Like it or not, we are all a product of our past – the upswings and the downturns and the manner in which we deal with both. We study history at school, university and beyond as a sort of collective therapy – to trace the twists and turns in the roadmap that has brought us to where we are today – not just to wonder at our achievements but also to learn from our mistakes and try to understand our society and world around us. Basically, history, in all its shades, is the key to our identity.
Given the ease with which history can be manipulated and certain aspects disregarded, US historian, author and journalist, Carter G. Woodson was adamant back at the start of last century that, in order for black lives to matter, black history needs to matter; that effectively, you can’t get the one without the other.
The son of former slaves in Virginia, his insistence that it should be studied in a specific manner led to the launch of Negro History Week in 1926, the precursor of Black History Month that is now celebrated in the US, Ireland, Holland and the UK.
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition,” he said back in 1926. “It becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
Of course, as Oscar-winning actor, Morgan Freeman has pointed out, “Black history is American history,” as the black community’s struggles, perspectives and achievements in the US are inextricably woven into the fabric of American society. Black history is also very much a part of British history as well as European history, given that it was the Roman Catholic Church that passed a Papal Bull to enslave indigenous people in the Americas and Africa.
Negro History Week became Black History Month on the back of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and was officially recognised by the US in 1976 when President Ford declared, “The foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.”
Since then, politicians on both sides of the pond have endorsed the initiative and applauded the black community’s role in their respective societies. In 2011, President
Obama said, “For centuries, African American men and women have persevered to enrich our national life and bend the arc of history toward justice.” This year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, “For countless generations, people of African and Caribbean descent have been shaping our nation’s story, making a huge difference to our national and cultural life and helping to make Britain a better place to be.”
But, just as Carter G. Woodson stated last century and the Black Lives Matter movement flags up today, it is a contribution and a perspective that can easily be overlooked if not given the attention it deserves.
At King’s, where so many students come from different cultures, Black History Month has been wholeheartedly embraced, leading to the development of understanding, considered opinion and lively debate.
Sylvain Warton, Head of Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) at King’s College Madrid has been focusing on the movement. “We built from the different aspects we touched upon last year, such as black representation in the media, racism in sports and the history of disregarded black figures,” she says. “Reactions have been positive and students were engaged and respectful. There were great meaningful debates and some students with multicultural backgrounds or with friends from different cultures expressed how they saw racism in their life too. Nobody denied the existence of racism in Spain and we talked about why it is not in the media as often as it is in other countries. It is great to notice the open-mindedness and awareness of most students.”
Meanwhile, in King’s College Alicante, the Humanities department has gone further back in time to the beginning of the black community’s emancipation from slavery. “Our Years 12 and 13 historians have been looking at the American Civil War and how emancipation became more of a central theme as the war developed,” says John Mellon, Head of Humanities at the school. “They’re now looking at the Reconstruction period after the war and why the initial optimism of winning the war and the 13th-15th Amendments lead to frustration and disappointment after the Compromise of 1877 [the 15th amendment giving the black community the vote and the Compromise of 1877 being an informal deal among US congressmen that led to Black Republicans losing power and being subject to discrimination and harassment that jeopardised their vote – by 1905, nearly all black men were effectively disenfranchised by state legislatures in every Southern state.]”
At King’s College Murcia, Black History Month has been focused on “getting a different perspective on the world,” as Secondary teacher Guy Garden explains. This has involved students looking at a deliberately controversial take on the discovery of America and also studying an era when relations between Africa and Spain were not as unequal as they are today.”
Exposing the students to different narratives is stimulating and eye-opening and, as Sylvain Warton says, in the case of Black History Month, “it has really helped open important conversations about this topic.”