Black History Month: what it means to our people
Black History Month (BHM) is a celebration that has taken place every year since 1987, running throughout the month of October. BHM offers an opportunity to not only celebrate but to learn about achievements and contributions people of African and Caribbean heritage have made to the UK’s history and culture.
This year’s theme is ‘Saluting our Sisters’, highlighting the crucial role that black women have played in shaping history, inspiring change, and building communities. The month has been celebrating pioneering black women who have made remarkable contributions to literature, music, fashion, sport, business, politics, academia, social and health care, and more in the UK.
That meant we celebrated everyone from Dame Linda Hobbs, the first non-white person to be appointed to the senior judiciary of England and Wales, through to journalist and ‘mother’ of the Notting Hill Carnival, Claudia Jones, and Dame Jocelyn Barrow, the former governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
As BHM 2023 ends, three members of the ClearBank diversity, equity and inclusion team, Dimensions, and the coordinators of our BHM celebrations shared their thoughts and feelings on what it means to them.
Monty Onanuga, Business Support Manager, Risk and Compliance
Growing up, my parents would call me ‘Alariwo of London’, which in English means, ‘noise of London’. What can I say, I’m a loud black girl, always have been! I’m a music lover like most people and often couldn’t help but share the fact that I sounded like Whitney Houston...in the shower! Those shower acoustics really elevated my sound. Also, if you’ve ever seen me at a ClearBank meet-up, you’ll know I’m on the dance floor for most of the evening.
However, my ‘loudness’ wasn’t always a party. I was often ‘shooshed’ or told to ‘quieten down’ so that I didn’t draw undue attention to myself. My parents weren’t worried that Simon Cowell might spot me and make me a superstar. Instead, they were concerned and cautious that I might be labelled ‘a loud black girl’ with negative connotations.
When I was growing up, to be labelled ‘a loud black girl’ meant you were;
- Often giving back chat (talking back to adults (what’s wrong with talking back?))
- Not paying attention in school, so not very bright
- The angry black woman
But I was never any of those things, at least not maliciously. I’m not any of those things now... not unless I’m provoked!
From girl to woman, in personal and professional spaces, I have still felt that I’ve had to simmer down, and not draw attention to myself. Doing my best to avoid being labelled as loud or, worse, angry/aggressive - ‘the angry black woman’. That’s sometimes short-lived, as the performer in me doesn’t stay quiet for long. But also, because my loudness is not something to be silenced.
My loudness is not always equated to volume. It’s the boldness I have to defend myself, the loud way in which I love my family, the loudness of my joy.
I’m reminded of the ‘loud black women’ that inspire me. From the banging belters Whitney is famous for to the stoic resilience of Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE.
Baroness Doreen Lawrence has spent her life tirelessly campaigning to create an equal and fair society after rising to prominence following the murder of her son Stephen in a racist attack in London in 1993. Through her campaign work, Baroness Lawrence has advocated for many causes close to her heart including reforms to the police service and tackling societal and institutional racism. She has inspired millions to help in the fight against racial inequality in the UK.
Defiant in her quest for change, I salute you Baroness Doreen Lawrence OBE.
And there are more, more loud black girls that inspire me to be my brightest, loudest self. I love this book. I sometimes think the essays were written for me. Loud Black Girls is a collection of essays from 20 black women writers asking, ‘What’s Next?’. My favourite essay is ‘As Loud as Lagos Traffic’, it’s very apt as I was born in Lagos and I’m a little louder than the traffic there!
Every day is BHM for me – loud, black and proud!!
Daniel Akintimehin, Credit and BaaS Risk, Senior Manager, Risk and Compliance
I never realised my black hoodie had superpowers until later on in life.
A quick trip down memory lane...
Growing up, my Mum used to make my two younger brothers and I wear the same outfits. Looking back, I find it hilarious. At the time, however, I wasn’t too impressed. We looked like a 90’s boy band, but clothes didn’t mean much to me back then, I just knew I had to wear them.
Secondary School. This was the era of Lot 29, Avirex (not that I could afford Avirex) Nike Tn’s, New Era caps and balancing your school trousers on your knees (literally). I didn’t think anything of it at that time, I was just ‘following fashion’ as they say.
College. My fashion sense was simply horrible. I just couldn’t dress to save my life and being on a Primark budget (with the ‘support’ of Educational Maintenance Allowance or EMA) just wasn’t cutting it! My excuse was, ‘I’m a footballer’. I wasn’t too bad either, so I got away with wearing shorts, tracksuit bottoms and football hoodies on a daily basis – even on dates, don’t judge me!
University. I was in my university football kit 95% of the time, and if I wasn’t in the gym, I was somewhere training, when I should have been in the library. Because of this, people around campus genuinely thought I studied Sport Science. I remember when I would tell people I studied Maths – they just didn’t believe me.
It was during this period of my life when I discovered the unexpected.
I worked in a particular town in the West Midlands. I used to wear the same black hoodie to work (not too dissimilar to the ClearBank one). On a normal day, I wouldn’t pay it any mind but with time, I began to realise that my hoody was special – it had superpowers. For example, I would walk down the long Parade and find I had the power to make people levitate across the road (okay, more like make them cross the road), but it was always when they saw me walking towards them. I also had the power to ignite a person’s swear word button; this one was always when I would walk with my hood up. Let me not lie to you, it really left me baffled at first.
