Sarah Zaidi reflects on Black History Month and its importance beyond October
At school we’re presented with a very limited history. British history tends to focus on our little ‘island’, with stories of the Norman conquest of 1066 and the exploits of the Tudors. While the Empire and the Slave trade may be alluded to, we don’t explore the actual experiences and accounts of the enslaved and colonised. While we’re told about the brave men who gave their lives in the first and second world wars, we’re not shown the pictures of black or minority ethnic soldiers. Save for a nod to Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, the experiences of BME people are not represented in our national curriculum.
Black History Month aims to bring these untold stories to the forefront. Given UCL’s heritage of being the first British university to not discriminate on the basis of race and, more recently, being the first university union to have a full-time BME officer, it is only fitting for us to celebrate Black History Month when it comes around every October. Now in its third year at UCL, the programme this last month was more diverse than ever, featuring collaborations with various societies such as debating and hip-hop as well as making an effort to discuss and represent the different intersections of race with disability, gender and LGBT+ identities.
While UCL did hold events focusing on uncovering the histories (or past) of people of colour, such as the background to the ongoing Palestinian conflict and Ancient Egyptian Style, it also moved the conversation on to contemporary issues of race, as so much of our present perceptions and experiences of race are shaped by the past. Whether this was in the form of art, such as the spoken poetry ‘Word Up’ event or debates, such as the discussion on portrayals of race in media and its link to institutional racism, the experiences of black and minority ethnic people were represented.
One particularly interesting and perhaps controversial discussion was on ‘Why Isn’t There A White History Month?’ The short answer to this would be because every month is white history month. By asking this question the focus is placed back again on the dominant narrative of the white and Eurocentric history delivered in our curriculum.
But it does raise questions about whether Black History Month is just a tokenistic gesture? Is it sufficient to set aside just one month a year to discuss the visibility of race and then carry on as normal? Ideally, black and minority ethnic history should be reflected year round and not just in October. This is the driving idea behind an ongoing campaign within the BME network called ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ Black and minority ethnic voices are often erased not just from history but also from philosophy and other disciplines. Although it is only a month, Black History Month provides a fun starting point to get people talking about these issues.
When the histories of people of colour are fully integrated into our curriculum and consciousness, perhaps we won’t need a Black History Month, but until then, it is essential that it is discussed and celebrated.
Featured Image: UCLU