Black History Month

Celebrating the contributions and histories of the African and Caribbean communities. 

As a History teacher, the celebration of Black History Month in October has always been an important marker in my academic calendar, along with Remembrance Sunday in November and Holocaust Memorial Day in January. These national occasions allow us collectively to pause and reflect on pivotal moments in History, to help stop us continually making the same mistakes again, but also to celebrate the strength of human spirit through adversity and to honour the achievements of key figures who have had a significant impact on our world. 

Black History Month originated in the USA in 1926 when a historian from Harvard, Carter G. Woodson and a minister, Jesse E. Moorland, designated a week in February as an opportunity for communities nationwide to organise local events, establish history clubs and put on performances and lectures. By the 1960s it had evolved into Black History Month as part of the Civil Rights Movement, with it being officially recognised by the President, Gerald Ford, in 1976. In the UK, the event started in 1987 and celebrates the contributions that people of African and Caribbean heritage have made to our country. This year, in the UK, Black History Month’s theme is Black British Theatre and along with the Black Lives Matter movement it re-emphasises the importance of taking the time to celebrate the many and wide contributions of the Black community to Britain. 

At BGS we will be using Tutor time to raise awareness of Black History Month, setting it into the context of 2020, the year when people all across the world have openly taken a stand against racism and in the words of Joseph Harker: ‘It’s clearer than ever that Black history is everyone’s history’. Tutors will be running a variety of activities to explore Black History Month by looking at key inspirational, but often forgotten, Black figures from Robert Wedderburn to Emperor Septimius Severus; to discussing Black History Month firsts, and through using quotes as starting points for discussions and reflections, for example: ‘My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together’ (Desmond Tutu). 

The students, led by our African and Caribbean Society, are also leading the way with a House Competition focusing on the achievements of influential Black women. Additionally, the LRC has recently curated a collection of works highlighting Black British History, under the banner of remember, celebrate and educate, with new additions including Black and British by David Olusoga, BRITish by Afua Hirsch and the recent best seller Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.  

This led me to think about the importance of the study of History in schools and ensuring the next generation engages in analysing the mistakes of the past, questioning the status quo, and ensuring the future is a more inclusive one. 

Having taught History for many years in a variety of contexts, it is clear, firstly, how crucial it is that young people connect with the content of their courses, and, secondly how too often in the past, history curriculum in English schools have focused very heavily on British History (particularly on the achievements of white males) or perhaps, at best, have had a very Eurocentric approach.

This became even clearer to me when teaching History at British curriculum schools in Asia, where I found that I engendered far more engagement from students where the subject matter felt more relatable. For instance, when teaching the Holocaust to students in South Korea, I expanded the topic to look at genocides worldwide and, in doing so, included Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia and Cambodia to provide the students with a more relevant global outlook. 

Whilst this global contextualisation led to greater understanding, the part of the topic the students were most riveted by was the study of the Jeju Uprising of 1948, a terrible tragedy which occurred on the island we were living on and, up until the early 2000s, was not widely acknowledged in South Korea. The students became far more animated in these discussions, particularly when trying to analyse whether the Jeju Uprising could be considered to be genocide. Their global understanding being applied to a local event was a strong combination in cementing their learning.

This confirmed to me the importance of ensuring that our teaching of History engages students by being relevant to them. Whilst History is also crucial for helping our students have a greater understanding of other cultures, if we continually focus too heavily on one type of History, young people may switch off and not fully value the lessons we can gain from the past. 

One example of this at BGS, is that in Year 8 we spend an entire year looking at women’s history. A key aspect of this topic is to study the significance of individual women and this year, girls have chosen a wide range of women including Mary Seacole, alongside the more well-known heroines such as Rosa Parks (who is also celebrated as one of the School’s House names). The decision to move away from a more traditional approaches to the teaching of History will equip our girls with a sense of pride in the achievements of women in the past, and inspire them to make their own impact on the world. 

Moreover, I have had some wonderful conversations with our History teachers, who speak  passionately about how we can engage all girls, whatever background, to feel connected to their own history, whilst also fostering academic curiosity about the customs, traditions and values of others. We are fully committed to finding opportunities to learn about other cultures, through the study of History and also in other subjects, such as Music, Literature and Drama. It is through this celebration of all that makes us such a rich and diverse community that we ensure everyone feels included. 

During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr said that “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”. Unfortunately, as a historian, I know that this quote can be applied to far too many events in History, but it is encouraging that in 2020 people around the world are engaging in the Black Lives Matter movement (with potentially 26 million people in the USA alone) with more and more individuals, companies and leaders being committed to ensuring change happens. This has been no more apparent as the girls reflect on the significance of race as a contentious issue in the lead up to November’s vote whilst studying the 2020 US Election in A Level Politics. More widely at BGS, we will use the momentum of this movement as an opportunity to listen to our students’ and alumnae’s views, grow and develop as a community, and reassert our commitment to being an inclusive school where everyone feels valued and respected. I trust that when we study this period as part of our History lessons in many years to come, we will be able to say that this was the turning point which brought about real change to our society.

The Power of a Smile

One of the first things I have noticed about the BGS community is how friendly it is; standing at the school gates in the mornings and walking around the corridors, I am frequently greeted with cheery smiles. In fact, the smiles and little chats I have with the students at the gates are far better than a morning coffee for starting the day in the right way! These small encounters led me to thinking about the importance of human interaction, and particularly smiling and laughing together. We have spent so much time apart from one another over the last few months, that we must cherish these moments of togetherness and prioritise opportunities to connect with each other in real life. 

As I explored the importance of smiling and laughter, I uncovered some fascinating facts which may emphasise why we should incorporate these elements in our day-to-day lives. Both laughter and smiling have been proven to have many health benefits, both psychologically and physiologically. The most obvious one is stress relief, but they can also help stimulate organs, soothe tension and strengthen our immune system. Laughter is a bonding experience, it helps us feel connected to one another, feel part of a group and demonstrates that we trust each other; this is why it is so often contagious. Smiling is so powerful that studies have shown that its effects can be felt even down the telephone and that even faking a smile can lead us to feeling happier. People believe that those who smile frequently are more confident and successful. Interestingly, the philosopher John Morreal believes that we laugh as a sign of shared relief after a passing danger. Surely, therefore, this is the antidote we need, as we live in the constant uncertainty of the pandemic, our shared laughter and smiles may help carry us through.

But what about the effect of wearing masks on our ability to recognise smiling? This was the question I posed to the girls during an assembly, with many believing our faces being covered had a negative impact. However, initial research has indicated that a smile can still be recognised through the movement around our eyes, even though our mouths are covered. Though it may be more difficult to recognise our smiles behind our masks, it is certainly not impossible and I encourage the students to still connect with each other in this way, even when wearing their masks.

I am not the only person encouraging smiling in the school; the Girls’ Leadership Group has recently launched its One Smile campaign, which will be running all year. Did you know that adults only smile on average around 20 times per day compared with an average of 400 for children? So I have challenged the students to not only find ways to make themselves smile and laugh, but also to help the adults around them to smile more frequently too. So whether it be through watching sitcoms together or finding funny animal clips on YouTube or swapping silly stories, I hope you all manage to find plenty of ways to share laughter and smiles with your daughters in the weeks ahead. So on that note I shall leave you with a quote from someone whose name is synonymous with a kindly smile and the positivity they contributed to the world around them:

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do” Mother Teresa