Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Other Side Of African/Black History Month

The Other Side Of African/Black History Month
By: Awula Serwah & Kwaku
First published on on 12 September 2011

Awula Serwah & Kwaku reflect on the challenges and progressive way forward for African history Month in the UK.

We have mixed feelings when we hear or read that some councils are reluctant to celebrate African/Black History Month (A/BHM). Why? Because much of what’s put out as A/BHM fare is often devoid of history. It often entertains but seldom increases knowledge of African history. So for example, we did not join the bandwagon last year demanding that London Mayor Boris Johnson reinstates his massively slashed A/BHM budget. But on the other hand, we did not oppose those who were campaigning for the budget to be re-instated.

This is because public bodies such as councils, have a duty to celebrate initiatives such as A/BHM. The 1987 African Jubilee Year Declaration, which most London councils signed up to, enjoined them to mark A/BHM. The Declaration drew its strength from sections of the 1976 Race Relations Act, strengthened by the 2000 Amended Race Relations Acts, which enjoins them to “promote race equality, equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups”.

The Declaration recognised the contributions of Africans to the cultural, economic and political life of London and the UK, and called upon councils to recognise this fact and take their duties as enjoined by the Race Relations Act very seriously, and to do everything in their power to ensure that African* children did not lose the fact of the genius of their African-ness.

We have to acknowledge that a lot of events billed as A/BHM events have little to do with history, and donot improve knowledge of African history. Face painting, fashion shows, singing and dancing etc. taking place in October, are billed as A/BHM events, when in reality they are simply entertainment.

There is nothing wrong with singing and dancing, and it has its place, but A/BHM is not about entertainment. It is an opportunity to learn about African history and achievements, which are largely absent in the mainstream. By focusing on pure entertainment, we perpetuate the perception that our areas of expertise are limited to entertainment. Besides, we have a regular diet of entertainment and culture throughout the year.

We can of course argue that we do not want one month or a season to focus on our history, and that our achievements should be in the in the curriculum and mainstream 12 months of the year, and not just in October.

This is a valid argument. However, if we are arguing that councils have a duty to celebrate A/BHM, then we must ensure that where possible, informed Africans are in the driving seat or part of the decision-making process, and that A/BHM events improve knowledge of our history from an African perspective.

The Right Focus: African History Speaks 2010
The Right Focus: African History Speaks 2008

Africans have achieved

It is unfortunate that some A/BHM events focus on enslavement, as if our history starts with enslavement and that there are no other worthy stories to be explored. Others simply regurgitate information on the “usual suspects” - Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and now President Obama, etc., overlooking what has happened in Britain.

Perhaps some of our young people will show more respect for their elders when they learn what has been achieved through sacrifice and activism of their elders and forebears in Britain.

It’s not just Boris Johnson’s City Hall cuts we should be focusing on - after the hullabaloo in 2007, where all the London councils were involved in promoting Wilberfarce and A/BHM events, some councils have since either reduced or totally cut their A/BHM budgets.

Hillingdon for example, does not support A/BHM, which has been replaced with a patchy Hillingdon History Month in October. An African councillor in Hillingdon, Cllr June Nelson*, is putting forward a motion for the Council to re-instate A/BHM. Also, this year, Westminster has cut its A/BHM funding. It had done some good work in the past, particularly in making accessible the rich African history within its archives, and providing talks that highlighted key historic figures who operated within the borough.

Boroughs can be brought to account, if there is the will within the community to seriously engage with such structures. A case in point is Harrow Council. Thanks to the intervention of informed Africans, A/BHM in Harrow is now about the history of Africans, and it is made clear that the term African refers to the continent of Africa and its diaspora. Whilst the process is driven by Africans, the aim is for everyone irrespective of race, to participate in the events, and improve their knowledge of African history. In addition, there is an annual theme for funded events, which must have clear learning outcomes for participants.

A/BHM should always offer an opportunity for all sections of the community to learn something positive about the history of Africa and its diaspora. Perhaps before each A/BHM event, a short statement should be read, reiterating the reasons why A/BHM came into being, lest we forget. (Click to see Harrow position paper).

