ROGER McKENZIE reflects on Black History Month, which begins today
BLACK History Month is now well established as a key part of the black cultural calendar and I should confess from the outset that while I understand and support the principle of holding it every year, I celebrate black history every day.
I accept that trying to get everyone to celebrate this every day might be something of a tall order but maintaining a consciousness of why, to coin a phrase, “black lives matter” should be something we all aspire too, whatever the colour of our skin.
The impact of Black History Month on black activists has been profound. It has shown that black workers did not merely arrive in Britain in the post-war Windrush era with no history of rebellion or political activity, as some commentators might have us all believe.
In fact many in the black community arrived in Britain from families steeped in the tradition of organising against colonialism and the racism that all too often flowed from it. Indeed, many arrived here with stories, passed down from generation to generation, of how black people rebelled against slavery.
This strong black radical tradition, so brilliantly exposed by Cedric Robinson in the classic book Black Marxism, provided the foundation for the unity that was forged between people of African and Asian descent on which the very distinct British black political movement was built.
It was a unity forged out of fire as the white elites worked hard to create economic and social divisions between them.
One of the most heartening aspects of Black History Month is that it provides clear evidence that black political and trade union activists are well capable of thinking for and organising ourselves. This is at the root of the movement for black self-organisation both within the Labour Party, notably through the Black Sections Movement, and throughout the trade union movement.
Unions, small and large and across many sectors, have accepted the right of black workers to self-organise within their structures. In my opinion this has been critical for not only ensuring that more black workers are represented in key bargaining arenas and at senior levels of their organisations but also for making sure that issues of institutional racism and more blatant forms of race discrimination are now actually dealt with.
Before the voice of black workers was more organised black workers raising these issues were more likely to be dismissed as having a fertile imagination or a chip on their shoulder.
The chipping away at the deeply embedded racism of capitalism is by no means solely down to the often lonely activities of black activists. Many white comrades have taken principled positions against racism, often in the face of some hostility or reticence from their own allies.
In the trade union movement, the legendary RMT leader Bob Crow was instrumental in raising the wages and improving the terms and conditions of many black workers who were traditionally low paid.
My own general secretary, Dave Prentis of Unison, was one of the leaders of the TUC Stephen Lawrence Task Force and one of those who insisted on changing the rules of the TUC to embed all forms of equality into its work.
October Black History Month in October is invaluable for all these reasons but also because it helps to give us confidence. It reminds us that you can win, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, as long as you organise collectively.
Roger McKenzie, assistant general secretary of Unison, writes in a personal capacity.