Black Cultural Archives (BCA) is the only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving, and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain.
BCA grew from a community response to the New Cross Massacre (1981), the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984); underachievement of Black children in British schools, the failings of the Race Relations Act 1976, and the negative impacts of racism against, and a lack of popular recognition of, and representation by people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK.
The founders, including the iconic Len Garrison, came to the conclusion that what was needed was a space where members of the community, especially young people, could come and find positive representations of themselves in history and culture. This act of self-help expanded into the creation of what the founders called an ‘archive museum’ that evidenced and painted a more comprehensive picture of Black presence in Britain.
Let’s start a little bit about you before you came to the BCA. What’s your background that led you here?
My all-consuming love for Black culture and art. Being that young person who loved dance, visual arts, literature, cinema, music, I was always drawn to creative expression. And as I grew older, I was really drawn on to the cultural context for that, for the creative expression that I was attracted to. I think that interest in the dynamic between cultural context, creative expression and societal relations is what informed me wanting to study international relations. I was really interested in the relationship between different groups of people, obviously interesting on a kind of state craft level. But then I was really intrigued about the social level, and obviously thinking about that from the perspective of being black in Britain. I went on to study human rights and during my studies I fell in love with the history of cultural activism and how pioneers like John LaRose had sought to empower communities through giving them access to literature that opened up the history of the African diaspora or the poetry and the creative, a voice of the African diaspora to people.
I started to realize how access to culture and access to art was such a powerful force for bringing people together, for empowering individuals and starting important conversations. When I had graduated from that first Master’s in human rights that I actually visited the Black Cultural Archives for the first time. Coincidentally, or maybe it was destined, I had known about it for some years because a good friend of mine is the niece of Len Garrison. She told me,you must come down to my uncle’s thing. I think you’d love it, but I didn’t get to go until my early twenties. And when I discovered this organisation, I was blown away because it was the combination of everything that I’d instinctively been drawn towards, a hub of historical information about black culture essentially.
Ever since then, I pursued a career in fundraising and business development for the voluntary sector out of my passion for social justice and kept one, or many fingers, in the creative and cultural realm because I surrounded myself by a network of artists, writers, filmmakers, et cetera. Keeping those two streams of interest, parallel, social justice and culture and creativity. About seven years ago, I decided that enough of this kind of passive engagement with the cultural realm, it’s time to be more intentional about really exploring my voice and seeing what I can achieve. I decided to launch Black British Art, which is a platform celebrating the breadth and depth of creative expression from the black diaspora in the UK.
That opened a whole new world to me, that’s when I started developing relationships in a more intentional way with artists and looking at how I can support and understand their work, understand the community better and start to be part of that ecosystem of support, championing their work and raising awareness and connecting these artists to their audiences. I remember one poignant moment attending this network event, you know, these are serious artists, all of them have gone on to do fabulous, amazing things, they’re amazing people. That’s where I first met the curator, Osei Bonsu. Sonia Boyce said to me, after I’d finished sharing at one of the sessions, ‘oh, you are a future gallerist aren’t you, that’s what you’re gonna be.’ That really blew me away because at that moment I was still working full-time in the voluntary sector and I was simply in this world because I was pursuing a personal passion, but hadn’t thought about it in terms of a career. Now, looking back, that was kind of the Genesis of me taking up spaces, an advocate, a champion, a hype-woman for all things Black British and visual arts. Inherently I’ve been doing that for performing art anyway because I started that love affair as a dancer. So, being at the Black Culture Archives has been the culmination of my commitment to social justice and my passion and interest for Black culture, art, and creativity. I get to bring those together, and so it it’s a dream job for me.
Let’s talk about the Black Cultural Archives and where it sits within British culture. So how important do you think the BCA is as an institution and why do you think that it is as relevant today as it was40 years ago?
It is a fundamental institution to British culture, to the Black communities up and down the country and to the global diaspora, because it is the only national heritage centre dedicated to celebrating, promoting, collecting the history of African and Caribbean people. It is one of the longest lasting institutions that is black led and independent. It is profound for so many reasons, not least because it started at the same time as one of the key moments in British contemporary history, which was the Brixton uprisings. They came about as a result of the injustices experienced by the Black community and a sense of, we can’t be with this anymore. Something has to change.