I thank God for thick skin and my super powered black hoodie during that period, it served to keep my ears warm in the cold and hide the hurt. I don’t know what I would have done without it!
Professional Life. I wore a suit every day, except for Saturdays (because you guessed it, football!). As in my suit game levelled all the way up, I was now officially a City Boy! TM Lewin and Hawes and Curtis were basically my local! As for my socks, I had a pair for every day of the month in the brightest colours ever! It’s powerful how making an entrance in a suit would enable superpowers of a different kind!
There was the odd occasion where I’d resort back to my trusted black hoodie for a quick trip to the shops for example. Time to activate superpowers – only this time, you would have referred to me as Magneto! Have you ever tried putting a magnet next to paper clips? Okay, now try this, my black hoodie and a security guard or two! Then add the old age question of, ‘are you going to pay for that?’ It’s times like these when I had hoped my hoodie was just ‘normal’.
Lockdown. The power of the black hoodie reared its ‘ugly face’ once again with prominent and fatal examples in the US. That said, it was this period that made me really appreciate all my outfits of all colours, sizes, shapes, and styles, whether it be a hoodie, a suit, or my more traditional attire.
For a long time, my past experiences caused me to resent my black hoodie, but I’ve since learned that a hoodie can never define me, nor can I be stereotyped by the negative connotation of a hoodie. My character, how I treat others and ultimately how I spread love and unity is what defines me.
My black hoodie does have superpowers but that’s because I’m the one wearing it!
From black hoodies and jumpers to skirts and dresses. There are a number of our sisters here in the UK paving the way in the world of fashion today. Designers such as Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner and Kadija Kanu are truly trailblazing the path for designers and creatives of all races.
Charlene Lemard-Maxam, Senior Fintech Relationship Manager
I am a second-generation British Jamaican raised in Croydon, South London. To me, Black History Month provides a platform to actively recognise the contributions and achievements of so many Black British people, dispel negative stereotypes and replace them with positive, good true stories.
All of us experience the world individually, and my perspective is unique to me as yours is to you. However, we also share experiences and ideas and, from these, form opinions, associations and stereotypes.
What comes to mind when you think of a Jamaican? Perhaps reggae music and dreadlocks? These are all associated with Jamaicans and their culture. However, despite being acutely connected to my Jamaican heritage, I rarely listen to reggae, and I don’t have dreadlocks.
Reggae music is in my DNA. Alongside the sounds of Motown and other US soul of the 60s and 70s, this music was practically religious, and every Sunday, it played in my house, my grandparents’ houses and the many other Caribbean homes in Thornton Heath and Norbury that formed my childhood community.
As a child, you don’t think much about the context of the music you hear, now as an adult, I recognise how empowering this music truly is. Listening, albeit it unintentionally, as if by osmosis, the powerful beats, thought-provoking lyrics and social and political messages of this music created an environment for me to be confident and proud of who I was.
It did not matter that I was one of only two black girls in my prep school class at Old Palace, an independent girls’ school in Croydon, I had a positive sense of being, never questioned my right to be there, and if anything, felt a little bit unique. As an adult, I have learned that reggae music has influenced societies throughout the world and empowered people. Throughout my travels, I discovered that reggae was the music that was used to galvanise the troops in Ethiopia, which has never been colonised, and for the same reason, it was the only music genre that was banned from the political prisoners in Robben Island during the Apartheid era.
Knowing that I have come from this line of people that stand up to oppression, continue to persevere despite adversity, discrimination or lack of opportunities, people that see the good and bring out the right behaviours in others is what I think of when I think of being Jamaican.
Dreadlocks are synonymous with Rastas. Rastafarians are a subculture of Jamaican people, and their dreads are a part of their ethos. As a black woman, hair is so integral to our experience. Our hair thinks it’s alive and reacts to all the natural elements, so from as far back as history goes, we have found ways to style and protect it, as despite its bold appearance, it is actually quite fragile. The reggae artists of the 70s made dreadlocks a fashion statement, which helped it gain mainstream acceptance.
Black hairstyles, including dreadlocks, have influenced fashion trends across the world. I love and embrace the way hairstyles such as dreadlocks have shaped fashion and style, as well as push the boundaries on how we look and self-expression. I might not wear my hair in dreads, but I do change my hairstyle frequently and enjoy the diversity and optionality that black hairstyles give me to be expressive and reflect aspects of my personality.
I love that we are now in a time where black women can confidently wear braids and locks in a corporate environment, and it is no longer associated with negative connotations – as, after all it's just hair!
There are more Jamaicans and people of Jamaican descent living outside of Jamaica than in Jamaica. Travel to any corner of the world, and you will find a Jamaican! The little island in the Caribbean of my ancestors has had a profound and undeniable influence on culture. Wherever we go, we bring with us this fusion and passion of music, food and positive vibrations, which we love to share.
These aspects of Jamaican culture all resonate with me and are woven into my story and my character.
Thank you to Monty, Daniel and Charlene for sharing what the month means to them through their personal stories.
Black History Month is an important initiative that allows time for further reflection, recognition, and a deeper understanding of the amazing impact that people of African and Caribbean heritage have made to the UK. This year, we heard about the exceptional contributions of black women and their role in British history, discovering more about their achievements and contemplating phrases such as ‘paved the way’ and words including ‘pioneer’, ‘advocate’ and ‘sacrifice’ that were mentioned throughout the month.
Finally, a special thank you to the whole ClearBank Dimensions team for putting together a month of celebrations and learning.