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Reflections on Black History Month as a student in a predominantly white institution

Image Credit: Octavia “Ink” Mingerink – illustrator, printmaker, and graphic designer.

Blog post by Rutendo Amanda Hoto – President of the University of Edinburgh’s African and Caribbean Society, Founder of Black Women at Edinburgh

As November unfolds, we mark the conclusion of the UK’s Black History Month. This year’s theme, ‘Saluting our Sisters,’ directed our focus towards the remarkable achievements of Black women across various domains, both in history and in the present. This was particularly exciting to me as a Black student who is also involved in community-building with students of African and Caribbean heritage at the University of Edinburgh, as President of the African and Caribbean Society. For me, I chose to observe Black History Month as a source of inspiration as I reflected on the impact of Black community activism on advancing anti-racist education. However, it is important to acknowledge the very reason for the existence of Black History Month. Every year since the late-20th century, both Britain and the USA have designated October and February (respectively) to address historical injustices, offering a form of reparatory justice by raising awareness about the enduring legacies of racism, slavery, and colonialism.

In my experience at the University, Black History Month has at times felt tokenistic, especially in the context of student activities. I am deeply concerned with the sense of ignorance that Black students are repeatedly confronted with as part of traumatic dynamics. Such ignorance is to associate Black people and Blackness to pain, death and violence, underscoring the need to embrace Black joy as an already existing element within the community. The focus on Black life can foster empathy towards black individuals, not only during Black History Month but consistently. I advocate for an ongoing commitment to understanding and acknowledging the experiences of Black people.  Moreover, I emphasise that it is important for non-Black students who want to be actively anti-racist to learn about and practice good allyship. It is also crucial to recognise and appreciate the contributions of the Black activists who paved the ways for the Black History Month commemorations in the Black diaspora. Without their efforts, we would not have witnessed such a significant emphasis, even if confined to one month, on raising consciousness of Black History.

Ideas around dedicating a time in the year to highlight the contributions of Black people in history began through the work of academic and historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. They created ‘Negro History Week’ to recognise the work of Black Americans. This work sparked inspiration for the first US Black History Month, which was spearheaded by Black students and academics at Kent State University. Over the years, this idea has evolved into the globally recognised and monumental Black History Month.

In the UK, Black History Month was first celebrated in 1987. It was initiated by the Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who came to the UK in 1984 as a refugee. The inaugural UK Black History Month coincided with the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation of slavery and the 25th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity. This reinforces how crucial it is, in the UK context, to underline the experiences of those of Black Caribbean identity, whose history is plagued with British settler colonialism, slavery and forced migration.

Explaining the choice of October for Black History Month in the UK, Addai-Sebo emphasised his consideration for the education of children, particularly as October marks the beginning of the school term. He asserted that October may be the only time in the year when children have the opportunity to learn about Black history. Addai-Sebo says: 

“I spent about a month or two wondering what has to be done as I observed the state of young Black children in this country. When asked about their heritage and background, I saw how they shrank and how embarrassed they were.”

In 2023, the call persists for the incorporation of Black history and critical race theory into primary, secondary, and higher education curricula. This plea is rooted in the experiences of Black students navigating predominantly white educational institutions.

In an episode of the One Edinburgh Podcast, Esther Akinyomi and Hannah Costelloe discussed the imperative of decolonising university curricula, not only in Arts and Humanities, but also in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). As the creators of Black Box Discussions, which is a therapeutic space facilitating dialogues among Black students in Edinburgh on various facets of Black identity, Esther and Hannah stressed the need to recognise the lived experiences of racism, slavery, and colonialism. They emphasised that institutions must support and amplify the voices of Black individuals and enable them to articulate their perspectives authentically. The main point is that these institutions should open space for different voices and perspectives, instead of maintaining the predominance of white-Western epistemologies in teaching. Decolonisation is not only pivotal to how we teach and learn Black history but is also a form of reparatory justice for people of Black heritage. Furthermore, in academic spaces, non-Black individuals should approach the learning process with empathy towards the historical and lived experiences of Black people. As they articulated their experiences within and outside the classroom, Esther and Hannah emphasised that it is crucial for Black students to have communal support and form a supportive network as they share their collective journey.

