Friday, 28 December 2012

Do We Still Need Kwanzaa? Definitely Yes!

Do We Still Need Kwanzaa? Definitely Yes!

by Kwaku

Was it a case of serendipity that on the day I received email of another African American history professor’s brush with the police, and started my as yet unfinished email to the founder of Kwanzaa, Dr Maulana Karenga, I should chance on a HuffPost article on Kwanzaa, that I just had to respond to?

The article in question is a recent HuffPost Black Voices co-ed by former White House fellow Theodore Johnson entitled 'Do WeStill Need Kwanzaa?' Although I don't celebrate Kwanzaa, neither do I celebrate Christmas, birthdays etc.

As much as Johnson tries to be balanced, I do not agree with his main argument. Which is that African Americans have now achieved in a post-Civil Rights era - they've made it into the middle classes, they occupy positions of leadership in the public and corporate spheres, and even occupy the White House, and that they ought to see themselves more as American, and less as African. Hence Kwanzaa is a celebration where its sell-by date is almost up, if it hasn’t already expired.

It would seem segregation and discrimination have been kicked to the curb, and African Americans are now getting their just share of the proverbial American Pie. Is that the reality for the majority of African-Americans?

For those who think they've safely broken through the glass ceiling, and even with an African as the President, here is a warning or reminder: never mind the streets and ghettos, where the opportunities and civil rights of Africans who have not been able to pull themselves up the ladder are routinely trampled upon and who are herded into the criminal justice system as fodder. But what about the number of times we hear of educated, middle-class African Americans reminded of their “supposed place"?

What did one former American president, often described affectionately as a "black" President say about the then presidential hopeful Barack Obama? Something on the lines of a little while back, he would have been serving tea to Europeans, and now he has the temerity to run for president.

And Henry Louis Gates is not the only professor to wonder if the treatment he got from the police was simply because he was African, in spite of how far he'd come up the social and educational ladder. Earlier this year, a less celebrated professor of history and Africana studies Jahi Issa, author of ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Historically Black Colleges in the Age of Obama’, had a brush with the Delaware State University (DSU) police, which not only landed him in hospital with severe injuries, but he is also facing prosecution on charges including resisting arrest, offensive touching of a law enforcement officer, and inciting a riot at DSU, which could put him in prison for several years.

That's enough reason why, African Americans who choose to celebrate Kwanzaa ought to do so, in the solid belief that the raison d'être for Dr Karenga introducing it during the heady days of the 1960s Civil Rights struggles has not changed one iota. It’s nowhere near its sell-by date.

Just because some Africans have made it into high places – be they police or military officers, judges, mayors, senators, university professors, public company CEOs – good on them,  but don’t be fooled into believing it's a post-Civil rights, post-racial American society, and that it’s time to put away your African celebrations, like Kwanzaa. Hey, for those celebrating it, I’m moved to shout out: “Happy Kwanzaa”! 

Kwaku is the TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) campaign co-ordinator.

Highlighting Brazil's Complex African Identity And Race Issues

Highlighting Brazil's Complex African Identity And Race Issues

TAOBQ co-ordinator

December 28 2013

We've all heard about Brazil having one of the largest African populations outside of the African continent. We've all heard Bahia has one of the strongest, rootsy African cultures in the Americas, and when we hear a samba tune, we immediately associate it with Brazilian culture. Of course everyone knows that Brazil is one of the world's top football nations.

Well, I even have some Brazilian roots from the Tabom people - African-Brazilians who returned to Ghana and other West African territories. But apart from some of its music, I haven't been particularly interested in Brazil, and was not aware of its complex African identity and race issues until very recently.

Oh, that's apart from a story I heard at a Soul Trade seminar many moons ago - I think it may have been told by Dotun Adebayo in his days as a music journalist. Apparently, despite the huge number of Africans within Brazil society, its people were just not used to seeing successful Africans within the mainstream (perhaps with the exception of Pele) that when they saw crossover music stars on TV like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, they just assumed that they were European!

In Britain, when "black" is used as a racial descriptor, it generally means people of African or South Asian heritage. In the political context, it can be as broad as to cover non-Europeans, and can even go as far as covering oppressed European groups! In the US, "black" pretty much covers people of African heritage, irrespective of whether their antecedents are located in Africa, or more recently, from the Caribbean.

However, in Brazil, it turns out to be another ball game! It seems our debate about what we call ourselves in Britain is nothing compared to what's going on in Brazil - The Black Women Of Brazil blog has an article on the subject worth reading: Black (Negro) or African descendant (Afrodescendente)? What's in a term?

The article explains the five main racial classifications (for a fuller understanding of terms such as "preto" (black), "branco" (white), "pardo" (Mixed-race, brown), "amarelo" (yellow, East Asian) and "indígena"/''indio" (Amerindian) see Racial Classification And Terminology In Brazil  or Afro-Brazilian), the recent revelations from the 2010 Brazilian census, and which terminology three well-known Brazilians of African heritage prefer to describe themselves by.

Interestingly, whilst Brazil is held up to be the nation with the most Africans outside of Africa, strictly speaking, only 7.6% of the 2010 census identify themselves as "black", "preto" or African. That's about 13 million out of a population of some 195 million people of different shades.

This is the 2010 census breakdown: "Brancos" ( 47.3%),  "Pardos" (43.1),  "Pretos" (7.6%), "Amarelos" (2.1%) and "Indígenas" (0.3%). However the figures do not tell a complete story - the census is dependent upon self-identification by respondents, so perception and reality are not always the same. For example a "pardo" who sees himself as "branco", can self-identify as such on the census and hence pass as white.

However, advocates of the Movimento Negro (African Brazilian movement), which urges African pride, also argues that the African-Brazilian population is politically, culturally and racially made up of those classified as "preto" (African) and "pardo" (part-African), which makes up what is popularly described as the "Afro-Brazilian" population. "Pardo" covers those described as "mixed race", and also known as brown, mulatto, or "mestizo". Among the "pardo" is a mixture of African with European, Asian, and/or Amerindian. The numerous permutations produce a wide range of shades and phenotypes.

Whilst some "pardos" are comfortable aligning themselves with the "Afro-Brazilian" terminology, others, one would imagine those closer to "brancos" in shade and other typical European phenotypes, whilst not passing themselves as "brancos" do not want to be identified by their African blood.

Other terms worth noting are "morena", which basically describes a brown or light skinned female of African heritage, whilst "negra" basically refers to a female with mainly African features. Considering the socio-economic advantages of being a "morena", ironically the actress Camila Pitanga, who is an obvious "morena" takes pride in describing herself as a "negra", whilst the media  often describes her as a "morena" and asks her why she insists on describing herself as a "negra"!