It is amazing the number of times, in defending the maintenance of A/BHM, Africans say things like “We don’t know our history” or “They didn’t teach us African history in school”. It will be irresponsible of Africans to wait each year for BHM to learn about their history. There are a numerous and free resources available that provide information on African history from an African perspective. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves and our children on African history. We can decide to buy our children books and resources that will raise their self-esteem, or buy them the latest electronic games - the choice is ours. Finance is no excuse. There are families on minimum wage or benefits who raise their children with positive African values, history, and knowledge of who they are.

It is important for us to acknowledge what Africans have achieved in spite of the barriers. We should not, like the mainstream, continuously tell the one or two stories, such as the poor and helpless story, or the under-achievement story. Also in light of the August 2011 incidents, African pundits and teachers should be mindful of pushing the notion that Africans did not suffer loss, because they do not own property or businesses.

Africans have owned property and businesses in Britain for centuries. One of the Sons Of Africa abolitionists, Ignatius Sancho, voted in the 1780 parliamentary elections. In those days non-property owners could not vote, and Sancho was able to vote because he was a business owner – a shopkeeper, in Westminster.

We cannot afford to rob our children of hope by regurgitating the tired story of Africans in Britain as powerless victims of the system, who do not own anything. We are the descendants of overcomers, the likes of Nana of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Paul Stephenson, etc. It is important that we tell the story of Africans who have navigated the system, own businesses and property, and have broken the glass ceiling to demonstrate that whilst we must redouble our efforts to remove barriers, some Africans have been able to jump over the barriers and achieve. We do not lose anything by hearing their stories, and they can sow the seeds of inspiration to achieve great things.

Click to find out about the NARM (Naming And Role Model) African British Civil Rights History BHM 2011 events across London

* Press release following Cllr June Nelson A/BHM motion, which was defeated in Hillingdon Council, issued by the Labour Group Office:

Press Release

At the full council meeting on Thursday 8th September Cllr June Nelson gave an impassioned speech in moving a Labour Motion calling for the Council to re-instate October as Black History Month. This is because the internationally recognised Black History Month has, for the past few years, been renamed in Hillingdon to “Hillingdon History Month” and the commemoration and celebration of the achievements of African people has been watered down considerably.

The ruling Conservative group on Hillingdon Council, who are responsible for the renaming of the month and the move of focus away from Black people, voted the motion down on a very flawed argument that they were being inclusive by dedicating the month to all the residents of the borough, rather than just those from the Black community.
The Conservative group also called for a recorded vote, so that they could use their flawed argument against the Labour group in their political propaganda.

This one issue highlights just how badly the Conservatives in Hillingdon understand what it means by being inclusive and cultivating true community spirit across all strands of our society.
What they just don’t understand is that in order for communities to come together and breakdown barriers, they must understand and celebrate their differences.

During the debate Cllr John Major highlighted the flawed thinking of the Tory group be illustrating that throughout the year there are a number of days and weeks dedicated to one particular group or another, but none of these are at the exclusion of others, but they serve to focus attention on that particular group or issue, so that everyone understands and that any myths or fears of what makes us different are dispelled.

After the meeting Cllr Mo Khursheed, Leader of the Labour Group, said

“The flawed thinking of the Tory group is exactly what creates tensions and issues amongst our community. The renaming of “Black History Month” to “Hillingdon History Month” on the basis that it includes all residents and not just the Black ones amounts to the same as renaming “Christmas” to “Hillingdon Winter Festival” on the basis that it will include all residents and not just the Christian ones.


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The Tories used to claim that it was the “loony left” that was to blame for political correctness gone mad, but the flawed thinking of this Tory council proves otherwise.”

Cllr Khursheed added

“I am glad that the Tories called for a recorded vote because you only have to look at the makeup of the Labour Group to see that we represent the whole community, and as such we welcome diversity and anything that will help different sections of our community understand each other, celebrate our differences and break down barriers.”

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Silas Zephania's 'Nationality' Reviewed By Ekow Asante

14 year old Ghanaian secondary school boy Ekow Asante reviews UK conscious rapper Silas Zephania's single 'Nationality', taken from his album 'War Begins Where Reason Ends'.

