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13 days ago by Thea Fraser

What Do the Black History Month Colours Stand For?

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Black History Month (BHM) is a whole month dedicated to celebrating, learning and sharing appreciation for Black heritage, and this year has been a year like no other. As businesses added red, black, gold and green to their branding in solidarity, I wondered, why these four colours? What do they stand for? I have always had a rough idea, but when looking for a reliable resource, a definitive symbolic, I discovered that the colours run a little deeper than I thought. My initial - very simple - understanding was the following:

Black: Melanin/Our shared identity

Yellow: Sun/Prosperity

Green: Mother Nature

Red: Blood/History

I have Jamaican heritage, so on a personal level, the colours above felt close to home but slightly different to that of the Jamaican flag (red, gold and green). Before I began my search for the origin of the BHM colours, I decided to take a sneak peek as to what the Jamaican flag colours symbolise: according to the Government of Jamaica website, ‘black depicts the strength and creativity of the people; Gold, the natural wealth and beauty of sunlight; and green, hope and agricultural resources'. It makes sense that my original definition laid close to this one; I think that it’s likely that I derived my ‘rough idea’ for the BHM colours from the Jamaican flag, as that is my heritage, but I wanted to look into if further. 

When I began my research, I noticed that many African flags used similar colours and dove a little deeper down the rabbit hole. In short, many were inspired by the Ethiopian flag, ‘during the scramble for Africa, Ethiopia was the only African country beside Liberia that retained its sovereignty as a recognised independent country… When other African nations received their independence following World War II, many of them adopted the colours of Ethiopia's flag’. According to an article that Whitney Smith (Author of Flags and Arms Across the World) wrote for Britannica, the colours of the Ethiopian flag symbolise the following: ‘yellow for hope, justice, and equality. Red represents sacrifice for freedom and equality, while green is equated with labour, development, and fertility.’

In my research, the term ‘Pan-African’ kept cropping up – a term used to describe people of African birth or descent. Which lead to the discovery of Pan-African colours, of which there are two sets of three: red, gold and green (inspired by the Ethiopian flag) and red, green and black (inspired by Marcus Garvey, Founder of the UNIA). According to a book published by the UNIA, ‘Red is the colour of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the colour of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the colour of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.’

For me, Black History Month is about promoting the knowledge, culture and heritage of black history: it’s about normalising conversations that we would usually avoid and encouraging others to learn and share new things. Pan-African colours and flags have been used to represent black pride and liberation movements around the world for over a century, and I take pride in knowing a little more about their history. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and if you know or come across any alternative symbolic meanings for these colours, I would love to hear them.