By PAP Admin
In the heart of Greater London, a Black activist and journalist, decided that he wanted to tell the forgotten stories of Africa in Britain.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo born in October 1950 arrived in Britain from Ghana after fleeing political corruption and soon joined the Greater London Council [GLC] in 1985 where he worked in the Ethnic Minorities Unit during the leadership of Ken Livingstone.
In the years that followed he witnessed hundreds of West Indian children forced into schools for the “educationally subnormal”. In the 1980s tension between Black communities and the police imploded and racial inequality in Britain was endemic.
While working for the GLC Akyaaba recalls a conversation he had with a colleague which made him realise the scale of the race relations crisis which was now unfolding in a generation of Black children.
“One day, I went to work and our secretary [at the Greater London Council] looked very downcast and was almost in tears. I asked her what was wrong, and then she said, ‘Would you believe it? I was putting Marcus to bed last night and after prayers, as I was leaving the room, he called me and said, ‘Mum, why can’t I be white?” he recalled.
“Marcus was six years old and his mother named him after Marcus Mosiah Garvey [a Jamaican Pan-Africanist and Black nationalist] and here was this child confused about his identity. After that statement, I thought something had to be done.”
As a member of the council, the 71-year-old already knew that the erasure of Black history in the education system lay at the hands of local authorities and the government. He said he had observed the discourse first-hand as it made its way into playgrounds across the country.
“I saw that there was a problem with identity. The African children were mimicking the Afro-Caribbeans and they didn’t want to relate to their identity when they were from Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia and all that. You tried to talk to them in their language and they used to shrink,” he recalled.
The likes of Livingstone, former Lambeth Council leader Linda Bellos, Lord Paul Boateng, and policy adviser Ansel Wong were all at the Greater London Council when Akyaaba came with proposals on how to transform the prospects of Black children growing up in Britain.
He recalls how he was blessed to have a team made up of activists that were “progressive and supportive” of actions to tackle racism during a time that stifled the voices of marginalised people.
He designed a programme for “Britain to pay tribute and recognise” the contributions of Africans and people of African descent to the political, economic and social life across Great Britain and Europe.
African-Americans had already been celebrating the contribution of their Black diaspora since 1926.
What was once known to many as Negro History Week, Carter G. Woodson – a Harvard academic and the son of former slaves – was a pioneer in trying to undo the neglect of black history in institutions across the US.
Black History Month was formally celebrated in February to mark the birthdays of the great abolitionist Fredrick Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln, who supported the abolition of slavery.
Akyaaba said the efforts of his American counterparts, who had been telling their own stories for more than a decade, were the very thing that inspired him to draft the proposals that would lead to Britain’s own Black History Month. However, he says that bringing the stories of black people to the UK was never just about Black Britain alone.
“This is a Pan-African initiative. It is neither British nor American or even European, but it is Pan-African,” he explains. “We feed on each other’s history. Our history is a continuum of our encounters with the West, with Europeans particularly. And so, we cannot be divided in our sense of purpose and of our own destiny.”
The Ghanaian activist recalls how he dealt with “problems and resistance” from members of the community who also called for the new celebration to be held in February in synchronisation with their American cousins. While facing threats of a boycott, Akyaaba recalls how he stood his ground amid the backlash from his own community.
The Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of Caribbean culture that drew in all corners of black Briton, was held in August and so he pushed back against the critics and explained that the Trinidad and Rio carnivals were held every year in April.
And so, Black History Month in Britain was born in October to align with the “spiritual significance of the autumn equinox of Africa and the African way of life”.
“The autumn is a period of the harvest, is a period of plenty, is a period of self-examination,” he explains. “That we see where we have come from, and over the past year, what we have done, the goals that we have set to achieve.
At the age of 73, Akyaaba is still a giant political analyst, journalist and a great pan-African activist worth celebrating.
Since 1987, in the UK the month of October marks the beginning of Black History Month, a month dedicated to celebrations that aim to promote the contributions of those with African and Caribbean heritage to British society and to foster an understanding of Black history in general.
UK Black History Month was at least partially inspired by US Black History Month (also known as African American History Month), which is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in US history. US Black History Month is celebrated annually every February.
Despite their similar mission statements, these two months aren’t the same and shouldn’t be treated that way. The experiences and perspectives of Black people born and raised in Britain are very different from the experiences of those in the United States. Unfortunately, these differences are often not honoured and sometimes altogether excluded from conversations around the Black experience across the African Diaspora.