It comes out of that energy of the black community, taking a stand and organising and raising awareness for their value to society, and the need for racial equity, and what that means for the education system, the policing system, the healthcare system, and then how we think of ourselves as a nation. The Black Cultural Archives came about because activists who are about my age now, (thirties, forties) decided we are no longer going to have our kids educated to believe that their history doesn’t matter or that their voice or their contribution is less important than anybody else. We’re not having it. And do you know what’s going make a difference? Them having access to the truth, them having access to documents that tell the history of the African diaspora, that start to fill in the gaps in the history that is taught to them, that can actually transform the conversation about Britain into a more truthful one.
That came from individuals taking a stand and you ask, why is it still important today because we’re still dealing with these questions, and to a certain extent, it’s even more important because, I, 40 years on, can be kind of led to believe that it’s all fixed now, there’s so much progress that has been made. And, there has been progress made, you can see that there are successes that we celebrate, the version of the United Kingdom that I was born into has significantly changed. Look at the 2012 Olympics. Look at the way that the advertising community has responded to the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd.The change of the kind of face of Britain and the way we’re talking about it has become more inclusive. But, at the same time, there are cracks,really clear cracks, you can even say at a national policy level, how this question of inclusion is dealt with.
So, we have these weird kind of opposing forces existing in a way that is very similar to back in the day, we have a lot of progress, people wanting to open and change things, but at the same time we have this kind of denial oripathy that there’s a need for anything to fundamentally shift at a structural level. To an extent where I’m trying to establish conversations with other organizations that advocate for racial equality or the importance of heritage including the histories of people who are deemed other than white, they’re saying there’s an existential crisis right now, we don’t feel as though we are being thoroughly supported by this national policy context. We are being questioned, the need for us is being questioned.
So, at the same time as economic disparities are going up, if you look at health education outcomes for people from the black community, there’s still massive inequalities, there’s still a need. If you look at the education, I don’t think you can say that over 50% of the British population are fully aware of the inherent contribution that people from the black community have made to the very making of this country. That’s not the case yet. So until that’s the case, surely there’s a need for us to exist and support a more inclusive educational policy approach. To engage with our communities and students, empower them and support schools on a more tactical level, training their teachers, reaching out to train new teachers, reaching out to undergraduates who are studying history, all of that work to help Britain face its history in a much more truthful and inclusive way.
You’ve come into the role just at the back end of the pandemic. What has been some of the challenges coming into this role? What have been some of the immediate things that you would like to see happen?
Okay, so we want people to see us as the home of Black British History, and to know that we are here for those communities that need the support I’ve been talking about. There’s something that I want to change in terms of people’s connection to our work. I want to really inspire them and inspire them to connect with us and to make our work much more accessible to them. There’s a couple of ways in which we are doing that. One is celebrating our 40th anniversary over the next few months. We want to raise awareness of that and make ways for people to engage with us much clearer. Second is an ongoing and a persistent priority to build the capacity of our management of the archives. We don’t have a huge team right now. We could do with a bigger team, we could do with more money to improve the cataloguing and the digitisation of our archives, so that it can be easy to access the information. Two key priorities.
The other thing that I want to do to support that is make sure we have a really inspiring program of activities to engage people with the information that’s in our archive. We are working on clarifying our calendar activities and being much more proactive about sharing that with people ahead of time, so they have a sense of what the archives is committed to doing throughout the year, so they can plan their engagement and get excited for what we’ve got lined up in Black History month. Again, all of this needs resource, we do a hell of a lot. We’ve got a lot of expectations on us, and we have a relatively small team. Our learning work is led by one person. Our archives and collections work is led by somebody who works part-time, our programming work is split between people. So, the bottom line is, we also need your support and financial support to help us build the capacity of the organisation so that we can be here and do the work and be really impactful. Those are our priorities, really centring and building the capacity of our collections work. Getting the word out there about us being the home of Black History, bringing people in, making our programs accessible and, inspiring, and then raising money to make us independent, so we don’t have to rely on the government. Don’t have to be beholden to other organisational agendas too much where it doesn’t suit us, so that we can really, truly just serve the needs of the community.
