Versions of Blackness

At its core, Pan-Africanism was a belief that African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora, shared not merely a common history, but a common destiny. The necessity of survival has somewhat blurred this vision and as Black History Month comes to a close….there are many Black & White who breathe a sigh of relief! The one month fest of re-examining our history and celebrating the achievements of our dead heroes who sacrificed themselves for a better future is now over for another year. Some of us are satisfied by the fact that we are remembered, albeit for a short space of time, and others are incensed that it is only for a month, and some are relieved that the spotlight has moved away for another year; but too few of us acknowledge those perspective during the course of the year. On an individual level we sometimes wail and complain….but as Black people we too often fail to organise collectively to assert our common conditions….until some deep tragedy occurs, or somebody dies!

Every section of society has different and distinctrelationships with Black History. Black men whohave been more visible in the telling of Black History are not fully comfortable about not recognising the role of Black women in that history. Other ethnic groups who have a chequered history with Black people choose to avoid the implications of that relationship, and somemainstream organisations are far too comfortable about using the month as the means for measuring their diversity credentials. Rarely do we see these organisations and groups use this moment in time to execute thought through plans that will recognise the condition of Black people and take steps to deal with it.

My belief has always been that our history must always inform our relationship with the present and failure to do that turns the whole exercise into a diversity “Groundhog Day”.  I once read that thedefinition of “Insanity” is: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Dowe need to consider whether during the last 40 year we have descended into that cycle of repetition.The 70s and 80s were periods of affirmation, consciousness and Black pride, stimulated by the civil rights struggle in America and the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, the tragic moments of high-profile issues, such as Stephen Lawrence, the Uprisings and The New Cross Massacre, which has shone a light on our condition, has diminished the enthusiasm of the different Black communities to move forward with the hope that was once there. Sadly, the capacity of the authorities to recruit our own “Black” people to aid and abet their desperation to maintain the status quo has been a major roadblock in some of our efforts to move forward.

We must also recognise that as migrants and descendants of migrants from the African diaspora we are all so very different. For the purpose of this paper, I will categorise those in the UK into three distinct groups; notwithstanding those whose presence was a direct consequence of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Firstly, the pre-Windrush migrants, circa the early part of last century, who were mainly from the African continent and came to study with aspirations of being accepted into the professional classes. Relatively few in numbers they were seen as “exotics”…..and sometimes “African royalty’… satirised in the popular sitcom “Rising Damp”. Some would argue that some of this group overrepresented their sense of Englishness! This “pre-Windrush” group mainly came from more privileged Africans in ex-colonieswhere they were very often not uncomfortable withthe colonial regime….but clearly not in all cases. They obviously lived in a time when any radicalism could be interpreted as subversive but people like Harold Moody and Una Marston displayed incredible fortitude and Howard Moody’s “League of Coloured People”, in the 1930s, was a brave effort to represent the needs of Black people at a time when the Colour Bar was operating efficiently.

Then, we have the so-called Windrush Generation, mainly from the Caribbean, whose well-publicised presence was a consequence of the British Government begging them to come here and then treating them shamelessly while they were here. …and some will be aware that Enoch Powell was one of the ministers encouraging Black people to come over here….and then went on to perform his “River of Blood” speech. The migrants from the Windrush generation fought, struggle and died for many of the civil rights that we have achieved and despite that we still have so much more to do. Theychanged the culture of this “green and pleasant land” irrevocably…..and of all the cultures that have enriched this country their impact has been the greatest….and probably the least recognised because it has seeped almost invisibly into the fabric of the nation… the point where some descendants have conveniently put to one side that heritage as if it was some dirty family secret!

…..and thirdly the newer migrants who were mainly from the Africa continent and were displaced by social issues in their countries of origin. The newer migrants were from all social classes and are significant players in many aspects of the business, social & community sector and the night-time economy has benefitted from their presence. My experience is that they are less engaged with matters relating to UK civil rights and less interested in the continuity of some of the concessions extracted by the civil rights works of those in the 70s & 80s. The authorities are verycomfortable in establishing relationships with the newer communities as it provides an excuse and a diversion from responding to the dissatisfactions of the Windrush Generation and their descendants

…..and this makes it easier to park issues like the aberrations of the criminal justice system, mental health over representation and high unemployment and dilutes the political elements of their condition. There are many who like to merge all these categories into one and make assumptions about their commonalities and sometimes fail to consider the implications of such merging and how the expectations of these groups are very different.

So where does that leave us. Well, we can do very little to dissuade people from holding onto their national identities, even though many of those identities are fictions designed by western colonial powers. We can do very little to dissuade people from clinging onto religions that did not originate from the African continent. However, one thing we can do is to try preserve the histories of the Black presence that kindled the origins of the Human Race and do everything we can to highlight and preserve those Histories and ensure that they are passed down to our children and our children’s children. The Southampton Black Archives programme is one small step in our journey to recognise our commonality and share our common history.

Don John