A meeting last week in the Council Chamber in Harrow, north London heard from those directly linked to two milestones in African British history, which took place in 1987.
25 Years On… focused on how Black History Month (BHM) was introduced by Greater London Council successor organisations, such as the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) a quarter of a century ago, and also on the work of Labour Party’s Black Sections group, which led to the selection and election of the first African MPs – Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Paul Boateng (Keith Vaz, was not the first Asian MP – that honour goes to Dadabhai Naoroji, elected as a Liberal MP in 1895).
The free event, organised by WHEAT Mentor Support Trust and Akoben Awards, attracted a diverse audience including councillors, community activists, teachers and young people.
The panel and special guests were made up of activists in local government and politics in the 1980s. This included Ansel Wong, former head of LSPU’s Race Equality Policy Group (REPG), Addai Sebo, REPG policy team leader, Marc Wadsworth, former chair of Black Sections, Bernard Wiltshire, former deputy leader of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA); and Narendra Makanji, a former Black Sections chair and Haringey councillor, who along with Linda Bellos, another Black Sections member and former LSPU chair and Lambeth Council leader, got London councils to declare the period from August 1987 to July 1988 the African Jubilee Year and mark October as BHM in Britain.
The introduction of BHM, which was predicated upon the tenets of the African Jubilee Declaration, was a way of redressing the pernicious effects of racism upon African people, and to counter the misinformation and lack of knowledge of the African contribution to world civilisation.
“The essence of the Declaration was that the London boroughs and authorities would make just restitution … just restitution means reparations, to years of incalculable damage done to the African,” explained Sebo, who conceived the idea for BHM in Britain after hearing a colleague tell him about the racial identity issues facing her young African son named after pan-African champion Marcus Garvey.
Concurring with Sebo, Wong added that although “the essence of what we were trying to do was to bring about a recognition that people of African descent have made significant contributions to the development and success of British society and to the world,” the use of the word “black” was a pragmatic “political convenience” to pass the commemoration through Labour and Conservative councillors in the London boroughs that supported the Declaration.
Kwaku: Akoben Awards / The African or Black Question
The African Jubilee Declaration was presented as part of African Jubilee Year (August 1987 to July 1988) by the London Strategic Policy Committee, the Association of London Authorities and the Inner London Education Authority in recognition of three global African history landmarks: the centenary of pan-African champion Marcus Garvey's birth, the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of formerly enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
Among the commitments the Declaration enjoined the bodies that signed up to it included the promotion of “positive public images and an understanding of Africans and people of African descent and encourage the positive teaching and development of their history, culture and struggles”.
However event chair, co-ordinator of Akoben Awards and TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) Kwaku pointed out that the political landscape has now changed. “As of today, as we’ve commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Black History Month, from now on, it’s African History Month,” declared Kwaku.
“They were in a different political situation, where they had to make compromises to talk about Black History Month. And also there was then the political black – that’s why Narendra could stand together with Marc – Asian heritage and African heritage. But things have changed, Narendra is now often described as Asian, rather than black.”
African History Month, will continue to be a forum for all members of the community to engage in and learn from. However as Harrow deputy mayor Cllr Nana Asante pointed out: “It’s like a bus – Africans are the drivers, and everybody else is a passenger. It’s all encompassing. Everybody is welcome. But the history we talk about is African history.”
The event ended with Wadsworth speaking about how, in spite of lack of support from the Neil Kinnock/Roy Hattersley Labour Party leadership at the time and some serious opposition from within the party, the Black Sections was able to force through changes. This included overcoming opposition to the formation of a group to address race issues within the party that removed two African females who Black Sections had helped to be selected as parliamentary candidates.
Whilst the Black Sections may be best remembered for helping bring about the victory of the 4 “black” MPs of 1987, Wadsworth reminded the audience that its work also resulted in getting hundreds of councillors elected across Britain. His parting words for the new crop of activists were “organise, organise, organise.”
External LinksThe African or Black Question
Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott at Labour party conference, Brighton,1987
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