14 December 2021

Black History Month

October was Black History Month (BHM). DWP group vice president Angela Grant gives insight into why we mark this month, and the history lesson we never got at school.

The word ‘history’ brings something different for each of us. For most it’s the history learned in school: kings and queens, and world wars. But whatever that word evokes, we know that at school, history was pretty much all ‘white’, white royalty, and white soldiers. In fact, if we ask white colleagues to think of the history of black people, the majority talk of the slave trade as in the TV series Roots, which did not represent all the horror of that time. And some will think of Windrush, believing black families never existed in the UK before the Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury. We did, for hundreds of years, and along with the horrors of slavery, and the people of the Windrush that travelled to rebuild this war-ravaged country, we have a rich history to speak of.

BHM is a designated period when we can focus on the achievements of black people, an opportunity to push to the fore that which is not ordinarily promoted. The history of black queens and kings, politicians, scientists, medics, educators, and the thousands of black soldiers who fought in wars and died to bring us the freedoms we enjoy today; this is the history and ancestry of black citizens of the UK.

In DWP group we marked BHM 2021 with presentations from our black members’ advisory committee, highlighting the work and achievements of the black community. The national black members’ committee held online events, one of which looked at racism, and how black history is airbrushed from the books. We know the heroic work Mary Seacole did caring for soldiers on the front line in the Crimean war, selling her home to open a caring ‘hotel’ there, and returning to London penniless; we also know Mary was airbrushed from history in favour of the white, and still very affluent after her return, Florence Nightingale.

At the event, Liverpool historian Ray Quarless spoke of Liverpool’s black community in the 50s and 60s, the vibrant social clubs, people travelling to hear black musicians play, and of two young “white lads” who collected glasses in Woodbine’s bar. ‘Lord Woodbine’, real name Harold Adolphus Phillips, was a Trinidadian steel pan player, calypso singer, and music promoter; he supported John and Paul as they spent time listening and learning different kinds of music, starting up their own band which then toured with the black Liverpool bands. When those ‘lads’ moved on to take the world by storm, we heard of Epstein and his managing them – but what of Lord Woodbine and the black musicians who inspired the Beatles to become great? 

Ex-footballer Howard Gayle also attended the event, having made history as the first black player to join Liverpool FC’s first team. He spoke of how racism was rife both on and off the pitch, with players, fans and administrations. An anti-racism activist working with show Racism the Red Card, and the Kick-it-Out campaign, Howard still sees the need to fight for funding for education programmes to end racism within the game, believing it as endemic now as it was forty years ago. The shameful abuse of Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho just this summer in the European Championships is undisputable evidence of that.

Understanding history gives us the opportunity to embrace the good and learn from the bad; we promote black history to give our white friends and colleagues a window into all we have achieved, and to give evidence of the work we still need to do to gain equality in this country. Our group presentation covered the abhorrent and reprehensible deportations of the Windrush children, and many who came via other avenues still face deportation under the Immigration Act. We cannot think of the transatlantic slave trade without thoughts of our ancestors drowning in the ocean, so when we see human beings escaping persecution, drowning in the Channel today, with a callous home secretary still arguing to push back the boats carrying those people to refuge on our shores, we know that the lessons of history matter not to a government that pays lip service to human rights, and gives scant regard to human life. 

But PCS members care about humanity, and our union is fighting beside Care4Calais for protections for refugees seeking asylum. We continue to fight racism, Islamophobia, and fascism at every turn, and to stand with our black communities in their every endeavour. We are determined to make the black history of tomorrow a history we can be proud of, and if that is something that you are passionate about too, then please come and join us, and ask every one of your colleagues to join our union too.