Happy Black History Month! BHM is a time to reflect on the history, culture, challenges and achievements of Britain’s black community. This is a month for all of us, regardless of ethnic origin, to celebrate the diversity of our country and the experiences of our black comrades.
To mark this occasion I have commissioned articles on the themes surrounding BHM from two of the UK’s leading black politicians.
Here, David Lammy gives an excellent overview of black history in the UK. Read about Diane Abbot’s experiences as Britain’s first female black MP here.
For more information on Black History Month and events in your area please look at the official website. If you are holding any events in your area please let me know and I’ll be happy to publicise them.
All the best
James Hallwood | @jhallwood
Black History is too often taught in isolation. For a month we ask people to recall remarkable contributions by black Britons as if they occurred in isolation. Rarely do we challenge people – old and young – to connect the events over the centuries and understand how their impact continues to reverberate today. Fortunately, this year presents the perfect opportunity to see things differently.
The calendar year began with the verdict in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. This was the most high-profile, unsolved, racially motivated murder in living memory. It is impossible to underestimate how much this case resonated in the black community in Britain. Here were the different facets of racism in Britain laid bare for all to see – a young man, beaten up because of the colour of his skin, and the institution charged with investigating the crime were indifferent to his family’s appeal for justice because of the colour of their skin.
I was the same age as Stephen and I spent my first adult years watching in horror as the justice system repeatedly failed the Lawrence family. And I was not alone. The case had roused mainstream British society. The Daily Mail plastered the faces of the suspects on its front page under the caption “Murderers”. Prejudice that the establishment so normally felt compelled to cover up and deny was now actively being exposed through the MacPherson inquiry. Thousands united together – black and white, young and old – not only to bring Stephen’s killers to justice but to bring about real change to the institutions that had let his family down so badly.
So this Black History Month we will celebrate Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen and tireless campaigner for justice. But her bittersweet victory cannot be seen in isolation. It was at the start of the 19th Century when the slow march against racial prejudice began with William Wilberforce and the abolitionists triumphing in ending the slave trade. In the second-half of the 20th Century, this movement gathered pace. The sermons of Martin Luther King and the resistance of Rosa Parks echoed out of the buses and church halls of Georgia and Alabama during the 1950s and 60s. Within years, the anti-racism message had diffused throughout America and across the Atlantic. By the 1980s, the ground-breaking findings of the Scarman report shone a light on racism in the police and the anti-apartheid movement organised people of all colours and creeds in a boycott of South African goods. Brick-by-brick, decade-by-decade, the foundations of the campaign that finally secured the conviction against two of Stephen’s killers was built.
Inevitably, history breeds more history. Never had the antiracism message been as ubiquitous as when Doreen Lawrence fronted it. Her fight became a national campaign because so many mothers (and fathers) could understand her grief and felt her anger, regardless of the colour of her skin. Because of this and the achievements of sporting pioneers like Daley Thompson and John Barnes, the widely held view that being black and being British was mutually exclusive rapidly fell away.
Their toil, exertion and eventual triumph was one of the many hundreds of factors that gave us the most memorable and important images of this summer’s Olympics. No one will forget Jessica Ennis, a mixed race woman from Sheffield, ran, jumped and threw her way to Heptathlon Gold and in doing so became the poster girl for the Olympics and the British summer. Nor will they forget Mo Farah, a refugee from Somalia at the age of 8, doing a lap of honour draped in a British flag in front of 80,000 British people of all races, ages and religions cheering him, their fellow Brit, on. These are images that at the time of Doreen Lawrence’s arrival in Britain in the early 1960s would have been entirely inconceivable but now they are memories tattooed on the consciousness of a country that is increasingly at ease with its multicultural self. These achievements were built on the back of breakthroughs by others and they will provide the platform for future generations to make even more breakthroughs in the years ahead.
The strap line of London 2012 was to ‘inspire a generation’ but the same could be said of Black History Month.