openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why we need White History Month

Black History Month is a great thing, but think what we might learn from a White sequel

David Dibosa
David Dibosa
25 October 2021, 8.00am
Auctioning African captives in Jamestown in 1617. Illustration of 1897
Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

I wish I could join the throngs of people queuing up to slag off Black History Month. Four weeks and more on the transatlantic slave trade, the Underground Railroad and the Empire Windrush… enough, already, again. As the declining sun shines bright over crisp October days and the harvest is being celebrated or forgotten, I get ready to reap the crop of predictable requests in my overgrown inbox. “Could you speak at this Zoom event?” “Would you offer us a comment?” “Do please write something witty and original for our erudite left-wing journal.” I’m sure many people would want, in a quiet moment, to put a stop to it all. Sometimes I am among them. Most times, though, I am not.

I love Black History Month. Harriet Tubman, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, I enjoy hearing those names again and again. After all, history is about recitation – the return of past events still relevant to the present. It makes no sense to hear about something only once. History is not news. Listening to the lush orchestration of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor or the virtuosity of the scoring by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, I consider what more I can do to support the Chineke! Orchestra and its fabulous work. The fruits of the talents of so many Black musicians, artists and writers are gathered and displayed in an exquisite exhibition during this most poignant season. What’s not to like?

In fact, I am so constantly moved by the wonders of Black History Month that I think there ought to be a White History Month as well. Maybe in November. In the wake of that superb Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead. Of course, here in Europe, we call it All Saints but it amounts more or less to the same thing. With either carnival or solemnity, we could start a whole month of the history of Britain with non-White people airbrushed out of it.

Imagine the highlights of the reign of King James I – the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedy – all without mentioning that during his rule, in a place called Jamestown, people from Africa were landed in the Americas and enslaved. That was in 1619 so October’s Black History could take care of that: by November, we’d be celebrating White History so no need to mention it.

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Maybe we could rehearse the story of Walter Raleigh and his famed presentation of a potato to Queen Elizabeth I without discussing the genocide of the indigenous people of what we now call the Americas who were, of course, the first to cultivate that crop. Imagine what could be achieved with a White History Month.

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Some of my friends with children of school age tell me that what I propose for WHM (I often prefer an acronym) is nothing new. In fact, it’s pretty much standard fare. There could be something to be gained, though, by highlighting what is already going on. Perhaps, by announcing a White History Month, in which non-White peoples are explicitly evacuated from key points in the history of the UK, we might be able to understand better the mechanics of our history curricula.

Rather than complaining about Black History Month, the spotlight should be placed on the more conventional historical narratives. The world wars, the Industrial Revolution, the Tudors: what is at stake in representing such events without a Black person in sight? Why is so much energy put into casting a spell of invisibility to make non-White people disappear from the stories we tell?

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