Brixton's Black Cultural Archives Force Us To Rethink British History

An institute run by black Britons, the new Black Cultural Archives offers a fresh look at the richness and diversity of British history.
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An institute run by black Britons, the new Black Cultural Archives offers a fresh look at the richness and diversity of British history.

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This week, the Black Cultural Archives opened in Brixton, south London. The grand opening on Thursday 24 July featured on outdoor concert showcasing black British, Caribbean and African artists as well as African and Caribbean historians speaking on the significance of the new facility. In the audience, amongst the overwhelming black crowd were representatives of many black British organisations ranging from the London Black Atheists to the Sons and Daughters of Africa. This, coupled with the attendance of black figures from the world of sport and entertainment such as actor Kwame Kwei-Armah, author Zadie Smith and retired footballer Sol Campbell made the launch of the Black Cultural Archives a very black event indeed. And though the archives opened with an overt celebration of black Britain, the Black Cultural Archives has the potential to become one of London’s most important centres of culture and history.

In July of this year the feature film Belle was released in British cinemas to critical and commercial acclaim. The story of a nineteenth century mixed-race aristocrat, starring a British actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Amma Asante, a black British woman, allowed the Afro-Caribbean community in this country to tell their story as part of the story of Britain. The Black Cultural Archives exists in very much the same vein. Visiting the archive on Friday, one thing became clear to me; the history of black people in this country is very much interwoven with the story of Britain. It would be irresponsible and honestly downright denial to overlook the fact that a significant proportion of black British history has been a story of fighting for recognition, fairness and an end to racism and discrimination. This is something the new archive very much acknowledges. But what pleased me was the stories highlighted which do not directly focus on the black struggle. Just so it is abundantly clear, I am not against paying tribute to the men and women who ultimately helped make my life as a black British man better. But it is important to understand that the story of Britain does not exclude people from ethnic minorities. Stories like that of Elizabeth Dido Belle, the lead character of Assante’s film, prove that black faces existed in quintessentially British settings. Not in a separate sphere of life, but very much a real and active part of Britain’s story. Perhaps fittingly, the opening exhibition at the archive is a showcase of black women in Britain, featuring, amongst many others; Mary Seacole and her work during the Crimean War and of course Dido Elizabeth Belle. Through these stories, an institute run by black Britons allows the richness and diversity of British history to be brought to the fore.

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Before performing at the launch event, rapper and director of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company Akala said it is time to end the ‘Windrush myth’ i.e. dispel the narrative of black people first arriving on this north Atlantic island in 1948 aboard the Empire Windrush at Tilbury port. Despite ironically being located on 1 Windrush Square, the Black Cultural Archives goes a long way achieving this aim. By proving that black people in Britain are not a recent ‘other’, the archive not only adds to the historical understanding of Britain, it can help further understanding between communities. I am not ignorant to the fact that many will see the opening of an archive exclusively about black people as some form of counter-discrimination or reverse racism. I am also not ignorant to the fact that people who believe in reverse racism know largely nothing about the people they accuse of pulling out the race card. The Black Cultural Archives matters because listening to and exploring the previously hidden stories of minorities is the only way end misconceptions about people who live here but often appear to be (and in too many case feel like) unwelcome strangers. It is important for everyone to know the struggle of existence many black people faced in this country, and not only over the post-Windrush years. It is important to understand the problems that have plagued and in some cases still do plague the black community. But it is equally as important to understand that despite being an underdog fighting unfair odds, black people have been part of British life for centuries. From being unlikely aristocrats to standing on the front lines of this nation’s wars. Naval officers, entertainers and educators, black people have been in many different ways part of the great British story.

And this is why I believe in the Black Cultural Archives. The facility may be nowhere near as big as the British Museum or the V&A. But by forcing us all to re-imagine the place of black Britons, by unearthing lost and overlooked stories, the Black Cultural Archives are adding a new dimension to the story of the people of this island. The cultural and historical significance of this cannot be overlooked. So when you look to venture out in this great city in the quest of culture and knowledge, I hope you do not overlook the Black Cultural Archives.