Banseka Kayembe: What Black History Month means to me

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Black history month has long been a minor event in the yearly calendar for most people outside of the Black diaspora. The violent death of George Floyd in 2020 ignited global protests and the biggest affront we’ve had in a long time to anti-blackness. Black history month in the UK as of last year, has become more widely recognised and no longer feels like a fringe-esque event worthy of just a stale corporate lunch-time talk or half-hearted attempt to share black-related content across a workplace intranet.

Black History Month as an idea was first proposed in the US by the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland. Texas A&M University Afro-American history professor Albert Broussard said of Woodson “Oftentimes Black history is taught as a celebration of this great man or this great woman, but that wasn’t what Woodson had in mind. He wanted this time to be a celebration of the achievement of Black people as a race, recognising that Blacks were part of the history of this country from the very beginning”. I think it’s important to recognise that Black History Month isn’t just about recognising the “cream of the crop”, those standout black individuals in our history who we can point to for “representation” but black people as a collective - and the freedom we are still fighting for.

Image credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona - BLM demonstrators in London, 2020.

Black History Month seems to be a catalyst for increased levels of discourse about “the black experience” and, of course, “racism”. However, I’m becoming more conscious that much of the conversation feels superficial, or highly individualistic. Lots of noise, a dash of white guilt, with little substantial change following. Black history month feels sometimes like a wasted opportunity.

Many conversations about racial equality since 2020 have been about asking people to “give up their privilege”, or involve a hyper-focus on racist individual behaviour rather than demanding larger-scale system and policy change. Even the most well-meaning non-black people cannot on their own create the type of economic and social justice needed to redress black inequality.

I think it’s important to recognise that Black History Month isn’t just about recognising the “cream of the crop”, those standout black individuals in our history who we can point to for “representation” but black people as a collective - and the freedom we are still fighting for.

Banseka Kayembe

We’re looking to “influencers” and celebrities, many of whom have very little genuine interest in dismantling systems they benefit from, to be changemakers. We’re still under the spell of believing better representation of black people in institutionally racist spaces is enough, rather than challenging or dismantling those systems to build something better. What good is a black leader if they cannot make a substantial difference to the lives of other black people?

Image credit: ALBA VIGARAY/SHUTTERSTOCK, 2018 - Kaepernick has become the face of the US manufacturing giants anti-racism campaigns.

It concerns me in many ways to see Black History Month (much like Pride month) start to become commercialised, where we mistake black history month discount codes or Nike adverts with Colin Kaepernick splashed across our feeds as progress. Meanwhile, many of those organisations will be doing relatively little to address racism within their own business models.

Black history month can mean many things and shouldn’t be all doom and gloom, but for me right now, it means having more substantial conversations and igniting proper change, for Black people as a whole. I’m less interested in highlighting the “first black person to do X” or better representation for us in the same broken systems, without also hearing bold proposals for a better way of doing things that benefits everyone. Black history month needs to be a springboard for a better future.


Banseka Kayembe

Banseka Kayembe is the founder of Naked Politics, a media platform for young people. 

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