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Origins of Black History Month in Britain

HISTORIC: Black History Month 1987- invitation to Dr Maulana Karenga lecture

IN FEBRUARY this year a number of activists said we should celebrate Black History Month like our American cousins as part of ongoing struggle in challenging stereotypes of people of African descent.

This idea is connected to a current debate over to the merits and validity of how the UK commemorates Black History Month, which was established in 1987.

The early origins of Black History Month were devised by the celebrated historian Carter G.Woodson in 1926 at the height of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the USA. Negro History Week was original name given by Carter however it was renamed Black History Month due to the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. In the 1980s it was adopted as African American History Month again highlighting the changing perception around the politics of identity and race for African Americans.

Britain in the 1980s was in turmoil in the Thatcher era with the after-effects of the riots in Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth, black Britons were fighting for tolerance and acceptance, and against marginalisation, racism and also trying to define a sense of identity and purpose. It is in this context that Black History Month was adopted in the UK.

In 1987 the concept of Black History was developed Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a special projects officer at the GLC, and later at the London Strategic Policy Unit. With the support of these bodies, politicians, community activists and senior officers Addai-Sebo coordinated the first official Black History Month event on October 1, 1987.

Dr. Maulana Karenga was invited as the first speaker as result of being the originator of Kwanzaa which had now become a successful part of the cultural calendar both in the USA and the UK in celebrating traditional values and African history as part of cultural and religious programme that takes place every December.

1987 was also the year that African Jubilee Year Declaration was launched which called on local and national government to recognise African contributions to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK.

The declaration also called on authorities to implement their duties under the Race Relations Act 1976 and to intensify their support against apartheid. It required authorities to support and continue the process of naming monuments, parks and buildings reflecting the contributions of historical and contemporary heroes of African descent thus giving positive affirmation to children and young people identity and self-worth.

The above activities created the catalyst for many local authorities to formally institute the month of October as Black History Month in the UK.

Today across the UK during October over 4,000 events are organised celebrating Black History Month along with activities within schools.

It is difficult to assess the tremendous impact and legacy of the contribution of Black History Month over the last 25 years and whether the Month has changed the perceptions of how people of African descent are viewed in society and also within communities in exploring self-identity and racial pride.

However, what is clear that Black History Month has influenced and inspired others in the equalities world to organise similar months around exposing the hidden and excluded histories such as LGBT, Disability, Bengali, and Gypsy and Traveller History communities Month.

Patrick Vernon would like to acknowledge permission of London Metropolitan Archives (for a more detailed version of this article on Black History Month and interview with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo see www.everygeneration.co.uk)

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