As Activist-in-Residence at ULC’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, one of my roles is to engage students and the general public with Black British history using a variety of initiatives. All of the events we develop could be done at any time given the resources that an institution like a university has. It is merely a question of willpower and thought process.
The way of thinking of a grassroots activist may not be the same as a senior management team but that is the whole point. One learning point for the HE sector would be to use the experiences of the Black community as the germ for new and multiple events in which stories that have hitherto been ignored by arts and educational institutions can be told. Sadly, there is a huge trove of such uncovered subjects and first-hand testimonies still to be shared.
In addition to this opportunity, there are also the extensive untapped resources in the form of Black academic and support staff who have been toiling away in hidden corners, overlooked and under-promoted. Not only do they have expertise that has been sitting idle, but they also have a pre-existing network of like-minded people within and without the ‘Ivory Tower’ who are hungry to share their experiences and who know how the system works in excluding them. This knowledge is very useful when fighting racism.
Before the upheavals of 2020, the only way grassroots groups with no budget (like Black History Walks) could get regular access to first class university lecture theatres was via individuals like the quasi-anonymous ‘Kwame from a central London location’. Had it not been for Kwame’s personal initiative and sacrifice these events would never have happened and the thousands of people who attended would not have benefitted. He would book 200-seat venues under his name and then stay late after work to host events such as the ‘The history of Black Image’ and ‘How to move to the Caribbean and live Good!’
Full house at SOAS in 2015 for ‘Medical Apartheid’ talk sponsored by a staff group
Those two events held at 6.30 pm on a Wednesday were swamped. We would regularly have standing room-only events with a queue out of the door. Marcia Jacks at RaceMatter@UCL similarly sponsored such talks and had huge crowds listening to seminars as varied as ‘Zombies and the demonisation of African Spirituality,’ ‘African Goddesses’, and ‘Fibroids, what can be done’.
It was therefore very odd to hear university management and mainstream media stating that the Black community was ‘hard to reach.’
Grassroots activists like Black History Walks and Saturday Schools (www.nabss.org.uk/) struggle for physical learning spaces which HE institutions have laying around empty on weekends and more so in the summer terms when the students are away. It would be a very simple thing for all HE bodies to partner with a community group to host events in those empty spaces. That would revolutionise the learning space overnight. Those numerous, Black-run Saturday schools for thirty children that went out of business because they could not afford the rent for the shabby community centres they were using would still be around if they could have accessed that 50-seat lecture theatre that was busy catching dust.
Crowd at Birkbeck in 2013 for Black Image lecture made possible by staff member Patrice Lawrence
The rise of Zoom in 2020 did revolutionise the learning space for community organisations. No longer did we have to search high and low for sympathetic venues and/or cough up large amounts of cash. We can now host 1,000 people several times a month for £150. Prior to 2020 you might pay £400 to use a 200-seat lecture theatre just once and that in addition to the numerous and onerous ‘anti-terrorist’ forms one had to fill in.
Passing staff or caretakers can no longer make a secret complaint which means you are banned from ever using the venue again but don’t know why.
Back in 2015, with the help of Marcia Jacks Black History Walks hosted ‘Who stole all the Black women from Britain’ presented by Emma Dabiri. The event was another sell out and Emma is now a famous author and media star. That session can be seen here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHfShiOAWns. It shows that there is lots of Black talent out there and a huge audience for the content they produce.
Dr Michelle Asantewa, who was lecturing at London Metropolitan in 2013 hosted ‘Sex Violence and Civil Rights’ by Dr Althea Legall-Miller’ to an equally appreciative crowd: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZOeeL9ZJXo
Zoom makes this level of personal string pulling redundant. So, when last week we wished to discuss Judge Peter Herbert’s recent legal action against the judiciary we did not have to beg, scrape, or ask people to stay late after work. We simply set up a Zoom and saw 1,900 people log on to hear him speak. When we hosted the Legacies of British Slavery talk ‘British Slaveowners, tracking the money and the stories of the Enslaved’ ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=e58N1zXaoeU&t=3415s) we pulled in 1,600 people all keen to learn.
It may be in the future, that the Black community, frustrated by being repeatedly ignored by mainstream HE, just sets up its own online education communities as is already being done by Professor Gregg Carr and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Karen Hunter with their pioneering Knarrative project, which is ‘home to the largest Africana Studies Class in the World’.
We are fed up with the rhetoric and want to see action.
About the Author
Tony Warner is a community activist and guerrilla historian. He has been exhibiting educational and empowering films about African/Caribbean history in museums, art galleries, restaurants and youth clubs since 2000. He is the founder of Black History Walks. Black History Walks in London Volume 1 is published this month. He has recently contributed to Pearson’s GCSE history textbook on migration and Black British Civil Rights.