Black History Month - How far have we really come?
I first became aware of Black History Month when I moved to the UK from South Africa in 2017 and wondered why celebrating Black History was relegated to just one month of the year. Upon further investigation, it came to light that, Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it has also been known as African-American History Month. It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada, and more recently observed in Ireland, and the United Kingdom since 1987- It began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.
Recently, my colleague and I had the honour of meeting Dr Paul Stephenson OBE in his home. Championed civil rights activist and community leader, Dr Stephenson led the Bristol Bus Boycott. We weren't able to directly speak to him for health reasons, however, we were offered the opportunity to meet with acclaimed author and playwright, Lilleith Morrison. Lilleith co-wrote 'Memoirs of a Black Englishman’, which aptly chronicles the life of Dr Stephenson, an iconic leader, instrumental in setting off the waves of change in British history.
In 1963, the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to hire Asian or Black crew members despite there being Labour shortages on their busses. The colour bar, a policy which excluded Black and Asian people from entering pubs, bars, restaurants and meant landlords could refuse rental to certain people - not unlike the 2012 Hostile Environment policy - was ultimately called out by Dr Stephenson. Then a young social worker, spokesperson for the West Indian Development Council and civil rights activist, Dr Stephenson led the ultimately victorious 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott.
The 4-month boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain and the campaign was supported by politicians nationwide, with interventions from church groups and the High Commissioner from Trinidad and Tobago. It is widely believed that this moment in British history culminated and influenced the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act.
In the chapter titled the ‘Aftermath of the Bristol Bus Boycott’ of his memoir, Dr Stephenson writes “[It] had its negative effects”, referring to the campaign. As remarkable as this achievement was, it was not without consequence.
“I was still employed by the Joseph Rowntree Trust (administered by the Bristol City Council Education Department). After winning the fight against the Bristol Bus Company, Anne Hewer was very keen that I carried on and stayed in Bristol, so my contract was extended. [However] The headteacher, who had previously been very supportive and showed genuine concern for the education of immigrant children, banned me from the school.”
Despite his astounding contributions, it has taken decades for this pioneering leader to be recognised. It was only in 2007 that Dr Stephenson became the first Black person to be granted the Freedom of the City of Bristol award, and was awarded an OBE in 2009 for his ‘services to equal opportunities and to community relations in Bristol’. In 2017 he received what felt like a long-overdue Pride of Britain Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Nonetheless, when I walked through the hallways of his home I was filled with an immense sense of pride, as a young Black woman fathoming the significance of this man. I saw photographs of him posing with Muhammad Ali, a longtime friend of Dr Stephenson, and a certificate of appreciation from the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. What a life lived, and what remarkable strides made by a single person for a people and a nation.
In a sit down with Lilleith Morrison, she describes that the success of the Bristol Bus Boycotts had been due to the community galvanising. People put together pamphlets, the media published the movement and marches took place to create awareness around the boycotts. The power of a community united, unlike the division we witness in our communities today. Dr Stephenson was inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement which was taking place in Montgomery at the same time, and this helped the movement in Bristol gain momentum.
In June 2020, after the brutal murder of George Floyd, a global sociopolitical state of emergency around race relations ignited, which inspired the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol and fast-tracked the renaming of the famous Colston Hall. These events forced people across the country, irrespective of their ethnicity, to take a deeper look at race relations in modern Britain. Those who took down the statue were labelled thugs by the Home Secretary, and a divisive debate about statues, historical figures and memorials continued. What became clear is that the UK is still battling an insidious race war decades later
I was in the crowds of Bristol that day and I saw the tens of thousands of people with placards, which claimed that the "UK is not innocent." Black Lives Matter had taken a strong grip on Bristol and Britain at large, what would follow?
The nation observed as the report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, released in early March, downplayed the role of systematic and institutional racism in the UK, spreading outrage. I wonder what Dr Stephenson would have to say today, after decades and decades of fighting the same relentless struggle. It seems to morph and mask itself, but fundamentally it is the same story fuelled by fear and division.
Is a month-long spotlight on Black history and cultural events enough? Is Black History Month simply a plaster over a deep and long-festering wound, that every now and then sends septic shockwaves through the minds and hearts of Black Britons as they are reminded of how little has been done to afford them a seat at the table they so rightly deserve?