Why Black History Month matters more every year
I’m old enough to remember a time when Black History Month was something which was celebrated hardly anywhere outside education. Students might do a bit of project work and certainly in Further Education it was something we always tried to engage with, but outside in the world, very little mention was made.
How things have changed in the last few years.
Black History Month content is widely available. That it’s on the relatively new platforms of social media is probably less surprising. By definition, these are largely populated by younger people who tend to be more aware of and connected to liberalising societal movements. What’s interesting is the amount and quality of coverage in traditional media. Gone are the days of the most establishment newspapers being a bit half-hearted towards this annual celebration. This year, the Daily Mail, not reputed as a torchbearer for equality, diversity and inclusion, produced a lengthy and very moving piece showcasing recently colourised images of enslaved people in nineteenth century America. The Daily Express, in an article about the historic campaign to abolish the slave trade said, “Black History Month gives an opportunity to share and celebrate the importance and impact of black heritage and culture.” Neither of these examples seems remarkable to us now but they would almost certainly not have appeared even fifteen or twenty years ago.
The broadcasters take the event much more seriously too. Channel 4 carries a host of relevant content. What is significant is that once these programmes would have used a white presenter – something which just would not happen today. The documentary fronted by Jermain Jenas about online racism directed at black footballers (Hunting the Football Trolls) is a perfect example; uncompromising and hard-hitting from someone who’s experienced such vile behaviour at first hand. There is a sense of urgency which was formerly lacking. Programmes and articles such as those I’ve described would once have had a tone of something should be done. In 2021 that has become, something must be done now.
A combination of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and, unpredictably, the reaction to the COVID pandemic, has created a far greater sense of urgency and demand for change. This is reflected in the attitude of our students at Milton Keynes College Group. The impetus for celebrating events like Black History Month used to be very much top-down, but now there is demand from students, and many staff, wanting to know that we’re not paying lip-service but actually have concrete actions in mind. It’s as if the way in which the pandemic has exposed many of the fault lines in society is galvanising people to be more involved. The downside is of course that people are also more polarised in their views. It’s so important that we are all of us disciplined and respectful enough to hear the opposing viewpoint rather than simply shouting over it. In a contest between the loudest voices, sanity does not always prevail.
Perhaps the two most important things are these; firstly, Black History Month is an opportunity for formerly supressed voices to be heard and there is an increased willingness and eagerness for people to listen. Secondly, there is greater recognition that inequalities are real and serious, be they in life expectancy, career opportunities and progression etc.
In the new year, Milton Keynes College Group will be one of the first education establishments to publish data on its ethnicity pay gap and other crucial data regarding the inequalities within our own organisation. We will be laid bare and the results may well be uncomfortable. What it will do is make plain the scale of the problems we face and signpost ways to be better, and to be able to write more Black Histories in future of which we can be proud.