Saturday, 24 November 2012

Black History Month May Be Over For Another Year, But We Rewind To Some BHM Issues

Black History Month May Be Over For Another Year, But We Rewind To Some BHM Issues

TAOBQ co-ordinator

November 24 2012

This piece is from a comment to an article entitled 'Why Black History Month Is Damaging To Black Culture' by Chama Kapumpa, published by Sabotage Times.

Dear Charma,

I applaud you for writing this article, and I admire your desire for discourse on BHM, particularly as you're studying history within an academic environment which encourages discussion. Your wanting to have a focus on African British history is one I concur with.

As much as I am about global African history - by the way, I'm writing this from Accra, Ghana where I facilitated a workshop last week entitled 'What Does It Mean To Be A Global African?' Positive feedback's led to a followup workshop, ‘How To Regain Our African Identity And Self-Confidence’ on Oct.24 – however, I believe efforts must be made to tell African British histories – it does require some effort, unlike the more prevalent African American histories, particularly the Civil Rights movement, which is a history curriculum topic.

What do we know about our own African led civil rights movements in Britain? Next year, the focus will be on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech – but how many of us know that the day that speech was made also marks an historic moment in British history? That and a few other not so well known incidents were some of the histories I presented last year in a series of NARM African British Civil Rights Histories presentations across London.

Anyway, back to your article – I think some of the points you raise are not failings of the Black History Month (BHM) concept, but rather a deficiency in the programmes that are delivered under the BHM banner. Firstly, the fact that BHM is wide ought to be an asset. 

The deficiency lies in the laziness of schools, councils, unions, and community organisation who deliver BHM events, in that they often pluck for the narrow, same-old, same old topics – enslavement, Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and lately, Obama. And those are the ones that are supposed to have a history focus.

The wideness of BHM allows us to connect in many beautiful ways, if only we can see the dots. For example, we’ll be showing ‘The First Grader’, but as heart-warming as it is in the main, it offers us an opportunity for a little discussion on the value of education within the African British communities, and to look at the dark side of British history from the context of what happened during British colonial rule in Kenya.

My view is that most of what passes as BHM tend to entertainment and cultural programmes, which I believe can be put on any other time of the year. It seems you’ve been lucky to have had quizzes, where some effort have been made to focus on history, even if the focus is seldom on African British history. That said, Charma, there are some creditable, accessible and engaging BHM programmes delivered using a range of techniques, from talks, Powerpoint presentations, films, to edu-tainment performances which focus on history, particularly those relating to Britain. African history is part of world history, and some are part of British history. But as you pointed out, history is selective.

If you think BHM gives African history an “otherness” – please note that not all histories can be mainstream. For example, are the histories of the Londoners who’ve lived in the east of London for centuries not worthy of being mainstream? But can’t their histories be just as easily described as the “other” in terms of mainstream British history? I have no issue with African history seen as the “other”, so long as when it’s delivered, be it under BHM or in history class, it’s presented by knowledgeable people and devoid of Eurocentric biases, which many of us unwittingly regurgitate! You also made the point that there is seldom the opportunity to engage in discussion.

As I’ve said, that’s not the fault of BHM, but the programme designers or organisers. Having said that, there’s a world of difference between what one expects to achieve in a 3 hour BHM event, and a 3 year undergraduate history course. On your course, as future historians, you are being taught to question, and time has been factored in to learn and appreciate that skill. The majority of those attending BHM events are not historians. They attend either to be entertained or to learn a bit more African history. I’d suggest the priority ought to be creating an accessible non-academic environment to learn some African history, rather than whether or not they can critique the information delivered. Critiquing is part of an academic discipline. BHM events ought to be a learning, but not necessarily an academic exercise.

That said, I’ve been delivering BHM events – soon to be simply called AHM (African History Month), which do not only provide information on some aspects of our wide history (or histories), but also allow some form of discussion. That’s simply because the knowledge base does not reside solely with facilitators and panellists, even if they’ve got a number of history degrees. I’ll throw a challenge for you to experience 25 Years On… on Oct. 30 @ Harrow Civic Centre. It’s the only BHM event marking the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Black History Month in Britain and the Labour Party’s Black Section’s success with the election of the 4 African and Asian MPs in 1987, and which brings in the behind the scenes stories of those that were there doing the works. Click for 25 Years On... event report.

Finally, I’ll like to point to the title of your article, which may not have been written by you – ‘Why Black History Month Is Damaging To Black Culture’. BHM is about history, but because of the prevalence of what passes for BHM, BHM is seen to be more about culture, rather than history of African people. I’m not sure how BHM is damaging “black” culture – whatever that means, when in the main, the only culture we see is singing and dancing. For example when was the last time you saw a BHM programme focused on the role of the griot or kora in west African societies, or the role of the pardner or susu culture within African Caribbean communities in Britain?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Harrow event reaffirms Black History Month African-centred focus and Black Sections members highlight their efforts in the election of the 4 “black” MPs in 1987

Harrow event reaffirms Black History Month African-centred focus and Black Sections members highlight their efforts in the election of the 4 “black” MPs in 1987

Nov. 7 2012

A meeting last week in the Council Chamber in Harrow, north London heard from those directly linked to two milestones in African British history, which took place in 1987.

25 Years On… focused on how Black History Month (BHM) was introduced by Greater London Council successor organisations, such as the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) a quarter of a century ago, and also on the work of Labour Party’s Black Sections group, which led to the selection and election of the first African MPs – Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng (Keith Vaz, was not the first Asian MP – that honour goes to Dadabhai Naoroji, elected as a Liberal MP in 1895).

The free event, organised by WHEAT Mentor Support Trust and Akoben Awards, attracted a diverse audience including councillors, community activists, teachers and young people.

The panel and special guests were made up of activists in local government and politics in the 1980s. This included Ansel Wong, former head of LSPU’s Race Equality Policy Group (REPG), Addai Sebo, REPG policy team leader, Marc Wadsworth, former chair of Black Sections, Bernard Wiltshire, former deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA); and Narendra Makanji, a former Black Sections chair and Haringey councillor, who along with Linda Bellos, another Black Sections member and former LSPU chair and Lambeth Council leader, got London councils to declare the period from August 1987 to July 1988 the African Jubilee Year and mark October as BHM in Britain.

The introduction of BHM, which was predicated upon the tenets of the African Jubilee Declaration, was a way of redressing the pernicious effects of racism upon African people, and to counter the misinformation and lack of knowledge of the African contribution to world civilisation.

“The essence of the Declaration was that the London boroughs and authorities would make just restitution … just restitution means reparations, to years of incalculable damage done to the African,” explained Sebo, who conceived the idea for BHM in Britain after hearing a colleague tell him about the racial identity issues facing her young African son named after pan-African champion Marcus Garvey.

Concurring with Sebo, Wong added that although “the essence of what we were trying to do was to bring about a recognition that people of African descent have made significant contributions to the development and success of British society and to the world,” the use of the  word “black” was a pragmatic “political convenience”  to pass the commemoration through Labour and Conservative councillors in the London boroughs that supported the Declaration.

The African Jubilee Declaration  was presented as part of African Jubilee Year (August 1987 to July 1988) by the London Strategic Policy Committee,  the Association of London Authorities and the Inner London Education Authority in recognition of three global African history landmarks: the centenary of pan-African champion Marcus Garvey's birth, the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of  formerly enslaved Africans in the  Caribbean, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Among the commitments the Declaration enjoined the bodies that signed up to it included the promotion of “positive public images and an understanding of Africans and people of African descent and encourage the positive teaching and development of their history, culture and struggles”.

However event chair, co-ordinator of Akoben Awards and TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) Kwaku pointed out that the political landscape has now changed. “As of today, as we’ve commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Black History Month, from now on, it’s African History Month,” declared Kwaku.

“They were in a different political situation, where they had to make compromises to talk about Black History Month. And also there was then  the political black – that’s why Narendra could stand together with Marc – Asian heritage and African heritage. But things have changed, Narendra is now often described as Asian, rather than black.”

African History Month, will continue to be a forum for all members of the community to engage in and learn from. However as Harrow deputy mayor Cllr Nana Asante pointed out: “It’s like a bus – Africans are the drivers, and everybody else is a passenger. It’s all encompassing. Everybody is welcome. But the history we talk about is African history.”

The event ended with Wadsworth speaking about how, in spite of lack of support from the Neil Kinnock/Roy Hattersley Labour Party leadership at the time and some serious opposition from within the party, the Black Sections was able to force through changes. This included overcoming opposition to the formation of a group to address race issues within the party that removed two African females who Black Sections had helped to be selected as parliamentary candidates.

Whilst the Black Sections may be best  remembered for helping bring about the victory of the 4 “black” MPs of 1987, Wadsworth reminded the audience that its work also resulted in getting hundreds of councillors elected across Britain. His parting words for the new crop of activists were “organise, organise, organise.”



• BHM was officially inaugurated in the UK on October 1 1987 with a series of programmes aimed at school children and  adults at the (by then abolished) Greater London Council's old building, County Hall, where Dr Maulana Karenga gave the opening keynote address. Other African historians who made presentations during the African Jubilee Year included Dr Yosef ben-Jochann, Dr John Henrik Clarke, Dr Tony Martin and Dr Frances Cress Welsing. Their presentations are compiled in the currently out of print book, ‘Our Story: A Handbook of African History and Contemporary Issues’ (Addai-Sebo, Akyaaba and Wong, Ansel, eds 1988, London Strategic Policy Unit, 1988).

