Reflecting on Black History Month

We have come to the end of Black History Month. Throughout October, Bristol has hosted a plethora of activities and talks. From the launch of the University of Bristol Student Union’s BME Power List to the stories of Paul Stephenson OBE, Roy Hackett and Guy Bailey who led the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycotts, to the countless young creatives, entrepreneurs, activists, and students who will be shaping the city’s future, the stories being told are Bristol’s story.

This latter point is important because Black History Month must be about more than a collection of events, and not just something that is perceived to be for black people. The events, and the participation of Black people, are of course critical. But the month must be about opening the door to systemic change in the structure of economic, political and social race relations. And this will in part depend on ensuring people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds get access to a fuller national and world history that explains both current patterns of inequality and our interdependencies. That is where the fullest value of Black History Month is to be found.

This does beg the question of whether Black History Month should exist at all. The term ‘Black History’ combined with its confinement to a particular month will inevitably play a part of marginalising a history that is in reality a global history. And the dangers can be compounded through an overemphasis of the point of contact between Europe and Africa, contained in the story of the transatlantic slave trade that feeds into colonial ideas of white supremacy and Black inferiority. We have to keep wrestling with this.

I can’t post today’s blog without referring to the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh over the weekend. At the time of writing, eleven people had been confirmed dead. It should come to us as a reminder that our democratic values should not be taken for granted. There is an easy assumption that the political equilibrium is one of openness and human rights, with the forces intolerance and nationalism attempting to knock us off balance. We need to contend with the possibility that the opposite is true, and that democratic values are the reward of ongoing vigilance and effort.  It’s a jump to blame President Trump for the shooting. But it’s not a jump to recognise that there has been a rightward and violent shift of the line that marks the centre point of acceptable political expression, and the President is in part cause and in part product of that shift.

I will continue to do all I can in Bristol to ensure we live in a diverse, dynamic and interdependent society. And I will continue to do all I can to ensure Bristol plays its role in ensuring every person in every country has equality of opportunity.

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