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Dan Lyndon

Black and Asian History Month

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This evening I presented to our board of governors my plans to celebrate what I have called at my school for the last few years 'Black and Asian history Month'. One of the members, a very distinguished black gentleman, with many years of experience in community relations and having previously worked for the Commission for Racial Equality, questioned the title that I had given to the celebrations. He was the second person this year to challenge me on the use of 'Black and Asian' instead of just 'Black History Month'. What should a white middle class liberal do in this position?

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From the DfES site:

Black History Month happens every October in the UK and provides a wonderful occasion to celebrate the diversity of our society and the contributions Black and Asian men and women have made to the development of British society, technology, economy and culture.

Think that justifies your title.

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This problem dates back to the 1960s with the “Black Power” movement. The use of the word black was a political statement. Some Asians feel very uncomfortable with this term as it suggests to them militant opposition to the status quo. At the same time, those who see the Black History Month as part of the political struggle are unhappy with “Asian” being added to the title.

The DfES obviously wants to take the politics out of this and decided to describe it as the Black and Asian Month. Understandably, the people who originally campaigned for Black History Month are not too pleased with this change in title.

As a white liberal I am willing to call people what they want to be called. The trouble is, this does not help when a group is made up of people who see themselves as either Black or Asians.

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I am reminded of a story Alasdair Cook told of a celebrity invited to address the graduation ceremony at Syracuse University who objected to being referred to in the program as a "Native American" on the grounds that the term, correctly used, applied to anyone born in America. He demanded that he be called an American Indian...

The waters of political correctness are indeed deep and turbulent...

Edited by mike tribe

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I suppose that your response to the gentleman concerned would depend rather on your aims in mounting the event in the first place. It would seem that one of the important aims should be a celebration of shared community experience rather than of "separateness", in which case you would be seeking out points of similarity between the histories of the two groups and between them and the host -- white -- culture. If this is one of your aims, then lumping everyone together as "black" would seem counter-productive, while excluding the non-Afro-Carribean minorities would be, perhaps, discriminatory. Stick to your white liberal guns, young man!

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Some interesting responses so far. I was not aware that the DFES had started to call October 'Black and Asian Month', which makes me feel alot more secure. I am aware of the political debate around the term 'black' but I am now beginning to think that this is becoming outdated. I had a very interesting conversation with a 14 year old student this afternoon. We were preparing for a Black History competition that I entered him into which is on Friday and I was telling him about this discussion. I asked him how he defined himself and he said 'black', I asked him how he defined a particular friend of his and he said 'Asian'. Thus the all encompassing 'black' was not seen as appropriate. This confirmed my belief that young people these days have different (and multiple) labels for themselves and there isn't a problem with this. So I guess that some of the aims of the Black consciousness movements have been achieved in that pupils are proud of their heritage and carry a 'label' with relative ease.

One of the aims I have this year is to address the (hopefully overexaggerated) claims that there is increasing tension between the Black and Asian communities in Britain. There was a documentary by Darcus Howe recently on Channel 4 which was very depressing (although you do have to take Darcus with a rather large pinch of salt) and showed the rise of 'militant' Muslim youth fighting with young black men in places like Birmingham. If my school is a reflection of wider society then there is definitely hope fo the future. We have over 50 community languages, with large Somali, Black Caribbean, Black African (mainly Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean), Black and Asian British and Eastern European (Romany Polish, Albanians and pupils from the former Yugoslavia) populations as well as many white working class boys from the estates in White City and Shepherd's Bush. There is virtually no racial tension at all and I really can't remember any incidents over the last four years that were racially motivated. I would like to think that the celebrations that we have in October for Black and Asian History Month (as well as Refugee week, Holocaust Memorial Day and the multicultural History curriculum that we teach all year round) has had some part to play. It is also significant that our Headteacher is a South African Indian, the Deputy Head is Jamaican and there are a number of Black Heads of Departments (and one Asian) as well as a multicultural teaching staff and learning mentors.

