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UNESCO City of Literature: Nottingham Black Archive

22 October 15 words: James Walker
One of the many reasons Nottingham deserves to be crowned a UNESCO City of Literature, the Nottingham Black Archives have opened up some historical truths
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image: Dawn of the Unread

22 June 1948 is an important landmark in the history of modern Britain – a day when 492 passengers and one stowaway disembarked from HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks to begin a new life. Windrush was en route from Australia to England but swung by Kingston, Jamaica to pick up West Indians who’d responded to an advert promising cheap transport to the UK. The passengers included calypso musician Lord Kitchener, ex RAF servicemen, and sixty Polish women who were displaced during WWII. Averill Wauchope, a 25-year-old seamstress from Kingston, was discovered as a stowaway. Her fellow passengers clubbed together and covered her travel expenses, suggesting a real sense of unity on their voyage to EUtopia.

During this period, there were no immigration restrictions for citizens moving between parts of the Empire. Exactly twenty years later, Enoch Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech criticising Commonwealth immigration and anti-discrimination legislation. The speech alludes to a line from Virgil's Aeneid, "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” The Roman metaphor is fitting, albeit for different purposes than Powell intended, as there is evidence that people of African heritage have been documented in British history as far back as the first century, in the Roman Army in Britain around AD 43.

Local writer Norma Gregory points to research by British Nigerian historian, Onyeka, which asserts “multiculturalism in Britain is not a new phenomenon as some historians suggest but that Africans were very much present and not uncommon during Tudor times in England, with evidence of quite affluent and professionally trained Africans in cities such as London, Bristol, Plymouth and Northampton. As more and more archives become available, more research in the future may suggest that Nottingham could also have Tudors of African descent living to decent standards in Nottingham as well.”

And this is why the Nottingham Black Archive (NBA) is our UNESCO feature this month, because it is giving voice to those who have gone unheard for too long and offers a more complex understanding of multicultural Britain.

NBA was founded in 2009 by Panya Banjoko and Laura Summers, two heritage professionals who, at the time, had a combined 26 years of museum experience. They both recognised a gap in local museums’ provision relating to the formation of the BME communities’ cultural identity. This gap was further highlighted after the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 2007, when a lack of knowledge and information on the black presence was realised.

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image: Dawn of the Unread

In 2008 Panya conducted research into the Attitudes and Perceptions of the African Caribbean Community at Nottingham Castle Museum, finding that African-Caribbean people did not feel as though their history or culture was being represented in Nottingham’s museums and that black history was only viewed through the prism of slavery. Panya set out to rectify this imbalance and NBA was born with the remit of “researching, collecting and preserving black history, heritage and culture in Nottingham, from the earliest time to the present day.”

The archive includes some of the earliest documents relating to the formation of black community organisations in the city, including full transcripts from the first generation of Caribbean elders to reside in Nottingham, transcripts from WWII RAF ex-servicemen, photographs, articles, newsletters and political letters dating back to the sixties, and a growing collection of books by local authors. In 2011 local filmmaker and Mouthy Poet Ioney Smallhorne joined the team, bringing in an audio-visual dimension to the archive.

The content in the archive is staggering and includes four well-known Jamaican sheriffs and three lord mayors, as well as a lot of notable senior civil servants such as Eric Irons, the first black JP Magistrate in the UK in 1963, and Milton Crosdale, the former head of the Race Relations Council. In Eve Pitts we can celebrate the first black female Reverend Canon in the Church of England, whereas the charismatic Pitman Browne has been a constant presence in the arts over the past half a century and now helps mentor up-and-coming writers and poets in publishing their work. A quick glance through the publishing lists of all our local publishers shows a conspicuous lack of black authors, as do the pages of this magazine.

There’s not enough space on this page to cram in all of these stories, but one person in particular is worth a mention: Oswald George Powe (1926 – 2013), who, incidentally, features as the last literary figure in the Dawn of the Unread serial (see WriteLion reviews). In 2011, Powe became the first person to donate newsletters, letters and pamphlets to NBA. Born of Chinese and African descent, he arrived in the UK in 1943, aged seventeen.

In the forties, Powe experienced widespread racial discrimination and fought against it by joining the Communist party. He later joined the Labour party and in 1963 was elected as a Labour District Councillor in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. He divided his time between political campaigns and helping people with immigration problems. He also played a leading role in setting up the Afro Caribbean National Artistic (ACNA) Centre, created to give a home to ‘coconut art’ and to fight racism, industrial and racial inequality, and all of the other various malaises that affected his community. It aroused a tremendous response from African-Caribbeans, with people taking time out of paid work to volunteer at the centre, recognising that the community finally had something they could call their own.

In between his political campaigning and community activism, he wrote Don’t Blame the Blacks, a book about the racial discrimination people from the Caribbean and Africa were experiencing in post-war Britain and warned against simplistic narratives of divide and rule. But it was his willingness to share his story as a radar operator during WWII that acted as a catalyst for others to come forward and share their experiences of fighting in the war which is the jewel of the archive.

“It is through narratives like George’s that we know that the ‘British’ did not stand alone against the might of Hitler’s Germany,” explains Panya. “During the war thousands of Commonwealth troops died, and many more were wounded or spent years as PoWs. Yet for the past century, their sacrifice has been largely ignored and it still remains difficult to find out about the contribution black people made during the war. These narratives are now being recorded and made accessible in my book No More Tears For Me My Mother. Hopefully this will begin to correct this imbalance and promote multiple stories.”

Nottingham Black Archive website

There is a discussion on the lack of BME writers at  The Page is White - Bread and Roses, 2 November. 

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