By Felicity Heywood. She writes on African and Caribbean culture and heritage and is the senior journalist on Museums Journal (THE GUARDIAN, 28/09/06):
Did you know that, 25,000 years ago, Africans in Congo, pioneered basic arithmetic? Or that it was men of African descent who invented the carbon filament lightbulb, the traffic light, and the gas mask? No? That’s hardly surprising.British people know little about African history because it’s not in the school books and remains ignored by many of our esteemed institutions. Black History Month (BHM), launched 20 years ago, aimed to put this right and has become an established date in the cultural calendar – marked by lectures, educational projects and festivals up and down the country. Despite being seen by some as incomplete and tokenistic, it has attempted to provide an annual space where the contribution of African and Caribbean people to world development can be publicised.
But even though its original remit – to give children of African descent a new pride through discovering their heritage and past achievements – remains unfulfilled, moves are afoot which could threaten the project’s future. A number of local authorities are throwing in extra elements and relabelling October 2006 as Black and Asian History Month, which will inevitably water down the original concept. The organisers use phrases like “all embracing” and “contextually driven” to explain the Asian inclusion. Some say they’ll also include Romany cultures.
Yet if we still do not know of the ancient civilisations of Mali, Benin or Ghana, or whether Egypt sits on the mainland of Africa (as one 60-year-old recently asked me), then the purpose of BHM has not been met. It is still crucial for us to acknowledge the role of the African in world development.
BHM began in Britain in 1987. It took its lead from America’s Negro History Week, launched in 1926 by an African-American Harvard scholar who was disturbed that history books ignored the African contribution to US development. It was renamed Black History Month in 1976 and takes place in February.
Here, the month started as a London initiative, promoted initially by African-Caribbean activists within the Greater London council who saw in African-British children a lack of self-pride. Twenty years on, African-Caribbean schoolboys are still continually labelled as failures. Could a better understanding of where they came from encourage more pride? BHM plays a vital role, which we ignore at the peril of future generations.
It rests with our public bodies – our museums, libraries, schools and arts organisations – to set a programme each year. Some take it on wholeheartedly; others go for the easy entertainment option and edge out the history. A fashion show here, a carnival parade there, and of course the mandatory drumming workshop. It continues to feed the notion that African people are a contemporary phenomenon instead of revealing the part they played in the creation of the ancient and modern world.
Across the board, a dimmer light continues to be shone on African heritage than Asian and European cultures. Just look at our museums. Many hold Asian collections and have an Asian department, but Africa does not often figure – it was not deemed worthy of collecting in the Victorian era. What is worse, ancient Egyptian exhibits are presented in isolation from the African continent – essentially, they are de-Africanised.
Perhaps the African-British community should do some relabelling of its own. Instead of BHM, how about African History Month? Surely then there will be less misinterpretation and we can learn the hidden truths about world history.