Reaction to London Mayor’s drastic Black History budget cut
As someone who organises African/Black History Month (BHM) events, I am disappointed that London Mayor Boris Johnson has made serious cuts to his BHM budget. However, whilst I won’t dissuade those campaigning for a re-instatement of the budget, I’m focusing on self-reliance.
When Mr. Johnson got into City Hall in 2008, I had a discussion with someone who also organises community events. He expected Johnson to cut the BHM budget, but he thought this would make us more self-reliant, and that many programmes would be delivered out of necessity, rather than availability of a grant.
In Harrow last October, for example, when the Council’s oversight meant no BHM grant was offered, apart from two events I was involved in, “In Search Of Achievers Closer To Home” and the “Harrow NARM (Naming And Role Model) Photographic Exhibition”, none of the organisations that had previously delivered BHM events with Council funding organised any events.
Also, I wonder whether those complaining about the Mayor’s budget cut have ever attended any of the Mayor’s sponsored BHM events.
Back to the Harrow experience, when nothing much happened, all of a sudden we had some people calling and emailing, asking what was happening to Black History Month? But when the NARM exhibition was extended within Harrow libraries to four residencies right into March 2010, none of those people bothered to attend that or other African history related events they were invited to.
It seems there are some people who just want to know that there are numerous BHM events, though they are not particularly interested in attending. But once funding is cut, they are ready to make noise about how there needs to be more BHM events.
Quite frankly, I think many BHM events do not do anything to improve anyone’s knowledge of African history. The majority are focused on ‘culture’, rather than history. I am not decrying culture; after all I’m the founder of the Black Music Congress and have a passion for promoting British black music and culture.
However BHM isn’t about singing and dancing, which may make one feel good but not necessarily raise awareness of our history. Nor is it about face-painting, food, and other activities not related to history. We should not also tolerate the same old, and often lazy “black history” focused just on Mary Seacole, Martin Luther King, and now, Barack Obama.
In Harrow, we fought for the Council to devolve the running of BHM to community groups. The Council has decided to fund a Black History Season that ends in March. And even though the budget has been cut in recent years from £10k to £5k, better programmes are being delivered, because not only do funded events have to be focused within an African history context, there also must be learning outcomes for the audience.
So, for example, even though Messrs Coleridge-Taylor & Pine, which takes place on March 23 at Harrow’s Council Chamber, is about the British classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and jazz musician Courtney Pine, the focus is not on entertainment, but on learning about the works and lives of the two musicians, and their contributions to world civilisation and history.
Also, I believe BHM events should not only highlight history, but should where possible, have a British connection, either in content or by pointing to references or connections closer to home.
So if, for example, an event should re-visit the American civil rights and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it would help if the audience were made aware of some of the civil rights activities that took place in Britain, including the Bristol Bus Boycott, which ended on the same day Martin Luther King delivered his famous I Have A Dream speech.
The Bristol Bus Boycott is one of the many African British histories that comes out of my talking through the subjects of the NARM photographs.
The moral here is that a budget cut does not necessarily mean poor quality events; a multiplicity of BHM events does not necessarily mean our knowledge of African history is improved; and that many of those complaining about the Mayor’s budget cut would not necessarily participate if there was a plethora of Mayor-funded BHM events.
Finally, even though statutory bodies, such as the Mayoralty and Councils, are enjoined to support the tenets of BHM, and they ought to be providing adequate BHM funding, I would rather we found ways within our own means to empower ourselves and particularly those of us who routinely claim “we don’t know our history”, rather than concern ourselves with budgets which have in the main been used to entertain, rather than educate us.
By Kwaku, Founder of the BritishBlackMusic.com/Black Music Congress