With the 2010 census showing that the African-Brazilians are the biggest racial group for the first time in the country's history - the "preto" and "pardos" population has grown whilst the "brancho" population has fallen in the last 10 years - perhaps it's not surprising that another terminology has sprung up to describe this ethnic majority group: Afrodescendente, which means African descendant.

It's a good move, in that it links people to their African ancestry. But what's up with the Brazilian love for the word "Afro", which in places like Britain is often associated with the Afro comb! And as all humanity descended from Africa, they ought to consider using African heritage instead (see Thinking About Language In Teaching African History - the TAOBQ Primer).

Glória Maria, a famous TV host/journalist doesn't like Afrodescendente, favouring negro ("black") or "neguinha" (supposedly a term of endearment meaning "little black woman"). Is it because Afrodescente identifies too strongly with Africa? Particularly for someone in mainstream media, where a strident African association may not be perceived as a career enhancer. Incidentally, we've been there before - the TAOBQ campaign started by finding out which terminology African heritage people in London preferred - African or black? 

Preta Gil is a singer and actress, and the "prado" daughter of Gilberto Gil, a famous musician and former Brazilian Minister of Culture in Brazil. With her first name mistakenly substituted with "Preto" and even "Afrodescente", no wonder even though she recognises her African roots, she dislikes labels of any kind.

It's left to  singer Toni Garrido to give the unequivocal support for the use of "Afrodescente". Says Toni: “I use Afrodescendente because it’s a cooler word than negão, crioulo or neguinho."

Curiously, there isn't much of a socio-economic gap between the "preto" and "pardo". However, not surprisingly, there's a massive gap between the African-Brazilian and their European counterparts.

To deal with racism in Brazil, I'm indebted to an article on Travel Making Kai's blog entitled 'A Lighter Shade Of Black… Observations Of Racial Identity In Rio'. I'd like to think that she's taught me a bit about our Tabom history, and that through attending some of the TAOBQ events, I've made her more aware of issues around African identity.

Kai, who's on a visit to Brazil, where she's researching Tabom history, is also taking the opportunity to research the experiences of continental Africans living in different parts of Brazil. 

'A Lighter Shade Of Black…' reveals the racism and sexism African women face in Brazil. Kai sees beyond the "We’re all one people - Brazilian" facade. She even talks about an Irish mother who faces discrimination because she has a "pardo" child,  and some of the discrimination associated with what's popularly known as "shadism".

Well, this just about scratches the surface of a deep issue. Should you wish to explore further, I've copied below some links to use as a starting point on your journey of discovery of Brazil's rainbow nation.

Another important area, sadly not touched on here, is class, and how it places out in tandem with racism.


Kai Li's Tabom Project

A lighter Shade Of Black… Observations Of Racial Identity In Rio

Black (negro) or African descendant (afrodescendente)? What's in a term?

Racial classification and terminology in Brazil

Brazil census shows African-Brazilians in the majority for the first time

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Black History Month May Be Over For Another Year, But We Rewind To Some BHM Issues

Black History Month May Be Over For Another Year, But We Rewind To Some BHM Issues

TAOBQ co-ordinator

November 24 2012

This piece is from a comment to an article entitled 'Why Black History Month Is Damaging To Black Culture' by Chama Kapumpa, published by Sabotage Times.

Dear Charma,

I applaud you for writing this article, and I admire your desire for discourse on BHM, particularly as you're studying history within an academic environment which encourages discussion. Your wanting to have a focus on African British history is one I concur with.

As much as I am about global African history - by the way, I'm writing this from Accra, Ghana where I facilitated a workshop last week entitled 'What Does It Mean To Be A Global African?' Positive feedback's led to a followup workshop, ‘How To Regain Our African Identity And Self-Confidence’ on Oct.24 – however, I believe efforts must be made to tell African British histories – it does require some effort, unlike the more prevalent African American histories, particularly the Civil Rights movement, which is a history curriculum topic.

What do we know about our own African led civil rights movements in Britain? Next year, the focus will be on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech – but how many of us know that the day that speech was made also marks an historic moment in British history? That and a few other not so well known incidents were some of the histories I presented last year in a series of NARM African British Civil Rights Histories presentations across London.

Anyway, back to your article – I think some of the points you raise are not failings of the Black History Month (BHM) concept, but rather a deficiency in the programmes that are delivered under the BHM banner. Firstly, the fact that BHM is wide ought to be an asset. 

The deficiency lies in the laziness of schools, councils, unions, and community organisation who deliver BHM events, in that they often pluck for the narrow, same-old, same old topics – enslavement, Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and lately, Obama. And those are the ones that are supposed to have a history focus.

The wideness of BHM allows us to connect in many beautiful ways, if only we can see the dots. For example, we’ll be showing ‘The First Grader’, but as heart-warming as it is in the main, it offers us an opportunity for a little discussion on the value of education within the African British communities, and to look at the dark side of British history from the context of what happened during British colonial rule in Kenya.

My view is that most of what passes as BHM tend to entertainment and cultural programmes, which I believe can be put on any other time of the year. It seems you’ve been lucky to have had quizzes, where some effort have been made to focus on history, even if the focus is seldom on African British history. That said, Charma, there are some creditable, accessible and engaging BHM programmes delivered using a range of techniques, from talks, Powerpoint presentations, films, to edu-tainment performances which focus on history, particularly those relating to Britain. African history is part of world history, and some are part of British history. But as you pointed out, history is selective.

If you think BHM gives African history an “otherness” – please note that not all histories can be mainstream. For example, are the histories of the Londoners who’ve lived in the east of London for centuries not worthy of being mainstream? But can’t their histories be just as easily described as the “other” in terms of mainstream British history? I have no issue with African history seen as the “other”, so long as when it’s delivered, be it under BHM or in history class, it’s presented by knowledgeable people and devoid of Eurocentric biases, which many of us unwittingly regurgitate! You also made the point that there is seldom the opportunity to engage in discussion.

As I’ve said, that’s not the fault of BHM, but the programme designers or organisers. Having said that, there’s a world of difference between what one expects to achieve in a 3 hour BHM event, and a 3 year undergraduate history course. On your course, as future historians, you are being taught to question, and time has been factored in to learn and appreciate that skill. The majority of those attending BHM events are not historians. They attend either to be entertained or to learn a bit more African history. I’d suggest the priority ought to be creating an accessible non-academic environment to learn some African history, rather than whether or not they can critique the information delivered. Critiquing is part of an academic discipline. BHM events ought to be a learning, but not necessarily an academic exercise.

