It’s time we celebrated Black history all year long
We must acknowledge the great things Black people have accomplished despite the discrimination we continue to face
It may appear as though we have come a long way since Black people were explicitly denied housing or employment because of their ethnicity, but racism, both individual and structural, is still prominent across the UK. It is for this reason that securing a debate to recognise Black History Month in Parliament was important to me, and why Black British History needs to be taught in schools all year round.
A constituent recently contacted me to urge me to support the inclusion of Black History in the school curriculum: “The fact that my 11-year-olds are asked ‘where are you really from?’ by their peers completely illustrates how we as a society view people as foreigners! This is because we’ve taken Black and Brown people out of our history and so now they don’t belong.”
It wasn’t until 2017, when we learnt that at least 83 people had been wrongfully detained and deported in the Windrush scandal, that many people learnt about the Windrush generation for the first time.
We have a long way to go until the UK can be considered an equal society
Children are not taught in school that between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people moved from the Caribbean to help rebuild Britain after the war and establish our National Health Service. Children are also not taught that the Caribbean formed the heart of England’s first overseas empire where the inhumane treatment of Black people was justified by the idea that they were part of an inferior race.
We need to also learn about and celebrate the Black people who made history around the world and have shaped our society today such as: Phillis Wheatley who, in 1773, was the first African-American poet to publish a book of poetry; the amazing work of Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican nurse, healer and businesswoman; Ira Aldridge, a brilliant actor from the mid-19th century famous for his Shakespearean roles; and Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first Black social worker.
Far from learning from history, and working to build a more inclusive society, the Conservative government has pursued a ‘hostile environment’ policy since 2012. This saw some of the very people that built the NHS unable to access it due to not being able to prove their British citizenship.
The many emails I receive about examples of racism in the workplace, in schools, in the healthcare system and in everyday life, make it clear that we have a long way to go until the UK can be considered an equal society.
For the people that haven’t experienced or heard experiences of racism, the statistics make the issue clear. Black people are four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people. Between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 38 for every 1,000 Black people. Black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy. Black Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded from school.
I will be raising many of these issues during the backbench business debate on Black History Month but I will also be recognising the great contributions of Black people throughout history and in more recent years. This is the first debate in recognition of the month in five years and it needs to be a celebration of the great things Black people have accomplished despite the discrimination we continue to face.
My hopes are that this won’t be a one-off debate in Parliament but the start of a conversation that sees the government and all political parties commit to tackling racism in all forms and recognising the positive contributions Black people make to UK society every single day.
Abena Oppong-Asare is Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead. Her backbench business debate on Black History Month is scheduled for Tuesday 20 October