Tuesday 4 October 2011

Brent Council denies proper place for Black History

"This is Black History - the school system made it a mystery"

Black History Month has been a central focus of the educational calendar in Brent for many years. Every year it is accompanied by special events in the libraries, curriculum work in schools and usually a competition in different age categories for local children.

The aims are to:
  • Promote knowledge of the  Black History , Cultural and Heritage
  • Disseminate information on positive Black contributions to British Society
  • Heighten the confidence and awareness of Black people to  their cultural heritage.
This year Black History Month was launched at a special event Black History Live! at Wembley Stadium.and Oakington Manor Primary  is hosting a Culture Fest on October 8th which 1,000 people are expected to attend.

Disconcerting then to read that Brent Council will no longer separately recognise the event from next year. In a a move with parallels to the Council's muddled festivals policy Black History Month will be subsumed into:
'Word Watch! which is a celebration of books and reading also drawing on other events such as Halloween, Diwali and Children's Book Week. Word Up! will be applauding the achievements of Black British people.'
 It is unclear from the press report where this decision emanates from but it clearly fails to recognise the significance of Black History Month which originating in North America in 1926 was campaigned for in the 1970s by figures such as Ealing black bookshop owners Eric and Jessica Huntley and Alex Pascall pioneer broadcaster of Black Londoners. It was a cultural and political campaign which both tackled the racism that ignored and denied black history and the need for black children in the diaspora to be aware of their roots and heritage. At its best it was internationalist and tackled issues of colonialism and imperialism.

It may be hard to believe now but when I started teaching in North Westminster in 1975 in a small Church of England primary school in Paddington, in a school of 90% black children there were no books even showing black people, let alone covering their history. I remember a child being astonished when I used a 'reader' which portrayed black children - some schools imported the Ladybird Sunshine Readers published for Caribbean schools for this purpose but the setting didn't match the locality of urban schools. When I introduced a book about Oloudah Equianno I remember a child turning to me and saying in hushed tones, 'I didn't know black people could be famous!'

Backed by community demand, local education authorities such as the Inner London Education Authority started to produce their own materials, albeit with a rather 'home made' feel. As these materials became popular publishers themselves reacted and higher quality publications were produced.

Early attempts at covering black history and black culture were often clumsy and stereotyped, despite being well-meaning and encountered the accusation  of tokenism and exotica - the 'saris, samosas and steel bands' approach. A much sharper edge developed where issues such as discrimination, oppression and struggle were recognised.

Unfortunately that Brent statement linking Black History with Halloween and Diwali (!) brings us back to the earlier model and there is a real danger of dilution. Their decision needs to be challenged.


Anonymous said...

Martin, thanks for this article. I too had noticed the disappearance of Black History month activities in Brent and its merge into a general celebration of other October events. As a Brent resident, I am bitterly disappointed and concerned that this event will be lost/diluted in this manner. I enjoyed several events last year and as a graduate of Caribbean Studies, welcomed the dissemination of the black presence in England,Brent particularly during this month. It seems Brent, a multi cultural borough is taking a backward step and relegating Black achievement and participation to voicelessness and invisibility. We exist, we are here now and we contribute enormously to British society.

Martin Francis said...

There seems to be a divergence between the Council's overall position (via Brent Libraries) and what Schools and Families are doing. The Libraries are putting on some good events, including session on Henry Olonga at Willesden Green tonight, but the World Up! booklet jumbles the events up with all sorts of other things - the focus is lost. On the other hand some of the schools are doing great stuff. There's a huge Black History banner outside Capital City and Brent's Children and Families department are continuing the schools' black history competition via the Centre for Staff Development.

Perhaps Libraries and Children and Families should talk to each other!

Sagar Shah said...

Come on now Martin. Expecting two council departments to talk to each other? Tut tut. That'd be far too efficient, that'd potentially save money that could be put into services that residents want.... we can't have that can we.....