Even in 2018, people seek to overlook and misjudge the achievements of black people across the globe. Scientists, historians, sportspeople, musicians, and activists struggle to have their moment in the spotlight. Black history month gives us an opportunity to celebrate these people, as we should every month, and address the struggle that black people still face in their careers today.

Black history month is a scheme to celebrate the often overlooked achievements of black people throughout history. Just as nowadays ethnic minorities are often scrutinised, demonised and misjudged, so too were they throughout history. Additionally, black women are routinely subject to harsh criticism and judgment, often harsher than their non-black peers, termed ‘misogynoir’ (a combination of ‘misogyny’ and ‘noir’, meaning black).

Misogynoir, the ethnic pay gap, the disproportionate risk of police brutality and violence and everyday racism are some of the barriers to success for black people around the world. All of this stems from things like slavery, segregation and colonialism that have had a ripple effect on to today’s society. Black history month is not a sad month, though. It is a chance to tell the stories of the world’s most influential yet overlooked people who overcame struggles to achieve their place in history.

With the increasing acceptance of racism in mainstream politics, with the rise of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, it is easy to dismiss and overlook the achievements of people of colour.

In the West, the UK especially, historical achievements and successes are often credited to white people with little to no mention of the influence of people of colour. But in reality, many historical events and influential people have been black or members of other ethnic minority groups. For example, though Abraham Lincoln is often solely credited for the abolition of slavery, one man significantly helped sway public opinion: Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a former slave who wrote an autobiography and several speeches denouncing slavery and ultimately influenced the US population. Additionally, during the Civil Rights movement, Harriet Tubman helped free over 700 slaves. In Haiti, 1791, Toussiant Louverture was the leader of the successful revolt against slavery in Saint-Domingue, and later completely replaced the plantation system with paid labour.  During the 19th Century, Booker T Washington was an advisor to presidents Roosevelt and Taft and dubbed the de facto leader of African Americans.

Booker T Washington photograph

Source: Biography.com

Even in the UK, which likes to believe it has no history of racism, significant progression in race relations was prompted by four men from the West Indies in 1963. Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Guy Bailey, Audley Evans and Prince Brown formed an action group which was later responsible for the Bristol Bus Boycott, where they refused to use the Bristol Omnibus Company until they removed their ban on black and Asian employers. The Bristol Bus Boycott lasted four months, was supported by the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago, national politicians and much of the general public. It is also thought to have been crucial for the Race Relations Act 1968 which made racial discrimination illegal in the employment and housing industries.

Newspaper cutting showing students in Bristol protesting the "colour bar" on buses

Source: BBC

Nor can we forget the role of black female activists the Civil Rights, the LGBT Rights and Women’s rights movements. In 1969 a black transgender woman named Marsha P Johnson organised a protest along with Slyvia Rivera after police used brutality on members of the NYC Gay Community at the Stonewall Inn, now referred to as the Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall uprising was essential for liberating the LGBTQ+ community, yet Marsha P Johnson is not a household name. Aside from her activism, she was also a drag queen and a model for Andy Warhol.

Her mysterious death, commonly believed to have been murder, never received mainstream media attention. During the women’s rights movement, much of the attention was on white women who did not necessarily respect or understand the difficulties for African Americans. Sojourner Truth provided a speech about these issues called ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ which reached thousands. She was also a very influential abolitionist and worked closely with Frederick Douglass. Unfortunately, representation within the LGBTQ+ community is often centred on white experiences. Racism remains commonplace in all communities, the LGBTQ+ community being no exception. This is why it’s so essential to remember the influence of black activists in women’s rights, civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Marsha P Johnson with protest sign

Source: Buzzfeed News

With the increasing acceptance of racism in mainstream politics, with the rise of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, it is easy to dismiss and overlook the achievements of people of colour. And with this, it becomes more and more difficult for black and ethnic minority people to succeed. It’s important to address the fact that whilst black excellence should be celebrated, we cannot slip into the idea that every black person should be multi-talented. For some people, black excellence is getting a doctorate, or excelling in music, or excelling in sport. But for others, black excellence is being able to function normally in a society which too often seeks to hide their successes and exaggerate their failures. All of the people mentioned above struggled against all odds to become a part of history, and this was just a small glimpse into black history which schools so often forget.

History has informed the racial bias within society today, and it’s important to remember those who fought against it and continue to do so to this day.


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