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Black History Month in London - A conference sketch

Special to Shunpiking Online

ANOTHER Black History Month has come and gone. Since 1987, October has been celebrated as Black History Month throughout Britain, and particularly in London. Since that time it has become established as an important annual event by people up and down the country, by many of the major cultural institutions, central and local government, and the media. Even the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has welcomed the annual celebration, which he referred to as a mark of "Britain's thriving multi-cultural society".

In 2003 one of the largest celebratory events was organised and hosted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and the Greater London Authority (GLA). Entitled "First Voice: Dialogue with Diaspora", this second annual conference was held at Wembley Conference Centre on Saturday, October 25.

According to Ken Livingstone, the event was based on the premise that the "history of London is as diverse as its peoples", and it was designed, at least in part, to "recognise the contribution of others and the roles they have played in making the capital what it is today". The underlying theme of the conference was said to be based on the view "that is important to acknowledge the voice of minority communities when we talk about history", because "their account of their histories provide us with an invaluable alternative perspective, which serves to promote a greater understanding of the 'full picture'".

But whether or not these aims were generally accepted by the participants, what was clear was that very little was presented or discussed during the conference that would have allowed anyone attending to be any the wiser about the diversity of London's history, or which promoted a greater understanding of the "full picture".

The event was dominated by speakers from the United States, especially the children of historical personalities such as W.E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X, and only one of the principal speakers spoke about Britain. Although such an approach might perhaps be explained by the conference's focus on the African Diaspora, the dispersal of people of African descent throughout the world, what seemed to be ignored was the fact that a significant section of this Diaspora reside in Britain and have done for many centuries. What is more, from a historical perspective, Britain has always been a central location for the struggles of those throughout the African Diaspora engaged in struggles for social and political liberation. As one speaker pointed out, the first ever Pan-African conference was held in London in 1900. Indeed it was difficult to find anywhere at the conference where the history of African and Caribbean communities in London was being discussed, and seldom was any consideration given to the important historical connections between Britain and Africa and the Caribbean.

It is often rightly lamented that the history of Africa and the Caribbean, and that of African and Caribbean people in Britain is largely absent from the history taught throughout the education system or presented in the media. There is in general no enlightenment about Africa's past and its significance in world history, the importance to world civilization of Ancient Egypt, or the medieval West African empires of Ghana and Mali, or of the importance of the African Moorish conquest and occupation of the Iberian peninsular. Nor are the youth or other sections of the people educated about the crimes that have been and are still committed by Britain and the other big powers throughout Africa and the Caribbean. What do most know of the contributions of the peoples of Africa and the Caribbean to Britain's economic position in the world, or of the important contributions which those of African and Caribbean descent have made to the struggles of the working people of Britain over the last 250 years; against slavery and colonialism, as well as the Chartist, workers' and communist movements?

Of course there are obvious political reasons why people are not so enlightened, why a government that declares for example that slavery is not a crime against humanity, may wish not to enable people to have the "full picture" on this issue as on so many others. But the inability of the GLA to provide anything like a "full picture" at the conference and the heavy-handed way in which any dissenting views were dealt with, led many to speculate that perhaps the event has more to do with creating the conditions for the re-election of London's Mayor than it did with creating those for the enlightenment of London's population.

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