My parents came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation, who came here to help rebuild post-war Britain. That period in time was one of the most transformative cultural dynamics in Britain's history, overwhelmingly for the better. I have three daughters, in their 30s, who were born and raised here, and their Caribbean heritage is as important to them as their British identities.
Black History Month helps us focus on the stories we want to tell about what it means to be Black today. Some say Black folks are Black every day of the year, so why do we need a Black History Month? I respect that view, and would also say that there is still room for a month to emphasise Black British history, to understand the contributions that people with roots in the Caribbean and Africa have made to the UK.
Black History Month provides a way of weaving our experiences as Black people into the national story that we, as British people, tell ourselves. If we don’t tell those stories they will be forgotten, and that has a direct bearing on the sense of belonging that Black people feel in Britain. To an extent, we all choose to belong, and that choice is far easier to exercise if you see yourself reflected in the narrative. That has direct relevance for us here at UEL, where more than a quarter of the student body has roots in the African diaspora. Belonging relates directly to participation and attainment.
Each year, Black History Month has a theme. The theme this year (which appeals strongly to me) is 'Proud to Be'. Many of the conversations we have about Black lives necessarily focus on the challenges and struggles we face. Today’s Britain is very different to the one in which I grew up in the 60s and 70s, but issues and barriers remain that disproportionately affect Black communities.
That said, it's equally important that we build a narrative around Black people and communities that is founded in optimism without denying those remaining challenges. 'Proud To Be' is, for me, about optimism, pride and visibility. We are proud of who we are. We have changed Britain for the better in my lifetime, and taking a month each year to recognise and celebrate that, particularly when it is not as widely appreciated as it should be, is time well spent.
No matter who you are, if you are a part of London or anywhere in the UK in the twenty-first century, you need to know about these things. Black history, and how we choose to celebrate and acknowledge it, is not just for Black people. It’s part of our collective national story. It’s for everybody.
This month, UEL is hosting a series of evening events for Black History Month, online and in person, that are open to everyone, whether or not you work or study at UEL. I would like people to come along who would not normally go to these kinds of events or think it was relevant to them. My one wish for everyone in the UEL community is just for people to be curious and want to learn more - to ask 'Why not', rather than 'Why'.