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The origins of Black History Month in the UK

In the mid-1980s Ghanaian born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo had a conversation with a colleague who he described as looking ‘very downcast’ and almost in tears. After some probing, she revealed that the night before, as she was leaving her 6-year-old son’s room (after putting him to bed), he called out to her and said ‘Mum, why can’t I be white?’ The boy, Marcus, had been named after Marcus Mosiah Garvey (a Jamaican Pan-Africanist and Black nationalist) and yet questioned his own identity.

At the time, Mr Addai-Sebo who had arrived in Britain from Ghana in 1984, after fleeing political persecution, was employed by the Greater London Council (GLC) where he worked as the Special Projects Coordinator of the Ethnic Minorities Unit.

From the time of his arrival on British soil, he witnessed hundreds of West Indian children forced into schools for the “educationally subnormal”. In the 1980s, tension between Black communities and the police imploded and racial inequality in Britain was endemic. In an interview with the Voice Newspaper, he recalled “I saw that there was a problem with identity. The African children were mimicking the Afro-Caribbeans, and they didn’t want to relate to their identity when they were from Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia and all that. You tried to talk to them in their language and they used to shrink,”

In a bid to solve the identity crisis of young black children, Mr Addai-Sebo designed a programme to recognise and pay tribute to the contributions of Africa, Africans and people of African descent to world civilization.

The Black community in Britain called for the celebration to be held in February, to align with the celebrations in the America. Since 1926, African Americans had been recognising and celebrating the contribution of their Black diaspora. The celebrations were and continue to be held in February to mark the birthdays of abolitionist Fredrick Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln, who supported the abolition of slavery.

However, Mr Addai-Sebo resisted pressure for Black History Month to be celebrated in February in Britain, as he wanted the month to align with the “spiritual significance of the autumn equinox of Africa and the African way of life”. This is the season of harvest and plenty and a time of self-examination on the African continent. October also coincided with the beginning of the school year in Britain, a time when Mr Addai-Sebo believed that children would return to school ready to learn after the long summer holiday, and they had less to worry about exams and tests. He believed that this was also a time when children would be openly sharing their experiences over the summer break and that ‘they would absorb more if their living environment buzzed with positive vibes, instructions and images about themselves and their origins’.

And so, in 1987, with the support from the leadership of the GLC and Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), October was officially designated Black History Month in Britain.


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