This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

“Take me into the museum and show me myself, show me my people”

June Jordan, African-American poet.

Despite recent efforts to begin a “decolonisation” of British History, historians such as David Olusoga have illuminated ways in which “mainstream” history neglects the story of Black Britons. Looking at data taken from Advance HE’s Equality Challenge Unit for 2017-2018, the “ethnic homogeneity” of who is both writing and teaching British history is revealed. This study found that in the UK 93.7% of historians, and 85% of the sector’s staff as a whole, are white. When compared to the percentage of Black members of staff, at just 1.5%, the emergence of an overwhelmingly whitewashed, potentially elitist and overspecialised history becomes understandable. How then does such a whitewashed history allow Black Britons, and other ethnic minority groups, to not only see but to understand and relate to their pasts? This is where the importance of community-based public history arises. In Britain, this is exemplified by the Black Cultural Archives. This article does not look to challenge the importance of academic historians, “accustomed to their prestige as historical experts par excellence”, but to communicate the importance of public history, creating a space in which Black British communities can discover their pasts and carve out identities. 

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA), aptly located at 1 Windrush Square, Brixton, is the only national heritage centre committed to the collection, preservation and celebration of the “histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain”. Established in 1981, the BCA’s iconic founder Len Garrison posed the question: “Where are our Heroes, Martyrs and Monuments?”. For over 40 years the BCA has been striving to fill this silence, and now acts as the “home of Black British history”. The BCA’s overarching aim has been to amend the historical imbalance and portrayal of Britons of African and Caribbean ancestry, in a rebuttal to the narrative of invisibility exercised by mainstream historical curriculums, museums and archives. 

At this moment in time, the BCA holds an online catalogue of over 3,500 records across a total of 41 collections, with materials ranging from personal papers to photographs and periodicals. The collection and analysis of these extensive resources work to overcome historical omissions and distortions of Black communities and individuals in British history. Principally, however, the BCA is not an insular body, and as the 2016 winner of the Community Organisation Award for Race, Religion and Faith, the BCA is emblematic of the importance of public history to ethnic minority groups. 

Since its conception, the BCA has acted as a community archive and, to this day, remains firmly “rooted in the community that created it”. In response to the New Cross Massacre (1981) and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984), the BCA endeavoured to empower Black Britons by confronting the lack of “popular recognition…and representation” of African and Caribbean decedents in the UK. This initial, ground-up, act of “self-help” quickly expanded into a “professional” archive thanks to donations of oral histories, photographs and other archive materials. However, such material did not emanate exclusively from researchers but from “families, individuals and grassroots groups”. 

The BCA’s employment of public materials has allowed it to blossom into a unique space of cultural heritage. Here, Black Britons – particularly Black British youth – can not only find information revealing a broader Black history within the UK but, more importantly, they can find positive representations of themselves and their personal pasts. This vocal effort to preserve the narratives of “the people” highlights the difference between the BCA’s records and those of national and governmental archives, in which the experiences of ethnic minority groups are often excluded. These differences can be seen in the BCA’s current exhibitions, which engage with both tools and historical actors that may not be considered conventionally “academic”. The present Windrush Waves exhibition actively encourages young Black Britons (between the ages of 14-21) to engage in and critically investigate their own pasts, employing poetry, artwork and film to tell the stories of the Windrush generation. Moreover, another exhibition entitled Stories of Black Leadership II: Breaking Barriers includes oral history interviews of pioneering, yet often uncelebrated, Black British female leaders, such as Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE and Dame Linda Dobbs OBE. Through its use and dissemination of such public history, the BCA has been able to create a personal archive experience, in which the voices of its records and exhibits are derived from the Black British community itself. 

The importance of the BCA and its longstanding engagement with the Black British community, particularly in Brixton, is emblematic of the wider importance of public histories to ethnic minority groups in the UK. By collecting histories from “ordinary” people, public history provides communities with a shared authority over the rehabilitation of histories that have been neglected by mainstream narratives. Undoubtedly, further work must be done to correct the whitewashed, elitist histories that have permeated school curriculums and wider societal consciousness. Nonetheless, the BCA and other forms of public history must be celebrated for their role in both creating, and holding space for, meaningful and useable pasts for Black Britons and other ethnic minority communities in the UK. 

By Sophie Stockwell

Image from the Black Cultural Archives, Brixton