My experience of Black History Month has been dedicated to promoting safe spaces for Black heritage students on campus and supporting initiatives of non-Black students to practice allyship and remain sensitive to the experiences of Black students. I situate this responsibility in the university context where spaces for us as Black students can be isolating at times, such as being the only Black student in a classroom. What we cannot leave unsaid is the contrasting experience that while non-Black students have the privilege of being curious about Blackness and Black history a few days per year, this is our everyday lived experiences. The challenges faced by Black people in Britain and worldwide extend beyond Black History Month. Regrettably, the oblivious manner in which Black lives are treated in Higher Education, erases and makes our experiences invisible, perpetuating exclusion, practices of discrimination of Black students, and magnifies the tokenistic nature of Black History Month.

In a recent episode of Nurtured, the Black Women at Edinburgh podcast, I had a conversation with Maryam Yusuf (Black and Minority Ethnic Liberation Officer 2022-23), in which we envisioned the ideal experience for Black students during Black History Month. In our dialogue, we pointed to the crucial relevance of having people genuinely interested in learning about Black lived experience, and the need for this engagement to be consistent throughout the year. The emphasis is not merely to subscribe to allyship in theory but to actively practise good allyship, which involves conducting informed research on racism, considering one’s own positionality in relation to racial power dynamics, and listening attentively to marginalised perspectives. This idea of good allyship is explored expertly by Reni Eddo-Lodge in her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Above all, we stressed the importance of Black students and staff experiencing joy amid the busyness of Black History Month, and fostering an environment that embraces the celebration and empowerment of individuals of Black heritage.

I invite everyone to the reflection about how anti-Black racism is experienced in different contexts and do not limit the discussion about Black History only through pain or time – one month a year. I am enthusiastic about contributing to this dialogue outside of October, particularly in advocating for the consistent acknowledgement of Black activists, scholars, grassroots organisations, and community groups. They work tirelessly to prevent the erasure of Black voices and empower us to take control of our narratives. Recognising and valuing Black contributions should be a continuous and integral part of our collective awareness no matter what time of the year.

 

 

References

Creative Support (2023). The History of Black History Month. [online] www.creativesupport.co.uk. Available at: https://www.creativesupport.co.uk/the-history-of-black-history-month/

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2021). Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. [online] Reni Eddo-Lodge. Available at: https://renieddolodge.co.uk/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race/.

Enahoro, N.A. (2023). Akyaaba Addai-Sebo: the shocking conversation that led him to start UK Black History Month. The Guardian. [online] 27 Sep. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/sep/27/akyaaba-addai-sebo-the-shocking-conversation-that-led-him-to-start-uk-black-history-month [Accessed 17 Nov. 2023].

Nurtured, with Black Women at Edinburgh (2023). Nurtured, with Black Women at Edinburgh. [online] Spotify. Available at: https://open.spotify.com/show/3WTW1JonFi5i0Mnd9LKg1b [Accessed 17 Nov. 2023]. Episode 1: Where Are All the Black People?!

One Edinburgh Podcast (2023). Spotify. [online] open.spotify.com. Available at: https://open.spotify.com/show/3Be4KAvkaDm6mDpHvNN8ws?si=52b2fe9a99c845c8 [Accessed 17 Nov. 2023]. Season 2 Episode 10 – Esther Akinyomi and Hannah Costello: Creating BlackBox Discussions .

Thomas, S., Sanyal , N. and Romeo, L. (2023). Black History Month: reflections on allyship – Social work with adults. [online] socialworkwithadults.blog.gov.uk. Available at: https://socialworkwithadults.blog.gov.uk/2023/10/24/black-history-month-reflections-on-allyship/ [Accessed 17 Nov. 2023].

 

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