This is a song by Silas Zephania, who is an African who grew up in London. He composed this song and talked about the toil Africans have been through. He starts his song by saying “I’m not ashamed of who I am, I’m proud to be African why because it’s my heritage”. This shows that he is someone who understands the greatness of Africa which produced great people such as Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, the pharaohs of Egypt and many others.

Next he mentions great things that were found in Ethiopia, which is what is believed to be the first human fossil and also talks about other great leaders, like King Shaka. He is an African who wants to show the world that all Africans are the future and he wants us to rise up and change for the better.

Later on in the song he says Africa is the richest in resources and then he mentions a couple of countries. He also mentions the people of Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and black Americans, and he ends by saying all Africans should unite.

I personally think this song is a good song with a good motive and the chorus which goes “I’m not afraid of who I am, I’m proud to be African. Why? Because it’s my heritage motherland. People stand up from Zimbabwe to Egypt, be proud to hold your flags up” is one of the best choruses I have heard.

Marking August 23: What Are We Commemorating & What Should We Be Commemorating?

In light of some of the programmes I've recently delivered, it's good to see more individuals and organisations are marking August 23. In 2007 the British Government adopted the UNESCO-approved date as an annual day for reflecting upon the trans-Atlantic enslavement and its abolition.

However informed Africans object to both the colloquial term Slavery Memorial Day and UNESCO's term - International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, simply because it focuses negatively on Africans (as slaves as opposed to enslaved, etc) and does not sufficiently highlight their determination in fighting for their emancipation.

The preferred term is International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement, because it underscores the significance of August 23 (1791), which heralded the start of the Haitian Revolution, the first successful revolution by enslaved Africans in the so-called New World, which directly led to the abolition of the trafficking of Africans.

In light of the UN declaring 2011 International Year for People of African Descent, I'd hope many more people will embrace and highlight this date as an important one within global African history.

But so long as it's given an African focus, instead of the Western spin of hapless Africans waiting for European abolitionists to emancipate them.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Chimamanda Adichie Highlights The Danger Of The Single Story

Nigerian-born writer and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie provides one of the most engaging and articulate voices, which forces one to take a different perspective on Africa and how it has been ("mis")viewed and mis-represented over the generations! Watch her 2009 TED presentation below and get a different view on Africa and Africans!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Terrorists And Freedom Fighters?

There is saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But who determines who is a freedom fighter, and who is a terrorist?

Today, Nelson Mandela is feted by Western powers as an iconic statesman and a man of peace. Ironically, until July 2008, Mandela and ANC party members were barred from entering the United States, except the United Nations headquarters in New York, without a special waiver from the US Secretary of state. This is because they were considered terrorists.

The struggle to free their people from brutal oppression by the South African apartheid regime earned them the terrorist label. The West did little to help those murdered, tortured and traumatised by the oppressive apartheid regime, but described those who sought to liberate them as terrorists.

Menachem Begin led the bombing of the King David Hotel in British controlled Jerusalem in June 1946, whilst fighting for the creation of the state of Israel. More than ninety people were killed, mostly British officials. Eventually, the Zionists achieved their objectives and sixty years later, on 11 May 1949, Israel took its seat as a member of the United Nations.

The inhabitants of the land at the time were forced to leave their homes and many of them and their offspring are currently in over-crowded refugee camps. In 1978, Menachem Begin who became Prime Minister of Israel, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hamas fighters who are struggling to regain control of their ancestral land, where they lived prior to 1949, are referred to as terrorists. As far as they are concerned, their land has been occupied by Israel.

Today, there is a blockade on Gaza, and Israel controls most of what goes in and out of Gaza. Many Palestinians live in over-crowded conditions, reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto established by the Nazis in the early 1940s. Persons suspected to be Hamas operatives are assassinated and the world is silent, because they have been described as terrorists. If non-Hamas personnel are killed, they are seen as collateral damage.

During the second world war, France’s Vichy government under P├ętain’s leadership had an agreement with Nazi Germany, and allowed Germany to occupy France. The Free French or French resistance would not sit idly by and allow their country to be occupied.

