After visiting America in the 1970s, Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai Sebo went to the UK to seek refuge from what he called political persecution in Ghana during the regime of former military leader, Jerry John Rawlings in January 1984.
He would later be the architect of Black History Month in the UK, an annual commemoration of the achievements, history and contributions of black people.
For over 30 years, the month of October has been set aside for various functions to highlight Black History Month, including talk shows and food festivals across the country.
Black History Month, which originated from the U.S., was created by historian, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) who wanted to challenge the thinking of many at the time that ‘the negro has no history’.
Africa was depicted as a dark continent, containing savages and hence black people became an object of shame and were treated poorly.
Woodson, to debunk this, established The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 which encouraged scholars and historians to research and preserve the history and culture of black people.
In February 1926, Woodson founded Negro History Week and soon many came to the realization that a week was not long enough to celebrate black people.
Following the works of the civil rights movement and the Black Power Movement, Black History Month was introduced in 1969.
Words about the Black History Month would soon spread to the UK, and the Ghanaian-born, Addai Sebo would lead this charge, eventually birthing UK’s version of Black History Month in 1987.
Raised in Ghana, Addai Sebo was among the many young people who benefited from the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers Movement, a body that grew a generation of young leaders for Africa.
Addai Sebo’s education would take him to America in the 1970s, where he would get abreast with the celebration of Black History Month, then a national holiday that had achieved heights in renewing a sense of pride among black children.
He would later move to London after being declared a wanted man in Ghana during the rule of former military leader, Jerry John Rawlings.
“A death squad had been sent after me but I escaped their detection and was declared a WANTED MAN. The People’s and Workers’ Defence Committees at that time protected me and prepared my escape after three weeks of hide and seek with the security agencies. I settled in London with my wife, Nana Akua Owusu, who had arrived before me. We lived in the company of Pan-African intellectual giant, CLR James and his nephew, Darcus Howe, black activist who run the Race Today collective. I was therefore absorbed in community activism right on my arrival,” he explained in an interview with Black History 365 in 2017.
He soon began work as coordinator of special projects at the Greater London Council and Chairman of the African Refugees Housing Action Group within a year of his arrival and later Operations Manager of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Addai Sebo and his team were leading the campaigns against institutional racism in the UK and the apartheid regimes in southern Africa.
But a chilling conversation he had with a colleague while working in London would spark his vision of a Black History Month for the UK.
“I was stirred up in the mid-1980s by the identity crisis that Black children faced as some brazenly would not identify with Africa and shrank when called an African. A colleague came to work one morning broken-hearted and in probing her, she revealed to me in confidence that her seven-year-old son, who she had proudly and purposefully named Marcus, after Marcus Mosiah Garvey (a foremost Black nationalist leader), before going to bed, had asked her: “Mom, why can’t I be white?”
“In consoling this devastated mother I was prompted to go around asking questions about “identity” and to observe and talk to children more after school, in buses, parks, and in the playgrounds in the communities in some parts of London. I was awakened to the fact that even some Ghanaians tried to mimic being Afro-Caribbeans and some Afro-Caribbeans would take offence being referred to as ‘African’.”
From this conversation, Addai Sebo said he realized that a crisis of identity was facing many people in spite of the race awareness campaigns of his outfits, the Greater London Council (GLC) and the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).
He, therefore, considered an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans and the people of African descent to world civilization from the ancient times to present and in the process, he got a lot of support from folks of the GLC including leading members such as Mr. Ansel Wong, Head of the Ethnic Minorities Unit and the leader of GLC, Mr. Ken Livingstone.
“My vantage position in the administration of the city of London enabled us to invite into our community personalities like Sally Mugabe, Graca Machel, Winnie Mandela, Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Max Roach, Hugh Masekela, John Henrik Clarke, Frances Cress-Welsing, Tony Martin, Yosef ben-Jochannan, Mawulena Karenga, Grand Ballets d’Afrique Noire, Ray Charles, and many more to inspire, educate and help in the in the intellectual preparation of our community for the future safety and development of Africa in our collective interest,” he said.
The first Black History Month UK would eventually feature several renowned women and men from across Africa, including; Maulana Karenga (founder of Kwanzaa), Frances Cress Welsing (Author of The Isis Papers), pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Historian Prof Tony Martin and the then first lady of Zimbabwe, Sally Mugabe.
The expressed aims and objectives were: “To promote positive public images and understand of Afrikans and people of Afrikan descent and encourage the positive teaching and development of their history, culture and struggle”, as well as, to “support Afrikan organisations and liberation movements based in London”.
The U.S., which is the originator of Black History Month celebrates it in February but the UK chose October largely because the month represents the beginning of the new academic year for children and hence the right time to inculcate in them a sense of pride and identity.
“We drank from the cup of Dr Woodson but decided on a particular period of the year that will engage most the minds of children and youth in the UK. We settled on the propitious month of October when the weather was not cold and children were fresh after the long summer vacation and had less to worry about exams and tests and the camaraderie was stronger as they shared experiences. We believed that they would absorb more if their living environment buzzed with positive vibes, instructions and images about themselves and their origins, thus celebrating who they are as ‘Africans’,” Addai Sebo explained.
Today, Black History Month in the UK highlights the contribution of Britain’s illustrious personalities in the arts and politics, as well as the lives of people like Stephen Lawrence, whose murder triggered nationwide protest and confronted Britain with its own racism.
In recent years, there have been plans by several councils to scrap the name (Black History Month), and rather make it a month of celebration of all different ethnicities.
Centuries before slavery, the Windrush generation and the Second World War, black people and other minority groups have been a part of British history and it would not be out of place to set aside a month to celebrate these people.
But a number of councils, according to campaigners of Black History Month, are refusing to recognize the month.
Attempts to dilute the significance of the month have shocked many people, largely blacks who feel that the celebration is more important than ever this year, especially in the wake of racism and white supremacy rising across the world.
Some people have argued that dedicating only a month to teach black history is not enough and have asked for it to be rather integrated into the mainstream education system.
For Addai Sebo, the significance of Black History Month to the African continent “lies in the fact that a renaissance in African values and lifestyles in the diaspora will facilitate a “Back to Africa” consciousness reminiscent of the Back To Africa movement of Marcus Mosiah Garvey in the first part of the 20th Century.”
He believes that it is this “aroused consciousness that will stimulate skilled professionals to return to Africa to contribute to the developmental process in order to remove the scourge of underdevelopment, civil war and poverty that fill the television screens, newspapers and magazines of the western world which causes our children and youth to shrink away from themselves when confronted with such disturbing images.”