Black History doesn’t just tell us who we were, it tells us who we can be
The African and Caribbean Memorial, Brixton, London
Black History Month is an opportunity for hope, and to increase representation in all manner of public spaces
It’s October, so it’s Black History Month in the UK. And when I asked friends and family for their thoughts, I discovered that Black History Month means different things to different people. To my family, it’s a chance to recognise our part in Britain’s history. To me, it’s a chance to celebrate the part we’ll play in Britain’s future.
But that’s not to say we should neglect our history. History, after all, tells us who we are as a country. And if we ignore parts of our history, then we aren’t telling ourselves the full story of Britain. So during Black History Month, it might be a good idea to revisit the curriculums we teach in schools, to look again at whether we’re teaching children the full scope of our past. And I’m not just talking about the long list of evils that Black people have had to endure, important though they are. Black British history is more than just Windrush and the slave trade.
In fact, long before the Empire Windrush arrived on these shores, Black people were making waves in Britain. You can see it when you visit London’s monuments. Like the plaque on Nelson’s column, which features an African man called George Ryan — who fought alongside the British and helped us win the Battle of Trafalgar. Or the blue plaque on a quiet street in Wandsworth, dedicated to John Archer — who as Mayor of Battersea became London’s first senior Black politician.
Or, as a matter of fact, the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Brixton. It’s dedicated to people like my grandad. Born and raised in Jamaica, he fought for Britain in the Second World War in Italy. Soon after, my family moved to Britain. My family’s story is the story of thousands of Black families, all of whom are vital parts of our island’s history. I thought of them when I first heard about Sadiq Khan’s statue commission, a commission of bureaucrats who will decide which statues get to stay and which get pulled down. I remember wondering: what would my grandparents say about it?
When people who share my skin colour are consistently underrepresented and misrepresented in our public life, it makes sense to start representing us better in our public spaces
I have a pretty good idea. My grandparents wouldn’t want to tear down statues and pretend parts of Britain’s history never happened. Instead, they’d want more of our history to be displayed on London’s streets: more memorials dedicated to people like them; more statues dedicated to Black British figures; more plaques to mark the lives of great Black thinkers, politicians and musicians. We won’t inspire Black boys and girls with empty spaces where old statues used to be. We will inspire them by showing what Black people have already achieved.
And that’s an important lesson to remember, particularly during Black History Month. Our past doesn’t just tell us who we were; it tells us who we can be. Which, when you look at the stats, is a message young Londoners need now more than ever. Young Black men in London are half as likely to be employed as young white men. Caribbean boys perform seventeen percentage points below the average for pupils in London. There are more FTSE 100 CEOs called Steve than CEOs who are Black. And it doesn’t need to be this way. We can flip these stats on their heads.
Now it’s true that more statues and better curriculums won’t fix everything. But that’s not the point. When people who share my skin colour are consistently underrepresented and misrepresented in our public life, it makes sense to start representing us better in our public spaces. When our kids think Black history starts with Windrush and ends with Black Lives Matter, it makes sense to change our curriculum so kids learn about the positive contributions that Black people have made.
These are some of the problems we need to fix in London. Yes, we need a safer city with more police on the streets. Yes, we need to bring the cost of living down, build homes that Londoners can afford, clean up our environment and get London moving. But we also need a more equal city. And this is a subject very close to my heart.
I was raised by a single mum in a council house in Ladbroke Grove, at that time a very deprived part of London. I’ve been homeless, I’ve been out of work. I know what it’s like to have teachers treat you differently because of your skin colour. I know what it’s like to be chased out of estates by white supremacists. Having spent twenty years as a youth worker, I know the problems that young Black Londoners face every day.
And not one of the young people I helped would gain anything from toppled statues and renamed streets. Not one would gain anything from a culture where we cancel views we disagree with. Our responsibility is to lift people up, not put them down. To build a better future, not destroy our past. In a sentence, to shorten the journey from Ladbroke Grove to City Hall — and to wherever else young Londoners want to go.
Black History Month might mean something different to you, but to me it’s an opportunity: to bring people together; to give the Black community hope; to remind ourselves that Black history is British history; and to continue our work towards a more equal, more fair and more just country.
Shaun Bailey is Conservative candidate for Mayor of London