Black History Month: A new black history
Words by founder of grassroots collective Our Mel and MelaninFest, Annalisa Toccara.
1 October marks the beginning of Black History Month in the UK. It’s a time of celebration, remembrance and honour, for those who have gone before and for those who have come after. Historic moments of the past shared and stories re-told.
In Sheffield, a new festival celebrating the month was launched by two local lasses, myself and Gabriela Thompson-Menateaux in 2017. The idea developed out of a mutual love for our city as well as the realisation that there was a missing gap on Sheffield’s cultural calendar. As the story goes, Gabs approached me after the 2016 Sheffield Black Lives Matter March.
We met a couple of times and realised our interests were similar. Ideas were jotted down and MelaninFest was born on 8 November 2016. From then on, our Sundays were spent at Gabs’; planning, eating and chatting, immersed in event planning. We were very conscious that Black History Month should not be confined to October, as being Black is more than just our skin colour.
So we created Our Mel, a grassroots volunteer collective dedicated to exploring black history, cultural identity and what it means to be a person of colour in Britain today. MelaninFest was launched at the Frog and Parrot in October 2017 brought together over 40 organisations and 1,300 people. Our Mel has since hosted over 60 events in Sheffield, London and Leeds and is fast expanding.
Our mission is to support, encourage, teach and build the community through music, film, art and education by creating safe environments for learning where
embracing cultural heritage is encouraged. The core belief behind. Our Mel is that representation matters, stories matter and history matters. It’s about making sure the voices of black people and people of colour are centred and that talent is showcased right here in Sheffield.
But what is Black History Month?
Black History Month is the history of black people everywhere with its roots interwoven with stories of pain, struggle, strength and beauty. It goes beyond October, goes beyond classroom learning, and goes beyond the civil rights movement. It began as the brainchild of highly acclaimed historian Carter G Woodson, who was one of the first scholars of African-American history and the son of former slaves. He worked as a manual labourer in Kentucky whilst studying for his undergraduate degree. He later travelled to Africa, Asia and Europe and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He was committed to studying black history and in 1973, founded The Negro History Bulletin for learning in schools. Carter then launched Negro History Week in February 1926, amidst racial segregation and the Jim Crow Laws. It was later renamed Black History Month.
Barriers need to be removed and strongholds taken down to honour the achievements of our young Black Sheffielders
Britain has its own history separate to America and it wasn’t until October 1987 when Black History Month began in the UK by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a special projects officer. British schools are notoriously lax at teaching black history with it not being compulsory in the school curriculum. Britain’s part to play in slavery has been whitewashed, its narrative distorted and black Britons misrepresented. Just one example of this is the Moors in Tudor times, black African people who had conquered and ruled in Spain before coming to settle in Britain. Growing up, I was never taught this in school.
The same goes for the Victorian era – I had never once seen a picture of a black Victorian, but since founding Our Mel, I’ve come across the most stunning portraits of black Victorians. Black History Month has always been a part of me and from a very early age, my parents have been insistent in teaching myself and my sister about who we are as people and where we came from. I identify as both black and mixed race, a feminist and a woman. I am half Welsh and half Jamaican by birth, adopted into a Jamaican household. I recognise that half of me as a race is steeped in colonialism and white supremacy and the other half is the oppressed.
For Melanin Fest last year, we invited Paula Perry, author of the first and only textbook that meets the Michael Gove curriculum, BLACK BRITISH HISTORY: Black Influences on British Culture (1948 to 2016). It is an important book, necessary for the time and one which I highly recommend for those wishing to teach their children solid British black history.
2017 gave rise to a new celebration of Black History Month: A New Black History. In Sheffield, there is an incredible amount of creativity which exists amongst the younger generation. We need to harness it and look back at the past in order for us to move on, honour our elders – the Windrush generation who paved the way, and really start to recognise the new wave of talent in Sheffield. Barriers need to be removed and strongholds taken down to honour the achievements of our young Black Sheffielders. Because together, we can.
Afua Hirsch: Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging
18 October // 6.30pm – 7.30pm // Free
Lecture Theatre 4, The Diamond, The University of Sheffield
8-14 October // Chapel 35 Walk Gallery // Free
An exploration of the Black woman looking at themes of body positivity, self-love, mental health and vulnerability.
Creating While Black
20 October// 12pm – 3pm // Trippets Lounge Bar // Free
PR masterclass and brunch with Ronke Lawal, founder of Ariatu PR.
For further info, visit ourmel.org.uk