That said, I’ve been delivering BHM events – soon to be simply called AHM (African History Month), which do not only provide information on some aspects of our wide history (or histories), but also allow some form of discussion. That’s simply because the knowledge base does not reside solely with facilitators and panellists, even if they’ve got a number of history degrees. I’ll throw a challenge for you to experience 25 Years On… on Oct. 30 @ Harrow Civic Centre. It’s the only BHM event marking the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Black History Month in Britain and the Labour Party’s Black Section’s success with the election of the 4 African and Asian MPs in 1987, and which brings in the behind the scenes stories of those that were there doing the works. Click for 25 Years On... event report.

Finally, I’ll like to point to the title of your article, which may not have been written by you – ‘Why Black History Month Is Damaging To Black Culture’. BHM is about history, but because of the prevalence of what passes for BHM, BHM is seen to be more about culture, rather than history of African people. I’m not sure how BHM is damaging “black” culture – whatever that means, when in the main, the only culture we see is singing and dancing. For example when was the last time you saw a BHM programme focused on the role of the griot or kora in west African societies, or the role of the pardner or susu culture within African Caribbean communities in Britain?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Harrow event reaffirms Black History Month African-centred focus and Black Sections members highlight their efforts in the election of the 4 “black” MPs in 1987

Harrow event reaffirms Black History Month African-centred focus and Black Sections members highlight their efforts in the election of the 4 “black” MPs in 1987

Nov. 7 2012

A meeting last week in the Council Chamber in Harrow, north London heard from those directly linked to two milestones in African British history, which took place in 1987.

25 Years On… focused on how Black History Month (BHM) was introduced by Greater London Council successor organisations, such as the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) a quarter of a century ago, and also on the work of Labour Party’s Black Sections group, which led to the selection and election of the first African MPs – Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng (Keith Vaz, was not the first Asian MP – that honour goes to Dadabhai Naoroji, elected as a Liberal MP in 1895).

The free event, organised by WHEAT Mentor Support Trust and Akoben Awards, attracted a diverse audience including councillors, community activists, teachers and young people.

The panel and special guests were made up of activists in local government and politics in the 1980s. This included Ansel Wong, former head of LSPU’s Race Equality Policy Group (REPG), Addai Sebo, REPG policy team leader, Marc Wadsworth, former chair of Black Sections, Bernard Wiltshire, former deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA); and Narendra Makanji, a former Black Sections chair and Haringey councillor, who along with Linda Bellos, another Black Sections member and former LSPU chair and Lambeth Council leader, got London councils to declare the period from August 1987 to July 1988 the African Jubilee Year and mark October as BHM in Britain.

The introduction of BHM, which was predicated upon the tenets of the African Jubilee Declaration, was a way of redressing the pernicious effects of racism upon African people, and to counter the misinformation and lack of knowledge of the African contribution to world civilisation.

“The essence of the Declaration was that the London boroughs and authorities would make just restitution … just restitution means reparations, to years of incalculable damage done to the African,” explained Sebo, who conceived the idea for BHM in Britain after hearing a colleague tell him about the racial identity issues facing her young African son named after pan-African champion Marcus Garvey.

Concurring with Sebo, Wong added that although “the essence of what we were trying to do was to bring about a recognition that people of African descent have made significant contributions to the development and success of British society and to the world,” the use of the  word “black” was a pragmatic “political convenience”  to pass the commemoration through Labour and Conservative councillors in the London boroughs that supported the Declaration.

The African Jubilee Declaration  was presented as part of African Jubilee Year (August 1987 to July 1988) by the London Strategic Policy Committee,  the Association of London Authorities and the Inner London Education Authority in recognition of three global African history landmarks: the centenary of pan-African champion Marcus Garvey's birth, the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of  formerly enslaved Africans in the  Caribbean, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Among the commitments the Declaration enjoined the bodies that signed up to it included the promotion of “positive public images and an understanding of Africans and people of African descent and encourage the positive teaching and development of their history, culture and struggles”.

However event chair, co-ordinator of Akoben Awards and TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) Kwaku pointed out that the political landscape has now changed. “As of today, as we’ve commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Black History Month, from now on, it’s African History Month,” declared Kwaku.

“They were in a different political situation, where they had to make compromises to talk about Black History Month. And also there was then  the political black – that’s why Narendra could stand together with Marc – Asian heritage and African heritage. But things have changed, Narendra is now often described as Asian, rather than black.”

African History Month, will continue to be a forum for all members of the community to engage in and learn from. However as Harrow deputy mayor Cllr Nana Asante pointed out: “It’s like a bus – Africans are the drivers, and everybody else is a passenger. It’s all encompassing. Everybody is welcome. But the history we talk about is African history.”

The event ended with Wadsworth speaking about how, in spite of lack of support from the Neil Kinnock/Roy Hattersley Labour Party leadership at the time and some serious opposition from within the party, the Black Sections was able to force through changes. This included overcoming opposition to the formation of a group to address race issues within the party that removed two African females who Black Sections had helped to be selected as parliamentary candidates.

Whilst the Black Sections may be best  remembered for helping bring about the victory of the 4 “black” MPs of 1987, Wadsworth reminded the audience that its work also resulted in getting hundreds of councillors elected across Britain. His parting words for the new crop of activists were “organise, organise, organise.”



• BHM was officially inaugurated in the UK on October 1 1987 with a series of programmes aimed at school children and  adults at the (by then abolished) Greater London Council's old building, County Hall, where Dr Maulana Karenga gave the opening keynote address. Other African historians who made presentations during the African Jubilee Year included Dr Yosef ben-Jochann, Dr John Henrik Clarke, Dr Tony Martin and Dr Frances Cress Welsing. Their presentations are compiled in the currently out of print book, ‘Our Story: A Handbook of African History and Contemporary Issues’ (Addai-Sebo, Akyaaba and Wong, Ansel, eds 1988, London Strategic Policy Unit, 1988).

· • The official BHM logo incorporated the Sankofa symbol. Its significance is underscored by Dr John Henrik Clarke, who delivered this Sankofaism: “If we have to change tomorrow, we are going to have to look back in order to look forward."  
  Addai Sebo now lives in his birth place, Ghana, from where his contributions were made via video
• 'Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month' by the then ILEA deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire, one of the supporters of BHM, and who delivered a speech at the BHM launch, is posted at:
Photos by Linda Panford, except * by Kwaku. Hi res upon request
Subjects include:
Ansel Wong, former head of LSPU’s Race Equality Policy Group (REPG)
Addai Sebo, REPG policy team leader*
Marc Wadsworth, former chair of Black Sections
Dr Hailu Hagos, executive director of WHEAT MST
Kwaku, co-ordinator of Akoben Awards and TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question)
Bernard Wiltshire, former deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA)
Narendra Makanji, former Black Sections chair and Haringey councillor
Jessica & Eric Huntley, community activists and publishers
Mia Morris, political aide and founder of

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month

Recollecting African British History: My Role In The Launch Of Black History Month
By Bernard Wiltshire
Then ILEA deputy leader 

From 1986 to 1988, I was the deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), the institution that was responsible for education in the Inner London Boroughs. Those who were around at the time will remember the determination of the Thatcher Administration to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) of which the ILEA was its Education Committee.
It soon became clear however that it was impractical to abolish the GLC in its entirety all at once. The provision of education services to the Inner London Boroughs was too complex to be dealt with that way, so it was decided to set up the ILEA as a free standing, independent authority in its own right while a scheme for devolving education to the individual boroughs was worked out.

