23 October 2023
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo on founding UK Black History Month
Guest blog by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin, interviewer for National Life Stories.
Earlier this summer the British Library recorded a life story interview with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo for the National Life Stories oral history collection Leaders of National Life. This in-depth interview covers his influential work as a campaigner and activist across three continents. From trade union organising in newly independent Ghana to his years in the US in the 1970s, where he studied peace-building in Washington and became close with many civil rights activists of the time, including Kwame Ture, Jewell Mazique and CLR James, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. The interview also covers his later peace-building work in Liberia and Sierra-Leone and environmental campaigning. In the UK Akyaaba has had a fundamental impact on politics and culture as one of the founders of the UK’s Black History Month. These clips explore the origins of this month, which today is as vital a part of autumn as the cooler days and bright colours of the turning leaves.
As a young child Akyaaba quickly developed a deep understanding of the impact of politics. In 1957 when Akyaaba was just seven years old, Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence from British colonial rule and established one of the first post-colonial governments in Africa. Caught up in the ‘dynamism of the times’, Akyaaba spent his childhood observing the rallies and activism of his community: a close-knit, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic compound in Asawase, one of many new projects built by the socialist Nkrumah government. His early political memories are of excitement and promise, but these hopes were soon dashed as the backlash of the European powers began. One of Akyaaba’s early memories was the assassination of Patrice Lumumba which he describes here.
This incident and the betrayals that followed as later coups in Ghana took Nkrumah from power forged a powerful activist in Akyaaba, who has led a life dedicated to confronting injustice. As a child he was also frustrated by his experiences of education in the British colonial system, where he studied European classics, religion, geography and literature rather than his own region’s culture and history. He recognised the importance of the few teachers who went against this system. Later as a teenager he saw the importance of finding ‘cultural synergy’ though learning about Ghanaian and African culture and history in Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers and the Pan-African Youth Movement. In the US he also saw the impact of what was then called Negro History Week for African Americans, and the beginnings of the campaign to rename the period as Black History Month which is still celebrated there in February. In the US he became involved in delivering workshops in Washington libraries and museums and spoke at celebrations of African Liberation Day in Malcolm X Park.
His activism eventually took him back to Ghana and later to London, where he found safety having narrowly escaped persecution under the Jerry Rawlings regime in 1984. Through CLR James he became involved with a powerful group of activists based in Railton Road, Brixton, including Leila Hassan Howe, Darcus Howe and the Race Today collective. At the same time Akyaaba had started working at the Greater London Council (GLC). At the time the GLC was a place of pioneering social policy under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, as was the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), whose deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire Akyaaba worked closely with. The stewardship of Linda Bellos, Chair of the London Strategic Policy Committee (LSPC) and leader of Lambeth Council, and John McDonnell, Chief Executive of the Association of London Authorities (ALA), became crucial after the abolition of the GLC by the Margaret Thatcher government on 1 April 1986. It was an exciting time to be working in local government. With his boss and friend Ansel Wong, Akyaaba worked in the Ethnic Minorities Unit and it was there in the office that a chance encounter with a colleague set in motion the inspiration for Black History Month in the UK.
In both the US and the UK Akyaaba had seen the impact that this lack of ‘cultural synergy’ was having on Black children and their families. He was shocked that here in the UK – the ‘mother of imperialism’ – that there was so little understanding of African history and civilisation. To rectify the damage done to children like Marcus and to eliminate the odious racism that plagued the UK Akyaaba worked hard to establish Black History Month. Here he recalls some of the conversations that fed into the founding of Black History Month, and why the choice of October is so significant.
Akyaaba built support from all political parties, a process which his time in the US civil rights movement had prepared him well for. The UK’s first Black History Month events began with a series of historical talks and events in London in 1986 to which people ‘came in droves.’ Those events have now grown to become an integral part of the year with countless events happening across October and beyond across the whole country.
Rosa Kurowska Kyffin with Akyaaba Addai-Sebo at the British Library, St Pancras.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo was interviewed by Rosa Kurowska Kyffin in 2023 for Leaders of National Life. The interview will be available to listen to at the British Library in early 2024, collection reference number C408/37.