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Understanding Black people’s experiences beyond Black History Month

October is Black History Month, but there are several things we can do to understand the experience of our Black neighbours throughout the year.

Posted on: 25 October 2023

The history of Black people in the UK is complex and multifaceted. 

It’s estimated that Black people have been coming to the UK for at least 1,000 years.

One of the earliest recorded instances of Black people in the UK dates back to the first century AD, when Roman soldiers of African descent were stationed in Britain. 

In the Middle Ages, there were a number of Black people living in the UK, including merchants, scholars, and religious figures.

Today, Black people make up a significant and diverse proportion of the UK population. 

According to the 2011 census, there were nearly 1.9 million Black people living in the UK, accounting for 3.3% of the total population. 

Black people in the UK come from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, and they play an important role in all aspects of British society. 

Some of the most common countries of origin (in alphabetical order) include:

  • Barbados
  • Ethiopia
  • Ghana
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya
  • Nigeria
  • Somalia
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Zimbabwe

People from these countries have a long history of migration to the UK, and they have made significant contributions to British society in all areas of life.

According to the 2011 census, the largest Black Caribbean group was Jamaican, followed by Trinidadian, Barbadian, and Guyanese.

The largest Black African group in the UK was Nigerian, followed by Ghanaians, Somali, Kenyans, and Ethiopians. 

Support the community

Here are some things we can do to understand the experience of Black members of our community:

  • read about their contributions and accomplishments
  • watch documentaries
  • visit Black history or civil rights museums
  • spend time with elders and ask them to share their past and present experiences
  • host Black film marathons
  • learn about unsung heroes in Black history
  • discover and support Black artists

Book recommendations

Another good way to understand the perspective of the Black diaspora across the world is by reading books. Here are some recommendations:

Things Fall Apart is the debut novel by a Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, first published in 1958. It depicts pre-colonial life in Igboland (modern-day southeastern Nigeria) and the invasion by Europeans during the late 19th century. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and one of the first to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and is widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world.

Homegoing is the debut historical fiction novel by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, published in 2016. Each chapter in the novel follows a different descendant of an Asante woman named Maame, starting with her two daughters, who are half-sisters, separated by circumstance.

Children of Blood and Bone is a 2018 young adult fantasy novel by Nigerian-American novelist Tomi Adeyemi. The first of a trilogy, this follows heroine Zélie Adebola as she attempts to restore magic to the kingdom of Orïsha, following the ruling class kosidáns' brutal suppression of the class of magic practitioners Zélie belongs to, the maji.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging was written in 2018 and became a Sunday Times bestseller. It’s a part-memoir and discusses black history, culture and politics in the context of Britain, Senegal and Ghana by Afua Hirsh who was born to a British father and a Ghanaian mother.

Girl, Woman, Other is the eighth novel by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2019. It follows the lives of 12 characters in the United Kingdom over the course of several decades. The book was the co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, alongside Margaret Atwood's The Testaments. The book is divided into four chapters, each containing episodes about three people who are connected directly to one another in some way, the majority as relatives (such as mother and daughter). Although each character has their own chapter set across a particular time, their lives intertwine in numerous ways – from friends and relatives to chance acquaintances.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a 2019 fantasy novel by Jamaican writer Marlon James. It is the first book of the Dark Star Trilogy. The novel draws on African history and mythology, blended into the landscape of the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom, and the political tensions between these two warring states, as well as various city-states and tribes in the surrounding landscape. The rights to produce a film adaptation were purchased by Michael B. Jordan in February 2019 prior to release of the book.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams of Jamaican-Indian heritage, who became the first Black woman to win the "Book of the Year" accolade in 2020, for her novel Queenie. The novel is about Queen Jenkins, a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London. She is a curvy, confident, and ambitious journalist, but she is also struggling with her mental health and her sense of self-worth. The novel opens with Queenie learning that she is pregnant and miscarrying, despite using an IUD. 

Love in Colour, written in 2020, is a Sunday Times best seller by Nigerian-British Bolu Babalola. A collection of 13 short stories about love with a subtle emphasis on how romantic relationships, which should be a safe haven, can instead reduce women to objects and caretakers whose work is unreciprocated.

Black and British: A Forgotten History is a four-part BBC Television documentary series and book by David Olusoga. It documents the history of Black people in Britain and its colonies, starting with those who arrived as part of the Roman occupation, and relates that history to modern Black British identity.

The Other Black Girl is a 2021 novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris, which follows Nella Rogers, the only Black person working at a publishing company. When another Black woman is hired as an editorial assistant, Nella initially believes she will be an ally, but Nella soon finds herself sidelined and her work relationships strained due to the new woman’s advice and interference.