The Beating Heart of Black History Month
Black History Month was brought into being 30 years ago by a former Mayor of Lambeth. Since then it’s become part of the nation’s calendar each October, bringing black heritage alive for millions of children and adults. Joshua Neicho reviews this year’s events in Lambeth
Last month marked the thirtieth anniversary of Black History Month in the UK, an event with which the borough of Lambeth has been intimately connected from the start. Radical black feminist Linda Bellos, Lambeth council leader in 1987, was a co-founder, along with colleagues from the recently abolished Greater London Council, such as Ghanaian activist Akyaaba Addai-Sebo.
In response to the identity crisis that some black schoolchildren were experiencing at the time, and following calls for an event in Britain comparable to the United States’s Black History Month, Addai-Sebo conceived the idea of a celebration of the contribution Africans and people of African descent had made to world civilisation. He wanted October to be the designated month, he recalls, because it was early in the school year at a point when pupils were still filled with positive energy, and also because it is the time associated with harvest and reconciliation in Africa. However, as Bellos tells the story, October was chosen because she agreed to get Zimbabwean First Lady Sarah Mugabe as guest of honour for an event at the Commonwealth Institute, and it was the earliest possible date to suit both guest and venue.
Since then, Black History Month has been trying to broaden young people’s awareness of black innovators, such as Daniel Hale Williams, the first doctor to perform open heart surgery, and many others. It has spread across the UK to areas where black schoolchildren are in a tiny minority, but is celebrated with a particular sense of purpose in Lambeth, widely recognised as the cultural centre of Black Britain. Windrush Square in Brixton was officially inaugurated at the start of Black History Month in 2000. Lambeth’s 2004 Black History Month began with an unveiling of a blue plaque on the final home of acclaimed West Indian historian, journalist and activist C. L. R. James on Railton Road.
Recent years have seen film premieres, fashion shows, a restaging of a 1960s Lambeth Town Hall Paul Robeson concert, events marking Lambeth’s LGBT heritage and an extensive children’s programme. This thirtieth-anniversary Black History Month in Lambeth included a Q&A session with Grace Jones at the Southbank ahead of the release of Sophie Fiennes’s documentary, a celebration of black opera, and no-holds barred talks on FGM, black pupils’ achievement and the future of black history itself.
If you haven’t before, Black History Month presents the perfect opportunity to pop into the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Brixton and check out the large collection of artefacts documenting the histories of the British African and Caribbean diaspora.
Their ongoing show Black Sound – ‘a raw and energetic exhibition that draws on BCA’s archive collection of ephemera, photographs, vinyl, cassettes, and music tracks’ – will make you want to dance as it takes you through a century of black British music.
The exhibition is co-curated by social enterprise and creative agency The Champion Agency and former NME and Mojo journalist Lloyd Bradley. It offers a timeline, from calypso stars to recent Mercury Prize winners, with an audio smart fob that activates recordings from over the decades, and criss-crossing panels that dive deeper into themes such as 50 Carnaby Street, which from the 1930s to the 1960s was a hub of black artistic and intellectual life, and the coming together of the sound systems from the West Indies. Black musicians have been continually inventive in the UK, says Scott Leonard of The Champion Agency, ‘constantly working out different ways of doing things to navigate the challenge of the industry’: thus early grime singers, who didn’t have access to a studio, got their beats – and a unique sound – by rejigging their PlayStations. Leonard thinks we’re now on the cusp of a new era when the music industry will no longer be run by middle-class white men, with SBTV’s Jamal Edwards and Boiler Room’s Thristian Richards showing the way. Eminent black British musicians including Eddy Grant, Soul II Soul founding member Jazzie B, Michael Riley, sometime lead singer of Steel Pulse, and classical composer Shirley Thompson have attended the exhibition. Black Sound at the Black Cultural Archives is now open throughout November.
The director of Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, the new documentary about the Jamaican-born singer and actor, struggled to get support from funders and commissioners – so she went and shot it anyway.
Sophie Fiennes’s film, shot cinéma verité-fashion, focuses on the star as she is today rather than on archive footage of her iconoclastic 1980s heyday: Fiennes spent five years with her. ‘Grace had fiercely controlled her public image, but made the bold decision to un-mask. She never sought to control my shooting process, and I didn’t second-guess the narrative,’ Fiennes says.
Jones was in London for a Q&A at the BFI on the South Bank on Wednesday 25 October, which was broadcast to cinemas nationwide. Fiennes’s documentary began showing at the Ritzy and the Clapham Picturehouse on Friday 27 October.
Indomitable, peacockish, raucously hedonistic and a subverter of gender conventions, Jones is a consummate rebel. She is both black role model and a reluctant figurehead for black empowerment; her view on race is ‘we’re all human beings and that’s it, so I don’t even go there.’ She polarises opinion, with some people feeling she is a perverse egotist whose attention-seeking has become very boring over the years.
Simon Parkes, founder of the Brixton Academy, recalls the first of Jones’s two 1990 shows at the venue in his memoirs. She repeatedly delayed her arrival – in the final instance, because her dressing room had been stocked with the wrong type of Cristal champagne – so that by the time she appeared, many of her fans, mostly in their thirties, had left to catch the last train. It was, writes Parkes, ‘one of the very, very rare moments when I found a show at the Academy disappointing’.
Others would say this entirely misses the point. According to music journalist Paul Morley, who ghost-wrote her autobiography, she is ‘vehemently anti-cliche, anti-nostalgia, anti-sentimentality and consistently “other”. This world would prefer to continue to fix Grace in the celebrity category she was actively resisting and rejecting 40 years ago. So instead they place her in the patronising “crazy woman” box to deal with the threat and unpredictability of her presence.’
Outside Tate South Lambeth Library on Saturday 21st October, passers-by could chill to music while savouring hot, hot flavours at the Spice of Africa market.
One food stall had been set up by Palop Union UK, a newly established Afro-Portuguese organisation representing Angolan, Mozambican, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and São Tomé communities in the UK. The stall offered the tasty piri-piri chicken traditional to Mozambique, paracuca (caramelised peanuts), and a special hot sauce from Angola called gindungo sauce.
‘Black History Month brings everyone together to celebrate and it welcomes debates about the issues that contribute directly to the wellbeing of the black diaspora,’ says Palop Union co-founder Veibena Armada. He is organising another event soon in Lambeth showcasing Afro-Portuguese food, music and dance, and arts and craft.
Stockwell-raised singer-songwriter and producer Ashley Abigo was one of the afternoon’s performers, playing a mixture of his own songs and covers on guitar with creative use of a loop pedal. He taught himself guitar and from the age of sixteen worked as a sound engineer at Stormont Studios in Battersea. He released his first single, Tingaling, featuring Nigerian singer Mr2Kay in 2014 and is now working on his first album; he’s up for gigging anywhere, including around people’s dinner tables.
There’s a concern that in too many schools, black history education is limited to slavery, civil rights and a parade of a few individuals, and that in the age of Black Lives Matter, white nationalism and ‘unconscious bias’, a fresh approach is needed. As part of a series of programmed discussions, Chuka Umunna met with Busayo Twins, a member of the National Union of Students’ executive committee, in Streatham Library to talk about the significance of Black History Month for young people today.
Umunna described the history of Lambeth, the iconic position of Brixton in British black history, the importance that black politicians don’t just have a race-specific role within the Labour Party and the need for engagement with schools so that they can support black leaders effectively.
Twins thinks reflection is needed over whether some of the traditional discussion around Black History Month is exaggerated or obsolete, so that the debate can look more clearly to the future. For example, the mixed-race population is the UK’s fastest-growing ethnic group: what will it mean for black history if they take on mixed-race identity? What about the black history narrative that non-black youth is receiving, since they are in the strongest position to challenge prejudice and hatred?
Twins’s contemporaries have further ideas. Young poet Oluwaseun Matiluko thinks Black History Month is about a recognition of British history: ‘We have had a presence in the British Isles before black people ever set foot in the Americas and yet more people recognise black people as being American than the existence of black Brits. To celebrate Black History Month is to recognise all that black people have done for this country, often for little in return.’ NUS Further Education students’ representative Myriam Kane wishes children could be taught there were Black Panthers in Britain, too (such as photographer Neil Kenlock), though having grown up in France and Italy, she is grateful that there’s a Black History Month at all in the UK, as opposed to issues like slavery seldom being mentioned.