In the UK, October marks the beginning of Black History Month. This national celebration aims to promote and celebrate the contributions of those with African and Caribbean heritage to British society and to foster an understanding of Black history in general.
The event began in the US in the 1920s, and was first celebrated in the UK in 1987. It was arranged by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who came to the UK from Ghana as a refugee in 1984 when he sought refuge from political persecution during the regime of Jerry John Rawlings. He said leaving Ghana during that time meant he was “therefore absorbed in community activism right on my arrival.”
In an interview with the UK Black History Month organisation in 2017, Addai-Sebo said: “I was stirred up in the mid 1980s by the identity crisis that Black children faced. A crisis of identity faced us squarely despite the Race Awareness campaigns of the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority. More had to be done and so I conceived an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans, and people of African descent to world civilisation.”
October was chosen partly because it’s traditionally a time when African leaders gather to talk about important issues, and partly because it was at the start of the school year.
Why is Black History Month Important?
Studies revealed that 60% of Black professionals still experience racism in the workplace, so a key motivator behind Black History Month is to highlight how people from such communities have made pivotal contributions to society.
It has also been reported that 25% of people find that assumptions are made about their abilities, character or behaviour due to their race. Such statistics emphasise the importance of Black History Month, as the event brings to light how Black people are both uncredited in our history books and undervalued in the workplace.
How to Celebrate Black History Month
Support Black-owned businesses
Whether you’re ordering something small like flowers for a colleague, or you’re planning a small gathering to celebrate Black History Month, consider looking to a Black-owned florist or restaurant. Look for a Black-owned book shop if you’re ordering books for the aforementioned book club, too. If you’re outsourcing any of your organisation’s work, either to a freelancer or another organisation, take on a Black freelancer or choose to work with a company that has Black people on its leadership team.
Help educate your employees
Creating a bank of resources including articles, films and books for your employees is a great place to start. BlackHistoryMonth.org.uk has a really thorough collection of reading suggestions. You could even encourage employees to break off into small, book-club style groups to discuss what they’ve learned. Then, consider bringing in Black thought leaders, historians or activists to speak to your organisation about their lived experiences, or host a workshop on diversity in the workplace. Even though we can’t all be in the same room right now, these kinds of things can be just as engaging over Zoom. Make them extra engaging with Q&As and polls.
An important thing to remember here is to not expect the Black people in your office to lead these research efforts or discussions. Everyone should be involved in the process, but don’t assume that someone might want to be involved just because of their ethnic background. This could place the burden of responsibility on that person, something that could result in a lot of emotional labour and make them feel tokenised. This article is a great resource for people who are struggling with those kinds of situations.
Donate to Anti-racism charities
Volunteering can be an amazing team bonding activity, and a great way to celebrate Black History Month. Right now, it’s difficult to venture out as a group and volunteer time, but there are lots of UK-based charities fighting racism that need financial support. Organise a donation day to support causes like Black Lives Matter UK, mental health charity Black Minds Matter, gender-related violence support centre Southall Black Sisters, or youth charity The Reach Out Project. If you’re able to match employee donations or form a corporate partnership with those charities, even better
Reflect on larger, organisational-wide changes
As we’ve mentioned above, Black History Month is a great time to think about diversity in the workplace, but that thinking should definitely not be limited to October. Always be mindful of the kind of support each individual person within your organisation needs. Listen to the Black people in your organisation, both when it comes to celebrating Black History Month and throughout the rest of the year. When an employee reports a case or racism or bullying, take it seriously and don’t make excuses. Managers should know how to recognise signs of this behaviour, and have the anti-racism training to tackle it.
Mark Black History Month by thinking about the current state of your organisation’s diversity and inclusion policies. If you don’t already have one, implement a diversity and inclusion committee. Work on regular employee recognition, too, and think about diversity when you are choosing the person who delivers that recognition. This kind of peer-to-peer interaction can help increase employees’ sense of belonging, which has been shown to increase motivation and pride in a workplace.
A diverse workplace is one that makes better decisions, benefits from a broader range of perspectives, and fosters much more innovation. Thinking about diversity in October and through the entire year will make both your organisation and the people who are integral to it thrive.
Invite a Black speaker to host an internal event or workshop.
If your team is still working remotely from different locations, don’t let that stop you from hosting a brilliant event. Talks, interactive workshops and panel discussions are all ideal options for virtual Black History Month celebrations. By inviting an activist, historian or thought-leader to speak, your team gets to hear about thought-provoking topics from people who are experts in their field.
Exploring Black History Month Events
When it comes to Black History Month in the UK, these noteworthy events promise to engage, educate, and entertain.
- Brixton’s Black Culture Market: This vibrant market in Brixton champions Black-owned businesses and encourages the public to support and shop from these enterprises. It’s a fantastic opportunity to discover unique products and celebrate entrepreneurship.
- Thackray Museum of Medicine Celebration: Leeds hosts a celebration event at the Thackray Museum of Medicine. The museum is offering a distinctive perspective on Black history through the lens of medicine and health.
- Family History Sessions with Paul Crooks: Battersea Library invites guests to explore your African Caribbean heritage through insightful drop-in sessions led by family historian Paul Crooks. Discover the roots and connections to the past.
- ’s Talk at the National Portrait Gallery: Join Vanley Burke, known as the “Godfather of Black British Photography,” for a captivating discussion about his project, “The Making of Black Britain.” Gain insights into the powerful impact of photography on cultural identity.
- City College’s Food Demonstration in Plymouth: Delight your taste buds with a delectable food demonstration at City College in Plymouth. The event will celebrate the flavors and culinary traditions of the African and Caribbean diaspora.
- Randall Goosby and Zhu Wang’s Performance: Experience the enchanting music of Black composers as young violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Zhu Wang perform at the Southbank Centre, promising a soul-stirring musical journey.
- Ilford Black History Month Food Fair: Indulge in three days of food, crafts, dance, and music at the Ilford Black History Month Food Fair. There, the community gathers to celebrate diversity and culture.