Contemporarily, we often learn of identities through mainstream media and popular culture. Being black, you soon realise the restricted identities the media portray you as are simply inadequate. Black men are aggressive, Black women are angry, and the only way we can rise to the top is through the sport and entertainment industries. But where else can we go to find ourselves? Be encouraged to keep going when all odds seem to be against us?
For myself, informal education from family members about Black history was crucial in finding my own identity and meaning in this world as a Black woman. However, it is still hard to maintain confidence in your heritage when everywhere around, it is forgotten or even ignored.
In the mid-1980s Akyaaba Addai-Sebo recognised a common identity crisis many Black children were facing in Britain:
A colleague of mine, a woman, came to work one morning, looking very downcast and not herself. I asked her what the matter was, and she confided to me that the previous night when she was putting her son Marcus to bed, he asked her, ‘Mum, why can’t I be white?’
This discouraging revelation led him to investigate Black identity representations within education. He found, despite great progress in racial awareness and activism within the Black community, more had to be done:
So, when this incident with Marcus took place in London, it dawned on me that something had to happen here in Britain. I was very familiar with Black history month in America, and thought that something like that had to be done here in the UK, because if this was the fountainhead of colonialism, imperialism and racism, and despite all the institutions of higher learning and research and also the cluster of African embassies, you could still find a six year old boy being confused about his identity even though his mother had tried to correct it at birth, that meant the mother had not succeeded because the wider society had failed her
Addai-Sebo identified that at the time, Black children were subject to a curriculum which dehumanised their ancestral past and experienced while cultivating ideas of Great Europeans who brought civilization to the savage continent of Africa. Low self-esteem was inevitably instilled into Black children.
Over a decade earlier, politician Bernard Coard highlighted how the Eurocentricity of British school curriculums was detrimental to Black children and contributed to their disadvantage. In his book, How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British School System, Coard compared the representations of White people to those of Black people in the classroom. He identified that all the historical and contemporary heroes and public figures were White, whilst Black people were represented as racialized stereotypes (predominantly servants) in most texts. Coard recognised that this had made it impossible for the Black child to be Black and identify with anyone non-White.
Coard’s analysis continued:
The Black child under these influences develops a deep inferiority complex. He soon loses motivation to succeed academically since, at best, the learning experience in the classroom is an elaborate irrelevance to his personal life, and at worst it is a racially humiliating experience.
Ultimately, the lack of positive representation of Black figures, and overemphasis on white achievements, can result in self-hatred within Black children, setting them up for failure.
In response to this, Addai-Sebo initiated the annual celebration of Black History Month in the UK in 1987. With the aim of promoting positive public images of Africans and the diaspora through the encouragement of teaching about their history, culture, and struggle. The month of October was selected to celebrate Black History since it is an ideal time of the year to engage young minds in the UK. Children’s minds are fresh after summer and thus able to absorb more without the stress of exams looming over them.
Almost thirty-years on, my experiences growing up are not so far removed from Marcus’. As a child I felt ashamed of my skin colour, hair, culture, and heritage. I didn’t relate to the representations of Black people in the media, nor did I want to relate with the slaves I learnt about in primary school, despite it being the only aspect of history taught that linked directly to my heritage. I felt being black was associated with weakness and victimhood.
The curriculum still lacks education regarding Black history beyond dialogues of slavery and American civil rights. Though these topics are important, when it is the only thing being taught concerning Black history, Black children learn nothing beyond their own people’s disempowerment.
Black History month allows for adults and children to gain a broader understanding of Black history beyond racism, adding value to the contributions of Black people in society. Black History Month is not just beneficial to Black children, but to non-Black children. Knowing more about the Black community can reduce the likelihood of discrimination against them.
A sense of identity and belonging are what make Black History Month so important. Being unable to access my history in the curriculum made me doubt my abilities and value in British society, which is the same for many Black children across the nation as well. The British curriculum still has a long way to go in incorporating non-white history and perspectives, so Black History Month remains relevant today. October must be utilised to educate people of the achievements and contributions of Black people that have typically been overlooked by society, to properly represent this country’s history.