David Lammy: What Black History Month Means to Me
For more than 30 years, Black History Month has been a fixture in Britain’s cultural calendar, celebrated every October in schools, universities and at a vast array of events across the country. In 2016, we were lucky enough to catch up with labour politician and MP for Tottenham David Lammy to talk about the month, placing it in the context of its corresponding political climate.
Black History Month was introduced to Britain in 1987 by politician Linda Bellos, who opened up the space to shine light on black British histories. The month of October is dedicated to illuminating black British achievement, whether it be athletes who competed in Rio, musicians who performed at festivals this summer, actors, engineers who built our cities, politicians who fight for justice, financial sector workers, healthcare professionals or hospitality staff. In examining a variety of achievements, we can see what an extraordinary, diverse and rich nation Britain is, but this is not to say that there is not work still to be done.
In his introduction for Black History Month, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said that: “London is a very open city, but improving social integration is still one of the biggest challenges we face". This is something that rings true not just in the capital, but in all other cities across the globe: although we have made progress, there is still a long way to go. In discussing the Brexit vote, diversity in the media, and the triumphs of ethnic minority communities, David Lammy reflected on the highs and lows of Britain’s approach to inclusion, equality and multiculturalism.
Sadiq Khan wants to tackle the integration issue
Black History Month is about celebrating the African-Caribbean contribution to the British community. What do you think we have learned from the achievements and successes of Ethnic Minority communities?
The achievements and successes of our Ethnic Minority communities are stories of triumphs over adversity and victories for equality - whether that’s Paul Stevenson leading the Bristol Bus Boycott which eventually led to the Race Relations Act, or the contribution of Black and Minority Ethnic soldiers from across the Commonwealth who fought for freedom and democracy in the two World Wars. These stories tell us a lot about the role that brave and principled human beings play in bringing about progress and how they set an example for us all to follow. This year, nothing sums up the contribution, achievements and successes of Ethnic Minority communities better than Mo Farah, who arrived in this country from Somalia as a young boy with nothing, and Nicola Adams proudly standing on the podium in Rio as a reigning British Olympic champion.
This month is an important part of our cultural calendar. What changes do you foresee there being with Black History Month in the next 5 years?
Black History Month is not just an important cultural event for the black community – it is about our entire country. By looking at our shared history, we are able to think about our universal humanity and all that we have in common with each other – and that is why Black History Month has gone from strength to strength over the last three decades and become such an integral part of our cultural calendar. Each and every generation has to reassert these common values of equality and opportunity, so Black History Month will continue to have an absolutely vital role to play in the future.
In talking about the lack of racial diversity in the media, you have commented that television has not always made real progress. Do you feel the coverage and celebration of Black history has been good enough? If not, what changes would you suggest to broadcasting stations?
We still need to work to present diversity on and off screen
Diversity has got to be more than just reports and strategies that don’t get implemented, or press releases that announce lofty initiatives that ultimately end up getting shelved a few months down the line. Although things may have got better on screen, there remain real challenges off screen.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Government White Paper, and I will continue to work with the broadcasting sector as a whole in order to promote diversity both on and off screen.
Which influential Black and Minority Ethnic speakers do you admire, and how have they influenced you in both your personal life and your political career?
The really big debates of the 20th century were about equality for the oppressed, whether it was women, the working classes or ethnic minorities. Some of our greatest orators were formed in those tumultuous battles and some of the greatest speakers in our history are leaders of movements that fought to overcome racism to achieve the recognition of universal rights of equality for ethnic minorities.
For me personally, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela stand out. Particularly, King’s I Have A Dream speech from 1963 and the way that Nelson Mandela spoke of reconciliation and unity after his release from prison.
I am also lucky enough to have known Barack Obama before he rose to become President of the United States by virtue of both attending Harvard Law School. To have been able to chart his progress and listen to some of his magnificent speeches whilst in office has been hugely inspiring to me, just as his story has inspired so many young people who will have been boosted by the example that he has set for them.
David Lammy admires Martin Luther King
You mentioned in your blog that Black History Month affords us the opportunity to 'celebrate our differences and proudly stand together'. In light of the Brexit vote, many Britons will be feeling divided - how do you suggest we overcome this and move forward as a united and diverse country now?
At the heart of what makes Britain great, in every community, is a deeply imbued sense of fairness, tolerance and understanding. This is on display in diverse workplaces up and down the country where people of all ethnicities work side by side, and at football clubs every weekend, just as much as it was on display during the Olympics this summer when the country came together to celebrate Team GB’s success. Brexit does not, and simply must not, change this fact. We must not let an extremist minority stir up divisions or create fear. I am definitely an optimist on this point – we will overcome this sense of division and the recent spate of hate crime and we will get through it.
What does this month mean to you on a personal level?
I usually receive a lot of requests to speak at Black History Month events, which I really enjoy as they enable me to get out of Westminster and into communities to meet people. More broadly, it is an opportunity for me to reflect personally on where I have come from, raised by a single mum in Tottenham with an unlikely journey that has seen me end up as a Member of Parliament. Most of all, it makes me proud of my country because for all of the challenges that exist in Britain today, whilst there is undoubtedly always work to do, we are so much better than so many countries when it comes to equality.
This month is a time to recgonise buried histories, embrace equality and inclusion, and continue to help create a better society. We hope that October will see Britons embracing difference and coming together in this annual celebration.
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**This Q&A is from 30/09/2016. Edits were made to the article on 01/10/2018.