by Dr Emily West
The authority known as the ‘Greater London Council’ introduced Black History Month (BHM) to the UK in October 1987 with the intention of promoting greater racial tolerance and understanding in the city. The initiative was soon adopted by other councils and BHM is now celebrated every October across the country. The practice of formally marking Black History began in the USA in 1926 as a week-long celebration of African American history every February. Initiated by the historian Carter G. Woodson, this celebration was designed to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the president who passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which liberated all enslaved people in the USA in 1865), and the formerly enslaved African American activist, orator and autobiographer Frederick Douglass. Both are important figures to African Americans. By the 1970s, many American universities had extended their celebrations to fill the whole month of February, and in 1976 BHM was officially recognized by the US government.
The idea behind Black History Month is to recognise people who, for a variety of reasons, have been excluded from traditional historical narratives, and to promote the study of more diverse, inclusionary forms of history. Here in Reading BHM is promoted in a variety of ways. RUSU have been showing a series of free films in Café Mondial and kindly asked me to introduce their screening of Twelve Years a Slave. RUSU also invite everyone to take part in their ‘sew in solidarity’ sessions in an attempt to create the world’s largest quilt. This initiative is designed to honour and remember the black tradition of quilting.
In the town centre Reading Borough Council organises a series of events to celebrate black heritage and culture, including music, dance, poetry, drama and comedy. For example, on 25th October, the Jamaica Society of Reading is presenting a play depicting the participation and the role of black soldiers in World War I. Similarly, The Arthur Wharton Memorial Football Festival on 27th and 28th October honours Arthur Wharton – Britain’s first black professional footballer – a well as providing a showcase for young footballers. BHM is particularly significant in towns and cities with diverse populations, including Reading, where many people have Caribbean origins. BHM is also celebrated in local schools and colleges, where pupils and students can engage with black history in a variety of ways.
BHM is not without its critics, however. Some claim it favours one ethnicity over others. Why not celebrate other heritages? Why don’t we work harder to include black history in our historical narratives throughout the year? Why don’t we include other groups of people traditionally excluded from historical writings as well, for example women or LGBT people? My answer to all these questions is simply that we do! We also continue to probe new sources, and read existing sources in different and innovative ways to make our history more inclusive and better reflect our multiplicity of experiences. BHM is more than the sum of its parts; it has become a wide and accessible celebration of diversity and a moment for us to pause and reflect on the role of discrimination in all its different guises. Through developing knowledge and understanding of the past, we can then all work together for a more tolerant, inclusive future.
For more information on Black History Month in Reading see the following links: