When I signed up to be the linked senior team member for Black History Month at Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School this year, I hadn’t realised that it would be a month of reflective, sometimes uncomfortable and always meaningful moments for me too. Not only do students speak honestly about their experiences, but their informed perspectives drive staff and peers to be better. Here, I share some of the reflections of students leading our Black History Month experience this year.
Me: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Elsie: To me, Black History Month is about celebrating the contributions Black people have made towards our society that often get overlooked. It’s about acknowledging how institutionalised and systemic racism leads to Black achievement being ignored or stolen, however, Black History Month is not only about racism; It’s a month of celebrating and embracing Black success. I think it’s important to remember this month is not a month only for educating non-Black people about the constant struggles of being Black. We should be able to enjoy it whilst not disregarding the fact that the root of the issue of Black history being overlooked is historical racism.
As a Black woman, I see Black History Month as an opportunity to celebrate myself, those around me and those who came before me, and I know younger generations would appreciate the representation this month delivers. It’s important to see people who are like you achieve goals that you would like to achieve one day. While it's key not to ignore the fact that due to systemic racism Black people have to work that much harder to be celebrated, seeing a Black girl succeed at things I wanted to succeed in would have impacted my life positively as a child and it definitely would for other Black kids. I wouldn’t have felt ‘othered’, ignored or simply just unrelatable. I wanted to relate to my role models, and if a big part of my identity wasn’t reflected in them then how could I be included? They don’t share my experiences. They don’t have to face the same issues that I do.
We shouldn’t forget that BHM is a month of congratulating achievers and, by doing so, uplifting future generations so that they can see that people like them have made- and can make- a difference.
Me: Why is it important to celebrate it at school?
Trisha: As a non-Black individual, I feel this is something that is important to not only me but every individual, regardless of their race. I think it is important for schools to celebrate Black History Month as not only do we get to acknowledge the diverse cultures within every school but more importantly, how they have impacted today.
As a psychology student, it is quite noticeable that in the curriculum most of the researchers mentioned are white psychologists, and that diversity within the subject curriculum is limited. After reading ‘Hidden histories-Black in History’ I was able to see how much Black people have truly contributed to the subject, and yet their recognition still remains limited. I learnt about Akeem Sule, who drew connections between mental health and music. I read about the Doll Study - conducted by Mamie and Kenneth Clark, which was used as evidence in a US court case. Without this wider reading, I never would have known what I know now about Black contributions to one of my subjects, it is safe to say that this is not the only subject suffering from this issue.
Discrimination is still faced by Black people, as their contributions are not acknowledged by wider society. Black History Month helps to raise the profile of this issue for all of us - as perpetrators, people who experience discrimination or as upstanders wanting to live in a fair society. What is important is that people acknowledge Black History Month is for everyone to celebrate, no matter what race you are.
Me: What impact do you think conversations around Black history have on your own sense of identity?
Des: Although I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn about Black history, which is a rarity in itself, I have limited knowledge about the history specific to my identity as a Black British person.
Being a Black person raised in the UK is a unique yet isolating experience. Unless you happen to live in a particularly inclusive community, the vast majority of “role models” you’re exposed to will be nothing like you. The exclusion of British specific Black history causes us to internalise the idea that although Blackness isn’t inferior, our individual cultures cannot coexist with the Britishness enforced upon us. Many of us, as descendants of immigrants, are left with disconnected identities because we face pressure from inside and outside our communities to choose a side instead of embracing our intersectionality.
As a postcolonial, post globalisation, multicultural country, that prides itself on its relations with the members of the Commonwealth, we ought to honour the diverse communities that have improved our lives for the better, often at the expense of their own.
All of the Black British icons I know, the Olaudah Equianos, Edward Enninfuls and Baroness Lawrences of the world, are people I know only from my own deliberate efforts. I am so glad the SHFGS community have embraced Black History Month, but we ought to remember that it does not end with us. There are millions of youths of all ethnicities in the UK being disserviced by the lack of Black recognition in an ethnocentric, anglocentric, and inaccurate white history.
Me: Is there anything that you have learnt about that you have found surprising/interesting/troubling?
Asha: The rates of maternal deaths amongst women of colour was a real shock to me. As a child, this isn’t something I’d been exposed to but as I prepared to study Biomedical Science I began to see things I hadn’t prepared myself for. Healthcare professionals are, of course, encouraging and suggest that they prioritise good care for all, but statistics are not showing this in reality. I can’t imagine changing my medical treatment for a person based on the colour of their skin so learning that this is a normal part of British life was a real shock.
Vedasya: I’m inspired by the stories I hear. Hearing about Beverly Ann Johnson’s achievements as the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue magazine or the story of Tracey Norman as a Black transgender model and a groundbreaking choreography of Alvin Ailey gives me shoulders to stand on. Seeing the representation and understanding that it is possible demonstrates the value of people of colour in society as well as the opportunities we can all help to nurture.
What does having a representative curriculum mean to you?
Asha: To me, it’s about perspectives. We need to create different ones even if they don’t necessarily reflect the people we are talking about in a positive light. Our curriculum needs to be factual and not just from a ‘western’ perspective. Being mixed race, I’ve seen and heard the differences in experiences of India’s independence, narratives of enslaved people and the fact that states outside of Britain have histories which are rich and deep. If I could change one thing about our curriculum, it would be that we expand our knowledge of Empire, our understanding of world cultures and successes and recognise that power doesn’t only exist and happen in the west.
Me: What does it mean to you to be an ally?
Vedasya: Being an ally is about actively educating yourself and others. We need to recognise that we will get things wrong but the option of doing nothing isn’t open to us. We have the power to cause ripple effects that will bring other people along the journey. I’m not Black but I am a person of colour and understanding common struggles, along with reflecting on other’s perspectives, is integral to nurturing community empathy.
Why Little Things Are Big
Me: How do you feel SHFGS is working towards an inclusive culture and what suggestions would you give to other schools?
Noor: I moved to SHFGS as a sixth former and the visible recognition of Black History Month and the diversity of the school was apparent. I have been particularly struck by the fact that student voice and collaboration between students and staff is encouraged. Diversity Society, who meet bi-weekly, provide an inclusive space for people to learn and grow - regardless of your protected characteristics. Our Student Congress invites young people to develop their leadership skills and these meetings are held by senior members of staff; being heard really matters. In the summer term, we celebrate ‘culture day’ where all are invited to share openly about their own identities, histories and stories - and even held a debate on whether a culture day is a good idea at all. PSHE in sixth form is an extension of PSHE in lower years, where we are given the opportunity to examine wider issues in society.
For BHM, we as a group planned a lesson around Facing History and Ourselves’ Why Little Things are Big resource and it showed clearly how students of colour felt in comparison to their white peers about societal pressures and perspectives. My advice to other schools is to create welcoming, safe environments where personal stories can be shared and embraced by all. Invite staff to be part of the conversation and accept that they won’t always be able to lead it. Finally, representation really matters; not tokenistic representation, but a true representation of voices, experiences and contributions in society.
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