I like to think I have been doing anti-racist work since I was a child — from the days when I telling my schoolmates about slavery to my teen years where I was educating my peers on the connotations of the N-Word and why it is wrong. I remember a few years ago my editor at The Nenequirer Steve was interviewing me for a piece and he made a passing statement about me being an “equality activist.” He meant it lovingly and in good faith. I laughed, jokingly — thinking that equality wasn’t a political issue, so how could it be activism? Now, even more cynical than I was in in 2017, but grown, equality is very much a political issue, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and I now carry the label of “anti-racism activist”, a job I have been doing for nearly 20 years, in a professional and non-professional capacity.
The fact I never regarded equality as a political issue is something I have thought about time and time again. Building my name as a poet in my community, much of my work being on race and nation, I have been called all types of things. Being called “anti-Britain” is not an accolade I thought I would recieve, as anyone that knows me knows I am more British than Queenie herself — from custard creams to Doctor Who, The Crown and test match cricket, there are few people alive who can out-Britain me.
So, to be called “anti-Britain” is insulting really. And, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, lately, I have been asked to answer all sorts of questions on race / racism by friends and colleagues, unknowing that what all Black people are going through now, as we have always done, is traumatic.
I hear a lot of my Black colleagues saying “it’s not the job of Black people to teach white people about racism, (and Black history.)” I heartily agree, but I also question the place this statement comes from in the first place. Lots of my colleagues have been asking me about the Black History and what they should be reading and I am quite fortunate in the sense that I know where to send them for information because I have spent nearly fifteen out of twenty-four years doing the reading and learning (outside of the system).
However, most Black people, really do not know their own history because they came through the same education system as white people, with its blinkered curriculum!
So, whilst we are Black, we, too, are disillusioned. We cannot teach you about our history because we do not know it ourselves. Those that do know it have taught themselves it. The reason I can challenge the Wilberforce narrative on slavery is because I have made efforts to find the other stories around that narrative. I have made efforts to look at the centuries before the fifty years of Wilberforce — centuries of rebellions and dissent from the first abolitionists, the slaves themselves, on the ships and the plantations.
I have found that Black teachers are really struggling because they also came through the same system. So, if teachers don’t know, (let alone Black teachers) how can they teach it to students? What really needs to happen, in addition to decolonising curricula is decolonise initial teacher education [ITE]. When our teachers are being taught about race and Black history, and the contributions of ethnic minorities to Britain, then we might get somewhere, because it’s being taught to the grownups… not just the youth.
I am fortunate to have parents that have degrees in Law and Internation Studies, fortunate to have parents that were part of their African-Caribbean Society at UEL and took part in anti-apartheid marches. Very politicised students who then became politicised parents and professionals, and now I am politicised too. I learned a bit from my parents and some stuff from my Windrush grandparents (that lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s) and then more stuff from different family members about all sorts of things.
But most of all, from doing the reading:
Akala, Malorie Blackman, bell hooks, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince, Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Dean Atta, Roger Robinson, Miranda Kaufmann, John Agard, Reni Eddo Lodge, Afua Hirsch, James Baldwin, Peter Fryer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Benjamin, Olivette Otele, Beverly Tatum, Maya Goodfellow, Paul Gilroy, Gary Younge, Kehinde Andrews, Hakim Adi, Bernadine Evaristo, Eric Williams, Andrea Levy et al…
I did the reading. Learned. Challenged. It’s no overnight success and I am still learning. The BBC had a whole season on Black Britishness, including documetaries Black is the New Black, Black and British: A Forgotten History and other bits. Yet, don’t be conned that more Black faces in the mainstream means Black people have made it and racism is over. The fact there are more Black people on TV has opened the floodgates for more debate on whether racism actually exists, if the likes of (Professor) David Olusoga can make it — or Afua Hirsch; or Reni Eddo-Lodge and many more.
Heck, Meghan Markle being “accepted” into the most elitist institution in Britain. That whilst we have books like Black and British by David Olusoga showing how far Black British history goes and showing the good things we have contributed, there are also texts like Slay in Your Lane by Elizabeth Ubivenne and Yomi Adegoke and Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, both just so raw and unflinching, straight at the jugular.
“Black Lives Matter; no justice, no peace; Black power” — chanted at the Northampton protest in July by nearly one thousand protesters. A moment in Black history we are living together but still some of us not really getting it. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the others sparked outrage across the world. But I would emphasise to the white masses, this has been happening since 1619 (US) and at least 1562 (Britain), when John Hakwins, from Plymouth, hijacked a Portegeuse slave ship and made a small fortune in the Spanish Caribbean, with further voyages that decade funded by Elizabeth I. This Black history I only know about from reading Staying Power by Peter Fryer, a white male author. Read. Research.
I wonder if the next generations of Black people to come in the future will know about Black Lives Matter, (because it’ll be taught in the schools), or will they have strangers and relatives telling them about their history just like I did?
I expect it is rather horrifying for Black people that do not know their history being asked by white people and other non-Black people about it, like being Black is a pass to knowing. Education is the pass and the education system doesn’t teach it but I can say we represent “3% of the [British] population but account for 13% of the prison inmates. Black people also represent 9% of deaths after police contact that were independently investigated” (Andrews, 2018: xxiii). We do not know our history but we are living it now, including our disproportionate overrepresentation in police and prison statistics.
When it comes educating ourselves on Black history, in my opinion, it follows a coalition of learning together. That whilst it looks semantically questionable having white academics being the main leads on subjects like slavery and Black Tudors (nationally), their knowledge is valuable, and so are the contributions in academia made by Black academics in history (what few that exist), as well as other subjects like sociology and criminology.
White people, stop burdening your Black friends and colleagues with teaching you about Black history; the likelihood is they do not know it in enough volume to teach you it. However, the literature is there, in volume, teach yourselves and grow, otherwise you are simply adding to the “drip drip” sensation of the tap we call emotional labour.
Andrews, Kehinde (2018). Back to Black: Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: ZED. Print.
See my reading and film resource, made in reply to Black Lives Matter. It’s public and for the benefit of all — from small children to adults: on race and Black history. This is an ongoing project and will continue long after anti-racism stops being sexy. This is always being updated, check it out.