Elections to the new Authority took place on constituency basis in 1986 and I was selected by the Hackney and stoke Newington constituency to represent the Labour Party, along with my running mate Stephen Benn.

I came to the ILEA with an agenda which had a lineage of almost two decades in the making, and that was to put a stop to the systemic underestimation of and expectation for black children in the school system. The problem had been identified as far back as the closing years of the decade of the 60s in a small research paper written by Bernard Coard at the behest of Caribbean activists, mainly consisting of artists, writers and poets, who had gathered themselves under an organization called the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association (CECWA).

The group first met at the West Indian Student Centre and later at the bookstore of John La Rose in North London to consider Coard's report, entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal in the English School System’. The disclosed findings made a tremendous impact on me, having just graduated at the time from the University of York with all the brashness and impatience that youth can usually muster.

One of the solutions considered by CECWA was the establishment of Supplementary Schools, run by the black community to counter the harmful effects of racism on our children, concentrating on black history and conscientisation, aimed at raising self-esteem as well as knowledge of black heritage, stemming from Africa, and to supplement the teaching of the "3Rs" to our kids.

Armed with this resolve, I immediately proceeded to set up the Kwame Nkrumah Supplementary School in Hackney in 1971, one of the first of its kind in the country. Of-course, progress in tackling the problem was extremely slow. We could only tinker at the edges as this was a new idea at the time. We had to depend entirely on volunteers in the black community and resources were very scarce. Nevertheless, the seeds of a new idea had been planted and I would like to pause to pay tribute to the dedicated black men and women, the Jessica Huntleys, Reds, Elva Didiers, Gwens (cannot now recall full names) and the others who gave much without ever counting the cost.

A further development at tackling the same problem was made in the 1980s with the establishment of the Black School Governors' Collective with black activists such as Steve Delsol and others,  which aimed at giving black parents a stronger voice in the government of schools in order to better protect the black child in the throes of the system. It was to further those aims that I subsequently ran for a seat on the newly set up ILEA in 1986 and was elected its Deputy Leader under the leadership of the talented and astute late Frances Morrell.

It was in my capacity as Deputy Leader of ILEA that two young black activists, Addai Sebo and Ansel Wong, based I believe in Lambeth Council, asked to see me to solicit my support for the establishment of a Black History Month in the UK, similar to a comparable initiative in the United States. It was an initiative with which I was well familiar having participated in the establishment of the Black Studies Programmes the US in the early 70s.

I knew that what Addai and Ansel wanted to do could not be done without the backing of a powerful institution such as the ILEA. No doubt, they realized this also, and as Deputy Leader of the largest and most powerful education institution in the country, I was in a position to make it happen, as happen it did. The problem was that while the Labour ILEA was undoubtedly a progressive educational institution, there were different views within it of how to deal with black cultural self-awareness. The old dichotomy between integration and the promotion of separate cultural expression threatened to pose itself as an obstacle. The idea was even considered "dangerous and divisive" in some quarters of the Authority. Nevertheless, I was resolved to persevere, believing as I did that the two concepts coexisted in a dialectical necessity and that their separation could only amount to a false dichotomy.

Perseverance and a strong argument paid off. Following a number of planning meetings with Addai and Ansel, I was able to obtain the almost unanimous support of the members of the ILEA, especially of its leader, the late Frances Morrell. The day of the inauguration was certainly a memorable occasion. It was held in ILEA’s old oak paneled Council Chamber at County Hall. Our guest speaker was a professor of history from the United States, whom Addai and Ansel had invited, but I gave the opening introductory address, which apparently had such an impact on one participant that he later confessed to me that he had to hold on to the edge of his chair during my address to overcome the sensation of falling!

I confess that it was a disappointment to me when subsequently a report of that seminal occasion appeared without my address. Later I left the UK and returned to continue our struggle for the upliftment of our people in Dominica and the Caribbean; and I suppose in my case, it was a question of out of sight out of mind. But I would like my role  to be recognised since without my input at the time, Black History Month would almost certainly not have been established at the time that it was.

Bernard Wiltshire
October 2012

First published on Nov. 7 2012 by TAOBQ on

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Black History Month: A Short Q&A

A researcher on a radio magazine show asked me some questions for a feature they were doing as a run up to Black History Month 2012. Copied below is the  Q&A

TAOBQ co-ordinator

Nosa Igbinedion's 'The Importance Of Black History?' documentary premieres Oct 23 2012 at King's Place. Click for more info. 25 Years a Harrow African History Month event on Oct 30 2012, 6-9pm at Harrow Civic Centre, looking at the behind-the-scenes moves by the people who helped introduce Black History Month in Britain, and the selection and election of the first African British MPs, in 1987. Click for more info

1) Do you think that there is still a need for Black History Month?
Yes, but so long as it is about the HISTORY of people of African heritage, and not about just pure entertainment. Of course, we should learn about our history all year round and not wait for October. However, BHM is an opportunity to focus on our history as people African heritage within a set period and more importantly, and the whole community, not just Africans should be invited to attend events - after all, what's the point of learning about the pyramids, African scientists etc, and the wider community not being aware of African contributions, or that there have been and there are African scientists.

The whole point of Black History Month, which some us now prefer to call African History Month (AHM), came about as a way to highlight the contributions of people of African heritage to world civilisation and humanity, which is marginalised by mainstream education, and often undermined by the media, so that all, regardless of their ethnic background, would have a better understanding of the contributions of Africans. 

It was also to raise the self-esteem of African youths, and to empower them to reach their full potential with the knowledge of the achievements of their forefathers. So when  that's achieved will be when there is no longer a need for BHM. Check my post at

2) Black History Month is 25 years old. How has it benefited the black community in that time?
I assume that by black, you mean Africans, or people of African heritage - I do not support the use of "black" to describe African people (for background, please check out

The African community should have benefited from a focus on its contribution to world development, rather than a focus on negative aspects.  This would have helped to instill pride, and also informed the wider community who are generally ignorant about Africa, Africans and their achievements and contributions beyond what is highlighted within sports, entertainment and the criminal justice system.

