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Black History Month: Broadening knowledge or patronizing the majority?

Black History Month is a very interesting celebration

It’s held in the United States and Canada in February, and here in the United Kingdom in October. Different activities are used to highlight and celebrate the month – talks, symposia, parties, shows – and they usually mark the history of the Black race. The month is usually filled with a look back to a coloured (forgive the pun) past, and an evaluation of the present day for Africans and Caribbeans. However, I argue that the often-mentioned reason that we need some sort of period to be celebrated isn’t exactly why it’s needed.

Several critics point out that other races do not have similarly allocated months to celebrate their history. Morgan Freeman, a popular black actor himself, has said that ‘’Black History is American history as well’’. I agree with him to a certain degree. It often happens that we use October as our ‘’guilt-pass’’. We soak up all the history we can, take our token freebie, and attend an event to show our acknowledgement of the cause. We often read up and are exposed to a greater degree of information on the subject, and take that as our allocation for the year. Societies are not exempt, and we use the month to have many events with the purpose of promoting culture, but the large majority ceases this once the calendar changes to November 1st. It is saddening that a very proud and interesting aspect of history has largely been constrained to a single month of celebration.

So why is this month important? I believe it only benefits the ignorant. The fact that a large number of us fail to understand that Africa is not a country, but a continent of over 50 sovereign and independent states, is still a sad fact. The fact that ‘‘African’’ is a language and not a demonym to reflect over a billion people with thousands of languages, is heart-breaking. The still prevailing notion is that Africa is an area where small children and large cities are dependent on foreign aid or that ‘’£1 can help this child eat for the next three days’’. I won’t even bother fleshing out the sad argument that many believe that Black History is just African History, forgetting the important Caribbean contributions that have also contributed largely to ‘Black History’.

How do we fix this? We should acknowledge that some statistics are sad and should be fixed. Corruption is rife, children are getting kidnapped, and there are areas without electricity, but we should not forget that these are problems that are not unique to the African continent alone. We should also remember the success stories. The giants of our culture and literature, the athletic heroes that have dominated and continue to dominate sports, and the progress we have made from ancient times.

The fact that certain cities are almost comparable to their western counterparts with luxurious hotels and electricity. The fact that some companies and leaders are beginning to prove that we are not a barren wasteland but that there are solutions to the problems we face. The fact that we have fashion and entertainment industries worthy of attention and that we really do know how to enjoy yourselves. We should celebrate this.

At the African and Caribbean Society, we did this with an event called Showcase, where, in partnership with the Barts and the London African and Caribbean Society, we put on a talent show and competition with £300 in prizes. We celebrated hidden heroes and also had a tribute segment to those who had passed on in the year (Fallen Heroes). The Boffin Society also had an event which highlighted the issues with talking about race in the scientific community, dealing with stereotypes and explaining different phenomena. Events like these, with more varied and innovative examples of history, show a different side to Black History Month.

I believe that Black History Month is important because it helps those who haven’t had the chance to learn about a culture different to their own. Black History is still part of World History and is not more or less important than any of the other aspects we have. It also helps those of us in the diaspora know more about an area that will always, to a certain degree, be home. It also helps those who do not know about different cultures to learn and be intrigued. But more importantly, there are now universally held notions that need to be corrected and challenged.

This month gives us a mandatory opportunity to correct, inform, and educate those who need to be taught how different stories are from reality. There are many beautiful cultures in our world, and we should learn the truth about them all. Black History month may not be all encompassing of this, but it is definitely a good place to start.

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