Whose Black History Month is it Anyway?
It’s October 1st and I’m sat in my living room.
It’s a dual celebration as it’s Nigeria’s Independence Day, and also the start of Black History Month in the UK. I turn on the television to find myself deeply confused as images of Martin Luther King Jr, Aretha Franklin and Taraji P. Henson are the central images of Sky’s Black History Month top picks.
Perhaps my confusion might not make sense to everyone. Black History Month in the US, is in February. There are many British people who actually celebrate the American Black History Month because they think that it’s the same month worldwide. This is a massive misconception. That is deeply problematic.
Black History Month in the US is in February, to coincide with the birthdays of two famous people in American black history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. While this is completely separate to black history month in Britain, the US' history overshadows the significance of October in the UK. Moreover, the persistent images of American civil rights activists, as opposed to Black British rights activists, feeds into a perception that there were none in the UK, suggesting that we never had a civil rights movement.
The media promulgation of American black success, as opposed to the promotion of black British success especially during Black History Month in the UK, speaks to the consistent invisibility of the black Brit. We are seen as the racism-less cousin of our American counterparts. Aside from the fact that the institutional racism black British people experience is incredibly pervasive in daily life; the existence of the black Brit is just as un-recognised. It is undeniable that the black American is living in a police state and experiences more overt racism than black Brits. However, there is something to be said about the fact that the UK has never seen a black Prime Minister, and there has been a black US President.
In Year 8 I remember learning of American slavery and segregation – with no reference to the Bristol Bus Boycott. I had read Of Mice and Men and I had seen The Color Purple, thus creating an empathetic awareness of black life in American history. Yet I had no understanding of what the Notting Hill festival was for, and how it came about. In the arts, the black Brit does not seem to have a history worth telling.
Despite the acclaimed British film Secrets & Lies marking the first time a black British actress has been nominated for an Oscar; it is nowhere to be seen as I scroll through the mainstream channels for Black History Month's entertainment celebrations. Instead, I am met with Moonlight and The Butler. Though Moonlight does feature a British actress, it is still within the confines of an American story.
The Academy Awards are seen as the pinnacle of critical film success. The first black person to be nominated and win an Oscar for acting was in 1939. The first black British person to be nominated for an Oscar was nearly 60 years later in 1992. The first black British person to win an Oscar? TBC. From the seven Black British Oscar nominations ~ none for best actress ~ only two of the roles involved the actors playing British people.
It has become common knowledge by many burgeoning black British actors who want to succeed in Hollywood that they must perfect an American accent. This is not without repudiation, as Daniel Kaluuya experienced after his success with Get Out, where he was criticised by American actors for being a British actor portraying an Americanised experience of racism. The dynamic of an interracial relationship used in the film was one they argued a black Brit could not fully understand, as it is viewed differently in the UK. Is this fair? Did many people complain when Meryl Streep played a Polish person, as opposed to an actual Polish actress in Sophie’s Choice, or when she played Margaret Thatcher at a time when Thatcher was the only female Prime Minister in British history?
The truth is, it’s down to the perception of the UK as a progressive nation and, therefore, a haven for black people. This is a perception that only exists because of the UK’s lack of coverage or acknowledgement of its own history with racism. Black Americans in many cases do not perceive British blacks as black enough. Twitter spats are common, whereby many Twitter users will argue black British people have no culture and in fact steal from black American culture.
The unique identity of the black Brit becomes hidden.
The press doesn’t talk about it.
The arts do not recognise it.
The only people who feel it, are the black Brits themselves.
In this celebration of Black History Month, I urge you to research. Find out five new facts about black British history. Discover a new black British scientist! Watch a film starring a black British person set in the UK. Do not let the existence of the African-American, erase the existence of the Black Brit.
[Photo Credits: Rafał Pocztarski CC BY-SA 3.0]