At a time when African Americans are being asked whether Black History Month is still relevant in the supposedly “post-racial” era of President Barack Obama, black Britons are facing a far steeper mountain of opposition to celebrations of their own heritage.
The United Kingdom has some 1.5 million people of African and Caribbean descent in its population. Although the vast majority of those people have arrived within the past 60 or so years, Britain’s involvement in colonialism and the slave trade means that the nation’s ties to black people date back hundreds of years.
But you wouldn’t know that if you read a British history book. The books don’t tell you about the black servicemen who fought for Britain in World Wars I or II, or about the black populations that existed in the United Kingdom as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. Neither do they tell you about black people’s contributions to British history or world history in general. It’s for that reason that Black History Month was introduced to the United Kingdom in 1987.
Every year since then, Great Britain has dedicated one month—October—for the celebration of black history and culture. Of course, there have been the usual debates about whether or not one month in a year is enough. But last week, when the Guardian newspaper revealed that Boris Johnson, the conservative mayor of London, had slashed funding for London’s Black History celebrations from £132,000 to £10,000 ($15,000), it became clear that for some Britons, even one month is too much. Africa Day, another cultural event, has had its funding cut completely.
The mayor has committed £100,000 ($150,000) to promoting American interests, however, through an event called USA Day. Clearly, Johnson does not believe that the celebration and commemoration of black history merits much investment from the nation's capital, despite the fact that London has over 1 million black people, nearly 10 times the number in Birmingham, home to the United Kingdom's second-largest black population.
The cut in funding may be partly market-driven, given Mayor Johnson’s conservative leanings: USA Day has the potential to attract many more high-profile sponsors in comparison to Black History Month. Even so, that market-based view totally ignores the social, cultural and community value of the month—that is, if London’s mayor believes that it has such value. The truth is that he is not the only person who believes that Black History Month serves little cultural value and may even be divisive.
In the past few years, there has been a growing backlash against multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. The anti-multiculturalism movement started to grow after 9/11 and was further fueled by the 2005 London bombings, which were committed by British-born Muslims. Incidentally, when race relations chief Trevor Phillips proclaimed in 2004 that multiculturalism was a failed and outdated concept, the anti-multiculturalism movement really took off.
Since then, the view—unsupported as it is by any official statistics or figures—that black people and other minorities have been given too much attention, help and resources at the expense of white Britons has become increasingly common. To those who like to believe that racial issues do not exist in the United Kingdom, Black History Month apparently introduces race into history when, they believe naively, it does not already exist. For them, black history acknowledges skin color rather than an understanding that British history is inextricably linked to the social and cultural input of many unrecognized—and often ignored—black Britons.
Boris Johnson’s decision is also about much more than Black History Month. It is symptomatic of a dangerous and growing view that Britain has given too much to its citizens of color and now needs to take that back. It also perpetuates a zero-sum ideology that exists in Britain: that supporting a minority community takes away from the majority.
What it does do, however, is provide a rain check for black Britons who have become increasingly disengaged from politics over the past few decades. Black History Month only came about because it was fought for by black people, at a time when black people were demanding to be fully included in British life. The 1980s was a time of major social upheaval as Britain started to recognize the needs and rights of its black citizens. London was the first British city to introduce Black History Month, and it is not unreasonable to believe that this cut in funding in the nation’s capital will have an effect on other U.K. cities if we do not fight for it. It is hard to imagine any major American city slashing its Black History Month budget by so much that African Americans would not take a stand for the celebration black American life.
This is the time for black Britons to take a stand for our contributions to British life. If we don’t, who will? What we may be able to expect is even more cuts in areas that are of interest and importance to us. There are enough of us in the United Kingdom, and particularly in London, to pool together our own resources to ensure that the month is commemorated as it should be. If we don't do that, shame on us.
Lola Adesioye is a British-born sociopolitical analyst, commentator and writer whose areas of expertise are culture, society and politics as relates to black people in the United Kingdom and America.