Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Oxford Black voices on Black History Month

Zoe Abereoje speaks to Black Oxford students on their reflections about the importance and nuances of UK black history.

Tell me about the first black history month you remember.

Depending on our backgrounds and childhoods, our experiences of the first time our black history was celebrated differed. I asked around and these were a few accounts.

‘The first black history month I remember was in Year 5. My school never called it black history month. Well, they did, but the celebration was always international – we had an international day. My mum came in and made jollof rice; my friend’s dad came in and spoke about how he migrated from Nigeria. My other friend had his mum come in and brought some interesting Spanish food. It was great, it meant we could learn about different cultures. It also meant that my mum was teaching these random English girls’ mums how to make jollof rice the next weekend.’ Kerena, Trinity.

‘I think I was about nine- my mom and my aunt sat me down at the kitchen table and said, “it’s black history month, so we’re going to teach you about black history”. And I was like “okay?”, because I had a vague understanding of black history from all the stuff we did in school, which wasn’t ever in-depth. I knew about MLK, and stuff like that, and not anything more. But my mum, the first figure that she picked out was Mary Seacole, because we’re Jamaican and Mary Seacole was a Jamaican nurse who served in the Crimean war. Everyone only remembers Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war and all the help that she gave, and Mary Seacole was always tucked away. So, my mum was like, “this is a figure that you totally need to know because not only is it part of your own culture and heritage, but she was also a significant black woman and it’s good to have icons to look up to.”’ Charlee, Worcester.

‘The first black history month that I can sort of remember most clearly was back in my childhood. It was very much based around the usual history from slavery onwards, slavery being the pinpoint start of black history. A lot of it was Americanised, rather than being focused on Black British history, although we are in Britain. There were attempts to include different cultures, predominantly black cultures, in some of the cooking and music that was celebrated at that point in time.’ Claramae, Trinity.

‘It was in Year 1, they told everyone, well, all the black kids, to bring stuff that remind them of their country. So, my dad printed off a map of St Lucia and I brought it in, and I was so happy with it. But this little boy called Connor ripped it up. He ripped it up into pieces and that’s when I knew…. I was very upset by the whole thing, and that’s my first memory of black history month.’ Rebekah, Trinity.

‘The first black history month that I remember is probably when I was in primary school. This one is really memorable because of the fact that we were able to bring in cultural dishes which allowed me to taste foods from countries that I’d never tried before. I brought in fried dumplings because I’m Jamaican and a lot of people really liked them, and that made me feel very special about my culture and very proud.’  Shanaé, Worcester.

‘My first BHM was in primary school. I was lucky enough to go to a primary school where there were so many different ethnic groups, so black history was highly celebrated.’ Suleqa, Trinity

What emotion do you attribute to BHM: do you see it as celebratory or a sombre time?

Black history is so diverse but for black people it can be complex to process; immense pride can be matched with sorrow and disappointment at the history of our people.

‘I wouldn’t say there’s one emotion you can feel towards black history month. It’s celebratory and somber because black history shouldn’t be defined as pain. It can be learning about your near black history, your family’s heritage and where they have migrated from. It could be going back to slavery but that’s not all of our history. For me, I know it is because of my surname, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing we look at. So, it’s celebratory [regarding] how much we’ve achieved before and after slavery, but obviously sombre in the sense that black people are always looked at as behind or below somebody else when looking at western history.’ Kerena.

‘BHM makes me feel […] a mix of emotions; I feel proud but sad. Grateful but angry. I don’t look forward to BHM. I don’t particularly dislike it or have trepidation at the thought of it, but I don’t mark it on my calendar. When I think of October I think of Halloween. I choose to put it to the back of my mind. It reminds me what I already know on a daily basis, which is my entire race and culture and everything I know is sourced from this root of pain. We celebrate all the good things, and we celebrate black excellence, and all of that struggle, and getting through all the ordeals of the past. I’m appreciative of who came before but it reminds me about how much suffering, hurt, pain, toil, and death people went through for no reason other than bigotry and hatred and that upsets me every time.’ Charlee.

‘The initial emotions that I attributed to black history month were anger, upset, sadness and shock at the level of oppression, discrimination and racism that black people had to face across the globe. As I got older my emotions started to change as I started to research my own Jamaican lineage and being aware of my African ancestry. Those emotions started to morph to be more celebratory due to my pride in the accomplishments of black people across the globe, in the face of oppression and discrimination. At this time, I would say my emotions towards BHM are a mixture of both sadness but also pride in knowing that we’ve contributed so much to the world. Not only culturally but also intellectually which is often overlooked.’ Claramae.