The lofty aims of BHM are seldom realised because many BHM events either focus on culture and/or entertainment, the enslavement period, or regurgitate the same world history centred around personalities mostly from outside Britain. Important as they are, we need to focus on history, and one that incorporates a British context.  Many people can name the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King of the US, or Mandela in South Africa - but how many notable Africans, barring entertainers and sports personalities, can we name from Britain?

We all seem to know about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, but how many of us know of Paul Stephenson and the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963? Or Learie (later Lord) Constantine and his landmark ‘Color Bar’ legal case of 1943, after he had been refused accommodation by a London hotel. Do we know about the work of Dame Jocelyn Barrow^ in multicultural education and the efforts which led to the enactment of Britain’s Race Relations Acts, or the entrepreneurial flair of Dyke & Dryden, and the then teenaged Alexander Amosu, who developed multi-million businesses in hair and beauty, and ringtones?

3) Hillingdon Council scrapped Black History Month in the borough last year in favour of Hillingdon History Month, which is not black specific. Do you see this as proof that they do not respect the history of black people?
It's not that they do not respect the history of African people - it's that many of us have forgotten the reason why BHM was founded in this country. We don't seem to remember the tenets of the African Jubilee Year Declaration*,  which the Councils signed up to and  the way in which BHM was introduced through the Councils 25 years ago.

It would seem everyone, Africans and non-Africans alike, were happy with the jolly events that were put on as BHM. And not enough Africans engaged with local politics either as councillors or by attending community meetings to voice their opinions. So it was so easy to either cut, or divert funding for BHM to other things, like Hillingdon History Month. For this reason, I am facilitating the 25 Years On... event which will highlight 25 years since BHM was introduced to this country, and 25 years since the election of the first MPs of African heritage.

In a nutshell, the Declaration consisted of a number of commitments. These included the demonstration of anti-racist, anti-apartheid, and human rights policies. The Declaration also bound Councils to undertake to organise events that publicise, encourage and implement the tenets of the Declaration and to encourage other Councils and statutory bodies to do likewise. However although the Declaration did not have legal backing, it was underpinned by an important section in the 1976 Race Relations Act, which is extended in the post-Steve Lawrence Inquiry inspired 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act.

Hope that helps.

(c) 2012 Kwaku 

Our African History Month 2012 programme include:

25 Years On...
A Harrow African/Black History Month event marking the 25th anniversary of the introduction Black History Month in Britain and Labour Party’s Black Section’s success with the election of 4 African and Asian MPs in 1987. Panel includes Ansel Wong, Marc Wadsworth, Roger McKenzie. Chair: Kwaku. Presented by WHEAT MST in association with Akoben Awards
Tuesday Oct 30 2012, 6-9pm. Free.,

Harrow Civic Centre, Station Road, Harrow, HA1 2XY

The First Grader
Screening a heart-warming film set in Kenya, though it has its heart-wrenching moments.  Kwaku leads a post-screening discussion on education and liberation struggles.
Friday Nov 9 2012, 6-8pm. Free. BTWSC in association with WSDG. To book:,
Westminster City Hall, 64 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QP

Remembering Samuel Coleridge-Taylor  (15 Aug 1875 - 1 Sept 1912) - an African British musical genius & pan-Africanist also on:
Wednesday Oct 31 2012, 2.30-4pm. Streatham Library for Lambeth schools
Wednesday Oct 31 2012, 6.30-8.30pm. Putney Library, 5-7 Disraeli Road, SW15 2DR. 020 8871 7090
Thursday Nov 1 2012, 2.30-4pm. Brixton Library for Lambeth schools
For more information: Awula Serwah

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Let’s dispel the myth of the post-racial society

Let’s dispel the myth of the post-racial society

TAOBQ co-ordinator
How times flies. It seems not so long ago when almost everyone was cheering on as Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 as the first African-American US president. And now he’s just about back on the re-election trail. I’ll leave the arguments of whether or not Obama’s presidency as an African-American or “black” president has been markedly different from his European predecessors for another day.
However, what I wish to deal with here is one of the early legacies of his presidency, which is the “post-racial society” (PRS) term. I’m not sure about the genesis of the term. But the chances are that for most of us, its use became prevalent following Obama’s election in 2008.

But before we rewind, let’s me point to two incidents that happened in August 2012, just before I wrote this piece.
Firstly, a Spanish magazine, Fuera de Serie, in its infinite wisdom decided to run a feature article on Michelle Obama by running on its cover the superimposed head of the first lady over an 1800 Marie-Guillemine Benoist painting of an enslaved African with one breast exposed has some people crying foul. The question one has to ask is: Would such bad taste be meted out any of Obama’s European predecessors?
And in the land of the free, at the Mitt Romney-endorsing Republican party convention in Tampa, an African camera woman for CNN covering the event was taunted and racially abused by two peanut-throwing European men. Thankfully, the men were ejected from the building. It seems that nothing has changed, even with an African at the country’s helm sitting in the White House.
Back to the subject at hand - generally, what the pundits and advocates of this rosy society wish to conjure, is a society where race is no longer important or a significant determining factor. In order words, get on with things and stop shouting racism when you hit a stumbling block, such as not getting that job or university place, even though you are suitably qualified.
I imagine that broadly speaking racism isn’t an issue that exercises the minds of most Africans on the African continent, although this may not be the case particularly in parts of southern and eastern Africa, where there are significant pockets of Europeans. What is however quite common, is what could be classed as insidious racism, often manifested in the sickening deference some Africans show Europeans, simply because they retain that unquestioning post-enslavement/colonialist mentality that a person is superior simply by being European.
Also, all of Africa may be supposedly “independent”, but that does not stop there being pockets of “whites only” fiefdoms. Even Ghana, which was once at the forefront of the liberation of the continent and which is in the throes of celebrating its 55th anniversary of “independence”, has a recent “whites only” story. Last October, a Ghanaian lady in the company of non-Africans dined at a fish restaurant in the capital city Accra. But when she asked for membership, she was told by the management that “it's only for white people.”
That might be an unusual story from Ghana, or indeed Africa, but not in the diaspora – I’ll focus on the US and Britain, where these types of stories are not so uncommon. Hence, the need to continually debunk new, nice-sounding terms which belie the old reality, which is that racism still exists.
It may be over half a century since the American civil rights activism, which heralded laws that enshrined racial equality and affirmative action programmes to provide a more level playing field, but the scourge of racism hasn’t gone away.
The story some wish to tell is that there’s an African in the White House, who has possibly the most powerful job in the world. World leaders defer to him, whilst ironically, some media personalities at home speak disrespectfully about him perhaps because he’s African, others mock his very non-Anglo name, and “birthers”, including some military personnel, question his authority by casting doubts regarding his status as a natural born US citizen.
Never mind that as far back as the late 1860s (not 1960s), the US amended its constitution and enshrined laws – the 13th Constitution amendment of 1865 abolished enslavement, whilst the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th amendment of 1868 and several subsequent acts, focused on racial equality.
But in spite of all these laws, earlier this year, restaurant workers filed a class action against their employer, citing, among others, the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and also launched an e-petition demanding a change in the discriminatory employment practice of the chain of US restaurants where African-American workers are kept in the lowest paid jobs and excluded from serving in the high profile parts of the top restaurants, because their ethnicity/race do not fit the exceptional image promised guests.
One of the chain’s top restaurants is in Washington DC, where Obama resides, and ironically, the chief executive of the chain is African-American.

