By Apeike Umolu
Black history month is upon us in the UK and there will be a plethora of events and news coverage. But I want you to look out for something a little different – look out for articles, blogs, vlogs and Instagram posts from people who will not be as excited as we are here at the AHP about BHM!
I have been surprised by the antipathy that exists in certain sections of the Black community in relation to BHM. Apathy is expected, some people just aren’t history enthusiasts. And the groans of people who oppose the very notion of Black history are year-round irritations we all must endure. But antipathy, hatred, rejection and even denial, this has been an unexpected realisation for me! It surprised me last year and I have again been surprised to see that some people are coming out ahead of the month to let their voices be heard.
The career cynics and life-long spoilsports notwithstanding, there is validity in many of the concerns and they have prompted us here at the AHP to think about our relationship with BHM. I personally, and we as an institution, think it remains an important educational tool, but I do feel those within the culture need to re-calibrate what BHM does and does not mean for Black people.
As a Black-owned liberal arts school, I think Black-owned institutions should have a different relationship with Black history month than a bank, consultancy or secondary school because we can approach conversations in a particular way and, of course, our aims are very different. I hope to write more in the future on what such an internal re-calibration should look like, but in this article I would like to explore some of the criticisms levelled at BHM.
One of the first criticisms of BHM is that it dislocates Black history from other cultural events in the country and from the rest of the curriculum in schools. It is felt that it compounds the very problem it was intended to solve. Critics hold that, BHM programmes allow schools, subject leads and the government to avoid critically evaluating curricula and learning cultures while allowing institutions to ignore structural issues around race. Evaluation and reflection of knowledge and systems are needed as, not only is the population of the country changing, but global power structures are changing. This makes it imperative to build in young people robust cross-cultural currency, being the ability to work and thrive within any professional and social culture.
Cross-cultural currency is not merely knowing about or valuing another culture’s history and customs, it is about appreciating the inherent multiplicity of culture across the human experience. It is ultimately about having the ability to critically evaluate how you can re-orientate your existing strengths and skills to plug into the strengths and skills valued in any culture you find yourself in.
Within this bucket of criticism is also the fact that BHM programmes are seen to sometimes avoid integration and compound “othering”. By integration is meant the act firstly, of acknowledging the deficiency of western education to handle world historical narratives with care, to teach them without centring the western voice.
This can be seen in the chronic intellectual insecurity in western education manifest in a tradition that fears even mentioning the “other”, let along letting it speak for itself. A quick read of any KS3, GCSE or A-Level text will quickly show that, in the British education system, there is a persistent undertone in history writing that seems to find it impossible to write of other historical narratives with the same depth, marvel or nuance afforded to western history. This intellectual insecurity is bred in the primary and education systems, compounded in the university system, and validated in teacher training and classroom cultures, only for the cycle to start again with transmission from teacher to student in a new generation. The result is that young people come to devalue all that is not western, or even worse, come to romanticise all that is not westerm, with the effect of limiting their ability to work in non-western spaces or handle non-western knowledge.
In a previous article in which I wrote about the place of race in the classroom, I wrote of the repercussions to student development of not addressing this epistemological insecurity head-on:
‘an education system that stunts knowledge acquisition on racial grounds is inhibiting western students who are increasingly having to compete with graduates and entrepreneurs on a global level. Whereas the western hegemony means that other societies have had to learn about western culture and how to survive within it, western students, particularly white students in western education systems, have not had to develop the ability or resilience to thrive in an environment not cast in their image. The result is that graduates of the global east and the global south are more intellectually and culturally mobile; they understand the western system and know how to thrive within it. But they also understand their own systems and know how to succeed within those.’
Returning to the idea of perspectives in pedagogy and my charge of complicity against the academy – in a recent AHP seminar we held discussing the place of colonisation in the periodising of African history, we discussed the course listings of some of the world’s leading universities. Many universities have a standard history masters degree that is usually dedicated to the study of European and North American history. Anyone looking to study Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America, are usually stuffed onto a separate course, sometimes pock-marked with scars of inferiority – they are often less intellectually rigorous, running for shorter lengths of time or requiring dissertations of shorter lengths. And a review of the names of these courses is shocking, not to speak of their corse descriptions. Let us take the course from the London School of Economics:
“The MSc Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation, taught by the Department of International History, focuses on the history of the non-European world through the study of imperialism, colonialism and the forces that have brought about globalisation. The core course concentrates on the history of imperialism in Asia, Africa and South America from the 14th century to the present day. You will focus on the histories of non-western peoples, whether they were imperial masters or colonial subjects”
In our seminar, an eminent lecturer of history and linguistics noted the depth of the colonial mind-set in the design of this course. It presumes to teach the history of the non-European world through the study of the imperialism and colonialism of the European world! This is what I mean by an epistemological insecurity that is woven deep into the academy, passed on to historians, and delivered to classrooms all over the country.
“The undervaluing of non-European historical narratives suggested by programming reserved for BHM leads to very real missed opportunities”
A large part of the problem stems from the fact that so few Black academics are admitted onto these programmes, and where they are admitted they are either encouraged to stilo themselves on such courses or in African Studies departments, or they self-stilo because of the very real issues that Black educators face in academia. The result is that epistemological multiplicity is wiped from the academy; it cannot fix itself.
Back to the idea of intellectual dislocation and its repercussions. As you can see, this practice of dislocation is real and problematic. The undervaluing of non-European historical narratives suggested by programming reserved for BHM leads to very real missed opportunities to develop in young people essential skills needed for them to thrive in the world today. Make no mistake about it, this is not a racial issue, this is a national educational crisis. Intellectual insecurity masked as national pride cannot be allowed to stunt the curriculum, teacher development and classroom culture for another generation.
I happen to believe that BHM is part of the solution and not part of the problem. But like any framework, it too must evolve, re-calibrate its objectives, and re-centre its driving ethos. I hope in future articles to write about what such evolution, re-calibration, and re-centring looks like.
Until then, please do enjoy all of the wonderful events that many organisations will be arranging this BHM!