They resisted Germany’s occupation. They resorted to an armed struggle and a campaign of sabotage in order to liberate occupied France. Germany responded with disproportionate brutality, and for every German killed a number of innocent French civilians were executed.

During Tony Blair’s visit to Syria in 2001, the country’s then newly installed President Bashar al-Assad was reported to have told Blair that those seeking the liberation of Palestine could not be classed as terrorists, and compared them to the French resistance.

Prior to 1959, Cuba under the Batista regime, was seen as a gambling and vice resort. Whilst the elite lived well, the vast majority of the population lived in poverty. Fidel Castro, who was from a privileged background, thought the stark contrast between his affluent lifestyle and the dire poverty around him was unacceptable.

With Che Guevara and others, he eventually overthrew Batista’s regime. Today, despite the challenges, and the US embargo and funding of anti-Castro insurgent groups, Cuba has free education and one of the highest literacy rates. Regarding health, all the key indicators from infant mortality to life expectancy are among the best in the Americas.

Its doctor to patient ratio is one of the highest in the world. Health care has now become a major export. Cuba sends hundreds of doctors and health workers to disadvantaged parts of Latin America and Africa. Castro was however described as a dictator.

Kwame Nkrumah was a visionary who was dissatisfied with his country, then called the Gold Coast by the British, being ruled by a colonial power. He was of the view that self-government with danger was preferable to servitude in tranquility. His struggle for independence led to his being imprisoned by the British. Eventually in 1957, he became the country’s first leader and changed the colonial name of his country to Ghana.

Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence, and set an example for other countries. This came about because people were prepared to fight the unjust status quo.

So I ask again, who determines who is a freedom fighter and who is a terrorist?

Ms Serwah is a NewAfricanPerspective blogger

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Post 'Invictus' Film Screening Feedback

I finally got to watch the Clint Eastwood directed film, which highlights how President Mandela used the Afrikaneer-dominated Springboks rugby team to help hold the Rainbow Nation together. The film centres around the period of the 1995 rugby world cup, and how Mandela inspired the so-so national team to win the Cup!

Morgan Freeman's performance was so good - he certainly had the accent locked down for most of the time - someone in the audience wondered if that was actually Mandela in the film during the post-screening discussion.

When we were asked whether apartheid still still existed, I said the the separation of people by their race may have been abolished. However, the legacy still exists. For majority of South Africans, nothing much has changed.

The heads of Government may be African, but the status quo pretty much is intact, in that many of the important institutions are still headed and controlled by the Europeans. Mandela ascended to the Presidency on a wave of euphoria and a great deal of goodwill. Sadly the programme for housing, education and employment falls far short of what was promised.

Whilst many Africans exist in abject poverty, South Africa is now facing a new phenomena - poor white working class, who are now jobless and homeless, and whose lives are not much different from their African counterparts.

Of course some Africans have progressed within the post-apartheid era - they now have quite a few African millionaires, etc.

On the way home, I wondered why Mandela could be so forgiving to his former oppressors - he allowed old street names to remain, he had tea with them, attended their funerals, etc - but sadly could not forgive and save his marriage to Winnie, who kept his name and memory alive whilst he languished in jail.

This Saturday, April 9 2011, I'll be at the BFI to watch Menelek Shabazz's documentary feature 'The Story Of Lovers Rock', which chronicles the history

of Britain's contribution to black music, or more specifically, reggae, which is known as lovers rock. There are memories of those who rubbed off the wallpaper smooching to the sweet, soulful sounds of lovers rock, plus performances by some of the best exponents, such as Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson, etc. Click for BFI screening.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

'Why Don't Black People Vote?' A Quick Feedback

Having organised BTWSC’s ‘An Evening With Supt Leroy Logan MBE’ event (yes, it was well attended, and underscores the fact that African (black) people are not a homogenous lot with same tastes and opinions) at Willesden Green Library Centre in north-west London on Friday, I was back there on Sunday to attend Black Youth Drugsline’s ‘Why Don’t Black People Vote?’ film screening and panel discussion.

