The sixth form common room was known as a sanctuary, a sanctuary from the teachers shouting your name and giving you endless homework. The common room carried a stench of gossip: you never knew who would be the subject of the week. Then one day, in October, the month dedicated to black history, you notice a group of black girls hovering in a corner whispering, with their voices getting louder by the second.
You remember wondering what they were talking about, maybe they were planning another event to hold in the school’s dining room. You then carry on eating with your friends, waiting for the school bell to ring. Eventually a game of Chinese whispers starts and the news of Black History Month being changed to Culture Month reaches your ears.
It feels as though someone has poured water into them and you cannot believe what you have just heard. Of course every black person in the room is outraged, because October is the one time where it can be all about us. It is the one month where we can dress up in our traditional clothing, cook our own food and play our own music. Black African and Caribbean culture and history could finally be at the forefront.
But the memory of hearing ‘Culture Month’ instead of ‘Black History Month’ still lingers in your mind till this day. Now, as an adult, you realise celebrating it is not enough anymore. And you are not the only one.
Two women from my school, aspiring actress Naomi Alade, and medical student Sade Akins, both remember the experience vividly and describe Black History Month initially as exciting: “I think Black History Month at school was really exciting, because it felt like we were finally being given the freedom to express ourselves and our culture in a way that wasn’t included in day to day life" said Naomi.
I too remember feeling some joy when I would see the different tables representing the different countries in the school dining hall. As soon as I got to the country Nigeria I couldn’t help but feel proud of the blackest nation in the world. And I knew this feeling was going to last an entire month. That is, until the teachers decided to change the name, which in turn changed the meaning. Naomi recounts the day it all happened: “Eventually we started to get met with the idea that us expressing our history was isolating to other students. This is what members of staff would tell us, and it was from that point of view that they decided to make it Culture Month.”
Sade Akins described it as a very difficult time: “It actually made me quite angry to be honest because we were already in a predominantly white institution, and then the one month where it can really be all about us you take it away.”
My experience at school, just like for other girls, has impacted the way I view Black History Month today. Anytime I see anything advertising the celebration, my stomach feels knotted, because I know 334 days out of the year society is blind to our history. Once we reach the 31st of October the curriculum goes back to being Eurocentric and suddenly our contribution to Britain is all forgotten about. It is not enough for institutions to give the black community permission to share their stories and real-life experiences, especially since it is impossible to fit it all into 31 days.
On one hand, I appreciate society trying to value our history and culture. On the other hand, I know it is not good enough when our talent is ignored on a daily basis. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that change is happening very slowly.
Sade Akins tries not to limit Black History Month to one month anymore: “The fact that we were deprived for so long just made me want to look into Black British culture, where we came from and how we have come about more.” I have also learnt to appreciate my blackness 365 days out of the year. I now realise how important it is to walk boldly in my skin even if society doesn’t want me to. I wish society and its institutions would recognise black culture and history in a way that isn’t tokenistic. For example, by decolonising the curriculum and including material written by black African/Caribbean individuals.
Bibi Awoloto, primary school teacher, sees the month as a way to instil back pride into the community: “Europeans looted our shores of its resources, but I believe the most valuable thing they took was our sense of self-worth. A month that is focused on restoring inherent pride in the next generation is therefore critical for the long term social and economic advancement of our people.”
I don’t believe Black History Month should be scrapped completely, but until we can make honouring our culture and history the norm and not the exception it will not be enough for me.
Written by Esther Okusaga
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