There was an extraordinary buzz in Brixton that lasted 7 hours on Thursday 24 July 2014 as the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) opened its doors to the world.
Situated at 1 Windrush Square in an elegantly refurbished Georgian building next to Brixton’s Tate Library, the BCA hosted some 2,500 people in a two part launch programme. There was a private view of the excellent opening exhibition Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain and an official launch ceremony, followed by a launch gala of spoken word and musical entertainment in Windrush Square. The rare, dazzling sunshine and rising temperature helped to induce a celebratory atmosphere as people from across Britain and a significant number of overseas visitors gathered for the opening of the BCA.
The BCA is ‘a national heritage space dedicated to collecting, preserving and celebrating the histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain’. It was established in 1981 by Len Garrison and others and occupied premises at 378 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, above the Timbuctu Bookshop. Len Garrison died of a heart attack in 2003, aged 59, while attending a meeting of the BCA trustees.
Among the speakers at the launch ceremony was Dr Doudou Diene, former Special Rapporteur for racism-related topics with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and currently working in relation to the UN International Decade for People of African Descent (2014 – 2023) with its central theme of “Recognition, Justice and Development”.
Two of the BCA’s major funders were represented, with Jenny Abramsky, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth Council, acknowledging the landmark project the BCA is and the long and arduous journey its trustees and staff had made since 1981.
But, most significant of all were the contributions, ‘Future Voices heritage Messages’ from two members of the BCA’s youth forum: Tunde Garrison (son of Len) and Akeisha Walters.
Those attending the private view of the opening exhibition filed past a bronze bust of Len Garrison which was created by his close friend, the sculptor and artist George ‘Fowokan’ Kelly. Noting that Len Garrison spent most of his life recoding events and collecting memorabilia to do with the black community in Britain, Kelly stated that: “his dream did not die with him. It lives on in the hearts and minds of those who understand what he struggled for in his life – a life that was lived to the full.”
Address by Professor Gus John
In 1987, I joined the Inner London Education Authority as an Assistant Education Officer and Head of Community Education. I met (and managed) some trailblazers there, among them: Michael Hussey, the late Tuku Mukerjee, the late Trevor Carter, Barbara Beese, the late Beverley Woodroffe who once taught at Tulse Hill School, Bebb Burchell (who later became director of education in this borough), Beverley Crooks, the late Winston Best, Leela Ramdeen, Herman (now Lord) Ouseley who was Chief Executive of the ILEA and later Chief Executive of this borough, (his particular sojourn in hell), and of course Len Garrison.
Len Garrison had a passion for the positive representation of African people in the schooling curriculum. He was especially keen that African heritage children should be assisted to know their roots and the journey their people made and how they ended up in Britain. He led a small team of people in building what became known as the ILEA’s African Caribbean Education Resource (ACER) and produced teaching material for mainstream and supplementary schools.
The flagship of ACER was the Penmanship Awards which encouraged young people to write, to believe in their capacity to become writers and to tell their own stories. As such, Len Garrison drew upon the pioneering work of the black publishers and booksellers, New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books which they established and which ran from 1982 to 1995.
But he did not focus on the written or spoken word only. He wanted African children and indeed all children to see images and artefacts relating to Africa and its Diaspora and see them in context. Artefacts tell a story, whether it be the metal trunk, the flat iron, the paraffin heater, or the iron comb that we use for frying our hair and making it look as if it really belongs to somebody that doesn’t look like us.
As an immigrant, Len felt that the longer we stayed here the more likely it was that our children would lose any sense of our history, our journey and our culture. It was necessary for them to know and understand that culture in context. Culture does not exist in isolation from the social, political and economic arrangements that shape the material conditions of our existence, whether we are aristocrats or street dwellers. Len Garrison therefore envisaged a collection, not just of memorabilia, but of products of our creativity and of the history we were making at the interface between us and this society.
This entity, then, is the realisation of a dream; a living monument to a vision. A ‘living monument’ in that it is not just a place for storing and exhibiting iconic objects or stories about dead Diasporan Africans. It is a space that connects the past with the present and helps to inform and shape the present before it becomes past. So, it is a place for conversations, for creative expression, for critical thought. It is a place that is making history, even as it helps keep our history alive.
The history of the settlement of Global African Diaspora in Britain and of our contribution to changing Britain, irrevocably, has been largely airbrushed out of British social history. We need to embrace the responsibility to record and conserve that history for this and future generations.
It is a history of journeying, a history of displacement, a history of discovery, discovery especially about the lies we were told about British society by colonial Britain; it is a history of home-making, making these islands ‘home’ for ourselves and, critically, for our British-born children; it is a history of Africans transforming Britain; it is a history as essential for the Global African Diaspora in Britain as for white Britain itself and for its European neighbours.
It is a history that underscores the fact that cultures of oppression breed cultures of resistance. Art performs a social function, but it also performs a political function and there is therefore a symbiotic relationship between culture and politics. Throughout history, culture has played a fundamental role in political resistance to oppression and all forms of injustice and denial of human rights. We need to embrace the responsibility to record and conserve our history for this generation and for generations yet unborn.
Many young members of the African Diaspora have no interest in visiting the land of their parents’ birth and even less interest in the story of how they came to be here. Their schooling and education in Britain won’t tell them that. We have to ensure, therefore, that we record that history and make it available to learners and teachers alike. Those young people need to know how the struggles their grandparents and parents waged in their countries of origin sustained them and prepared them for breaking down the many barriers they were to face in this society.
The BCA has another crucial function, i.e., to help the Global African Diaspora understand the importance of archiving and conserving our records, however insignificant we might think they are. Where are the records of the British Black Panther Party? Where are the records of the West Indian Standing Conference? Where are the records of the West Indian Students Centre? Where are the records of the Geneva and Somerleyton Community Association, one of the first community associations formed by post-War arrivants from the Caribbean? Where are the records of all those supplementary schools that were closed once the ILEA was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1989?
It is within the power of this new and wonderful institution to promote and encourage a sustained and lively interest in archiving and conservation. The BCA can provide opportunities for a growing number of African people to be trained and gainfully employed as archivists, librarians and curators, so that they in turn can encourage and guide communities to record, conserve, preserve and secure our heritage, in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Gloucester, Nottingham, Luton, Letchworth and elsewhere, wherever more than five of us reside.
I salute all those who have tirelessly worked to turn Len Garrison’s vision into reality, a reality that is not static but is as dynamic as art and culture itself.
Let us acknowledge, especially, the leadership, tenacity and determination of Paul Reid, who, over the last few years has so ably led the team that has made it possible to launch the BCA today.
For him and for them, this has been a long journey. I well remember the long telephone conversations Paul and I had as negotiations for the lease of this building started and the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund was being prepared, he in London and I in Manchester. I remember, too, the many meetings I attended in the Kennington offices and the robust exchanges with some doubters who were convinced that this was impossible to achieve, too ambitious, too grand in scale and vision. It was as if we had no right to think big and should in all things simply settle for mediocrity. But, here we are today.
Let this place serve as a hub, so that when young learners come here, when ordinary members of the community come here, in addition to what they find here, they could be pointed to other archives and collections, to: the George Padmore Institute, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Theatre Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Film Institute and, of course, the boroughs’ and cities’ own archives.
I sincerely hope the BCA will grow and become a genuine centre for learning and for sharing in the heart of this wonderful community.
Have an enjoyable launch!
Photo (home): Black heritage centre – Photo by Black Cultural Archives (Flickr)