“But Olivette, my darling, we’ve been there. We’ve done that already. It doesn’t work,” said an exasperated Bonnie Greer during one of our online, caring but also heated conversations.
The playwright, novelist and broadcaster was referring to the long history of activism to which she and many others have contributed for decades in the US and in Britain. The impasse in our conversation was about the ways in which minority ethnic communities work with big institutions, such as museums, to tackle racism. I was suggesting that we open some spaces to these communities to curate events; that we encourage black activists to trouble and question those institutions from within in ways that lead to dialogue. Greer was arguing that this had been done in the past and was not a sign of meaningful change. In fact, she pointed out that these initiatives had been used by institutions as token gestures. Although we both agreed on the need for brutally honest discussions about the place of contentious objects in museum collections, the strategic disagreement brought to light the need to explain why teaching black history and black activism was important.
There is a long history of black activism in the UK and Europe. But it appears to have been forgotten in the recent public debates about the Black Lives Matter movement. It seemed painfully obvious that many within the pool of young activists were not aware of what previously had worked or hadn’t. If they are to avoid repeating mistakes, then this history needs to be taught more widely. School and university syllabuses vary widely across England, Wales and Scotland, but in all three nations there is a growing demand that black history be part of the curriculum.
My students know about 1066 and resistance to the Norman conquest and how that narrative has been framed in public debates as either a foreign invasion or an early instance of European collaboration. Others were taught that the Chartist movement in the 19th century was about the refusal of the unequal social order that had shaped the kingdom for centuries. Most secondary school students have heard of the suffragettes and, in some cases in recent years, about how women of colour contributed to the cause.
The only form of activism related to the history of people of African descent that most school children are aware of is the campaign that led to popular support for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the 19th century. But the moment of abolition is not the full story of the struggle towards racial equality. It does not tell the story of subjugation, life in captivity, or pain and death at the hands of colonists; nor the survival and resilience of generations of black children, women and men despite oppressive political and social measures put in place after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean.
Enslaved people were not simply passively freed by English abolitionists when the time was right. They resisted their own capture and fought against the institution of slavery from the African coasts to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They tried to protect their lives and reclaim their dignity by physically running away, forming communities of warriors, destroying the master’s crop, attempting to poison the coloniser, complying with rules while looking for loopholes in the laws to fight for their freedom from the 16th to the end of the 19th century. These acts of resistance were accompanied by plans for liberation and actions centred around key points such as education, economic independence and cultural celebration.
The stories of black activists who are part of Britain’s history of resistance often come from black communities and grassroots initiatives during Black History Month. Unfortunately, because they are not included in the curriculum, they do not reach the majority of young learners in the country and when some of them do, they end up being confined to a monthly celebration every October. Integrating these stories in primary and secondary curriculums would allow most young Britons and their parents to understand that people of African descent were instrumental in achieving their own liberation. It would also demonstrate how collaborations between these communities and activists from different backgrounds worked, evolved and brought about positive change.
In the more contemporary era, we see that, from the pan-Africanist tradition to the UK Black Panther movement, the history of Britain’s black resistance has deep transnational roots. Teaching specific examples of resistance is also key. The case of the Mangrove Nine, for example, was an important landmark in the fight against police harassment and institutionalised racism even before the term was used in the 1999 Macpherson report after the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Black activism is also about the way young people have been agents of change, about the heroes around us in this Covid-19 era. In recent years there has been a focus on key figures and leaders who helped shape its course, but this history is continuing, as individuals try to improve their daily lives and those of others despite the obstacles.
These stories have implications for how we go about dealing with racism in the present. Knowing, for example, that museums in Britain have been providing spaces for black communities to tell their history but that there are still few black people working and established in the sector teaches us that temporary representation does not guarantee structural changes.
Activism has led to profound shifts in several areas but there is more to be done. Racial inequality is intimately linked to social inequality. Poverty affects people from all backgrounds and this may have further devastating consequences for children in the next few months. The commitment to eradicating this and other issues must continue. There is not one single identifiable black activism but rather various initiatives aimed at opening up more opportunities to people of African descent in places that have excluded them. Ultimately, black activism does benefit all communities.
Knowing the history of activism offers some hope. The Black Lives Matter movement in the UK in 2020 is a very multicultural movement and that is no accident. It reflects the history of intercultural collaborations of our nation and its peoples. Learning about community members on whose shoulders we are all standing provides some perspective about recent events. Stories of activism demonstrate how, beyond quarrels regarding the roads to take, making all our communities better places to live is an urgent and worthy journey.
• Olivette Otele is professor of history and memory of slavery at the University of Bristol