Black History Month was not my idea, but I was the politician and activist who authorised its first formal appearance in the UK in early 1987. At that time, I was the Chair of the London Strategic Policy Unit Labour run Councils in London. The previous year the Greater London Council, led by Ken Livingstone was abolished by the Thatcher Government. All bar one of the 17 Labour controlled Councils in London formed and funded the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) which continued the progressive work that Thatcher hated.
I do not now recall when the idea was put to me by the Ansell Wong, Head of the Ethnic Minority Unit that the LSPU should put on Black History Month in the UK, like our sisters and brothers in America. I thought it a brilliant idea and authorised its planning and did none of the work involved, except in agreeing the guest of Honour, Sally Mugabe; and the venue- the Commonwealth Institute. The earliest date we could get these two important elements was October of 1987. This is why this year we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of BHM appearance in the UK.
When we used the word Black we intended it to be the political definition that I and others like my colleague Narendra Makanji were both used this definition in Black Sections of the Labour Party. Black Sections had not only been responsible for the selection of 4 Black candidates of the Labour Party for winnable seats for Parliament, but also to become Councillors in Local Government. In 1986 there were over 500 Black Councillors elected across England Wales and Scotland, the highest number ever before or since. So, a politics of solidarity across colour. Black was a proud and political name which represented solidarity and the opposite of ‘divide and rule’ that others seemed to operate.
There are only two small items I recall about the launch of BHM. Firstly, that I was Compere of the event, and now I am not sure whether I compered all of it, or just introduced our Guest of Honour. The other issue I remember is that Sally Mugabe wore the same African print robe, hers in Green and mine in Blue or it was the other way around? I recall the deep sense of celebration all of us present shared in affirming our politics against racism and for a pride in our heritage which was/is part of Britain.
The following year I think almost all the London Labour Controlled Councils put on Black History Month events, or perhaps that happened the year later if the London Strategic Policy Unity (LPSU) was not abolished in 1988. My recollection is that the Thatcher Government won her third General Election in 1987 and announced that she would cut the budgets of Labour Controlled Councils especially in London. I, as Chair knew, as did my colleague Labour Leaders of Councils in London knew that we could no longer fund the LSPU and we agreed to employ the staff across our Councils. For my own part I regret that we did not focus upon leadership of the idea of Black History Month instead and each Council did their own thing or did nothing.
What I recall in the following years whilst I was still a Councillor is that some Councils had no idea what Black History was. My complaints and concerns about Black History Month were expressed to them. By 1990 I had to make a choice between being a Councillor or being an Officer in Local Government. I chose to be paid rather than being unpaid as a Councillor following Margaret Thatcher’s new policy to banning senior officers being elected Councillors in another Local Council.
I am not sure exactly when the term ‘Black and Asian’ crept in to the politics but I do not recall any consultation and I consider it to be a benefit to those were prefer and practice ‘divide and conquer’. I do recognise that communities and politics progress and change over the years. The term ‘black and Asian’ started to be used where the word Black had been used previously. I objected then and I have since, except that new offensive words have been added which are ‘minority ethnic’, so is the the new phrase is BAME, and even if in this format the Black is with a capital. The term’ black and Asian’ is of usage with this undisclosed ‘minority ethnic’ group. What I liked about Ethnic Minority is that it implies no hierarchy. It simply involves all of us who are perceived to be NOT white and English, instead we wish to share a solidarity in our struggles for justice and equality.
But what really matters to me is the written, aural and visual history which we have been contributing to but which are frequently ignored a year or so after our contribution. The same thing happens also to the category of White people who are women, as well as the almost whole category of Black peoples.
It does matter to me that the achievements of minority ethnic peoples in the UK are recorded because there is a real history of contribution to the UK and I do not mean solely of unpaid or indentured labour. I have enjoyed and benefited from the uncovering of the contribution of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English working class and agricultural men and women, as well as the Huguenots, Jews Spanish and Italian migrant to the UK and many, many more. All have struggled, unless they were aristocrats, and many have fought to retain a sense of their histories. But what I have experienced myself over more than 60 years living here is that there are few records kept of the involvement or contributions of Black people. It is as though someone would be embarrassed to note we are not White?
In addition to being African, I am also Jewish and I am very aware of how important a sense of history is to Jewish peoples. So, I come out fighting on the importance of Black History. I want it to be inclusive of the diversity of those who proudly describe themselves as Black. And let all British institutions record the contribution of all who have made and do make a difference to the organisation good and bad.