Omissions in Black History month
I picked up the first copy of Black History published to coincide with this year’s Black History Month in Britain. Definitely some Black history gems with a focus on more of our forgotten heroes and heroines such as civil rights activist, Claudia Jones. Ms Jones was deported from the US to Britain during the McCarthy witch hunt period and played a major role in the anti-racist movement in 1950s Britain. All of Black Britain is aware of the annual Notting Hill Carnival held on the last Saturday of August each year but how many know that Carnival was started by Claudia Jones? It was in the late 1940s and 1950s that the first group of immigrant workers from the Caribbean began arriving in Britain having been recruited to work in the National Health Service and the London Transport as drivers and conductors. Africans were also arriving in increasingly large numbers as students including my own father who arrived on a cold grey day in London to study law. He tells a funny story about how he refused to wrap up properly and instead walked about in his shirt sleeves and a jumper as proof to himself that if the English could do it so could he. He ended up with Pneumonia and spent his first 6 months in hospital and from then on changed his dress style! He was lucky as his cousin was studying medicine and had already been in London a couple of years so knew the ropes and managed to regularly bring him some “rice and sardine red stew” otherwise he probably would have shrivelled into nothing with English hospital food!
Accommodation was difficult during this period of “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs” and most of the African student population stayed in rooming houses owned by other Africans who had come earlier or in special student accommodation. But for the Caribbean workers life was more difficult and because of the nature of their work in dealing with the public, faced blatant racist hostility from the indigenous white population. Claudia Jones started the West Indian Gazette and in 1959 she organised the first Carnival following the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 – (the first race riots took place in 1919)
Another forgotten Black historical figure is the actor and activist, Ira Aldridge who performed at the Old Vic Theatre in 1825 playing the part of “Oroonoko in the Revolt of Surinam or A Slave’s Revenge”.
The Piece exhibiting a most faithful Portrait of the horrors that arise out of that dreadful traffic, which is the proudest boast of Britain to use her best efforts towards suppressing, must receive an immense portion of additional interest from being supported in its principal character by a Man of Colour, and one of the very race whose wrongs it professes to record; being the first instance in which one of that Complexion has displayed a striking degree of Histrionic Talent, and which has secured him the rapturous Approbation of an enlightened Public on the other side of the Atlantic.
Shango Baku of CETTIE (The site has the list of discussions, exhibitions and performances across Britain – the next one in London is on Monday at 6.30, will be there) has taken Ira Aldridge’s character and made it his own – in his words
“I had met and merged with Aldridge across space and time….. that righteous rage, that silent rage for equality and fair play that inspires all of us with thoughts of freedom and justice.”
Whilst I recognise the immense importance of remembering slavery whose impact remains with us today and the need to continue the struggle for reparations, I am disappointed that past and present Black History Months have tended to focus on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the last 200 years of Black people in Britain. It is possible that Black people have been in Britain since the Roman period as soldiers and slaves. There is little or no reference to Arab slavery which continues today in countries such as Mauritania, Libya and parts of Morocco. Another important omission is there does not appear to have been much attempt to reach into pre-colonial Africa as if Africa only began in the 15th and 16th centuries. And even in this period the focus is still on the slave trade. What of the Kingdoms of Benin, Ashanti, the Fulani or the City states of the Niger Delta. The history is there it just needs to be researched and told. Instead like Ira Aldridge our history has been trivialised and consigned to oblivion. There are Black historians out there – tell our histories and herstories.