Making an annual date in the calendar
01 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah
BLACK History Month emerged out of the heady days of the Greater London Council, when anti-racist policies were placed centre stage by council chief Ken Livingstone.
Three senior GLC workers, Ansel Wong Linda Bellos and Akyaaba Addai-Sebo promoted the idea of an annual celebration of the contribution of African-Caribbean people to British life, which was being ignored by schools and the rest of mainstream society.
They took their inspiration from a similar event in the United States that had been held every February since 1926, but decided that October should mark Black History Month in the UK.
“October is the start of the school year and also the month of harvest and the thinking was around the harvesting of fresh minds,” says former County Hall worker Mia Morris who attended many of the discussions around BHM.
The first event was held in 1987, a year after the GLC was abolished by Margaret Thatcher, who detested its radicalism. A body, cumbersomely known as the London Strategic Policy Unit, had been set up to carry through the GLC’s final policy initiatives, including those of the Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose plans for BHM had received the enthusiastic backing of the GLC leadership.
“The LSPU co-ordinated arrangements for Black History Month, seeing to it that local authorities would run their own activities,” explains Morris, who was attached to the unit.
In the early years, local councils of all political stripes embraced the spirit of the GLC’s initiative, and set aside time and money for BHM programmes, helping to bring to the fore many figures from British black history who had faded from view like Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano as well as to showcase new writing, film and performance.
BHM came to be celebrated across the country and in schools, and encouraged greater interest in black history in academia and at the grassroots level, with numerous projects searching out people whose stories had become lost in the mists of time. Morris herself also launched the award-winning Black History 365 magazine and website.
A decade of swingeing spending cuts have inevitably taken their toll on the event, causing many councils to scale down what’s on offer or to abandon Black History Month altogether, as has been the case with Camden which once ran one of the more ambitious programmes in London, in 2008 inviting Black Power salute Olympian Tommie Smith to give a talk at the British Library.
Voluntary organisations say they do not have the capacity or the cash to take up the slack.
Nevertheless, hundreds of events will be rolled out next month in the capital, with Southwark, Lambeth, Haringey and Hackney in particular still managing to squeeze a lively and imaginative schedule for every day of the month out of an ever shrinking budget. Little money changes hands as those taking part usually do it for free.
There are many, though, who dislike the idea of BHM, and not just the mandarins at Wandsworth Council who have rebranded it as Diversity Month.
“Black history once a year is more concession than cure for society’s failure to come together,” the late singer and actor Cy Grant once said, vowing not to have anything to do with it in the promotion of his books.
“In an ideal world we would not need Black History Month,” says Morris.
“When it was launched 33 years ago, the aim was to fill in the gap and create something that is for everybody to enjoy and learn from, not just black people. Where it has been allowed to flourish, it has lived up to its promise.”
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