This month of October is Black History Month in the United Kingdom (different to the United States, where it is marked in February instead).
Perhaps you have read about it in the media or seen it pop up in your feed online, and are baffled as to why a Black History Month is necessary in the first place?
This blog summarises what Black History Month is and explains why it’s important to commemorate it in the twenty-first century.
What Is Black History Month?
Black History Month is a time to remember, acknowledge and celebrate the
contributions Black women and men have made to the life and fibre of the
country. Consciously and intentionally.
Not that one month out of twelve is sufficient to do this by any means, but
it’s certainly a time to focus on issues relating to race and race relations.
What has become an annual celebration began in the United States to
celebrate the role Black people played in the country’s history.
Historian Carter G. Woodson and clergyman Jesse E. Moorland started a group which researched and promoted the achievements of Black people, and the group sponsored what was referred to as the first National Negro Week in 1926.
Over time, what began as local events spread around the country and became a month-long affair, and Gerald Ford was the first president to officially recognise Black History Month in 1976.
In the United Kingdom, the month was first celebrated in 1987.
And it’s never been more relevant. Following the events of this summer
around the world, Black History Month in 2020 is more significant than ever.
Can I Confess Something?
I’ve never really paid attention to Black History Month before.
Yes, even as a Black woman I didn’t quite understand why it was needed, and what the big deal was.
Perhaps I’ve developed a greater appreciation over the years. That, coupled
with the murder of George Floyd this May and the subsequent protests and
awakenings in many individuals, groups and organisations, have meant that I’m looking at Black History Month through a new lens.
So, if you’ve been wondering why it needs to be marked at all, here’s why
Black History Month matters:
To re-focus on racial inequality.
It’s crucial that the awareness raised earlier in the year at all levels in
business and society is not left as a moment in time, reduced to a hashtag. As difficult as it is, this is a conversation that must continue, accompanied by lasting change.
Black History Month is a time to take stock.
Black History Month is an opportune moment to evaluate where your
organisation is in terms of hitting its diversity and inclusion targets.
What statements and declarations did you make just a few short months ago?
It’s easy for things to slip – we all know that life happens.
But what happened on the back of those promises your organisation made? Was an action plan put together to implement those noble intentions you announced?
Who owns that plan, and who is responsible at a senior level for making it
If your organisation is serious about addressing racial inequality, Black History Month is a good time to reflect on these questions and ensure that action is being taken.
Black History Month is an opportunity to track progress.
Especially as many organisations publicly announced steps they would take to address racial inequality, Black History Month is an opportunity for their
customers, target audience and external stakeholders to be reminded and gently prod, challenge and ask what progress has been made.
Back in June I wrote this article on how to support Black professionals, and it gained a lot of support. While it was good that many people read
and agreed with it, there is so much more that must happen over and above
showing solidarity online!
None of the specific tips I laid out is a quick fix. It’s important to hold organisations in both the private and public sectors, charities, law enforcement agencies, and politicians accountable for moving the needle forward when it comes to eradicating the scourge of racial inequality.
A call to move beyond the performative
I’m hoping that Black History Month is a prompt – another reminder – for organisations and allies to move beyond performative allyship and online activism, which is hardly altruistic in nature.
There are stories of companies that sell facial recognition technology known to contain biases against Black subjects to police forces.
Businesses which don’t offer their staff sick pay – a particularly dangerous practice during a pandemic, and striking when the majority of those who desperately need it are low income earners who belong to Black and other ethnic minority groups.
Businesses who do not pay their casual staff minimum wage, again many of whom are Black.
Organisations need to move beyond mere rhetoric and ensure that their policies and actions match those carefully worded press releases and social media posts. It is my hope that Black History Month provides an opportunity for such considerations to again come to the fore.