A history of black Britain

I’m constantly coming across black British people, especially my generation from the 1970s, who say they were not taught enough about their own culture in school.

Obviously we were educated in the UK, so to some extent you can’t expect to get the same history lessons (or perspective) as someone taught in the Caribbean or Africa, but I think most people would accept that we (as in every state school pupil in England) seem to learn a lot about American history and European history alongside British history but there was (and probably still is) very little time spent, if any, on black ancestry.

It was only after I went to live in Barbados when I was 33 and tried to fit in to a different culture, albeit the home of my parents and immediate ancestors, that I really realised how ‘British’ I was.

I also became acutely aware of my limited knowledge of Caribbean history and especially in terms of how it fit in and contributed to the development of the British ‘Empire’. I think I have been actively trying to make up for this deficit ever since.

Anyway, I recently came across a course which would probably fill in some of the history blanks for me and many other black Britons.

It’s being advertised by Goldsmiths University in London and I just wish that it had been around when I was a teenager and I also wish that I had time to go on it now (I’m currently researching my MA dissertation while working three jobs so barely have time to eat).

It’s called Black Britain: A History of Struggle and Triumph

goldsmiths

Copyright: Goldsmiths University

It’s running every Tuesday for 6 weeks from January 17th and will run again in the Summer at a cost of £150.

According to the website accompanying the course, it is for “anyone seeking to explore and share their experiences of the history and cultural roots of Black people and ‘Black culture’ in London.”

It adds that participants will “learn how it came to be that Britain was a key destination for migrating workers from the Caribbean in the 1960s …The course will highlight the contribution of people of African descent to the rich history and culture of Britain and will explore film, photography, literature and biography that will generate great conversation.”

I think it sounds like an interesting six weeks and I’m happy to promote it to anyone who visits my site and might be interested – don’t forget to tell your friends.

Hopefully, one day soon I may go on a course like this, or something similar, because any method that’s striving to ‘complete’ our education as black British citizens, has to be welcome.

I would also argue that people from other races should also go along if it is something that they are interested in because we all learn, and hopefully advance, when we know more about each other.

Black soldier and firefighter honoured

Today I read about one of the first black men to serve in the British army and the London Fire Brigade – Trinidadian-born George Arthur Roberts.

Roberts was honoured last week with a blue plaque, organised by the Southwark Heritage Association, at his former home in Camberwell where he lived from 1923 to 1970.

London Fire Brigade

George Roberts – copyright London Fire Brigade

Born in Trinidad in 1890 he served in the army and made his way to the UK when the First World War broke out. He joined the Middlesex Regiment and earned the nickname the ‘Coconut Bomber’ when he threw bombs back over enemy lines in the same way that he used to throw coconuts as a child. He was wounded at the Battle of Loos and then in the Battle of the Somme.

When the war finished he briefly went home to Trinidad before returning to the UK and settling in Peckham. As World War Two began he joined the National Fire Service and battled blazes during the Blitz.

By all accounts George Roberts had a remarkable life, as in between his service he also helped establish the ‘League of Coloured People’, which was set up in 1931 to address the needs of Britain’s black community.

In 1944 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his courage as a Blitz firefighter at New Cross Fire Station. He stayed in London for the rest of his life and died in 1970.

George Roberts is another shining example of the contribution Caribbean people have made to the UK – he put his life on the line for his ‘adopted country’ countless times and deserves to be recognised and remembered.

Read more here:

One of the first black men to serve in the British army honoured

Groundbreaking wartime firefighter recognised with blue plaque

World War One hero who could throw bombs 74 yards

Have you heard of Olive Morris?

I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Olive Morris until today although I’m not surprised because that kind of ignorance is why I started this blog in the first place.

I came across Olive’s story today when someone I follow on Twitter posted about a seminal book called ‘The heart of the race:Black women’s lives in Britain’ which is 30 years old today.

This book was published when I was nine-years-old and I think it is a sad indictment of the UK school system that I had not even heard about until now.

I’m not going to pretend I know much about it but the introduction to the book states: “this book originally came about as a response to gaps in the historical record, especially concerning Black women.

“Histories were being produced about Black struggles as a whole, but too often Black women’s roles and experiences were left out or diminished. The white-dominated women’s movements in the UK were also repeating the same thing: documenting ‘herstory’ from every angle except our own”.

I find it really moving that in 1985 there were people who recognised that the story of how Black people (especially, in this case, women) have and are contributing to the UK was not being heard and wanted to address it.

But it’s also a little bit sad that 30 years later IMO this topic has still not been properly addressed beyond a few committed and passionate individuals and organisations.

Anyway, back to Olive Morris who was a leading voice in the Black women’s movement in the UK and spoke out on a range of social issues especially housing and education.

Olive Morris at a rally

Copyright: BBC

Olive came to the UK from Jamaica when she was 9 years old and grew up in South London. During her teenage years she was involved in political activism and later co-founded several influential civil liberties groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent.

During the 1970s, which we all know was a turbulent time for Black people in the UK due to widespread racism and discrimination, Olive could be called on to mobilise and organise people and ensure their voices were heard. She was evidently a strong, committed and active woman who was determined to stand up for vulnerable people who may otherwise have been ignored by the system.

Instead of sitting around, bemoaning the way things were, Olive set about trying to make them better and her courage in the face of what must have seemed daunting odds, is to be admired, even if you might not agree with all of her ideas or methods.

People like Olive don’t come along often but when they do they shake up the establishment and show other individuals that we can all make a difference.

Sadly, Olive died of non Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1979 at the age of just 27, but I’ve often said you don’t have to live a long life to make an impact on the world and it’s clear that she certainly did from what I have been reading.

I really think that learning about Black Caribbean people such as Olive, Claudia Jones, Walter Tull, should be compulsory in British schools.

I certainly wish that I had known some of these stories when I was growing up – it may have helped me to realise just how much Black Caribbean people have added to the history of the country I was born in and so deserve to have their sacrifices remembered.

Further reading:

https://rememberolivemorris.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/om_biog.pdf

https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/category/remembering-olive/

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/london/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8310000/8310579.stm