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Harewood House, the former home of Queen Mary, is not the sort of place that people associate with black history. Landscaped by Capability Brown, and filled with portraits by the likes of Reynolds, it dominates 3,000 acres of the Yorkshire countryside - testimony to the power of the Lascelles family who built it in 1772. It appears to have nothing to do with the history of black British people and everything to do with the white "kings-and-queens" history that most of us know from school.

Black History Month begins again tomorrow, but the extent to which black British history remains hidden becomes apparent when you start to ask how houses like Harewood came to be built. The ancestors of the current Viscount Harewood built their fortunes in the Caribbean: by the end of the 18th century they had stakes in 47 sugar plantations and owned thousands of slaves - not something which is impressed upon the 350,000 people who visit the house each year.

Few British museums tell the story of black or Asian people in anything but the most cursory fashion. You would find it hard to guess from the Museum of London that there was a black population in London in the 18th century, for example. In 1993 the museum mounted an exhibition called the Peopling of London, but the issues it raised were left for 10 years until the arrival of a director with a South African perspective. In Leeds, with a large black population, the city museums hold important fine art, industrial and natural history collections, but little to reflect the diversity of its people.

It's not just a problem confined to museums. Far more children learn about the American civil rights movement than the 1919 riots in Liverpool and South Shields, or the post-war struggle for equality. Far more learn about the Romans than they do about the importance of the transatlantic slave trade to the industrialisation of Britain.

Black History Month was conceived in the US in the 1920s and taken up by the UK in the 1980s. It still continues in the US, but the treatment of black, Asian and Native American history has changed radically. Carlos Tortolero, the director of the Mexican Fine Arts Centre Museum in Chicago, calls one-off events and exhibitions "one-night stands" rather than a true commitment to equality. But Lonnie Bunch, the first African American director of the Chicago Historical Society, says that museums have made inroads into the inequalities of displays.

It is true that in the US there are substantial collections and permanent displays devoted to the history of black Americans. There are also many more black curators and directors than here, and black trustees of museums, academics and patrons. Last month the Smithsonian opened a new Native American museum in Washington. Its approach is as scholarly as any other Smithsonian institution. But it is far removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which grouped Native American people alongside its botanical and zoology collections.

In the UK there is a growing consensus that much more needs to be done. Numerous books and conferences have called for action over ethnic minority representation. Only this week, the author and broadcaster Mike Phillips led a seminar at the British Library on making more diverse exhibitions. It is hard to find a national or major regional museum director who does not publicly agree. Yet change is painfully slow.

Part of the problem may be an in-built conservatism. It has taken more than 20 years to construct the extension at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that opened this summer, for example. Some of it is about the perspective that curators have: often studying artefacts from an aesthetic point of view. The African galleries at the British Museum demonstrate the beauty of African craftsmanship, but ignore the contested ownership of the Benin bronzes despite the vociferous campaigns of the late Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant.

Some of it is an uncertainty about what to do. Black history is still not widely studied at school or university so there are few historians of what is a large and demanding field. Many curators are afraid of causing offence or appearing patronising. As a result, museums seem more comfortable creating small education and outreach projects - or focusing on less contentious subjects such as sport or fashion, like the V&A's current Black British Style. Few museums seem to relish tackling high-profile, risky gallery projects like the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, or the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in Liverpool.

And some of it is a lack of imagination. A common cry among curators is that there is little to their collections of relevance to black history. Recent reassessment projects at the V&A and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and research emerging from the Museums Association collections inquiry, have proved this not to be the case. In Birmingham, the project has turned up a wealth of material with connections to black British, Asian and African history.

There are possibilities raised by telling history from more varied viewpoints. Last year, to coincide with Black History Month 2003, David Lascelles - Viscount Harewood - invited leading academics to a conference at Harewood to discuss adding new interpretation to the house in light of academic research into his family's plantation-owning past. The aim was not some kind of cynical tokenism, nor an attempt to deny the beauty of the house and its collections. If the Harewood scheme goes ahead, it will give an additional dimension, add richness and greater truthfulness to the aristocratic tale that many of us, erroneously, believe we know.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0...1315856,00.html

Edited by Jane Morris

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