Thursday, 6 February 2020

Reflections on the current state of British Black History - Part 1

There was a general mood of optimism about the current state of British Black History (BBH) at the first of the new series of seminars held on Thursday 23 January. The field is in a much healthier state than a few years ago as BBH themes are increasingly being reflected in films and plays, taught in many schools, better recognised in several Universities, and there are many more resources available on the internet.

In conversation with Marika Sherwood and Caz Bressey Professor Hakim Adi was particularly optimistic while recognising that there are still problems to be overcome. The details for the optimism cited by him and several members of the audience, especially Martin Spafford, are set out below.

Hakim stressed that history is about the study of change and that ordinary people are agents in the process of change. He could not understand why some historians were not involved in the process of influencing change alongside their research and writing.

Problems to be overcome

He suggested that problems to be overcome included:

(1)    the continuing lack of teaching BBH in many schools despite the opportunities provided by the national curriculum, and in many Universities;
(2)    the unpopular view of history among African and Caribbean pupils because they do not see it as relevant – history is raised as the third least popular subject for Black school leavers in the UK;
(3)    the small number of black academics;
(4)    the continuing embargo on the public release of any surviving Government files on black activists of the past;
(5)    the lack of recognition and low level of funding of Black Cultural Archives; and
(6)    the lack of a national successor organisation to the Black & Asian Studies Association.

I would add to this the problems of all the Academics and Free Schools that are not required to follow the national curriculum, the problems of getting access into schools to support the teaching of black history, and the fact that so many teachers do not have the knowledge or the confidence develop their own resources. Lucy Mackeith added that there remained problems with museums over labelling exhibitions.

The importance of BASA

Hakim, Marika and Audrey Edwards, all Committee members of the former Black &  Asian Studies Association (BASA), argued for a new equivalent to BASA to be set up. Audrey is Treasurer of Memorial 2007.

In the course of the conversation Hakim and Marika mentioned some of the BASA initiatives in relation to influencing the national curriculum and museums and archives, some details of which are set out in Part 3.

There were several other former BASA members at the seminar including:

·    Kathy Chater whose book Untold Histories about black people in parish records continues to sell well;
·    the former teacher Martin Spafford who was particularly important in the work on the curriculum and who worked with Hakim, Marika and Dan Lyndon on the OCR GCSE Migration project, and who actively supports the Journey to Justice project;
·    Lucy MacKeith who continues to work on BBH in the South West;
·    Miranda Kaufmann whose work on Black Tudors has been very influential and who is one of the joint organisers of the What’s Happening in British Black History project with Michael Ohajuru of the John Blanke project who was also present. Both are advising the Institute of Historical Research on developing a BBH programme.
·   Caz Bressey, the seminar Chair who runs the Equiano Centre at UCL and who has worked on such subjects as Black Victorians.

BASA was important in many ways. It was inclusive, it enabled networking, it encouraged the sharing of information e.g. through its newsletters and encouraged people to submit information they found especially in parish records.

BASA - just one strand

While I owe BASA a big debt to my development within BBH activity, and served on the Committee and was Secretary for a while, BASA was only one important strand. When it was set up in 1991 the foundations had already been laid by a range of teachers, community groups, academics and publishers (e.g. New Beacon Books and Hansib Press), many of whom are still actively involved. Black Cultural Archives already existed. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power was a breakthrough in 1984 making large amounts of information as well as analysis widely available, and which has remained in continuous print. In 1987 the Greater London Council supported Akyaaba Addai-Sebo’s development of Black History Month.

Other important groups that have contributed to specialist BBH topics include The Equiano Society and the Windrush Foundation which were set up in 1996 under the initiative of Arthur Torrington and others. The Commission for Racial Equality published Roots of the Future. Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain in 1997. In London the Mayor’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage included Hakim, Caz, and Patrick Vernon and Colin Prescod, published its report Delivering shared heritage in 2005, whose recommendations should be re-visited. There have been BBH groups and projects in various parts of the country. Such as Northamptonshire’s Black History Association Sharing The Past. Northamptonshire’s Black History (2008).

Many local organisations took advantage of the funding available in 2007 to research and tell the real story of the slavery business and the black presence during the remembrance of the Act abolishing Britain’s official involvement in the slave trade. Jak Beula of Nubian Jak Community Trust has been the driving force behind the dozens of plaques to black people, the African & Caribbean war memorial in Windrush Square and the book Remembered In Memoriam, An Anthology of African & Caribbean Experiences WW1 & WWII. Jeffrey Green’s articles on aspects of black music led to a number of books including Black Edwardians (1998), on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (2011) and Black Americans in Victorian Britain (2019). Stephen Bourne has been a prolific author on Black actors and singers on British film and TV, and the Black contribution in both World Wars.

The contribution of others

Others attending the seminar included:

·   Ra Hendricks, the jazz promoter whose presence reminds us of the importance of Black music down the centuries, and who was a key figure in the erection of the plaque to Sidney Bechet.
·   Ryan Hanley, one of the convenors of the seminar series, who has worked with others to ensure that the nature of the slavery business and BBH has become an important part of the programme of the annual conferences of the British Society for 18thC Studies (BSECS) and at the International 18thC Studies Congress in July last year. The BSECS programme last month included papers among others by Miranda, Montaz Marche, Andrew H Armstrong. Nicola Westwood and Caroline Koegler.

Mention also needs to be made about:

·    Steve Martin whose work has included the black presence in Lambeth, leading history walks and novels for teenagers on black history themes.
·   Patrick Vernon whose contributions have included the 100 Great Black Britons website which had national impact, the declaration of the annual Windrush Day, and the campaign against the Windrush Scandal.
·   Audrey Dewjee, whose contributions include on Mary Seacole and BBH in Yorkshire.
·   Oku Ekpenyon, who was the BASA lead on the picture of Ira Aldridge placed on display at the Old Vic, and who chairs Memorial 2007.
·   Martin Hoyles readable books on William Cuffay, Ira Aldridge and Ottobah Cuguano (published by Hansib).
·   Robin Walker, whose When We Ruled (2006) about Ancient and Medieval African history was ground breaking, runs Black History Walks and co-authored Black British History. Black Influences in British Culture (1948 to 2016) (2017), a book of teaching and learning material for parents, guardians and teachers of secondary school students.

There are many other individuals and projects I could mention, who continue to share information and ideas, organise activities and network. New people and groups join all the time.

The Problem of Voluntary Activity

One of BASA’s fragilities was the nature of its members contribution as volunteers. This is a weakness of the organisation of WHBBH and is shared by thousands of community and voluntary groups regardless of what their field of activity is. If institutions, like Universities, major libraries and archives, and museums are genuine about wanting to make a positive contribution to develop extensive and robust networking and information dissemination they need to provide resources that will enable, for example, the details sent to interested individuals to be added to WHBBH’s database, and to supply support for the development of a news page.

It would also be valuable if there was a research project documents the research, publication and campaigning about BBH across all its strands, individuals and organisations, within the wider social-economic and political developments that influenced them.

Part 2 - the next posting considers issues relation to academic institutions at

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