We are now half-way through the 30th UK Black History Month (BHM). So this seems an apt time to reflect on the future of this event, before looking forward to the rest of the October.
For a variety of reasons, BHM has had controversy attached to it. Many, like myself, bemoan the fact that black history is packaged into one month. To us, it can feel like it is too neatly commodified and, just like at Christmas, put back into a box for the rest of the year.
Personally, I prefer to use the month as a celebratory showcase of black culture and inspiration with my fellow creatives and meeting new people. Many individuals have confided to me that BHM has been an entry point for those who have been previously excluded from their heritage, such as those in care.
Whilst others have told me it has been an insightful introduction into a world they now share with a new family, friend or lover.
Of course we can’t confine anybody’s history, let alone black history, to one month and that argument should be obvious to all concerned. Other justifiable complaints include a lack of a central theme, over-stocked programme, (despite a sterling job by cultural broker Cognitive Paths, there is no information booklet to despatch). We need more than online input by Bristol City Council.
So I can respect anyone for taking a proverbial NFL knee and sitting Black History Month out whilst they ensure black history is represented throughout the year.
My argument is that there is a practical and pragmatic need to do both. To ensure the culture that gives us so much pride and respect reaches as many influencers and audiences as possible to aid social cohesion in such difficult times.
Going back in history, the origins of Black History Month come from an American historian and academic Carter G. Woodson. Woodson inspired Malcolm X for his positive contributions to black culture and education. Woodson came from the ultimate humble beginnings, being the son of slaves.
He embarked on a programme of self-education, toiling for his academic achievements by working by day and studying by night. Woodson argued that education and increasing social and professional contacts between the races and people of different backgrounds would help to reduce racism.
The study of black history was pursued to both educate and empower black people. Woodson argued that black history was “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them”.
Prime minster Theresa May recently announced a set of Government statistics on race inequality that looked shockingly familiar during the turbulent 1980s after the inner-city riots/uprisings.
Back in 1987, I was an unemployed twenty-something without a qualification or purpose to my life. Positive action came into practice in the late 1980s and I joined CEED (Centre for Economic Employment Development) in 1991.
This propelled me from a trainee housing officer into a senior housing management for Bristol City Council, before accepting redundancy in 2009. Those skills and a thirst for life-long learning have taken me into the voluntary and community sector, with nearly ten years at Ujima Radio in a leadership role.
My mentors, Paul Hassan and Kevin Philemon, became my fellow Ujima directors and thousands of hours have been put into Ujima by many other volunteers to create a vibrant award-winning radio station.
That initial Bristol City Council financial, social and resource investment has been repaid back into the community on so many levels. It has also been supported in their former roles by deputy mayor Asher Craig and Lord Lieutenant Peaches Golding as champions and campaigners of the initiative, with the support of many unseen hardworking council officials and community members.
So why are we still questioning the value of positive action as a way of breaking down barriers and improving social mobility and impact?
The outcomes and gaps based on the colour of one’s skin across education, employment, criminal justice system, health and housing have been there for far too long without enough of British society paying attention.
Black History Month on its own isn’t going to change that, but over the month it makes a compelling case for achievement, celebration and bringing people together.
Sure, we don’t have the numbers of state-sanctioned police killings of unarmed black men as in America in Bristol or Britain. Yet the complacency, lack of action and continuing economic and social divide between Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities and their white counterparts do cause premature deaths and affect the future life chances of our young.
Until that set of circumstances change dramatically, every action counts and every opportunity must be tried and taken. This is why Black History Month is vital to build awareness, engagement and campaign to fight against the daily injustices of racism…all year round.
Roger Griffith is an author, broadcaster and chair of Ujima Radio.
Join him on Thursday, October 26 in the Watershed at 7pm for his lecture ‘In Search of a King’, held in partnership with Festival of Ideas, Journey to Justice, Come the Revolution and Watershed. Roger connects this personal story, give insights on current race issues, readings from his book, My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House and a brand new poem. The lecture is followed by a special showing of Britain on Film: Black Britain.
Tickets are available online.
Illustration by Parys Gardener.
Read more: Black history in Bristol