What Black History Month means to me

I didn’t hear the term ‘Black History Month’ until I started school; before then, to me, it was simply ‘history’.

Black history month

Oluseun Oduleye, Trainee Portfolio Manager

Black History at school

I was always taught about various parts of history by family members, including different viewpoints and stories about my ancestors, which made learning engaging and relatable. In primary school, my knowledge of history expanded outside of family, to significant global events such as the World Wars and politics.

However, I often felt a lot of information that was shared at home was omitted from my normal curriculum. Then I was introduced to Black History Month, a period of time in which plays, books, music, accomplishments, and the experiences of black people are celebrated and studied.

Black History at work

Fast forward to the corporate world, I often ask companies what they do for Black History Month.  The most common answer is nothing, which for me meant there was an awareness gap that I could help tackle.

And, so, here you are reading this article about Black History Month from my perspective. In doing so, you have opened yourself up to be better informed about the history of the people that you work with, live near or see out and about.

What is Black History Month?

Black History Month in October is used to educate and inform people about the diverse history of black people and highlight the vast number of successes and achievements by them. Now, as a disclaimer, I believe that one month is not enough, but it is a conscious effort to bring balance to the general population’s skewed knowledge of black people and our history.

Black History Month originally started in February 1926 by Carter G. Woodson in America as something called “Negro Week”. It was later extended to the whole month. In the 1970s, Akyaaba Addai Sebo visited America and, after admiring what they had done with black history, he founded the UK’s version in 1987. This followed an event in which Akyaaba had a colleague whose child came home from school one day and asked "Mum, why can't I be white?" This was a snapshot of the state of black people’s mindset in Britain at the time. Akyaaba set out to change that and to permanently celebrate black people's contribution to world civilisation. 

The UK’s Black History Month is in October. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Akyaaba found many African chiefs and leaders gather to settle differences in October.
  2. October signifies the beginnings of the school year, and it was thought that this would give black children a sense of pride and identity. 

Today, different industries and communities highlight black talent throughout the month of October.

Contemporary race relations

The state of race relations has continued to hit the headlines in recent years, notably in 2020 with the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in the US. In the UK, over the last four months, there have been multiple reports of the police killing unarmed black men, namely the stories of Oladeji Omishore and Chris Kaba who were both killed in separate instances. As tough as these situations are to hear, these discussions inevitably seep into the corporate world.

Last year, Forbes released an article titled ‘One Year Later: How Companies Have Responded To George Floyd’s Murder.’ The article notably points out how companies have responded to these injustices. For example, Estée Lauder pledged to increase the percentage of employees of colour at all levels within the next five years. IBM said it would no longer offer or develop facial recognition technology for fear of it being used for malicious purposes involving human rights, privacy violations and racial profiling. The key thing to watch here isn’t the words that are said, but the actions and impact these companies make.

Meaningful representation

Although diversity has taken centre stage of late, we still struggle to actually put this into action through meaningful representation. I’ve taken the chance to highlight a number of individuals doing some great things in the industry:

  • Reggie Nelson, an investment professional, who wrote a book, titled ‘Opening Doors: How Daring to Ask For Help Changed My Life (And Will Change Yours Too)’, which talks about how he went knocking on doors in Kensington looking for tips on getting into the industry.
  • Gavin Lewis, a managing director at BlackRock, who is the co-founder of #Talkaboutblack initiative, which aims to increase representation of Black professionals in asset management.
  • Omotunde Lawal, Head of Emerging Markets Corporate Debt at Barings, who is a vocal mentor who has been a diversity advocate and spoken about the intersectionality of being a black woman in the industry.

Representation is key and giving individuals the opportunity to thrive in the corporate world can serve as an avenue to appeal to more black people within the industry, especially at the upper levels. 

Hopefully, this sparks a thirst to know more. Even if all you do today is Google search “Black History Month”, you will be more knowledgeable than you were yesterday. Ultimately, I believe all stories are important and should be celebrated. Black History is a part of all our histories and black voices should be heard, taken seriously and acted upon.

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