October is Black History Month in the UK, a time when we remember the contribution black people have made to our society. We have contributed enormously to making Britain the place it is, for example, it is only recently that we have started to celebrate the contribution that the amazing Mary Seacole made during the Crimean war; she is undoubtedly the most famous black Briton of them all.
One of the things that people frequently say to me when I talk to them about the inclusion agenda, about the unfairness of some of the systems we have in place today and how they came about many years ago, the response I frequently get is, ‘Move on Yvonne, get over it, that stuff is all in the past and nothing to do with me personally, I wasn’t there!’ – True, but guess what? I wasn’t there either, but the fact is we are where we are in the world today as a consequence of our joint history. As a result of the things that our forebears did or didn’t do, our society is constituted and set up the way it is.
Records show that black men and women have lived in Britain in small numbers since at least the 12th century, but it was the empire that caused their numbers to swell exponentially in the 17th and 18th centuries.
As the British Empire expanded, African and African-Caribbean slaves were ferried across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas, where they had to do back-breaking labour all their lives under the scalding sun. These people were my forebears, the forebears of my white counterparts on the other hand were the beneficiaries of that labour; Bristol, Bath, Liverpool and parts of London were built on money that was made directly from the slave trade. To this day, you can go to Bristol (where I grew up) and visit White ladies Road and Blackboy Hill! It was with all this in mind that I began to think about famous black Britons and was surprised when I really had to struggle to think of a few. Yes we’ve had a few well known politicians’ such as Bernie Grant, David Lammy, Baroness Amos and Scotland, but compared to the many famous black people I can name that come from America – my list is very thin. I went to the front of all knowledge and wisdom, ‘Google’, and typed in the words “famous black Britons” and was even more surprised at the list it came up with. Mostly singers and rap stars, with one or two boxers thrown in for good measure. It made me sit up and think. Surely we have had more black people than Naomi Campbell, Chris Eubank and Dizzee Rascal making a significant contribution to British society.
Black people contributed in their thousands to protecting these islands during the 2nd world war, they then came to the UK to work in hospitals, on the buses and railways. We have worked hard at helping to put the Great in Britain, but in terms of being lauded and applauded for those contributions it seems that as a people those contributions aren’t always acknowledged.
So, this Black History month it seems appropriate to spend some time remembering the ordinary black people as well as the famous ones who have contributed to our society. Our histories, those of black and white Britons are inextricably linked, we are who we are and in the positions we are in as a direct consequence of our intertwined and joint histories. Wouldn’t it be nice if those of us that are in positions of power and influence would stop and think about how they got there and perhaps think about the many thousands of people who are not powerful or influential, but in their own ways, have contributed and given as much as they can to making Britain great?
Have a memorable and productive Black History Month!