Habiba Katsha: “Black History Month Should Be Compulsory In Schools”

It’s October, which for most people signifies the countdown to Halloween. However, for Black British individuals this month signifies something much greater than that: Black History Month.

Black History Month focuses on the achievements and struggles of black people across the globe. It is celebrated in February in America and October in the UK. It was established in a different format in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson as a week-long event, became a month-long celebration in 1976 and was first celebrated in the UK in 1987.

The introduction of Black History Month in the UK was facilitated by the former Greater London Council. The Council had selected October because the month coincided with the Marcus Garvey celebrations and London Jubilee. Even though Black History Month has been established in the UK for over 30 years, Black history still isn’t compulsory in schools and a large amount of schools don’t celebrate Black History Month at all.

During my years in education there wasn’t much importance put on Black History Month, and even if we did have assemblies or talent shows that celebrated Black history, they all covered the same themes with the same people: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. I’ve found this to be the case with many other schools. Most people associate Black history with such figures; whilst this is great, we do need to change this narrative.

“We should be teaching individuals about people like Paul Stephenson, who led a successful boycott against a racist public bus company in Bristol after Bus companies refused to employ Black and Asian drivers”

In as much as these people do have amazing legacies and are huge figures in the Black community, we need to hear about the Black figures that contributed to overcoming racism in the UK and how different our narrative is. We should be teaching individuals about people like Paul Stephenson, who led a successful boycott against a racist public bus company in Bristol after Bus companies refused to employ Black and Asian drivers.

It seems to be that in many schools it’s either you get taught about the Civil Rights Movement in America (without touching anything about the Civil rights movement in the UK) or Slavery. By teaching individuals of just these two topics within Black history it becomes problematic.

“Our faces may be the same but our stories are very different”

By limiting Black history to these topics, you are disregarding the struggle that Black individuals faced when they came to the UK. Also, it makes it seem that slavery is the beginning of Black history when it is merely just one part of it. This is not to say that we should not teach these subjects, but we should also branch out and discuss topics such as the civilisation in Africa before Slavery, and Black people in Europe before slavery, for example.

By focusing too much on Black American history, we are generalising what it means to be Black around the globe, and the struggle that Black individuals faced. Our faces may look the same but our stories are very different.

We will get taught about the Industrial Revolution and how it impacted Britain, but we will not discuss how Slavery funded the Industrial Revolution. We are constantly taught about how ‘great’ Britain is but we fail to acknowledge how Britain destroyed several countries through colonisation.

Many individuals don’t even know that there were Black and Asian people who fought for Britain in the World Wars. These are the things that need to be taught within our schools and within our society. Even with celebrations like the Notting Hill Carnival, thousands of British individuals attend each year without realising that the Notting Hill Carnival was created as a way to fight oppression and racism that occurred at Notting Hill at the time.

British people need to taught about how Black individuals contributed to this country, and how we’ve entrenched our cultures and our foods as a part of British culture.

Black History Month should be compulsory in schools as it should be a way of teaching individuals how different Black British history is to the Black American history. There’s more to Black British history than the British Empire and colonisation, and this is what we need to be teaching students in our schools.

Habiba Katsha

Image: Roberlan Borges via Flickr

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Stephen Spark
    26 October 2016 at 17:52
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    Habiba, you make some very good points, especially about the rather limited range of people and events that are celebrated/commemorated and the tendency to seize on the US rather than British experience (and what about the wider European experience? Shouldn’t we also be telling people about, say, the appalling abuses that went on in the Belgian Congo?).
    The problem with history teaching is that it so rarely ‘joins the dots’ between different eras, different groups and different regions. It’s like trying to understand the world from a set of disjointed newspaper headlines. It still underplays vast sections of society (because their history wasn’t written up in the same way as kings and queens) and fails to put events in this country in context with what was happening in the rest of the world.
    You make a very good point about Africa before slavery, as we are given no historical context for slavery. Like so much else in history as it is taught, the phenomenon of slavery seems to appear out of the blue. And when it ends, that’s the end of the story.
    Of course, while the chapter marked ‘Slavery’ in a textbook concludes, the unwritten story goes on. What happened to the freed slaves? In some places (eg Mauritius) their descendants still remain at the bottom of society. What happened to the work they were doing? In the Caribbean, Fiji and the Indian Ocean, indentured labourers were brought in from India. But also (and here’s something else that’s often missed out from the teaching), some Africans emigrated independently to places that had only recently abandoned slavery – not every Mauritian ‘creole’ is a slave descendant. And some slaves were not African but Indian. What about the role of Arab slave traders (some of whom still ply that trade today)? How did the treatment and conditions of slaves compare with those of the working classes in Britain? Slavery was developed within a pre-existing context of brutality and cruelty by those in power to those they dominated; it was a continuum, not an aberration.
    It’s no wonder that people end up with a simplistic and distorted view of their place in the world. Again, your point about ignorance surrounding Notting Hill Carnival’s origins is spot on. I’ve lost count of the number of people (including those of Caribbean heritage) I’ve met who think it was started by Jamaicans and know nothing about the culture behind Carnival’s component parts like mas, calypso, soca and Jouvert.
    So there’s some work still to do!

  • K
    26 October 2016 at 20:41
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    Good read, but just a quick note. Black history month in America is celebrated in February not January.

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