For many of us involved in work on British Black History, Black History Month (BHM) has become increasingly problematic. When it was launched it was seen as ensuring that both the histories of the African and South Asian diasporas were highlighted around the political concept of ‘black’ encompassing ‘non-white’. Over the years South Asians have drifted away rejecting that concept of ‘black’. Wandsworth Black History Month (BHM), for example, is no more. It is now Diversity Month to reflect the growing nationality and ethnic diversity of the Borough, including black history.
Last year many Black history activists came together through their concern about the de-historification of BHM in favour of contemporary culture and life-style events, and the need for an African Heritage Month to coincide with the US Black History Month (February).
These developments raise the question ‘What is Black History?’
Explaining the thinking behind an event last year Sonia Dixon (of Walsall Libraries) wrote: ‘Yes, this BHM celebration is contemporary cultural and life-style for the remembrance of Black culture which stretches to all. It is all about feeding in positivity within the community. There will be poetry readings and readings on Black History but the overall balance suiting the range of audience interested is perfect for what we need at present’.
The varied events organised by Kwaku of British Black Music, a supporter of the African History Month project, enable the on-going interplay of the relationship between history and modern cultural expression.
The Nubian Jak Community Trust London Schools Remembrance Project (2012/13) encouraged pupils to explore the lives of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra (SSO) through cultural activities. The results were on display in libraries in various parts of London in BHM last year. There were performances in a London theatre by pupils. Through this project the Trust mounted two blue plaques in London to members of the SSO, and plans a third to Sidney Bechet. The Trust’s previous John Archer role model schools project also involved art, song, dance and poetry, as well as a plaque and guided tours.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – The 2012 Opportunity
2012 gave us a good opportunity to promote an aspect of British history in which a black person (of mixed heritage) played an important role – the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The Croydon Festival Committee put together a very varied local programme. Croydon members of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network, which I co-ordinate added events in as well. These included public performances by teenage pianists and a jazz trio’s interpretation, as well as a walk and a plaque by Nubian Jak. The Network also worked to tell the wider story of Black Britain in Coleridge- Taylor’s time. I published a booklet on the composer by his biographer Jeff Green.
So, many of us ensure there is black history activity throughout the year as well as building it into other historical work, especially at local level. In Wandsworth the past year has seen events around the Mayorship in Battersea of the Black Briton John Archer in 1913/14. In addition to a Royal Mail stamp, there were talks, walks, an English Heritage plaque, and a booklet by me.
The Problem of Despondency
Over the last 15 years there has been enormous progress in researching, publishing, and speaking, etc about British Black History. But every so often activists feel despondent, as if no progress has been made. This was expressed in 2011 for example at the launch of the Black British History Education Project, and The Politics of Recovery: Researching Black and Asian Histories event at the Women’s Library. Reflecting on this afterwards I argued that it takes a very long time to achieve change from below in a democracy. We are after all seeking not just to influence politicians, hundreds of thousands of institutions, teaching at all levels, academic writing, the media, but the whole population. But the advances that have been made are incremental and the output cannot be rolled back. There are a growing number of organisations, initiatives and networks involved meaning more and more people are reached.
The Context of Racism
British black history has to be seen in its wider context. In his book Out of the Ashes, Britain After the Riots, David Lammy, MP, analysed the causes of the 2011 disturbances and their implications for the future. It was a reminder of the challenges that continue to face black communities, and the way the system has distorted social values and attitudes. Some of his analysis resonated with what I had been saying over the previous year in my blogs on riots, policing and disorder (go to http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.co.uk and search ‘police’.)
Debate at events I organised in this year’s Croydon Heritage Festival as convenor of Croydon Radical History Network on Croydon and slavery, tackling racism and American civil rights highlighted the long legacy of slavery and imperialism on contemporary racism and black communities’ social deprivation. These concerns are being picked up in events over the next few weeks. The slavery event was a talk by Nick Draper of the Legacies of Slave-ownership project at UCL, which has made an important impact on helping to re-think the centrality of the slavery business to Britain’s development which underpins on the one hand racism, and on the other the Black presence, contribution and the campaigns for social justice, equality and anti-racism.
A High Point
Perhaps the most important event in Black History in Britain this year took place on at took place on 24 July: the long awaited opening of Black Cultural Archives in Raleigh Hall in Brixton’s Windrush Square, attended by at least 1,000 people. Black History in Britain is certainly alive and well – and no longer is confined to one month. It’s 24/7 all year round.
Sean Creighton is a semi-retired history project worker. He graduated in history at Sheffield in 1969 and worked most of his life in the community and voluntary sector. He co-ordinates the Croydon Radical History and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Networks and the North East Slavery & Abolition Group, advises the North East Peoples History Project, and is a member of the Heritage Wandsworth Partnership. He runs the History & Social Action Publications imprint.