This is a country where no matter how high some Africans may have come within education, business and politics, racism still rears its head. In 2009, a prominent African-American history scholar was arrested by police following an incident in which he had to break into his home. The stories of wealthy African-Americans being approached with a “May I help you?” from high class shop or restaurant staff, which can be a code for “you are not wanted here” abound. So too are stories of African-Americans, rich and poor, being followed around in shops by staff and sometimes even by European customers, who think their only business for being in there is to steal.
Only last year, a British family caused a furore and were at the receiving end of a law suit from an aggrieved waiter, when it was revealed that they had instructed a US five-star hotel that they “did not want to be served by a black person”.
It’s amazing how despite its major role in the trans-Atlantic enslavement and subsequent colonisation of Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean, Britain has this benevolent, “fair play”, “mother country” image among many Africans.
Because of our lack of history, it’s so easy not to realise that racism has been rife in Britain for a long time, and that the fight for civil rights is not something that only took place in the US or South Africa. From the early 20th century, when Africans came to Britain, they faced racism, which was for most of them in sharp contrast to the image painted by the former colonial power.
Consequently, several organisations were formed by Africans to address the issue of racism in Britain, and colonialism in their home countries. Examples are the African Association (later known as the Pan African Association) founded in 1897 by Trinidadian law student Henry Sylvester Williams, and WASU (West African Students Union), which was formed in 1925 by Nigerian law student Ladipo Solanke, and had Kwame Nkrumah as one of its later executives.
In the 1960s, when the world’s media was focused on the civil rights activism in the US, Britain had its own. However, it’s so much under the radar that the US civil rights is part of the British history curriculum, whilst African British civil rights struggles are not.
Consequently, few people have heard of Asquith Xavier, who with his trade union, successfully fought the “whites only” colour bar at London’s Euston train station after he was refused to transfer there as a guard. On July 15 1966, he was offered the job and the station’s management announced the abolition of the colour bar.
Open racism was rife then, asnd it was not unusual to see notices pasted on boarding houses and other rental accommodation, stating no Irish, no blacks, no dogs!
Britain’s first Race Relations Act of 1965 came about as a consequence of African-led activism by organisations such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Bristol Bus Boycott, which was led by community worker Paul Stephenson, whose father came from West Africa. The boycott ended on August 28 1963, when the bus company announced it had abolished the colour bar, which had prevented non-Europeans from being employed as bus drivers and conductors.
Stephenson’s move had been influenced by US activists such Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Interestingly, in a recent article still on the New York Times website, an Oxford University history lecturer, erroneously stated: “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”
How could this respected historian get it so wrong, and conflate a boycott against racist employment policy into that of drivers striking for better conditions? Could this be a stretch of PRS revisionist history? We owe it to ourselves to learn more of our history, and not leave it to Oxford dons.
Keeping with the Oxford University connection - last year, the university was highlighted in the news from two different quarters. In April 2011, British prime minister David Cameron, told a public meeting: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year. I think that is disgraceful. We have got to do better than that."

The university countered by stating that its admissions figures for 2009 included one "black” Caribbean out of 27 “black” students admitted for under-graduate study that year. David Lammy, an African MP and Labour party’s shadow higher education minister, revealed that more than 20 Oxford University colleges had not made any offers to African candidates for undergraduate courses in 2009, and that one college had not admitted a single African student in five years.
At the end of last year, an African chef accused Oxford University’s New College of bullying him out of his job. The basis of his racial discrimination case, to be heard later this year, is that after twenty years working for the college, the head chef’s post became vacant. He became acting head chef, but lost the permanent position to someone he alleges was not even short-listed.
How dare these proponents advocate we’re in a post-racial society? What planet do they live on?
When it comes to the world of high finance, Africans may be, but they are both under-represented and hardly seen. Recently, I read about an African broker in a British investment firm, who was told that his boss “doesn’t want to send a black guy to one of the clients”. Apparently, seeing an African representing his investment firm would “shock him”.
What perhaps is becoming less shocking is the recent proliferation of mixed heritage couples seen in the media, particularly in British TV commercials. It paints a rosy image of a multi-cultural, multi-racial Britain. This image may have had another boost, if it was not for the resolve of some African TV producers who tried to sell their sitcom about an African family living in London to one of the big TV companies. They turned down an offer which entailed not just getting a new and better known cast, but also changing the family to one of mixed heritage.
If we live in a post-racial society, why is it that it’s expected that we can all watch sitcoms where the whole cast is European, but not one where the central family is African?
This summer, the world will be seeing a lot more of London because the British capital city will be hosting the Olympics. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games states that “during the bid process, diversity was a key reason why London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, was chosen to host the 2012 Games.”
Nice words. However, although there have been procedures put in place which are supposed to provide a fair compliance regime, critics see it more as window-dressing. Because in spite of the official diversity and inclusion mantra, many African-led businesses believe they’ve been discriminated against.
Voice Of Africa Radio, the only legal African radio broadcaster, which is based in Newham, one of the key east London Olympics boroughs, says it’s been discriminated against by not being awarded media accreditation to cover the games that will be taking place literally on its doorstep.
Interestingly, CompeteFor, the portal through which the Olympics contracts are bid by small businesses, states that just over six percent of so-called BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) led businesses have been successful. Engage Enterprise, a London organisation that deals with BAME procurement issues, has launched a petition at to feed concerns of African and ethnic minority-led businesses to Government and the Olympic authorities.
Even deputy minister Nick Clegg isn’t buying into the PRS myth. Last November, he spoke about the discrimination against ethnic minorities by British banks.  He said: “If all black entrepreneurs and businesses could borrow, compete and grow on equal terms, our whole economy would grow faster.”