‘I think it’s more celebratory – people try to make it sombre by talking about all the oppression black people have ever faced during their lives, but I hate that view. There are so many positive things that black people have achieved and we so often don’t go over it. There are so many people that we don’t learn about; we always learn about the same people, and although they have done amazing things in their own right, most of the time they had to do it through oppressive periods like slavery. People focus on the part where black people’s lives sucked, whereas I personally think it should be more celebratory. We should talk about people that we don’t necessarily learn about, fight stereotypes. Black people accomplish so much, there are so many things that black people have made that have shaped our lives today and I think it should be more celebratory.’ Rebekah.

‘I think I do typically associate BHM with positive emotions, because it has been a time when black people can come together to discuss our history and celebrate black culture, though occasionally I do find that it can be quite a sombre time as well because of the fact that you are being reminded of the negative impacts of black history and how poorly black people were treated in the past. That can bring about negative emotions. However, I think generally it is quite a positive month.’ Shanaé.

‘I view black history month as being displayed as more celebratory even if it shouldn’t always be like that. More than anything, black history month should be used as a time to educate people, not only people from different ethnic groups, but also black people. I think there are so many of us who don’t know our own culture, who don’t know the rich cultures that we come from, just because we have been taught that black history month is constrained to the transatlantic slave trade. Black history month has always been, that and abolitionists, specifically white abolitionists.’ Suleqa.

Do we forget black history in the UK, and if so, who’s a figure you want to promote?

As black people living in the UK, the past and present experiences of black people in the US can sometimes mirror ours, but during black history month does it overshadow our UK history? Online discussion has increasingly centered around this topic.

‘I’d definitely say we forget black history. I’m so sick of only seeing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and more recently Malcolm X, being celebrated when we have black history so clear in the UK from things like the Windrush scandal, or even the migration of our parents back in the day and how they were treated, the race riots, and other events like that. I think it should be learnt about, but we never talk about these things. A good place to start is to read Natives by Akala. He goes into detail about UK black history, it’s amazing. We definitely forget black history in the UK.’ Kerena.

‘I think we absolutely let black history in the UK get overlooked. If you asked me to name a singular UK black icon of the civil rights movement, I won’t have anything to tell you. Because of how much the States were slave-run, the Civil Rights Movement was really powerful and globally impactful – but you forget that the UK is the country that started racism and started slavery and it is bizarre to me how much it is shoved under the carpet. I can’t tell you about any notable black activists from that time period.’ Charlee.

‘I don’t think we have forgotten all elements of black history in the UK. I think a lot of us are quite aware of the contribution of African Americans to black history and black history month, and I believe it originated there and is celebrated in February, whilst over here it’s celebrated in October. I would say that we have overlooked the contributions of Black British individuals in the UK, or black individuals who have resided in the UK. I would like to promote a figure called Doctor Harold Moody; he migrated from Jamaica to England with the hope of becoming a doctor and advancing into the medical profession despite facing rejection based on his race. He decided to open his own private clinic, I think, in Peckham, London, and serve his own community that way. He also funded the League of Coloured People in 1931. And I would also like to highlight that there are a lot of people doing such amazing work in the black community that we’re not aware of. I think we should try to look for and highlight the gems we see in our own day-to-day life.’  Claramae.

‘I do think we forget black history in the UK. People like to focus on slavery because it was so much more extreme in America; that’s kind of where we look to when we think of black history. But Black British history is just as wealthy, it’s just that we don’t look at it as much – I think because it would make Britain look bad. It’s easier to look at America and say “oh, look at those guys, they are so evil”, but we need to focus on British history, too. I don’t know a lot of names, but there’s a black lady on CBeebies’ Stargazing [Maggie Aderin-Pocock] – she’s really smart and she presents astronomy. People like her are role models. Even my uncle, does so much stuff to help African development and even western countries that are suffering. People like that should get more props.’ Rebekah.

‘I definitely think that Black British history is forgotten about a lot more than, say, Black American history. When I was in secondary and primary school, I remember learning about notable figures in America, the black people who were involved in the civil rights movement and things like that, but not so much in the UK. A figure that I want to promote is definitely Mary Seacole, because I feel like even though she was quite similar to Florence Nightingale in what she did, she doesn’t get the same rep. She was born in Jamaica and decided that she wanted to be a British army nurse, she applied but unfortunately her request was denied. Rather than letting that deter her, she persevered and became one anyway, becoming really popular among British soldiers. She deserves to be spoken about more because her impact goes under the radar.’ Shanaé.

‘We definitely forget black history in the UK, and a figure I want to promote is Mansa Musa. I think when people think of black history they always think of activists and, don’t get me wrong, they should be celebrated, but we also have so much rich history that we forget. The richest person that we know of now was a black person; the Mali empire was huge as were so many other West African cultures, and so many East African cultures as well. I think that we always forget that black history shouldn’t just be constrained to activism and injustice, we also had such incredible civilizations.’ Suleqa.

Image Credit: Zoe Abereoje and Diliff/ CC BY 2.5 via wikimedia commons for the picture of the Radcliffe Camera.

Support student journalism

Student journalism does not come cheap. Now, more than ever, we need your support.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles