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Great anti-slavery demonstration at Exeter Hall, February, 1863 - 'a mass political movement - the biggest political movement in Britain's history - in which Africans played a leading role, and not to have any discussion of it in the country in which it took place, is an amazing fact.' Source. British Library


A dialogue with Dr HAKIM ADi*, Historian

Editor's note: This transcript is Hakim Adi's presentation to the Conference on 'The Black British History Experience?' of the Greater London Authority - Mayor's Commission on African and Asian Heritage held 28 January 2004. The focus of the day, which also heard presentations from historians Steve Martin and Mike Phillips on the topics 'Revealing London's Black History' and 'Evaluating Black History Month: history versus heritage?', was debating the role which museums, archives and libraries could play in 'developing and making accessible a critical body of Black History.'

I Preamble

This session is entitled Putting the 'British' Back into Black History, and earlier I was speaking about a conspiracy, so I've decided I'm not going to use the word 'conspiracy' anymore, because some people get upset by it. Let us say there is a 'problem' which has several aspects to it.

II Conspiracy

One problem is that, when people talk about black history, they, for whatever reason, neglect Britain. The other problem is that, when people talk about British History, for some reason they neglect black people. This session is to try to raise some issues about what I consider these two problems, and I first gave a version of this presentation at a Greater London authority (GLA) conference. If there are any potential hecklers in the audience today, I am hoping people will intervene, so feel free to interject. This is a presentation which involves maximum audience participation, in the form of a quiz which I'm going to ask to see how knowledgeable you are, and the idea is that you should be able to supply the correct answers. So we'll see how we get on, and then we can have a bit of a discussion, hopefully, if we have time, and some of the issues are going to be further elaborated by the next two speakers.

The first question is 'Which country was the world's leading slave-trading power in the 18th century?'

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Which country has a government that claims that slavery is not a crime against humanity?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Which country can claim that the biggest and first mass political movement in its history was the abolitionist struggle against the slave trade?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa; Published by Himself, in the Year 1787
The answers are fairly straightforward! This is one of the leading campaigners in the struggle against the slave trade - Ottobah Cugoano, wrote a book at the end of the 18th century, and it may help you answer the next question. In which country did an organisation calling itself the 'Sons of Africa' play a key role in the abolitionist struggle?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Which country had an empire on which the sun never set?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Which country has a Prime Minister who claims that the Empire was a remarkable achievement?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Just in those first few questions, you can see both some of the problems in presenting history. The fact that is a highly political question, but also some of the importance, hopefully, of looking at Britain's past, and looking at what we could call black history in terms of Britain. I don't want to belabour this point, but to have a mass political movement - the biggest political movement in Britain's history - in which Africans played a leading role. How is this possible? To have a country that had the world's largest Empire, which included, obviously, many parts of Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and so on. But this fact, not to be widely discussed, just from the point of view of the crimes of the past, and the necessary measures that need to be taken to address those crimes, seems, to me, an amazing fact. Of course, this history that I have just spoken is clearly a history in which African-Caribbean, as well as people of Asian origin, played a key and leading role, as I have already demonstrated.

I'm going to go onto the next set of questions, just to widen this whole issue of black history a little bit more. Where did the first African-American woman writer have her poems published?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

This is Phillis Wheatley, who had her poems published just over the road, in Aldgate, in 1773. I know Steve will tell us even more about that.

In which country was the book often considered the first novel written by an African-American published? The answer is Britain. What was considered the first African-American novel, written by William Wells Brown, was published here, in London, in 1853.

In which country did an African-American athlete (was the first) ever to compete for a world sporting championship take place?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

That's right. Tom Molyneux, in the 1820s.

In which country did Frederick Douglas have his freedom legally bought for him? The answer, again, is Britain.

Whether we are talking about the history of Britain, as we were in the first set of questions, or whether we are talking about history of African-Americans, in much of the history of the significant events of the 19th century, we find that Britain is central. You can't understand these phenomena, you can't understand this history unless you put Britain at the centre of it.

In which country was the first Pan-African Conference held?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Henry Sylvester Williams, 1869-1911, organizer and first General Secretary of the first Pan-African Conference. (It is a little known fact that he also studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax in 1893; his biography notes, 'his experience there was not happy.' - Ed.)
It was in London in 1900. Henry Sylvester Williams, of Trinidadian origin, was one of the organisers of that conference.

In which country did W.E.B. Du Bois first proclaim the famous phrase 'the problem of the 20th century is a problem of the colour-line'?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Yes, it's Britain again. That was one of the things which emerged from the first Pan-African Conference, held here in London. In case people don't know what Pan-African Conference is, it's a conference for those of African origin, from Africa, the Caribbean, the American content, as well as Britain; a conference organised to protest against both colonialism, and various other aspects of racism, as well as various other problems that were confronting people of the African Diaspora at that time.

In which country did Amy Ashwood Garvey found the Nigerian Progress Union in 1924, the first Nigerian organisation in that country?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Yes, the answer, again, is Britain, right here in London, in Ladbroke Grove. The first Nigerian organisation in Britain was formed, founded only partly by Nigerians, and also Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, who happened to be living in Streatham, South London, at the time.

In the capital of which country did Paul say he had discovered Africa?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

The answer, again, is Britain. He also said that it was the workers of Britain talking about the oneness of humanity.

In which country did the most famous of all the Pan-African Congress take place in 1945?

Audience

Britain.

Dr Hakim Adi

Red Plaque: site of the Fifth Pan African Congress, Manchester, 1945
Yes, in Britain, in Manchester. The most famous of all the anti-colonial Pan-African Congresses, at which the participants declared that, essentially, they would use force, if necessary, to free the countries of Africa and the Caribbean from colonial rule, organised here, in Britain, by people based in Britain.

In which country did Kwame Nkrumah organise the West African National Secretariat, which was an organisation set up to, amongst other things, demand a West African Soviet Union? Again, the answer is Britain. This picture is of Nkrumah and others in the early 1940s. Nkrumah was also the President of the West African Students Union, an organisation formed in 1925, which had a very, very long history, involving itself in anti-colonial affairs, in anti-racist activity, and produced a journal, a regular monthly journal, for over 20 years, and so on and so forth.

In which country did Malcolm X make one of his last speeches, to the first congress of the Council of African Organisations, which was a coalition of 30 organisations, including the ANC, representing 40,000 Africans? Again, the answer is Britain. In February 1965, just before he was assassinated, Malcolm X was right here in London, making his speech to that congress.

Lastly, in which country did a communist start Europe's largest street festival? Again, the answer is Britain. Claudia Jones was the founder of today's Notting Hill Carnival.

III What is Going on in Britain?

Unfortunately, too often when people talk about black history, it seems to be something which is located somewhere else - in the US, for example
This is a very brief run through. The point here is that it is impossible to look at what anyone would call black history, and here I'm just going to refer to the history of the African Diaspora over the last 400-500 years, without focusing on Britain. This is an absolute impossibility. Unfortunately, too often when people talk about black history, it seems to be something which is located somewhere else - in the US, for example. In Black History Month and other times when people use this phrase, they want to start talking about things which are happening in the US or some other part of the world. Let's talk about what's going on in Britain, and what has gone on in Britain, which is part of our history. It's a history which is essential both to the history of African Diaspora, and to the history of Britain itself. It's impossible to study the history of Britain for the last 500 years without looking at the history of people of African and Caribbean origin, whether here in Britain, or in Africa and the Caribbean, because if the Caribbean and Africa were part of the British Empire, they were part of Britain. It is impossible to study British history without looking at those parts of the world.

IV Attempting to Remove History

If you have a Government which says slavery was not a crime against humanity, why would he be interested in encouraging people to study the history of slavery, what Britain did to millions of people, and the responsibility which Britain owes to those millions of people and their descendants?
As I said, it seems to me that there is something of a conspiracy going on. There is a definite attempt to remove this history, and we have to consider why that's the case? Now, in the first series of questions, I gave some indication of the way I'm thinking, that if we have major institutions, governments and politicians who try and present a particular narrow view of the world, then we would not expect them to be encouraging a wider, enlightened view of the world. If you have a Government which says slavery was not a crime against humanity, why would he be interested in encouraging people to study the history of slavery, what Britain did to millions of people, and the responsibility which Britain owes to those millions of people and their descendants? This strikes me as something which is contradictory. If you are a Government headed by a Prime Minister who says that the British Empire is a remarkable achievement, then it may well be the case that he would not wish people to be genuinely enlightened about exactly what the British Empire was all about, and how it affected people of African, Caribbean and Asian origin, as well as how it affected people here in Britain.

V A Right to History and Culture

The people of African and Caribbean origin in Britain have a right to their history and culture. This is a right which society itself should assist with.
Why is this history important? We've already heard from people in the last session, about why they think it's important. I want to add just two other things, and then I'm going to stop. The first thing is, to mind, the question of rights - the rights that we have as humans in the 21st century. The people of African and Caribbean origin in Britain have a right to their history and culture. This is a right which society itself should assist with. You cannot say you are a Zulu if you do not have some appreciation of your history and culture, if you don't speak your own language, if you don't know about your history, and so on, anymore than you can be truly an English person if you don't know about your history, your culture, and so on. To be a human of that kind, you need to have these things.

Society should provide them for you, and in the society we live in, these things generally are not provided. In fact, there is an attempt to deny people these basic rights. In other words, these are infringing on people's rights as human beings, not to have this history, culture, and so on, surrounding them, not to feel, as we heard, that you are a human being. You go through your whole life, you never hear anything positive about Nigeria. You never hear anything positive about Jamaica. What kind of human being are you going to be? So your rights, as a human, are being denied to you, because everything about your history and culture is being denigrated and is being ignored. It seems to me that this is one very important reason why this question of history is so important, and people have already alluded to that.

VI Enlightenment

The second reason, I think, why history is so important, is from the point of view of enlightenment. Again, you could say that, as citizens of the 21st century, we also have a right to be enlightened about the world in which we live, that we should not be ignorant about the world in which we live. We should be widely educated so that we can play a full part in society and everything that goes on, in determining our own futures, and so on.

If there is a distortion of this past, if all kinds of things are left out, neglected, downplayed, omitted, then we have a false picture
However, if the world in which we live is continually presented to us in a false way, in a distorted way, then it's very difficult for us to understand it, and this is very often done with the past. As we heard earlier, history is a way of understanding the past in order to understand the present. If there is a distortion of this past, if all kinds of things are left out, neglected, down played, omitted, then we have a false picture. There may be those in society that wish people, in general, to be unenlightened, to have a false picture of the world, but I would think that most of us here in this room would have a different view, and would think that we should be as enlightened as possible. We shouldn't, for example - Britain had an Empire, Britain was the world's leading slave trader - fine, but the abolitionist movement was the largest movement in Britain's history, ever. Why don't we celebrate it? Why don't we understand it? Why don't we draw the lessons from it? Why don't we go into it in detail to see what was going on? Why don't we look at the way that Africans were at the forefront of it and played a leading role in it, and so on, and draw particular lessons from that? I could go on and on.

It seems to me that this history is something which is vital, something which is being denied too often. Of course, there are attempts to redress these problems, and most of us in this room are involved in those attempts, but we also have to understand, I think, the problems that we are confronting, and also, perhaps, the necessity of being able to solve these problems, which are not just problems related to history itself, but also the kind of society we want to live in, the kind of environment we want to live in, whether we are enlightened about the world, whether we are enlightened about our own society and its history, or not. I think that the whole question of what we're calling black history should be seen in this context; the context of the rights of particular communities and individuals, and the rights of us all to be truly enlightened about our country's past.

VII Learning the Lessons of the Past

The last thing I want to say is that people often think that if you understand the past, you learn the lessons of the past, and you can avoid the same pitfalls that took place in the past, or the same crimes, as it were, in Britain's case, in the future. It gives you a different perspective of it. I think today, perhaps more than ever, this perspective on the world is a really vital one. We actually can't afford, just thinking about the continuation of human beings as a species, as it were, not to put it too boldly, that we need to have this enlightened view about our past, and about the role that our country has played in it.

This is why I'd like to try and emphasise that Britain, all the time, when we're talking about black history, as I showed in the presentation, doesn't exclude the Diaspora, because Britain is central in the formation of the Diaspora. You cannot be the world's leading slave-trading power without playing some role in the creation of a Diaspora, so in all these areas, Britain is the central focus for me. It is important that we look at black history in that context. Thank you.

Source: http://www.mlalondon.org.uk/priorities/index.cfm?ArticleID=446&NavigationID=166

*Dr Hakim Adi (Ph.D SOAS, London University) is Reader in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at Middlesex University, London, UK. Hakim is the author of West Africans in Britain 1900-60: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1998) and (with M. Sherwood) The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (New Beacon, 1995) and Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (Routledge, 2003). He has appeared in several television documentaries and has written many articles on the history of the African Diaspora and Africans in Britain, including three history books for children.



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