Monday, 27 January 2020

Black History Month by Glyn Powell (2000)

Black History Month
Written By: Glyn Powell
Date: October 2000
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 10: Autumn 2000  

This year’s Black History Month takes place against the background of continuing histrionics from Tory and Labour leaders about asylum-seekers and immigration. Despite the emollient tone of the Macpherson Report into the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, racist attacks have continued and institutionalised racism persists. The apparently contradictory forces of capitalist globalisation and nationalism have increased pressure for people to migrate across the world, while at the same time, governments have become more and more draconian in their attempts to stop them. For historians, who are also socialists, this makes the history of Britain’s migrant peoples of crucial and topical interest.

Black History Month was inaugurated in 1987 as part of an African Jubilee celebration for the centenary of the birth of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Garvey was born in Jamaica, was active amongst African Americans until his deportation by the FBI in 1925 and eventually died in London. Up to a million men and women from the USA, Caribbean and Africa are thought to have belonged to his most successful organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Black History Month emerged as an attempt to celebrate the history of people of African and Asian origin in Britain. It is a history which goes back to the Roman invasions and for which written records exist from the sixteenth century. In 1596, Queen Elizabeth made the first attempt at repatriation, asking mayors to expel the ‘great numbers of negars and blackamoores’ from their respective cities.[cited in SI Martin ‘Black Roots in Britain’ CRE History Channel]. This apparently failed and by the eighteenth century, there were as many as 15 - 20,000 people of African origin in Britain. Another attempt at repatriation, known as the Sierra Leone Scheme, was tried in the 1780s, through which non-white beggars were offered sixpence a day if they resettled in Sierra Leone.

During the eighteenth century, men like Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cuguano and Ignatious Sancho mounted anti-slavery campaigns in Britain. Since that time, people like John Richard Arthur, Mayor of Battersea in 1913, Sharpuri Saklatvala, Labour (though Communist Party member) MP for Battersea North and more recently, MPs like Dianne Abbott or the late Bernie Grant have emerged as significant British political figures. As these figures demonstrate, this is not the history of an African/sub-Continental Diaspora. Their history is part of British history. Conversely, it impossible to conceive of British history without some understanding of its colonial, slave-dealing and imperialist past. For historians, however, the presence of migrants from the ex-colonies does not just serve as a reminder of Britain’s inglorious imperialist history. It also demonstrates that history has developed through a complex and global series of human relationships, where, for example, the nature of capitalist exploitation of labour power in one part of the world can determine the nature of and the subsequent conflicts that have arisen from, the same exploitation thousand of miles away.

Since 1948 and the first modern wave of Caribbean migration into Britain, black British history has become inseparable from the study of social, labour and urban histories. Such scholarly integration, however, has often ignored the specific experiences of migrants from the sub-Continent or the Caribbean. The forthcoming Conference, to be held at University College London and the Institute of Historical Research on 20 and 21 October, respectively, will be both a celebration of and an academic enquiry into these specific experiences. The Black Perspectives on British Post-War History Conference will attempt to analyse the history of assimilation, racism and identity as they have related to labour organisation, employment, housing, gender and political movements throughout the post-war period

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