The end of October signifies many things, including the end of Black History Month in the United Kingdom. During the month of October, we bring to light and remember the history of black people; their fight, their plight and their contribution to the advancement of their communities and respective societies in various ways. Dedicating this time in honour of the black community is crucial to ensure that the legacy left behind by those before are not forgotten. There is also the importance of objectively defying the erasure of black narratives and stories, through the intentional highlighting of these in spaces and events. Whilst personally grateful for Black History Month and unwavering in my support of this great tradition, it should not merely stop here.
In times like these when we are seeing the current government question the citizenship and immigration status of many people of Caribbean origin who moved to the UK decades ago in response to a post-war need to fill nationwide worker shortages, there has been no greater time to highlight the contribution of black people to the UK healthcare system. Many people from the Caribbean became the bedrock of the newly established National Health Service. It is quite ironic that whilst celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS, we are simultaneously seeing those who (or possibly their parents) worked so hard to see it come to fruition now find their right to these services to be in jeopardy.
“Black” history is too often kept as separate to the wider history of nations in the West when, in their truest essence, they are one and the same. Colonialism and imperialism have impacted the advancement and development of nations globally and naturally this is fed into the world of Medicine. We celebrate the likes of Mary Seacole, Dr Daniel Hale Williams, Dr Charles Richard Drew, Dr John Alcindor and more yet somehow fail to appreciate the various contributions made by black people in shaping modern medical practice; from vaccination theory to revolutionising surgery, research to diagnostics, improving treatments to inventing technology. Whether slave or free, throughout history black people have long been active participators in advancing healthcare. At times participating in the advancement of healthcare was to their detriment, for as well as trailblazing scientific methods in research and practice, black people — specifically slaves of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — were used as guinea pigs in dangerous and life-threatening experiments. The subjugation and subsequent abhorrent exploitation of black people for the sake of medical research is little spoken about today despite it being the basis of our understanding for many commonplace diseases such as smallpox and gonorrhoea.
Black History Month serves as a foundation to continue the conversation and uncover that which has been suppressed for too long — the contribution of black people and all people of colour in our world today. It is pertinent that all people are active participators in this, regardless of race, sexuality, religion and otherwise. History cannot be repeatedly told from one perspective. Too often does the erasure of nuanced narratives impact the present — as seen in the Windrush Scandal. After all: how can we expect to learn from our past for hope of a better future if we are ignorant of it? Actively seeking out and creating platforms for these stories to be shared need not be confined to one month but rather perpetually so that our history (in its utmost holistic form) can be acknowledged, embraced and integrated into wider narratives for all to grow in their awareness of the past for it to inform the future. We all need to be cognisant of black history, not just black people.
If schools, universities, institutions, governments and the like become greater invested in ensuring our picture of the past told the whole story by seeking other perspectives then the state of play may one day be very different to that which we see today. The past may not be palatable or romantic but it is better to be real, authentic and accurate than to perpetuate unconscious bias and harmful stereotypes. Black History Month is a starting point and opens the door for many difficult conversations to be had across all spheres: art, politics, technology, media, science and this includes medicine. Let what has been shared and learnt during October fuel a passion to seek accountability and effect positive change in the current systems in which we exist. We cannot let the legacy of those who have come before us be in vain.