The documentary, made by Rashid Nix, was filmed mainly in south London borough of Lambeth’s Coldharbour ward, which includes Brixton, an area with a large and long-established African population.

Unfortunately a very small number of those eligible to vote exercised that right during the London Mayorial election. Nix, who lives in that ward, decided to find out why his fellow African neighbours don’t vote in their numbers.

Anyone he could get on camera was asked “Why don’t black people vote?” Although a few of the interviewees said they had voted, the overwhelming majority not only do not vote but seldom gave a good reason for not voting. There were the usual excuses, such as all politicians are the same, they don’t represent us, they don’t do anything for us, and the lack of African candidates.

After the screening, we heard from a panel which included Nix, entrepreneur Ron Shillingford, community activist Lee Jasper, Black Student Union Kenja Sessay, community activist Dr Cecil Gutzmore, and a lady from the Uhuru Movement, whose name has escaped me. Among the latter’s comments was the fact that people of African descent, we were African, as opposed to black. A point I concur with.

During the screening, I made a few notes. However, by the time we got to the Q&A section, there was little time, so I not touch on all of the points I would like to have made. Hence the reason for this blog, which allows me to cover all the points I would have liked to have made.

Whilst I understand the rationale for the film’s title, I would have preferred preferred ‘Why Don’t Some Africans Vote?’ Because I vote, and so do most of the eligible Africans I know. Or ‘Why Don’t Africans Engage With Politics?’ Because, as Nix showed in the film, it took him less than 5 minutes to cast his vote. However, there is more to democracy than just voting. What happens before we even have a chance to vote? That’s politics.

A number of the film’s interviewees talked about the lack of African candidates. Also, some in the film, such as Operation Black Vote (OBV) highlighted the sleeping giant that is the untapped “black vote”, whilst some on the panel, like Shillingford advocated the use of “block voting” or “tactical voting” to effect the desired outcome.

”First of all, I do not think most African candidates can be elected solely by relying on the African electorate. And secondly, elected representatives, no matter their race, are supposed to represent the whole of their constituency, and not just their immediate community. Of course, some like the late Bernie Grant, was not just a good constituency MP, but also devoted time to African-interest issues.

But before we even get to that stage, one of the important questions we need to ask is, How can we expect to see African candidates if we are not engaged with the political process? Before we can have Africans on the ballot papers, they need to be selected. The selection is done only by party members.

I, for example, have joined the Labour Party because I want to have Dawn Butler - she opened the event by talking about the political process and explaining why we should engage with it – re-selected as the Brent Central Labour candidate. It’s my one vote, and the votes of like-minded people within the party that is going to make her re-selection a reality. Being outside the party and just wishing for an African candidate will not make a difference.

I agree with Nix, who disagreed with someone from the audience who suggested we didn’t vote because we’re an oppressed people. Whilst I agree with Gutzmore, who talked about us being oppressed, from a global political and economic perspective, I don’t when it boils down to a personal level. We disempower ourselves if we think we’re oppressed. Because it disables us from doing anything – from exercising our power, our rights, and from voting.

It’s this same notion of giving power to external personalities and organisations, by repeatedly focusing on “they” and “them” as the reasons for not doing anything or the cause of our problems, instead of focusing on “I” and “us” as the means of moving forward. The battle, it seems to me is in the mind. Some of our great political leaders, Steve Biko and Marcus Garvey, urge us to get out of that mental trap.

If you’d permit me, I’ll like to quote from ‘African Voices: Quotation By People Of African Descent’, a book I compiled with Ms Serwah. Biko said: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Whilst Garvey urged his followers saying: "None but ourselves can free the mind... The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind."

By the way, Tuggstar, who provided the edutainment, was brilliant. He delivered a conscious rhyme that was an ode to Malcolm X. What talent! How does he remember all those lines?


June Is British Black Music Month: A range of events throughout June to mid-July:

VORP (Voice Of Responsible Parents) Victims & Witnesses Of Crime Conference: Saturday July 2 or 9, 12noon-5pm including lunch. Free:

NARM (Naming And Role Model) African British Civil Rights History: Inter-generational BHM presentation and quiz. Thursday October 27 2011, 6.30-8.30pm. Free: