Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the pivotal role black Britons have played in the struggle for social justice, writes James Beckles
October not only marks the start of brand new month but the start of Black History Month. This year Black History Month is even more significant as it celebrates its 30th birthday, which is quite a landmark. Coincidentally 2017 also marks the 30th anniversary of the first black members of parliament being elected to parliament. A cohort consisting of Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Keith Vaz and the late Bernie Grant entered parliament in 1987. This was and remains a proud moment for the Labour party, our parliament and our country.
Britain has both a proud history of fighting injustices domestically and around the world but there is also a dark past due to the complicity and prominence in the slave trade. Despite the latter; Britain did become one of the strongest advocates against the transatlantic slave trade and was pivotal in its abolition.
My own borough of Newham is the owner of the Buxton Table where William Wilberforce discussed and drafted the Abolition of Slavery in British Dominions Act in 1833. And as I am often reminded by my colleague and friend, Councillor Terry Paul, it is part of our local and national history and should not be forgotten.
For those who are less familiar with what Black History Month consists of, it goes beyond the slave trade and British colonial rule. It is a month of reflection and introspection from commentators, academics and politicians about how Britain can reconcile its colonial past with its diverse and multicultural future. It is these types of discussions about our nation’s past that will make all of us more comfortable about talking about our differences and shared values in a respectful way.
The black community has fought for social justice, whether it was in education, housing or the criminal justice system. In fact the struggles are similar to the struggles of working people throughout the history of the United Kingdom but set against a backdrop of direct or indirect racism.
From the Notting Hill riots of 1958 to the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, integration and living in Britain has not always been easy. Yet black communities still remained determined to build new lives in Britain. They were joined in these struggles by allies from other ethnic minorities who were fighting similar battles and by white progressives who could see the harm done by discrimination.
It was a Labour government winning in 1964 that put race equality on to the agenda. Although having a slim majority of only four seats the Race Relations Act 1965 was passed. The 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts further strengthened the original act and outlawed discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity and nationality. There has been subsequent legislation that have superseded these acts all of which have come from a Labour government the last of these was the comprehensive Equality Act 2010 which was far reaching and like its legislative predecessors have helped shape the Britain we see today.
I recently had the privilege of being a panellist for London Young Labour’s launch for Black History Month at Portcullis House. It was a well-attended event with a diverse and engaged audience. Crucially on the panel were Labour MPs Dawn Butler and Chi Onwurah, councillors Seyi Akiwowo and Abena Oppong-Asare and chaired by Young Labour’s Abdi Duale. Each panellist to me is a symbol of what has been achieved over the decades in terms of representation but – as someone in the audience aptly noted – we must not be complacent. Labour has made great strides in Britain’s diverse communities but must continue to speak for and reflect those communities.
Britain is a fairer, more diverse society. The contributions of historical figures such as Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, and more recent ones such as space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, former cabinet minister Baroness Valerie Amos, business man and governor of the Wellcome Trust Sir Damon Buffini and ex-trade union leader Bill Morris should be welcomed. There are of course many more notable figures to be discovered, each of whom have contributed much to our society and changed perceptions of black people in their respective fields.
So this Black History Month, I would suggest going to an exhibition, discussion and reading an article or book which challenges your perception of race, equality and social justice. It is a month of reflection and learning but most importantly a celebration where everyone can and should join in.
James Beckles is a councillor in the London borough of Newham. He tweets at @James_Beckles
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