October is Black History Month, a concept which started in America and is celebrated there in February to mark the birthday of key African American activist, Rosa Parks. But given the significant contribution black Britons make across private and public life, it is vital Black History Month is recognised in the UK, and that attention is drawn to the main policy issues for tackling racial inequality.
The contribution of the black British community is a key part of our history and ultimately should be mainstreamed throughout our curriculum as a core learning point for all students. However, until that happens in a meaningful way, Black History Month is a useful tool to raise awareness of black British contributions which have largely been erased and forgotten.
The Labour party in the last general election made great strides in black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation. However, as the BAME population has increased over the decades, so has the need for greater representation in parliament. The Labour party must consider placing BAME candidates in winnable seats outside of metropolitan areas; something that the Conservative party has already achieved. Bold action around the diversity of our parliamentarians will enable the Labour party to better face the challenges that lie ahead in a post-Covid era.
Think tanks like the Fabian Society have a strong tradition of developing policy and facilitating debate to enhance the work of the Labour party. Black History Month must now move the dial on formulating more inclusive policies to tackle our social ills. Think tanks like the Fabians should develop rich research into race relations and issues of poverty and inequality specifically centered around race.
A key feature of black British history is the Windrush generation – their story is particularly important today. After the second world war, the United Kingdom needed help to rebuild and to the Caribbean they called. Many immigrated to the UK, seeking new opportunities in jobs that were pivotal to reforming this country, the legacy of which we still see today. The first arrivals docked on 22 June 1948 in Essex aboard the Empire Windrush. They worked in the production of steel, coal, iron, agriculture, public transport, armed forces and in the National Health Service.
However, when the Windrush generation arrived, they faced hostility and overt racism, with signs such as ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ and often lived in sub-standard accommodation. Although many did gain employment, others, such as teachers, did not have their qualifications from the Caribbean recognised and were belittled. Decades later, under the Conservatives, a hostile environment ensued which meant employers and landlords now had to check passports before allowing employment to commence or continue. Many from the Windrush generation were either wrongly deported or stopped from working for years before the Guardian newspaper, after long investigations, was able to get some traction on their stories which then raised the issue nationally resulting in an apology from the government as well as a review. However, this came too late for some. Many of the prominent campaigners who were affected by these wrongful deportations have died, including most recently Paulette Wilson from Wolverhampton, and Sarah O’Connor two years prior who lived in Barking and Dagenham. Many families still await the compensation in any form or in an acceptable settlement.
The stories of both our ancestors and living pioneers need to be told so everyone across Britain is aware of the key role we played in building and shaping the country not just after the second world war or after the arrival of the Empire Windrush but for many centuries prior.
October gives us the opportunity for pause and reflection, but Black History Month should have many eager eyes and ears from all backgrounds, not just those who are black.
For a better, more equal future, change needs to start now, and that means everyone understanding that black history is integral to British history. It will mean that difficult discussions need to be had about the uglier parts of our history: slavery, colonialism and the barriers that our fore parents and we as black people still face. It also means that black history and our contributions should become a part of all the work the Fabians and the Labour party do going forward. In most cases, the black presence has been forgotten. To correct this, we must make a conscious effort to find out what these contributions are and ensure that they are included in our policy work.
The awful murder of George Floyd demonstrates the need for the Black Lives Matter movement. This tragedy has been the catalyst for protest across the globe and has sparked more meaningful conversations with promising action from organisations across the country. Structural racism is real and dismantling it should no longer be an aspiration but a reality for all. The Fabian Society can start by adopting a more inclusive approach to all its practices and research. This will in turn sustain equality, diversity and inclusion not just for Black History Month, not just in October, but for the months and years to come.
Image credit: Matt Brown/Flickr