Here in the United States, we celebrate Black History Month during February. But did you know that in the United Kingdom Black History Month is observed during the month of October? And, did you know that they have literally thousands of activities, events, and programs throughout the UK, and that many of them are virtual events that you can see online, free?
The 2021 Black History Month Theme in the UK is “Proud To Be” and blackhistorymonth.org.uk is the leading website chock full of information, including articles and links to more about the celebrations occurring in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and throughout the many nations and provinces that comprise the United Kingdom.
When we think of Great Britain or England, we may think about James Bond or Idris Elba or Harry Potter or Doctor Who or Naomi Campbell, but do we ever wonder about what the lived experience is and has been for the daily lives of people of African and/or Caribbean descent there? In overview, many of us in the US are not generally informed about the struggles of Black people from throughout the diaspora living in and related to residents of the United Kingdom.
Well, this month is an excellent time to explore the rich and diverse history of one of the mainstays of cultural influence to African Americans living in the US, that of our brothers and sisters in the UK. Learn much more about the fascinating history of blacks in Britain at: blackhistorymonth.org.uk
The issue of race in the British Empire is as complex as the history of the British Empire itself. The origins of the British Empire lie in the settlement of North America and the Caribbean, both of which led to complex intersections of imperialism, commerce and race. While the first European encounters with the New World were Spanish, the British arrived on the scene in a permanent way with the establishment of a General Assembly of the Leeward Islands in 1674, after which, in a complex evolution in competition and conflict with other European trading powers, the British West Indies finally comprised the British Leeward Islands, the British Windward Islands, Jamaica, and other colonies such as the Cayman Islands, British Honduras and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
UK Black History Month Spotlight:
The UK West Indian Children’s Educational Scandal
Subnormal: A British Scandal, was produced in 2020 as a BBC One documentary about why black children in the 1960s and 1970s were disproportionately sent to schools for the so called ‘educationally subnormal’. The film was Executive Produced by Sir Steve McQueen, CBE (Commander of the British Empire), best known in the United States for his films Widows and 12 Years A Slave, for which he won the US Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014.
Examining one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education, Subnormal reveals how black children in the 1960s & 70s were disproportionately sent to schools for the so-called ‘educationally subnormal’. This gripping documentary tells the story of how black parents, teachers and activists banded together to expose the injustice and force the education system to change. It explores the controversial debates on race and intelligence that led to the scandal and the devastating impact it had on the children affected. The film discusses the IQ testing that took place and shows why it was heavily biased against black migrant children.
Subnormal also describes the events surrounding a leaked school report which revealed the misconception of teachers that black children have lower IQs than their English contemporaries. The explicit racism of the report galvanized the community into action and led to the publication of Bernard Coard’s seminal book How The West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. Featuring first-hand interviews with key participants in these events, the film charts the ensuing media storm and the persistence of black parents and organizers which ultimately led to The Race Relations Act being amended to prevent racial bias in education.
Though these special schools were eventually phased out, this documentary also features several ESN students who talk for the first time about their education and what it is like to live in the shadow of an ‘Educationally Subnormal’ label.
Drawing on a rich array of personal testimony, documents and archive footage, the film captures this high-stakes battle between black parents and the British education system to drive fair and equal treatment for black children in today’s society.
Subnormal: A British Scandal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. If you do not subscribe to Prime, you can view a one hour discussion with Steve McQueen and others, talking about the scandal and the documentary, free, on the UK Black History Month website at: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/video/subnormal-a-british-scandal-qa-with-steve-mcqueen/
The Windrush Scandal
On the morning of June 22, 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush, a repurposed German troopship, drew up alongside the Tilbury docks, lowering its gangplanks onto the wide, cobbled quays. To the casual interest of the dockworkers, a small army of well-dressed, luggage laden blacks stepped onto the shores of England, looking around for the first time at their new home. Most originated from Kingston, the capital of the British island colony of Jamaica, with a few others from Trinidad and a handful of other British Caribbean dependencies.
These were the men and women who led the vanguard of what came to be known as the “Windrush Generation” the first substantial wave of non-white immigration to the British Isles from the outer marches of the Empire. Ultimately, between 1948 and 1970, more than half a million souls would migrate to the United Kingdom from the Caribbean and other non-white Commonwealth countries, establishing the bedrock of the British black community and prompting the first ripples of racial discomfort that would conclude in the infamous Windrush Scandal of 2018.
The Windrush scandal was a 2018 British political scandal concerning people who were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and in at least 83 cases wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office. Many of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries, as members of the “Windrush generation.”
As well as those who were deported, an unknown number were detained, lost their jobs or homes, had their passports confiscated, or were denied benefits or medical care to which they were entitled. A number of long-term UK residents were refused re-entry to the UK; a larger number were threatened with immediate deportation by the Home Office. Linked by commentators to the “hostile environment policy” instituted by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary, the scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary in April 2018 and the appointment of Sajid Javid as her successor. The scandal also prompted a wider debate about British immigration policy and Home Office practice.
The March 2020 independent Windrush Lessons Learned Review conducted by the inspector of constabulary concluded that the Home Office had shown “ignorance and thoughtlessness” and that what had happened had been “foreseeable and avoidable”. It further found that immigration regulations were tightened “with complete disregard for the Windrush generation” and that officials had made “irrational” demands for multiple documents to establish residency rights.
Jordan Harris on Black History Month in the UK
“Basically it was good to see a push for black history month in the UK,” Says Jordan Harris. “The diversity in black British backgrounds has made it hard to get much buy-in to broader Black causes but a lot of interest grew from the Black Lives Matter movement and related news stories in the US as well as the Windrush scandal and numerous statistics showing unequal outcomes for Black brits. The movement to lump all brown folks under the BAME acronym has made many people feel minimized as south Asians have had broader success in England.” BAME is a British acronym for “Black Asian and Minority Ethnic.”
Jordan Harris is a native Nashvillian and Morehouse alumnus. He holds dual citizenship in the United States and the United Kingdom, and has worked in London off and on since 2008. He is currently working with his father, Yusef Harris, to help expand the family business in Nashville, the Alkebu-Lan Images, Inc. Bookstore, 2721, Jefferson Street, Nashville. The store has many resources about the Black experience globally.