The Radical and Transnational Roots of Black History Month in Britain

Black Lives Matter demonstration in London on July 8, 2016 (Photo: Alisdare Hickson, Flickr).

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, historian and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, announced the first “Negro History Week.” It was a public history event that sought to disabuse ‘the Negro mind of the idea of inferiority’ and create ‘an increasing conviction among the whites that racial bias undermines all truth.’1 Held during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the annual celebration quickly became one of the nation’s most prominent public history events. Student demands for greater historical representation and other efforts in Black organizing during the 1960s and early 1970s – part of what Vincent Harding describes as the post-war ‘Black history revival’ – fed calls for the celebration to be expanded.2 In February 1976 president Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month (BHM) calling upon the nation ‘to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.’ Today, BHM remains a widely celebrated, albeit often commercialized, yearly event; an opportunity to reflect on both the historical contributions made by Black people to the nation’s development, and to recommit, both individually and collectively, to the continued struggle for racial justice.

The post-war Black history revival was not limited to the United States. In Britain, the onset of mass migration from the Commonwealth following World War II was accompanied by growing demands for Black historical representation, which included a spectrum of ideological and philosophical positions. As Naomi Oppenheim has demonstrated, more commercially oriented outlets such as Black British magazines Flamingo and Tropic authored an upbeat account of Black historical achievement which challenged racist and anti-immigrant cultures driven by state policy. Concurrently, as Black activism in Britain shifted to the left during the 1960s, organizations such as the British Black Panther Party and the Black Workers Action Committee stressed the need for greater Black historical representation. Many such organizations gravitated towards or helped to create a new wave of Black cultural and educational institutions, including New Beacon Books, a Black publishing house started in 1966 out of the London flat of activists John La Rose and Sarah White, which aimed to provide patrons with ‘an independent validation of one’s own culture, history, [and] politics.’ Into the 1970s, the Black supplementary school movement continued this mission and provided important community spaces where Black children and adults ‘could learn more about the histories and achievements of their ancestors and contemporaries.’3

Following the federal recognition of BHM in the United States, Black activists pushed to inaugurate the observance in Britain. These efforts fed into a continued push towards curricular reform, which attempted to contest the educational policy of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Following Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election, right-wing pressure groups, such as the Centre for Policy Studies, launched a scorched earth campaign against new historical methodologies they claimed were ‘obsessed with class conflict and multiculturalism’, and demanded a return to a nationalistic, militaristic, and politically reactionary school history curriculum. Bitter disagreements over educational policy and the role of Black history in schools demonstrated the racial tensions which enveloped British society during the 1980s, perhaps most viscerally evidenced through a series of ‘race riots’ which swept across the country in 1981. Following the move ‘from protest to politics’ by Black activists in the United States, British campaigners sought to advance their demands through grassroots political representation, with the Greater London Council becoming a key ideological battleground between Thatcherism and the progressive ambitions of a leftist Labour cohort. Under the leadership of Labour politician Ken Livingstone, the GLC embraced ‘a new brand of left-wing politics with an emphasis on minority rights’, with the GLC’s central Ethnic Minorities Unit promoting new initiatives such as “London Against Racism”, a public awareness campaign which ran throughout 1984.

While the GLC was abolished in 1986, many campaigners connected to the EMU continued to push for the establishment of BHM in Britain. This included Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the Unit’s Special Projects Coordinator, and Ansel Wong, its Principal Race Relations Advisor. Wong, who had been born in Trinidad and later moved to Britain to pursue a postgraduate education, was a stalwart of Black cultural and political organizing from the early 1970s and had consistently championed the need for Black historical representation through his role as the chair of the West Indian Students Union and as a teacher at a London-based supplementary school. Addai-Sebo was a more recent arrival in Britain, having fled political persecution in Ghana during the mid-1980s, but quickly became a prominent local organizer. Another key supporter of the push for BHM was Linda Bellos, a Black radical feminist and gay rights activist who served as the leader of Lambeth Borough Council between 1986 and 1988.

The first official observance of BHM in Britain occurred in October 1987. Organizers have given conflicting reasons as to why the month of October was chosen. Addai-Sebo has maintained that October was chosen due to its proximity to the beginning of the new academic year, thus providing a timely opportunity to ‘instil [sic] pride and identity into young black learners.’ The activist has also pointed to the importance of October in African culture as a ‘period of tolerance and reconciliation.’ Bellos suggests a more pragmatic reason for the choice, arguing that the organizers were keen to get Sally Mugabe, the first wife of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, to attend as a Guest of Honor, and that the nearest date that fitted both Mugabe’s availability and their preferred location was October.

Perhaps most interestingly, Wong indicates that the choice was part of an effort to distinguish BHM in Britain from its observance in the United States: ‘We also chose not to be too compliant in our uncritical adherence of all things American; staking a claim for the specific British context of our struggles and existence.’ Irrespective of the specific reasons behind the choice of October, the decision to push ahead with BHM in 1987 was linked to the broader launch of the African Jubilee Year Declaration, which called upon both local and national government bodies to recognize ‘the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK.’  Following the pattern established in the United States, today BHM in Britain is entrenched as a recognizable yearly observation; one which continues to serve an important educational function, but which has also become increasingly sidetracked by tokenistic liberal appeals to diversity and inclusivity.

Against the backdrop of Instagram takeovers and repainted postboxes, it is worth returning to the political and cultural milieu out of which BHM in Britain originally emerged. Its observation was rooted in and aimed to celebrate the Black experience in its broadest sense. Black activists in Britain, many who were themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, took inspiration from African American activists and the development of BHM on the other side of the Atlantic. During the early years of BHM in Britain, prominent guests and keynote speakers spoke to this diasporic reach, with participants ranging from American cultural nationalist leaders such as Ron Karenga and Afrocentric scholars such as John Henrick Clarke and Yosef Ben-Jochannan, to Jamaican reggae icon Burning Speak and African freedom fighters such as Winnie Mandela and Graça Machel. For campaigners such as Addai-Sebo, the campaign for BHM was as connected to the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa as it was to the struggle against institutional racism in Britain.

At the same time, the origins of BHM were the product of radical politics on the local level, forming part of a broader response to Thatcherism and anti-Black state policies that was channeled through the GLC and other local council initiatives. In turn, such activism marked a continuation of the grassroots struggles waged by earlier organizations and institutions such as the British Black Panther Party and the New Beacon Bookshop. Organizers such as Wong and Bellos have explicitly characterized the formation of BHM in Britain as ‘a political decision’ and as part of an effort to acknowledge that, while Black inequality was a global concern and Black history was a global story, the fight for racial justice and historical representation in Britain needed to be rooted in ‘the specific British context of our struggles and existence.’

  1. Carter G. Woodson, “The Celebration of Negro History Week,” Journal of Negro History 12 (1927).
  2. Vincent Harding, “Power From Our People: The Sources of the Modern Revival of Black History,” The Black Scholar 18 (1987).
  3. Colin Beckles, “’We Shall Not Be Terrorized Out of Existence’”: The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops,” Journal of Black Studies 29 (1998); Rosie Wild, “’Black Was the Color of Our Fight’: Black Power in Britain, 1955-1976” (Sheffield, 2008); Kehinde Andrews, Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality, and the Black Supplementary School Movement (London, 2013); Rob Waters, Thinking Black: Britain, 1964-1965 (California, 2018).
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.

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