October 2020 marks the 33rd year that the UK has celebrated Black History Month. After an explosion in awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement following the burning outrage over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May, I believe that 2020’s Black History Month carries an even greater importance.
Back in the July issue of SNACK, we discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and events which took place that still feel raw and painful for so many. As a Black mixed-race female who grew up in Scotland, I have always felt strongly about Black History Month being a time for everyone to celebrate the Black community and Black culture. But to understand the significance of these celebrations in the UK and specifically in Scotland, we must first look back at our history.
In the United States and Canada, where the commemorations were established, Black History Month is celebrated in February and is sometimes referred to as African American History Month. Prior to the first celebrations of what Black History Month, historian Carter G. Woodson had founded an association called the Association for the Study of African Life and History (ASALH). Its purpose was to acknowledge and research Black history, after noting that American history largely overlooked the Black American population. This prompted the founding of Negro History Week in 1926. The week fell in February, to correspond with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Not long after Negro History Week’s launch, it was extended to a month-long event to help guarantee the teaching of essential Black history and to preserve Black culture within American society. An increasing awareness of Black identity and of the Civil Rights movement allowed Black History Month to gradually become established across the country, and in 1976 it was officially recognised as an event by President Gerald Ford. Black History Month celebrations took place in London in the UK just over a decade later.
While it’s vital that we recognise Black History Month, what’s key is acknowledging that despite the similarities between the UK and the US in having to work to reveal and examine our uncomfortable history, it is important that this is tailored to our context. Scotland’s first coordinated programme for Black History Month was launched in 2001 and included shared experiences of racism and oppression from Black, Caribbean, and Asian communities. I have found in conversation that there is often a tendency for Scots to view ourselves as far more progressive than our English neighbours.
I myself have been guilty in the past of letting my pride in and love for Scotland cloud my judgement into believing we are far more accepting of diversity. The Brexit vote of 2016 confirms that there is some truth to this, with Scotland voting 62 percent to remain in the EU. This was an indication that the majority of us didn’t share the same vision of a future that limits free movement and multiculturalism. We haven’t voted for a Conservative government since 1955, after all, but the reality is far more complicated.
Although we may have different values, we have our own blind spots, and have failed to address the issue of racial inequality, past and present, within our society. The truth is that by 1817, Scots owned almost 30 percent of the plantation estates in Jamaica, which amounted to an astonishing 32 percent of enslaved people there. Though the numbers of enslaved people in Scotland itself at any one time often sat below one hundred, our country prospered from the hardships endured by those forced to work in the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. The profits from the labour and trading of enslaved people brought great wealth to Scotland, and helped fuel us through the Industrial Revolution.
Scotland’s complicated relationship with slavery and colonialism has been highlighted by the recent campaigns to rename several streets named after Scottish merchants who accumulated their fortune off the backs of slavery. Glasgow’s streets are scattered with names of those who profited, including Oswald Street, Cochrane Street and, probably the most well-known, Buchanan Street.
Buchanan Street was named after Andrew Buchanan, a prominent tobacco lord who owned plantations in Virginia. In central Edinburgh, the statue of Henry Dundas stands 150 feet high, perched on top of the Melville Monument. Dundas played a key role in the continuation of Scotland’s involvement in slavery, causing 630,000 enslaved people to wait over a decade for their freedom. Even though these names and references to this past are etched into our cities and lives, it has still been all too easy for us to distance ourselves from the cruel facts of our colonial history.
Having been subject to racial discrimination myself, I grew up wanting to do my own research, to learn the fundamentals of these stories that shaped a society which directly affects me as a Black woman. I was then able to gain a much better understanding of my country’s past and why it’s important we work collectively to dismantle remains from darker times.
For this reason, I feel that Black History Month is essential in Scotland, where we have a form of collective amnesia about our past. A critical aspect of overcoming this ignorance would be to reform our school curriculum to include history of our involvement in slavery and the British Empire. Education can contribute massively to dismantling racism and amending the injustices of racial inequality, by fostering empathy and understanding.
Over the last few months, campaigns have arisen which express concerns over Black history being absent from education, and call upon Scottish MPs to act. A change.org petition was set up by a Black student calling for the realities of British imperialism and colonialism to be taught in British schools. The petition gained over 350,000 signatures, with a separate Scotland-specific campaign gaining 16,000 signatures.
UK-wide surveys have shown that 69 percent of BAME Britons are in favour of updating the school system to include Britain’s colonial past, which shows that a large majority of minority ethnic groups feel that we are left uninformed about our own past by our schools.
Black History Month is a great opportunity to educate ourselves despite this failure of our education system. Recognising our history is imperative to moving beyond a society that is still rife with racism. In Scotland, racial crime is the most commonly reported hate crime, accounting for a total of 3,036 charges in 2019- 20. This number showed an increase of 4 percent from the previous year.
Throughout this month, we have an opportunity to raise awareness and challenge the narratives that fuel this hatred. I believe the simplest way to do this is by showing solidarity through celebration of Black culture and Black accomplishments. The African diaspora has had a profound influence on the culture of the United States and beyond, and we now see an abundance of Black influence in music, fashion and pop culture. Blues, soul, gospel, rhythm and blues and jazz are just a few genres which came to life in the 20th century and which originated in African American music.
Influence from Black music spurred on the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll, funk, disco, reggae, and hip hop, as well as house and techno which originated from the Black community in Detroit. In Scotland, hugely successful artists like Paolo Nutini have spoken about how they’ve drawn influence from Black American Motown, soul, and R&B artists such as Ben. E King and The Coasters.
In our interview with Shingai Shoniwa in this month’s SNACK, the Zimbabwean-British singer spoke of the difficulties Black female musicians are still facing in the music industry today:
‘When you see Norman Cook do a Glastonbury set to 200,00 people, where is the vocalist? Why don’t we know her name?’ she asks, rightly. ‘The narrative is that brown girls don’t sell records, but if that’s the case, how do all these guys make so much money?’
There have been numerous instances of Black female singers being featured or sampled on tracks that went on to be hugely successful, but their iconic vocals often miss out on the recognition they deserve because they weren’t credited. On 90s Italo-house mega-hit ‘Ride on Time’ by Black Box, Loleatta Holloway’s vocals from her own 1980 track ‘Love Sensation’ featured heavily, but Holloway’s name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the credits.
Racial discrimination against Black females has encouraged the idea that Black women won’t make as much money as their lighter-skinned competitors, so many producers choose not to publicly acknowledge their work. This makes it incredibly difficult for these singers to make a career for themselves as solo artists. Black History Month is about understanding the people and stories that paved the way for Black influence and readdressing the balance of a world that ostensibly values Black contribution, but often fails to acknowledge Black suffering.
On any other year, Black History Month has been celebrated with a vast and superb selection of live events, including music, social gatherings, educational talks and culinary specials. But with COVID-19 still causing disorder, this year is a little bit different. Here is a small list of some valuable resources and events available for education and celebration this Black History Month:
BLACK HISTORY MONTH RENFREWSHIRE
An extensive programme of online cultural events spread across the month, with events for different ages including online live performances, storytelling, and webinars.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH LIVE!
Presented to you by the African Caribbean Society of Scotland, Black History Month Live! is a video series going live at 6pm every day from 1st–23rd October, focusing on a different theme each week. There will be events including spoken word, music, history, workshops and more. There will also be an all-day (12noon – late) online celebration on the 24th October.
UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW
The University of Glasgow are hosting several discussions, taking place over Zoom and covering different aspects of Black history and related topics. You can sign up to the events for free via Eventbrite.
On the official Black History Month UK website, you can find full listings of online events taking place up and down the country. These events include online courses, storytelling projects, history sessions, webinars and lots more.
BBC IPLAYER, HORRIBLE HISTORIES – BLACK HISTORY MONTH WITH OTI MABUSE
Only 12 minutes long, this CBBC episode is great for families and children. A Horrible Histories episode full of Black history sketches and songs, featuring Rosa Parks, Civil War spy Mary Browser, pioneering boxer Bill Richmond, plus Mary Seacole and Martin Luther King Jr.
Black History Month runs from the 1st to the 31st of October, but being anti-racist is a full-time requirement. We must be devoted to actively educating ourselves and supporting groups who have suffered oppression, segregation and humiliation.
In the July 2020 issue of SNACK you can find a selection of documentaries, films, and books which can be used as resources. If, like many, you are wondering how to become a better ally in your everyday life, here are a few simple tips:
Follow the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter on your social accounts.
This is a simple way to guarantee that you’ll see useful resources, updates on campaigns and relevant information on your feed.
Be involved in anti-racist work.
Follow the progress of campaigns and movements by subscribing to their mail updates. A link to one is here: blacklivesmatter.com/sign-up-for-updates
Buy from Black-owned businesses.
Investing in a Black business supports the Black community directly and there are several tools to help you locate and support them. @BlackdirectoryUK on Instagram puts together posts promoting Black-owned businesses of all kinds, and Jamii is the UK’s first discount card for Black-owned businesses: lovejamii.com
Have a look at the official UK Black History Month website for articles, resources, news, features and lots more covering every aspect of Black History Month 2020.
This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.