At last, a home for black history
The launch of the Black Cultural Archives will show that our presence in the UK is measured in millennia, not decades
I remember the time I got caned at school. It was the 1970s, and during a history lesson I put my hand up and asked: “Sir, were there people in America before Christopher Columbus?” I wasn’t trying to be difficult, just trying to engage with some complicated questions. But my teacher saw it as some kind of act of subversion.
Like many black males at the time, I was trying to work out my place in British society. And there were no teachers to guide us through our journey of self-discovery. Through my later work as a community youth worker, I realise that today’s young people are still working through these identity issues.
If my teacher had told my class that the black presence in Britain could be measured in millennia, and that we were not just passing through or tagged on to the end of the colonial story, we might have had a different sense of belonging; I might have had a different idea of what was possible; I might have seen something to aspire to.
Instead, for many black people there was a growing sense of frustration, alienation and lack of representation, especially within politics and policing. Tensions between the black community and the establishment rose, leading to uprisings in inner cities across Britain – in Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth, Moss Side and Tottenham, from 1981 to 1985 to 2011.
In 1981, after the first of these, a group of concerned black people got together seeking a place where the presence and history of black people could be told positively and accurately. Not just the history of enslavement and of Windrush, but a history that goes as far back as the African Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who is buried in York, and tells the story of the continued presence of black people in the United Kingdom ever since. The idea of the Black Cultural Archives was born.
On Thursday the dreams of those men and women in 1981 will be realised, when the BCA opens for the first time in a permanent venue. Located in the heart of Brixton, one of London’s most culturally diverse and vibrant areas, its mission is to preserve and promote an understanding of black cultural heritage: of British history, not just black British history.
The journey from vision to reality has had many obstacles along the way. We began in a small bookshop in Brixton, and much of the collection was amassed by volunteers and individual donations. Over the years we have moved to various locations and worked to catalogue and professionalise the collection. We are fortunate to have had tremendous support from the community and funders.
The important thing is also to show how all our stories connect together. It’s not good enough to create a holding space to preserve the archive. We have to encourage everyone to engage in a dialogue. It is important to review the grand narrative of “history”, so that the rich and complex culture of human endeavours, as experienced by people of African and African-Caribbean origins, is not simply attached to another story or compartmentalised in Black History Month in October. Why shouldn’t black people (or indeed everyone) have access to books and lessons on the everyday lives of the black Edwardian families such as John Barbour-James, who lived in Acton in 1906; and the contributions of women such as Claudia Jones, Una Marson and Beryl Gilroy, who campaigned for social justice in the 1940s?
The power of heritage can transform lives. The next generation will not only have a black president to look up to, but they will also have a foundation for their history in the UK. This has the potential to redress imbalances in academic achievements, incarceration, and to lead to more black professionals. Exploring the lessons of history remains vital to the future of our communities and to any understanding of modern Britain.