History, herstory and ourstory

Happy birthday blog and to celebrate I am going to have a look at what I have learnt this Black History Month. Firstly, though I am delighted to see that this October it feels like a lot of progress has been made since last year. Yes there were still organisations scrabbling around in mid to late September trying to get People of Colour to deliver talks to their teams at the last minute – for free (seriously that’s not cool). That said there are many more narratives and some organisations have significantly improved their coverage. Sky have a dedicated Black History Month movie channel, BBC Sport have pulled together a collection of Black history sports narratives and English Heritage have curated a range of stories of Black historical figures.

This time last year I read David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. As someone who studied history up to degree level I was struck by how much Black history I was unaware of. It also made me think that Black history can often be reduced to a focus on the civil rights movement, migration, settlement and slavery. I feel that this is both reductive and unhelpful and so in this week’s blog I am going to shine a light on two different Black figures I particularly admire and, in relation to the ‘ourstory’ reference in the blog title, challenge the notion that the transatlantic slave trade is Black history. More on that later.

My parents arrived in the UK in the 1960s as part of the Windrush generation. My brothers grew up in 1970s Britain. From a racial discrimination perspective they all had it much tougher than I did. But there was a beacon of positivity for Black Caribbeans during that time. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the ‘Calypso cricket’ of the West Indies Team gave the Windrush generation and their offspring many reasons to cheer. Of that team of icons one of them will always be a massive hero of mine the swashbuckling batsman Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards. I loved watching him bat and in a world of hostility and few heroes and role models he made me proud to be Black and proud of my West Indian heritage. In 2002, Viv Richards was named as one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the 20th Century alongside another Caribbean cricketing legend Sir Garfield Sobers. My favourite anecdote of Richards was during the twilight years of his career at Glamorgan. Facing fact bowler Greg Thomas he played and missed outside off stump. On his follow-through, Thomas allegedly chirped at him “It’s red, it’s round, it weighs five ounces and you’re supposed to hit it.” Viv smashed the next delivery out of the ground and into the River Taff. He then wandered down the pitch and said to Thomas “It’s red, it’s round and it’s in the river – go fetch it.”

Sir Viv Richards in full flow at Trent Bridge (PA Pictures)

My second choice is Mary Seacole. I have chosen Mary because she was born in Jamaica like my parents and like my mother went into a career in nursing. Lesser known and remembered than Florence Nightingale (answers on a postcard as to why that might be the case), Seacole wanted to enlist as a military nurse during the Crimean War but her application was refused. What I love most about her was her determination not to be deterred by that and that she travelled to Crimea anyway and used her own money to set up and run a boarding house and clinic behind enemy lines to care for wounded soldiers. I admire her because through racism she was initially denied the opportunity to make a contribution, ignored those decision makers and did it anyway. In June 2016, a statue of her was unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital by another wonderful Black icon Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, honouring her as a pioneer in her field.

Ourstory. At the start of Black History Month this tweet by Bilal really made me stop and think.

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It is such a simple statement but the truth that lies behind these words is so powerful. The history of the transatlantic slave trade is all of our history. Yes we might reference it as part of Black History month when discussing figures such as Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass but in reality there is far more to discuss, debate, unearth and question when framing and focusing the discussion on the beneficiaries rather than the victims of that abhorrent trade. Through my education there was a consistent gap in the history. The period that was omitted started at the end of the English Civil War and stretch until the beginning of World War One. I am pleased that my children are being taught about this period at their schools.

My final reflection this month is that it is important that our schools continue to teach, our museums continue to share and research and our society continues to explore Black history all year round. Let us see October as a time to shine a spotlight on and amplify the findings of an ongoing programme of work.

The next post will go live on 26th November till then #ImNotTired

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