Black History Month was created as an opportunity to celebrate
black people who have made extraordinary contributions to the world. Not all these figures have been acknowledged for their work, so this month was made to right that injustice.
Although, this month was created with the best intentions, I have found that it has two main problems. The primary problem is that it is entirely too focussed on slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. That is not to say that the slave trade is not an important subject that must be studied, and the important figures connected to it and its abolition recognised but there are other periods that are neglected. Black history is not limited to the devastatingly horrific period of the transatlantic slave trade.
The other main problem with black history month especially in the UK is that it places a strong emphasis on African American figures such Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. Again, these figures are incredibly inspiring, and their deeds applauded. However, Black British history and figures are often overlooked or ignored.
So, for this Black History month, I decided to look for Black British figures who did great things not necessarily connected to the slave trade or the USA (with one exception). Here’s who I found:
July 24th, 1807- August 7th, 1867
Aldridge was an African American actor who came over to the UK to realise his acting dreams and succeeded. His 1825 London debut as Othello led to him being dubbed the ‘African Roscius’, a nickname he embraced throughout his career. He performed in several more of Shakespeare’s plays over the years such as Macbeth and the Merchant of Venice. Furthermore, he performed across Europe from Poland to Switzerland and received multiple honours from various European governments and monarchs.
Why he made the list:
Though, he was not strictly a Black British figure, he is included in this list because even today Black actors in Britain often voice how difficult it can be finding roles that are diverse and not founded in stereotypes. In addition, many Black actors in Britain have said that they find that Shakespearean play inaccessible to them, except for Othello. Therefore, hearing that a black actor was not only playing these roles but receiving widespread critical acclaim approximately 300 years earlier is extremely heartening for me. The existence of Aldridge could be inspiring to young black boys who aspire to stardom and thus, his career and talent should be known more widely.
February 18th, 1918- March 13th, 2015
Bader made history as on the first black women to join the British Armed Forces. Her career began in 1939 where she worked as a canteen assistant on an Army base in Yorkshire. Three years later, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she trained as in instrument repair and rose to the rank of Corporal.
Why she made the list?
Even though, there has been an increase of 10.9% of women entered the British Armed Forces, women, are still underrepresented in this area. I can only imagine how much the percentage would grow among women and black women in particular, if they heard more about people such as Lilian Bader paving the way for them during WWII.
September 27th, 1953-
Abbot was the first black woman to be elected to the UK Parliament in 1987 when she took her seat for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Abbot further made history in 2019 when she became the first black women to speak at the despatch box. Since 1987, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington has been consistently re-elected with an increased majority and continues to serve her constituency despite receiving horrific online abuse.
Why she made the list
Dianne Abbot stands as a symbol of what one can achieve through sheer resilience, strength, and determination. Despite the horrid abuse she receives on account of her race and gender, she continues to be an outspoken political figure. This fact alone makes her an inspiration for anyone who wishes to follow in her footsteps and enter politics.
August 16th, 1939-
This Trinidadian born British broadcaster is one of the most well-known faces in the UK. MacDonald spent over thirty years reading the news at ITN. In 1999, after a career that spans decades, he was received a knighthood for his services to Journalism.
Why he made the list
MacDonald made the list because he is an example of journalistic excellence. His frequent appearances on TV as a journalist, broadcaster and newsreader allowed for the normalisation of black faces in a field where diversity is not found in abundance, especially at the time when his career began.
There are so many influential and important black figures like these who do not get the recognition that they deserve as a result of the narrow focus of black history month and a general lack of black history in the curriculum. A group called The Black Curriculum aims to change that, click here to learn more.