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Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

Self pride is the catralyst for achievement and there is no greater "truth"than knowing yourself

Patrick Vernon interviews Akyaaba Addai-Sebo the architect of Black History Month in the UK

PV- How was Black History Month first started in the UK?

Akyaaba Addai-Sebo

AS: 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 why 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 play grounds in the communities in some parts of London.

I was awakened to the fact that even some Ghanaians tried to mimick being Afro-Caribbeans and some Afro-Caribbeans would take offense being referred to as “African”. A crisis of identity faced us squarely despite the Race Awareness campaigns of the Greater London Council (GLC) and the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). I also worked then as the Special Projects Coordinator of the Ethnic Minorities Unit of the Greater London Council. More had to be done and so I conceived an annual celebration of the contributions of Africa, Africans and people of African descent to world civilization from antiquity to the present and got a lot of support from the leadership of the GLC and ILEA and most especially from Mr. Ansel Wong, Head of the Ethnic Minorities Unit and the leader of GLC, Mr. Ken Livingstone.

Black History Month 1987

PV: Why was October chosen to celebrate Black History Month?

AS: There is historical link to Black History Month as celebrated in the US in February because of the inspiration of Dr. Carter G. Woodson who set it up there. 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” who gave the world the concept of monotheism (the worship of a one and only God); who helped to install the first electric lighting system in London, Amsterdam and New York, in the person of Lewis Latimer, a pioneering partner of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesler (credited with lightning the world) and many more. October in the UK as February in the US is to inculcate self-pride and especially in children. Self-pride is the catalyst for achievement and there is no greater “truth” than knowing yourself.

PV: What was the context of context of you coming to Britain and establishing Black History Month?

AS: I came to the UK to seek refuge from political persecution in Ghana during the regime of Jerry John Rawlings in January 1984. 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. I was in an elevating company with my strategic position as coordinator of special projects at the Greater London Council and Chairman of the African Refugees Housing Action Group within a year of my arrival and later Operations Manager of the Notting Hill Carnival. We were at the forefront of the campaigns against institutional racism in the UK and the apartheid regimes in Southern Africa.