GCSE English literature syllabus’. This study shows that through the Government’s ongoing failure to ensure Black history is a mandatory part of the curriculum, we are actively continuing to shape a world where whiteness remains the default.

The young people I work with at my organistaion BLAM UK constantly remind me how much they value our sessions on global Black identity and history, as they are tired of only learning or reading about slavery and the American Civil Rights struggle durning Black history month.. Young people want to learn narratives that encompass the wide ranging depth of their history. This is why at BLAM UK we set up our own online Black History Portal and a Podcast so young people can access Black History all year round. This is why we also deliver Teacher-Training to schools across the UK on how they can better incorporate Black narratives into everyday teaching. We can, and we must, do better by our young people.

I end this piece on the thought I began on – Black history month was never meant to be a permanent fix for an exclusionary and eurocentric white curricula. We need to actively work to remove the disproportionate attention we give whiteness in the school curricula- if we truly want to commit to anti-racism in teaching.

Black history month must be every month.

Ife Thompson, BLAM UK Founder 

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