Black History Month in Cheltenham: A Review

This review was written by 2nd year undergraduate student Jenna M. Pateman.

As November begins, I felt it was right to look back at this year’s Black History Month in Cheltenham, a yearly event put together by a number of collaborating organisations including the African Community Foundation Gloucestershire, the Borough Council, the University, and the Gloucestershire branch of the Historical Association. Over the course of October, there were many diverse events in and around Cheltenham with the aim of promoting and discussing black history and culture. I was lucky enough to attend all four talks which covered a range of fascinating topics.

[3rd October 2016] Malcolm X by Neil Wynn [Emeritus Professor of 20th Century US History, University of Gloucestershire] for the Gloucestershire Historical Association


Prof Wynn discussed the twists and turns of Malcolm X’s life, and the relationships with important people such as his “opposite” Martin Luther King Jr., which helped me to understand this incredible, but complicated man. His stance on issues of Civil Rights was really made clear in his response to a question on his advocacy for self-defence at the Oxford Union debate on December 3rd 1964: “That as long as a white man does it, it’s alright, a black man is supposed to have no feelings, […] But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.” Even with uncomfortable views that Malcolm X held, such as seeing white people as ‘devils,’ and his belief that separation would be best for both races, Prof Wynn contextualized these views so that we can better understand them. For instance, even though he was excelling in his all-white school, his experience of racism in the US meant that he honestly believed his dream of practising law was “no realistic goal for a nigger.”[i]

[17th October 2016] Violence and colonialism in Zimbabwe by Heike Schmidt [Lecturer of Modern History from University of Reading] for the Gloucestershire Historical Association


In the context of Black History Month, it is important to examine how colonialism affected people’s lives, and how its legacies continue to do so long after independence was won. In Dr Heike Schmidt’s talk on Zimbabwe, it was both interesting and disheartening to hear these experiences and influence of white culture has affected the understanding of the nation’s past. For example, the creation narrative of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe during colonisation was of white civilisation being responsible for impressive stone structures. There was even political pressure on archaeologists at the time to deny its construction by native African people. This shows how history and heritage are shaped by wider power structures, such as a country’s elite. The site became an important symbol of achievement for the Zimbabweans as they began to reclaim their history following the recognition of the country’s independence, and was renamed after its greatest archaeological treasure.

 [19th October 2016] Race in the Media: On the Front Lines by Seyi Rhodes [Investigative journalist reporter for Channel 4’s ‘Unreported World’ and ‘Dispatches’] for the University of Gloucestershire’s Public Lecture Series


In this talk, Seyi Rhodes discussed the world of documentary-making, mostly centred around two of his films, one on plastic surgery in Brazil and the other on gangs and violence in Chicago. By examining the trauma of those communities, who are losing so many to the shootings, not just the gang members, but innocent bystanders such as a 10 year old little girl at her birthday party, Rhodes highlighted one of the problems with the Black Lives Matter cause. By almost exclusively concentrating on the deaths caused by police brutality, the campaign seems to ignore the death and impact caused by these young black men shooting each other in the street. Black on black killings are causing a lot more deaths than police violence, especially in Chicago, and the communities are drowning in the grief. If all ‘black lives matter,’ why are the ones in Chicago not being discussed, as well as the mental health issues (such as PTSD) that comes from living in what Seyi Rhodes likened to a warzone?

[26th October 2016] Black History in Gloucestershire by Dr Madge Dresser. [Associate Professor of History at the University of the West of England] for the University of Gloucestershire’s Public Lecture Series


This talk focused on a broader historiographical discussion and definition of black history. Dr Dresser also discussed how anyone can engage with and discover their local heritage. The event ended with  a pragmatic S.W.O.T analysis that highlighted all the possibilities and current limits of conducting essential research in black and minority history. In this way, Dr Dresser was able to address some of the underlying problems of existing historical research in this area, such as the fact that black historical narratives during Black History Month focus overwhelmingly on slavery or the Civil Rights movement, which she likened to telling the history of the Jewish people by only considering the Holocaust. She thus argued that it is important that black history is included within wider national or global narratives (i.e. British/American/European history, etc.), beyond the dominant gaze of white male perspective. This was the most enlightening event of the month for me, as I really enjoyed learning about historiographical issues of black history and connecting it to my home county.

The events from this past October have reinforced my belief that it is necessary to celebrate and recognise the history and the achievements of black people in a society where white western narratives dominate historical instruction and discussion. It is regrettable that much of the conversation is pigeonholed into a single month, rather than being integrated into the wider discussion of history especially within the context of a very multicultural Britain (despite the fact this seems under attack in recent times). History is one of the ways we can strengthen our understanding of experiences different to our own, even if some of those issues that can be uncomfortable. Plus, a little less ‘old white rich guy history’ is always a good thing in my book.

The wealth of knowledge on display for free, or for a very low fee is incredible, and more people should be taking advantage of what we have on our doorstep in Gloucestershire. I really enjoyed this year’s Black History Month, and I am looking forward to next year’s events.

[i] Quote from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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