· • The official BHM logo incorporated the Sankofa symbol. Its significance is underscored by Dr John Henrik Clarke, who delivered this Sankofaism: “If we have to change tomorrow, we are going to have to look back in order to look forward."  
  Addai Sebo now lives in his birth place, Ghana, from where his contributions were made via video
• 'Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month' by the then ILEA deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire, one of the supporters of BHM, and who delivered a speech at the BHM launch, is posted at:
Photos by Linda Panford, except * by Kwaku. Hi res upon request
Subjects include:
Ansel Wong, former head of LSPU’s Race Equality Policy Group (REPG)
Addai Sebo, REPG policy team leader*
Marc Wadsworth, former chair of Black Sections
Dr Hailu Hagos, executive director of WHEAT MST
Kwaku, co-ordinator of Akoben Awards and TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question)
Bernard Wiltshire, former deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA)
Narendra Makanji, former Black Sections chair and Haringey councillor
Jessica & Eric Huntley, community activists and publishers
Mia Morris, political aide and founder of

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month
By Bernard Wiltshire
Then ILEA deputy leader 

From 1986 to 1988, I was the deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), the institution that was responsible for education in the Inner London Boroughs. Those who were around at the time will remember the determination of the Thatcher Administration to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) of which the ILEA was its Education Committee.
It soon became clear however that it was impractical to abolish the GLC in its entirety all at once. The provision of education services to the Inner London Boroughs was too complex to be dealt with that way, so it was decided to set up the ILEA as a free standing, independent authority in its own right while a scheme for devolving education to the individual boroughs was worked out.

Elections to the new Authority took place on constituency basis in 1986 and I was selected by the Hackney and stoke Newington constituency to represent the Labour Party, along with my running mate Stephen Benn.

I came to the ILEA with an agenda which had a lineage of almost two decades in the making, and that was to put a stop to the systemic underestimation of and expectation for black children in the school system. The problem had been identified as far back as the closing years of the decade of the 60s in a small research paper written by Bernard Coard at the behest of Caribbean activists, mainly consisting of artists, writers and poets, who had gathered themselves under an organization called the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA).

The group first met at the West Indian Student Centre and later at the bookstore of John La Rose in North London to consider Coard's report, entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal in the English School System’. The disclosed findings made a tremendous impact on me, having just graduated at the time from the University of York with all the brashness and impatience that youth can usually muster.

One of the solutions considered by CECWA was the establishment of Supplementary Schools, run by the black community to counter the harmful effects of racism on our children, concentrating on black history and conscientisation, aimed at raising self-esteem as well as knowledge of black heritage, stemming from Africa, and to supplement the teaching of the "3Rs" to our kids.

Armed with this resolve, I immediately proceeded to set up the Kwame Nkrumah Supplementary School in Hackney in 1971, one of the first of its kind in the country. Of-course, progress in tackling the problem was extremely slow. We could only tinker at the edges as this was a new idea at the time. We had to depend entirely on volunteers in the black community and resources were very scarce. Nevertheless, the seeds of a new idea had been planted and I would like to pause to pay tribute to the dedicated black men and women, the Jessica Huntleys, Reds, Elva Didiers, Gwens (cannot now recall full names) and the others who gave much without ever counting the cost.

A further development at tackling the same problem was made in the 1980s with the establishment of the Black School Governors' Collective with black activists such as Steve Delsol and others,  which aimed at giving black parents a stronger voice in the government of schools in order to better protect the black child in the throes of the system. It was to further those aims that I subsequently ran for a seat on the newly set up ILEA in 1986 and was elected its Deputy Leader under the leadership of the talented and astute late Frances Morrell.

It was in my capacity as Deputy Leader of ILEA that two young black activists, Addai Sebo and Ansel Wong, based I believe in Lambeth Council, asked to see me to solicit my support for the establishment of a Black History Month in the UK, similar to a comparable initiative in the United States. It was an initiative with which I was well familiar having participated in the establishment of the Black Studies Programmes the US in the early 70s.

I knew that what Addai and Ansel wanted to do could not be done without the backing of a powerful institution such as the ILEA. No doubt, they realized this also, and as Deputy Leader of the largest and most powerful education institution in the country, I was in a position to make it happen, as happen it did. The problem was that while the Labour ILEA was undoubtedly a progressive educational institution, there were different views within it of how to deal with black cultural self-awareness. The old dichotomy between integration and the promotion of separate cultural expression threatened to pose itself as an obstacle. The idea was even considered "dangerous and divisive" in some quarters of the Authority. Nevertheless, I was resolved to persevere, believing as I did that the two concepts coexisted in a dialectical necessity and that their separation could only amount to a false dichotomy.

Perseverance and a strong argument paid off. Following a number of planning meetings with Addai and Ansel, I was able to obtain the almost unanimous support of the members of the ILEA, especially of its leader, the late Frances Morrell. The day of the inauguration was certainly a memorable occasion. It was held in ILEA’s old oak paneled Council Chamber at County Hall. Our guest speaker was a professor of history from the United States, whom Addai and Ansel had invited, but I gave the opening introductory address, which apparently had such an impact on one participant that he later confessed to me that he had to hold on to the edge of his chair during my address to overcome the sensation of falling!

I confess that it was a disappointment to me when subsequently a report of that seminal occasion appeared without my address. Later I left the UK and returned to continue our struggle for the upliftment of our people in Dominica and the Caribbean; and I suppose in my case, it was a question of out of sight out of mind. But I would like my role  to be recognised since without my input at the time, Black History Month would almost certainly not have been established at the time that it was.

Bernard Wiltshire
October 2012

First published on Nov. 7 2012 by TAOBQ on