Originated in the United States, Black History Month has been celebrated since 1915. Initiated by historian Carter G. Woodson, the event is dedicated to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans and other people of African origin in every area of endeavour throughout history. This commemoration finally gained its official recognition in 1976, where every US president has started to designate February as Black History Month (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month). In more recent time, other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Republic of Ireland, and The Netherlands have also begun to dedicate a month to celebrate the event annually. In the United Kingdom itself, Black History Month is celebrated throughout October.
Below are some insights around Black History Month that I have gained from fellow friends from the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University. I sought out to know their opinions on whether African culture thrives in the United Kingdom (and in France), changes an event like Black History Month can make to the society, and hopes they have from this celebration.
Kwesi Obeng Kyei
Kwesi has just finished his postgraduate study in Strategic Studies and Energy Security (MSc) at the University of Aberdeen. Originally from Ghana, Kwesi has spent five years living in the United Kingdom while earning his Bachelor’s degree from Regent’s University London and a Master’s degree from the University of Aberdeen.
“Black History Month recognises what the Africans have done for the world. The slave trade has made the United States and European countries as they are today. In the past, they took our ancestors away and brought them to their lands to work without treating them humanly. If we trace back the history, the Americans and Europeans would put our ancestors on ships and chained them with metal. Sometimes, when they found women being pregnant on the ships, they would just throw them into the sea.
The celebration of Black History Month is really good. It is a wonderful idea to recognise what the Africans have done for the world, especially for the United Kingdom and America. Some people do not know much about Black History Month. I hope organisations can promote the event better and make it well-known, as well-known as Valentine’s Day or Halloween. Black Friday is another example of a well-known holiday. However, some argue that Black Friday should not be celebrated since it was originated from slavery. During the slave trade, Black Friday was the day when enslaved African people were brought from Africa to America and Europe and were sold for a reduced price. The Americans and Europeans would line them up and make bargains to the buyers.
Black History Month can start to be more promoted through social media. It would be great for countries to designate a one-day holiday to celebrate Black History Month as well. Black History could also be incorporated as a core subject in schools so that people will know about it. Actually, there are many Africans in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, African cultures do not really flourish in Aberdeen. In Aberdeen, the Ghanaian cultures are most often celebrated among the Ghanaian students alone. We organised our own events where we prepare our local foods, for example. The international demographic of Aberdeen is mainly contributed by the existence of the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon University. Otherwise, the city itself is not very culturally diverse.
Nevertheless, African cultures thrive in London. I used to live in London for about four years. There we can conveniently find African food, restaurants, and stores, such as the Kumasi Market on Peckham High Street, a shop that is named after a city in Ghana. Ghana’s Independence Day, which falls on the 6th of March, was also celebrated in London. The events were held in Hyde Park, among others, where Ghanaian artists performed our local music and traditional dances, including the famous Adowa dance. Local foods were also sold at the event, where they were served in the authentic ways, such as by serving coconuts immediately after they were cut open using a knife.”
Shaina was born in France and is currently in year 4 studying Journalism (BA (Hons)) at Robert Gordon University. She is passionate about Korean culture and various dance styles. Shaina was enrolled in the University of Aberdeen's Dance Society and Korean Language Group.
“I’ve only been in the UK for a few years, but I definitely noticed the difference between the African presence here and back home in France. First of all, Afro-Caribbean societies at university?? Like wow! I was so surprised to find out this was a thing here, because in France you would never see that. Thanks to those societies, Black British students can freely gather and celebrate their culture (for instance Afrobeats parties which I loved going to) without getting social backlash (see later paragraph on assimilation). They also hold informative events on Black history, et cetera. This is just a small example, nevertheless, Black people seem to be generally more represented and vocal in the UK than in France. When it comes to African hairstyling, most black salons can be very expensive, depending on where you are. Usually, the whiter the location is, the more you have to pay. Outside of their main job time, lots of black girls run a casual home braiding business, and they are cheaper than salons. Finding African food is fine in both countries. It’s just about knowing where to go, really. A good start can be seen on the local supermarkets owned by people of colour (on King Street and George Street). Also, I must say the bland wannabe-Nigerian Jollof rice at RGU cafeteria is a disgrace.
From a social point of view, Black History Month is very important. It should be taught to everyone, not only to those with African ancestry. Not only does it explain how racism was born, but it also teaches non-black people what they can do to end it. Obviously, fighting police brutality and systemic racial discrimination is important (#BlackLivesMatter). But you can start by something simple at your own level as well. For instance, all the microaggressions people casually throw at their black peers as “jokes” about their hair or facial features, their culture, their accent, their body figure, are actually all part of a bigger problem: the heritage of white supremacy and ethnocentrism. Therefore, when white girls try to touch my hair like they’re observing a wild animal in a zoo, it’s basically another way of saying “everything outside of European/Caucasian standards is weird and exotic”.
Moreover, whether people admit it or not, the wealth and economy of Europe today is just a result of centuries of colonisation (especially the British Empire). The enslavement of the African continent provided free labour to produce goods and trade them all over Europe, who only got richer and richer. Nowadays, they have enough financial capital to access precious resources such as gold, diamonds, uranium, and cobalt which is heavily used to make electronics even though the army forcefully kicks local Congolese people out of their own lands just to dig into the ground. Therefore, instead of simply pointing African countries as “sh*tholes” (as said by Donald Trump), it would be more productive to research the historical causes of the problem. Black History Month will teach you how much Europe stole from Africa, and how traumatised my ancestors are from people erasing our history and stealing artefacts to put in the British Museum (the only British thing about this museum is its location).
See how passionate I am about Black History Month? Now imagine how annoyed I am at my home country for not having one. Up to this day, France still teaches children at school the myth that Africans chose to sell other Africans as slaves to Europeans and that “it wasn’t forced”. This country is always willing to deny historical facts just to protect white fragility along with the privilege they get from neo-colonialist policies (*coughs* colonial taxes *coughs*). Finally, Black History Month goes against the French concept of “assimilation.” This means that every ethnicity is united under one common nationality. The problem with this is that any non-white ethnic group celebrating their culture and heritage is seen as “racist”, “communitarianism” and exclusive of other social groups. It’s like you have to forget your own ancestry to truly “become” French. The French Republic preaches “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” for all. But when black citizens expose the discrimination they face every day compared to the white citizens (for example, just look up online reactions to Miss France being black), they basically get the French equivalent response of “All Lives Matter”. This is why France needs a Black History Month. How are we as a society supposed to grow and evolve for a better future if we haven’t even made things right with our past? For more information on the French assimilation concept, just watch those videos:
(I completely agree with him, and funnily enough, most white, French people were uncomfortable with this because he spoke the truth).”