One dangerous result of believing the PRS hype is to drop the baton of those who fought for the civil rights we enjoy in Britain. Yes, some Africans have risen through the system – we’ve had Africans as attorney-general, government ministers, and even chief executives of some of the the biggest public companies. But for all the progress made, Africans continue to die in the custody of the state.
Particularly since the end of last year, the anti-racist fight, which has traditionally focused on accommodation, employment and education, is now focusing on the issue of deaths in custody. Organisations seeking justice for victims include the likes of Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice, Campaign 4 Justice 4 Smiley Culture, Sean Rigg Justice & Change Campaign, Justice For Brian Douglas, and United Families And Friends (UFFC), a multi-racial collective that highlights such deaths on its website (, marches and other activities.
PRS advocates would have us believe that the focus has moved on from racism, thereby creating a disconnect with the anti-racist fight of the past. However, besides the families and friends of the death in custody victims, some of those on the forefront of this activism asking for answers and accountability, have taken the baton from the likes of Solanke and Stephenson. This includes the likes of former London Mayor race and policing advisor Lee Jasper, now chair of London Race & Criminal Justice Consortium, and Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK.
Last December, most of these players, along with a coalition including church leaders, came together to campaign against deaths in custody. Jasper, who opened that meeting informed the media that “it is absolutely critical that we have a full, open, public and transparent judicial enquiry into deaths in custody.”
An Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody report published late 2011 revealed that between 2000 to 2010, almost 6000 people have died while in the custody of police and prison officers, or detained under mental health or immigration laws. Whilst this statistic is not made up exclusively of Africans, racism is a dominant factor in the case of many Africans within those figures.
“Government figures show that black men and people who use mental health services are the most likely to lose their lives while in custody,” says MacAttram, one of the supporters of the UFFC’s e-petition for 100,000 signatures in order to force a Government debate on the call for an independent judiciary inquiry into suspicious deaths in state custody.
I’m not one that makes a living from the so-called “race industry”, harps on insistently about racism, or sees racism in every bad turn. So I’d wrap up by mentioning an incident involving Britain’s only African super-model Naomi Campbell. Last year, she is said to have threatened to sue a confectionery company for running a print and poster ad campaign for a chocolate bar with this strapline: “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town.”
The super-model felt it was insulting and racist, saying: “I’m shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me, but for all black women. It is insulting and hurtful.” She received an apology. But was it racist?
In the past, Campbell has spoken out against racism within the fashion industry, such as less opportunities and discriminatory pay rates for African models. In 2009, she said in an interview that "the American president may be black, but as a black woman, I am still an exception in this business. I always have to work harder to be treated equally."
Whilst I agree with her sentiments regarding the fashion industry, I’m of the opinion the chocolate ad was playing to Campbell’s much reported diva image. NA readers are welcome to express their views on my simplistic view in not recognising what they, like Campbell, might see as a racist slight.
Let’s wake up to the PRS myth. However, I also urge that we step up our game – not just in sports and entertainment, but in all spheres. That way, the racists will have less upon which to hang or propagate their pitiful views.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

August 23 2012

By Kwaku
TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) co-ordinator

Today and in the next few days, there will be a number of events across Britain marking “Slavery Remembrance Day”, “Slavery Memorial Day”, and another terminology I came across a few days ago, “Slave Remembrance Day”. I believe these terminologies to be misnomers, and do not do justice to the spirit of what they purport be commemorating. The preferred terminology ought to be the International Day of AfricanResistance Against Enslavement.

Hence this open letter, and for those that like their commucations in bite-size form, the conversations can continue on Twitter using hashtags  or .

The marking of August 23 is an initiative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which was adopted in 1997. If you have not heard of this national commemoration, it’s not surprising. Member states are merely “invited to give this international day all due prominence and to mobilise their educational, scientific, artistic and cultural communities, youth and, in general, civil society”.

Re-wind to 2007, which was the bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act. This Act, championed in parliament by William Wilberforce, did not, and was not intended to end chattel enslavement. But many people were not to know that, as numerous publications and commentators, either directly or implicitly talked about the Act in terms of having abolished chattel enslavement.

During that period of self-congratulatory, back-patting commemorations of Britain having taken the moral high ground by abolishing the vile “trade”, which was the trafficking of African people, the Government initially wanted an annual commemoration of the trafficking and abolition to be on March 25 – the date the Act was passed 200 years ago.

Many grassroots organisations, conscious pundits, and indeed the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone, opposed this. They suggested that the August 23 date be adopted. It was not until the end of the bicentennial year, in December that the Government finally announced its adoption of August 23.

Whilst the Government used the UNESCO’s Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition terminology, some organisations, including trade unions and anti-racist organisations, decided to opt for “Slavery Remembrance Day” or “Slavery Memorial Day”.

But before then, among the first libraries and museums that took up the challenge of commemorating August 23 in Britain is the National Museums Liverpool (NML), which began its “Slavery Remembrance Day” events in 1999, the year the city of Liverpool “apologised” for its prominent role in the so-called “slave trade”.

NML, and now through its specialist wing, the International Slavery Musuem (ISM), which was inuagurated in 2007, has continued to regularly put on a range of August 23 activities. Whilst its programmes are perhaps one of the best on offer – reasons which will be explained later – the museum is one of the institutions that have popularised the “Slavery Remembrance Day” terminology in Britain.

NML states on its website that “the date has been designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day, a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.” The first part of the statement is erroneous.

This is how UNESCO described the initiative in 1998, when it first marked August 23: “By its decision to proclaim 23 August each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, UNESCO sought to pay tribute to the tireless struggle of the slaves for their freedom.”  And UNESCO has been consistent in using its official terminology ever since.

As embracing as the UNESCO terminology may seem, some pan-Africanists have an issue with the kind of focus the terminology so easily lends itself to. So at a meeting of the Recovered Histories London Regional Network in 2008, a new terminology was adopted: International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement.

This terminology, which I implore all Africanists and true African supporters to use, underscores the significance of August 23 1791, which heralded the start of the Haitian Revolution - the first successful revolution by enslaved Africans in the so-called New World, and which partly led to the abolition of the trafficking of Africans.

The Haitian link puts the focus on the activism of Africans. The other terminologies so easily lend themselves to Wilberfest type programming, where the focus is often on European abolitionists like Wilberforce, the ‘magnanimity’ of the British for abolishing chattel enslavement, whilst the Africans are usually seen as poor, pathetic enslaved people, and their determination in fighting for their own freedom seldom highlighted.

Using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology does not necessarily mean locating every event around the narrow focus of Haiti, August 23 and African resistance. What it offers is a great opportunity to highlight and re-tell African histories of resilience and overcoming against great odds across the diaspora and over the ages.

This can help empower Africans, particularly young people who are disconnected with their African roots, whilst also highlighting some of the less well-known histories and counter-balancing some of the mis-information about chattel enslavement and its abolition.

