Words by Rachel Forrest
As Black History Month comes to an end, it is important to reiterate why it is celebrated. Increasing awareness and appreciation of the contributions of the black community in every aspect of daily life is crucial always, not just in October.
Generally, we see Britain as outside of the horrors of slavery and perceive ourselves as a tolerant and progressive country. In reality, racism and persecution is entrenched in our history - we just don’t learn about it. Our school curriculum is profoundly white, documenting kings and queens and the two world wars. It seems most people who were educated in Britain can name Henry VIII’s wives but know little about slavery and Britain’s colonial past. Any black history tends to focus on the Civil Rights Movement in America, distancing the UK from involvement. We must recognise that power shapes the process of historical production, usually held by white men, who diminish their responsibilities in causing harm and therefore creating a historical amnesia that we see underlying our perceptions of history, eclipsing reality. It is becoming increasingly paramount to decolonise the school curriculum.
For instance, you may not know the extent to which Britain’s prominence is inextricably linked with slavery. Great cities like Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool thrived from being ports for slave ships, and prominent financial centres like Barclays Bank and Lloyds were built on profits from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The process of abolition is further contentious, as the slave trade arguably funded the Industrial Revolution, after industrialisation it no longer served a purpose as being financially viable.
If you are looking to expand your knowledge of black history and engagement with current issues, there are a number of films, books and documentaries available to do this:
BlacKkKlansman (Netflix): Based on a true story in 1970s Colorado, Academy Award Winning film follows Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in Colorado Springs police department, going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a white supremacist.
When They See Us (Netflix): This miniseries follows the 1989 Central Park Five case, where give young boys are accused of rape and aggravated assault of a white woman jogging in Central Park. It follows the boys into adulthood and illustrates the realities of systematic racism and the treatment of African Americans in the US justice system.
Paris is Burning (Netflix, YouTube): An LGBT must-watch, this documentary explores the culture of ball competitions in New York, interviews prominent members of the scene, and delves into complex themes of racism, violence, sexuality and gender.
13th (Netflix): Directed by Ava DuVernay, this documentary film titled after the Thirteenth Amendment, surveys the US prison system, where black people are disproportionally detained, economic post American Civil War legislation (Jim Crow laws), and the demonisation of the poor and ethnic minorities.
I am Not Your Negro (Netflix, Prime, iPlayer): Narrated by Samuel L Jackson, this documentary is based on the musings of James Baldwin, as he reminiscences his experiences with prominent civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. The title points to the neglect and failure to acknowledge the disgraceful history (and present) racial inequality in America told through the actions and assassinations of these outspoken black freedom struggle icons.
BBC Black and British: A Forgotten History (BBC iPlayer): Lead by historian David Olusaga, this series in available to watch of BBC iPlayer. It follows the relationship between Britain and those of African origin, dating back to the Roman Conquest, Tudor times, slavery in the Victorian era, concluding with an exploration of modern race riots and current black British identity.
The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files (BBC iPlayer): Also by Olusaga, this documentary explores the Windrush scandal and the ‘hostile environment’ created for Commonwealth citizens in Britain as part of the harsh campaign to reduce integration. It further hears the experiences of those who were arrested for not having sufficient documentation and faced deportation.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race: The bestseller and award-winning book discusses institutionalised racism, white privilege, and general widespread ignorance to the past, present and future on issues of race.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me: Prominent writer Coates draws autobiographically on experiences from his youth, detailing the realities of being a black youth subjected to violence and danger in everyday institutions that try to detain and diminish black people.
There are loads of Black History Month playlists on Spotify which give black artists greater recognition for their immense contribution to the music industry. Here’s a good one to start with: