Tag Archives: black history month

Why a Black History Month?

October marks Black History Month in the UK, a celebration of the history and achievements of people of African descent. In this blog, Rebekah Bonaparte discusses why Black History Month is still as important as ever. 

Claudia Jones

Claudia Jones is credited with creating the UK’s first black newspaper, the ‘West Indian Gazette’ in 1958, she has also been described as the ‘Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’ for her part in its founding.

Among the many challenges 2020 has brought, the conversation around racism and inequalities came to the forefront for many with the resurgence and prevalence of the Black Matters Movement following the murder of George Floyd in the US. The effects of this were felt here in the UK, and the subsequent conversations around inequality and belonging in Britain serves as a strong reminder why Black History Month is still as important as ever.

Black History Month was first established in the UK in October 1987 in London. It was organised by Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebbo who served as a coordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council. The month was adapted from the United States Black History Month that began in the 1920s, and was established in response to heightened racial tensions in the UK.

Prior to it being established, there had been riots in the 1980s, and throughout the 20th century, which left the burgeoning Black British population relegated to outsiders, and marginalised, separate from the British cultural identity which was perceived as representing the interests of only the English.

The creation of Black History Month served as a way to celebrate the black people living in Britain, at a time when the denial of black people’s contribution to history was limited to the horrors of slavery.

In his book, Black and British: A Forgotten History, British Historian, David Olosugo notes that the “uncovering of black British history was so important because the present was so contested.” So, to highlight black people’s place and belonging in Britain, Black History Month serves as a welcome reminder that black people come from a long tradition of people who have enriched this country and beyond with their culture.

There is a rich and relatively unknown history of Black people within the UK that does not feature on the national curriculum, a glaring oversight considering the range of backgrounds that are seen in British schools, around the city and while diversity has become a buzz word in business and beyond, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate this history at all levels of society. It’s through history that we form our collective identity and therefore in studying blackness in the British context we can, in one-way, foster inclusion and pride.

To be clear, black history should feature in all months of the year, but setting aside a month when black people and their contributions can be marked and celebrated and brought to everyone’s attention should not be taken for granted. Black people have done so much in this country and continue to influence and shape culture, a fact that should never be forgotten.

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A moving celebration of Black History Month

Carmen Fracchia, Professor of Hispanic Art History, Cultures & Languages, School of Arts, reflects on her recent book tour and the emotive nature of the response to her book in considering the experience of Black people in Spain.

Flemish painter, Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Book of Hours of Charles V, do l. 82r. Brussels or Malines, c. 1519, Österreichische, Nationalbibliothek

On 2 October, I was invited to present my new book ‘Black but Human: Slavery and Visual Art in Hapsburg Spain, 1480-1700’ (Oxford: OUP, 2019) at the University of Lincoln (UK) to celebrate Black History Month, together with two poets, one visual artist, and an art historian. I found this event, UT PICTURA POESIS: An Evening of Poetry, Art and Art History, deeply emotional.

Organised by Dr Laura Fernández-González (School of History and Heritage), the title emerged from her belief in the power of images, following the steps of Horace’s maxime, ‘as is painting, so is poetry.’ Her aim, however, was to show new work produced as a case study on how to construct a ‘new anti-racist Art and Architectural History’. Her brief was followed by the presentation of the three artists by the art historian Michael Ohajuru, a TV personality and director of The John Blanke Project.

In my view, the most unexpected feature of the evening, was the poem ‘Negro pero humano’ (‘Black but Human’) by the literary activist, editor, publisher, and, award-winning poet, Kadija Sesay MBE. It was one of her two extremely powerful poems, written specifically for this event as a response to my book, to its title, and to two images of her choice, The Miracle of the Black Leg and The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch.

The first part of the title of my book, ‘Black but Human’, was an Afro-Hispanic proverb and the prism from which I tried to foreground the forgotten presence of Africans and their descendants in the visual form in early modern Spain. This proverb also allowed me to explore the emergence of the ‘enslaved subject’ and the ‘emancipated subject’ in Spanish portraiture.

This saying, that was circulated in the Afro-Spanish oral tradition and appropriated by well-known Hispanic poets, such as Luis de Góngora in Spain and Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico, was also written by enslaved and liberated Africans, as the findings of anonymous black carols, in 2004, testify.

‘Black but Human’ encodes the paradoxical nature of what it meant to be a ‘black’ person in ‘white’ Spain, between 1480-1700. To be ‘black’, as I have recently written in my blog, ‘How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?, ‘meant to be a chattel, a piece of property, to be hired, bought and sold as a precious commodity at auctions; to become objects of material exchange: traded to save the donor’s soul, gifts, dowry, and, heritage; money to pay debts, to settle accounts in lieu of mortgages, and rents.

To be a black person meant to be owned by a slave master and to suffer punishment at any sign of rebellion against this complete dehumanization in a society where the word ‘black’ and the physical appearance of blackness were signifiers of the specific social condition of slavery. Besides, to be a black person also meant to become a strategic resource for the colonization of the New World.’ Africans were also considered ‘children of God’ as they had a soul that was whitened by the transformative powers of baptism. Christianity made them equal to Spaniards, but only in the spiritual realm.

Kadija’s beautiful poems encapsulated the ideological, painful, and contradictory position of Africans in the Spanish empire that I explored in my book, perfectly. Her poems set up the emotional barometer of the Lincoln event that was strengthened by the topical work made by the visual artist Victoria Burgher. In her presentation, she showed ten temporary works made with ‘colonial commodities’, like sugar and cotton to ‘re-examine white-washed narratives of empire’ and as a critique to the British Transatlantic Slavery in the Caribbean and in the UK. This strong visual presentation was complemented by the speed and cascade of words by international media activist and poet-educator Mark Thompson’s brilliant performance of his personal and historical poems, that brought the energy and anger of the young.

The last half of the evening was followed by the conversation between Michael and I about my book. We discussed the historical amnesia of the African presence in today’s Spain; the title of my book; the visual representation of the Miracle of the Black Leg, as the metaphor of the violence of slavery and the roots of contemporary racism in the Hispanic world; the portraits of the enslaved Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid) by his owner, the court painter Diego Velázquez; Pareja’s self-portrait, as a freedman, in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, and, the urgent need to recover the Afro-Hispanic contribution to the Hispanic culture.

This event was attended by approximately 80 people and generated so many questions from the numerous national and international attendees (students, academics, museums curators, filmmakers, artists, writers, among many others) that time was not enough to address all of them.

Read Kadija Sesay’s poem, Negro pero Humano

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