Personally, I have been using the oportunity to deliver programmes that use the Haitian revolution as a springboard to highlight a range of global African histories with a connection to August, which incidentally has been re-named by a Garveyite organisation as Mosiah month in honour of the great pan-Africanist icon, Marcus Garvey.

Garvey, who is one of the NARM role models (African British male role models spanning 1907-2007), was born 125 years ago on 17th August and his UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) organisation offers a number of historical markers in August.

This year, the guest speaker at one of the NLM/ISM events is Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of African-American civil rights leader Dr King. In addition to delivering a memorial speech, he will also unveil a plaque on one of the museum’s buildings to be named after his father.  Another talks programme is ‘We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For’, where the topic for discussion is not just on historical and contemporary African heroes and heroines, but crucially, it welcomes the inclusion of community grass roots heroes.

Talking about grass roots heroes, there is no doubt that next year being the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’, there will be a surfeit of King/‘I Have A Dream Speech’ related events.

But how many of the historians, programmers and organisers of those type of events will look at highlighting some of the local heroes I highlight in the NARM book? For example, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol Bus Boycott, which officially ended on August 28 1963, the same day Dr King made his famous speech.

If we don’t know of Stephenson or the Bristol Bus Boycott, we should take the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with what ought to be an important part of African British history, instead of forever harking back to the United States, as if we do not have  any African-driven civil rights activism in Britain.

Incidentally, if you decide to make the effort, please do not rely on the New York Times website, where there is a feature on the international influence of Dr King. It has an aside, which mentions Stephenson and the bus boycott. Sadly, in  spite of my pointing out an error to the editorial department and the author, who is an Oxford University history tutor, the esteemed newspaper’s website continues to declare “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”

Anyone who’s read anything about the Bristol Bus Boycott would know that it was a fight against the colour bar practised by the bus company and a trade union, which discriminated against non-Europeans by not allowing their employment as bus drivers or conductors.

Last year, I selected some NARM role models, like Asquith Xavier, CLR James, Dr Harold Moody, Henry Sylvester Williams, and Ladipo Solanke, to tell a range of AfricanBritish civil rights histories across London during African History Month (25 years after its introduction to Britain, it’s time to ditch the now meaningless Black History Month terminology).

Another NARM role model, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is the subject of an August 23 event at London’s National Portrait Gallery, where his images are part of an on-going exhibition until March 2013. This is how the gallery’s website promotes the event highlighting the African British composer who died 100 years ago: “On Slavery Remembrance Day celebrate the remarkable life of a composer who rose from humble beginnings to international celebrity. With biographer Charles Elford.”

Upon first reading this blurb, I wondered about the relevance of linking this event to August 23. Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875, well after the abolition of chattel enslavement. His father was a London-trained doctor who came from Sierra Leone’s middle class.

If this event was merely going to focus on the great achievements of one of Britain’s most famous composers of the early 1900s – his ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was a major hit, which had numerous performances at prestigious venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, and whose fame was such that he went on three tours of the US, where he became the first African to conduct an all European orchestra and was feted at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt – it could have been done any other day.

However, I know Elford is passionate about Coleridge-Taylor and as the author of the novelised biography ‘Black Mahler’, I expect he will also highlight Coleridge-Taylor’s activism as a pan-Africanist, the aplomb with which he dealt with racism, the challenges and the doors he opened as an African within the Western musical world and beyond in the late 19th/early 20th century. This is what would make August 23 relevant, as it highlights the spirit and connection to the global African histories of struggles and resistance.

Going back to the International Slavery Museum. I must confess I had never been keen on visiting it. Thankfully earlier this year, I took the opportunity offered by a guest speaker engagement at the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts to pay a visit. The more I saw during my guided visit, the more I dropped off the baggage I had come in with.

My last Open Letter in 2009 was entitled ‘African (Black) History Month Aim Not Achieved/African History Is Wider Than Enslavement’. In it, I advocated that our history was much wider than just the enslavement period, which was what the Government had managed to get into the school’s history curriculum starting in 2008. It also advocated using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology, and that the August 23 date “must be used to focus on the resistance led by Africans.”

I had imagined that the ISM was simply a Wilberfest time capsule. Looking at the exhibits, reading the captions and engaging with the various audio-visual resources, I was amazed at the fair representation of the issues in terms of language and focus, and there was no over-emphasis of the European abolitionists.

Also, surprisingly, it was not as its name might have implied, focused on just enslavement, rebellions and the abolition – it actually covered a much wider area, and in language that showed respect and sensitivity. Issues that link to contemporary times, such as racism, colonialism, African nationalism, civil rights, reparations, and popular culture have some prominence. This includes a highly recommended video show that tells centuries of global African history within a few minutes.

I later discovered the museum’s stance is in part due to its having input from clued up people from Liverpool’s African community throughout the process, from its inception, to acquisitions, installations and its on-going programming.

My only issue, which I pointed out to staff was one caption which stated that in 1772, Lord Mansfield declared enslavement illegal. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somersett case did not definitively pronounce on the legality or illegality of enslavement.

Which leads me to one last point. Among the museum’s facilities is the Campaign Zone, where organisations like Liverpool’s anti-human trafficking group Stop The Traffik (STT) use for meetings. The STT cause is of course laudable, and deserves all the support and publicity it can get. However, my view is that modern day slavery and chattel enslavement must not be mentioned in the same breadth, as if the former is simply a continuation of the latter.

It is not. Whilst they both keep people in servitude, today’s slavery or human trafficking is illegal. The victims have human rights, and when the traffickers are caught, they do face the law. In the case of chattel enslavement, victims were deemed to be “property”, and had no rights whatsoever. This perverse notion meant that an enslaver could torture or kill an enslaved African, without facing criminal prosecution.

This is shown in the Zong massacre, which involved 132 Africans being thrown overboard during the Middle Passage on the orders of the ship’s captain, and the subsequent insurance claim for loss of property (chattel). Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in his 1783 summing up of the jury's verdict, echoed the prevalent view of the time, which was that what happened to those Africans was “the same as if horses had been thrown over board.” None of the Zong’s crew were charged for the killing of over 100 people!

This is why the kind of servitude I’ve just illustrated should be distinguished from other forms of servitude and be described as “chattel enslavement” – language is very important in dealing with these matters.

In 1937, William Prescott, a former enslaved African in the United States said: “They will remember that we were sold. But they won’t remember that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought. But not that we were brave.” This is what terminologies like “Slavery Memorial Day” and “Slavery Remembrance Day” invariably leave us with.

No to “SlaveryMemorial Day and "Slavery Remembrance Day”, yes to International Day Of African Resistance Against Enslavement!

© 2012 Kwaku