Since arriving to the UK as an American import over thirty years ago, Black History Month has triumphantly woven itself into the rich living tapestry of British social history; so much so that it has become impossible to fathom the month of October without the jubilant and reflective backdrop of black British history. And this year has been no different. 2019 has been an undeniably stellar year for black British voices and talent. Our experiences and achievements have taken such a strong, captivating hold on British cultural identity that our presence has never felt so tangible.
From art to television, politics to social media, this year’s incredible collective achievements have helped shape the way our community will move forward into the next decade. The talented Dina Asher-Smith became the first British woman to win a World Championships sprint medal in nearly forty years. Diane Abbott became the first black MP to represent their party at Prime Minister’s Questions, extraordinarily managing to eclipse her earlier achievement of being the first black woman to be elected as an MP. Glastonbury 2019 saw Stormzy, often referred to as the godfather of grime, as their first black solo British headliner. Dave was hailed as a beacon of black excellence in the music industry as he picked up the Mercury Award for his debut album Psychodrama at just twenty-one years of age. Cult classic Top Boy got its much-deserved revival in the golden era of streaming services, as it translated the critically acclaimed black British stories from Channel 4 to a far-reaching global audience on Netflix. Bernadine Evaristo became the first black woman to share the Booker Prize, hoping her win will help change the perceptions of her demographic who remain an “unknown quantity” in fiction. It’s been an exhilarating year to say the least.
Black History Month, however, is not only an elated event where we can peacefully rejoice in our collective victories, but is also a time of solidarity as we recognise the shared ongoing struggles against intolerance and hatred directed towards our community. The most accurate and faithful depiction of the common reality of being black in Britain today is one that takes a holistic overview of the highs and lows; and consciously probes the inextricable nature of cultural and national identity.
We only need to think back to last month where the BBC made an ill-informed decision to reprimand Naga Munchetty for rightfully calling out Trump’s racist remarks and how casual everyday racism affected her as a BAME woman. Or the ludicrous campaign launched by the Home Office, where you could find #knifefree stories scribbled across single-use takeaway boxes in small London chicken shops. This week, racist abuse was hurled at black footballers playing for England during their Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria. In the last few days, a Liberal Democrat staffer has been forced to apologise after accusing Dawn Butler MP of fabricating stories of her experience of racial discrimination in parliament.
Identity is an important notion that we must grapple with during Black History Month, and especially as contemporary British society slowly unlearns outdated preconceptions of national identity in favour of creating a definition which acknowledges the relationship between Britishness and multiculturalism. Immigration, decolonisation, the decaying remnants of British imperialism and the rise of globalisation are just a few factors that have radically shifted the discourse on ‘Britishness’ – but this does not mean the work here is done. Identity will never be adequately understood as a blanket term when black Britons have faced racism that has shaped their relationship to Britishness. Whilst the label ‘black Briton’ itself is so common to hear today, there was a time before where many considered it to be a paradox to combine the two concepts together, an impossible duality which juxtaposes national and cultural heritage. But, we have moved past that. Black British consciousness today is a complex, evolving and powerful journey where we look forward as we celebrate the strides we take, at the same time as we turn our shoulders back to scrupulously retrace the historic steps taken by the generations before us.
For me and many others out there, Black History Month is a chance to recuperate and say boldly and unreservedly: I’m black, I’m British and I’m proud.