For someone who doesn’t know what the archive collections are, what are some of these collections that you hold?
One of the most popular collections is on the activities of the Black British Women’s movement, the black feminist movement in the United Kingdom. We’ve got a lot of papers around their activities. We recently acquired the collections of the Queen Mother Moore Supplementary School that started in Clapham in 1981, around the same time we started the BCA, but this was an organisation that came out of the Black Education movement to provide support to young people’s education around Black history. We’ve got their collection. We’ve just received the archives of Melba Wilson, who was a mental health advocate for the Black community. We’ve got many, many, many other collections too. One of our most sought after collections is that of Stella Dadzie.
We’ve got old newspapers, we’ve got old magazines, we’ve got old organisation documents, their notes, we’ve got lots of records, LPs, record collections. We’ve got a few objects that speak to the African diaspora history. We’ve got old Roman coins, we’ve got a whole wealth of information, different types of information,that speak to the history of Black people in the United Kingdom. I guess the majority of our collection is post-war, but it goes back before then. I think what’s interesting about it and distinct is that it is very much social history. As soon as you engage with these things, it’s very evocative, what was Iflicking through the other day, one of these old newspapers, I can’t remember the actual publication, but it actually had the records of the riots on the front. And you’re just thinking, wow, you know, there’s an old paper, browned around the edges, full of vigour and all the energy of the activism of that day. As soon as you look at it, it gives you a sense of our power and the fact that this activism, this energy is our legacy. And I think sometimes when we are feeling kind of down trodden, a bit cynical and dismayed about what’s possible, about COVID, the struggle, I think if we were able to plug into that energy that existed 40 years ago, we would be really inspired about what is possible when we come together. That I think, is the power of looking back into history and seeing what has been done that has enabled us to be here today. I think the disconnection is something that disempowers us.
Where do you see the BCA or where would you like to see the BCA in five years?
Well, I would like to see the BCA standing tall in 1 Windrush Square in five years, really healthy financially, with at least 10 times the number of supporters regularly giving to the BCA, feeling connected and wanting to champion the work that it does, because they’ve seen the difference it’s made to their kids. They’ve seen the difference it’s made in the community, to artists who have engaged with it, or they’ve attended great events there that have made a difference to them that connect them with great people. I hope that the BCA would be an organization that is championed and loved by not only Black communities in the surrounding boroughs, but also recognised as a really good partner to other cultural and heritage organisations up and down the country. An organisation that is championed by Britain at large, by the cultural heritage sectorasan equal, as an organisation that they respect and support.
I would also like it to be an organisation that, on the international level, has fostered great partnerships, like with the Schomburg Museum in Harlem, these centres that champion the importance of Black history and culture. By that time, I would love for us to be well on the way towards making all of the information that we have available, available digitally.Then I have to think about the staff, but I want the staffing to be sufficient for the task. So, for there to be leaders for each area that are supported by workers, and that it’s a place where people can develop their expertise, they really can grow and develop their expertise in culture, heritage, and history. For us to be an employer that is pulling out experts into the world.
What are some of the events that you are excited about? I know they are celebrating Len Garrison at The University of Sussex.
That’s right. So, the alumni, the Black Students Association is celebrating the legacy of Len Garrison tomorrow. We’ve got a very exciting launch happening on Friday, I don’t think I can tell you about it too much right now…
Since this interview, Black Cultural Archives have revealed their agenda. The ‘Hidden Black Stories’ project unveils hidden stories of Black British and Black people in the U.K. through Augmented Reality (AR) alongside Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter Tukwini Mandela.
Research conducted by Snap, Black Cultural Archives and Research Without Borders found that on average, less than a third of Brits recognise famous historical black figures (32%).
Their aim is to encourage ongoing education on Black British History throughout the year.
Another innovative project, in partnership with Transport for London, BCA has launched a Black History Tube map. The map features over 270 people, venues, and organisations to acknowledge and celebrate the rich and varied contribution Black people have made to London and the UK, from Pre-Tudor times to the present day.
The reimagined map replaces station names across the iconic Tube map with notable black people from history, with the associated Tube lines renamed to link them together by common themes – Firsts and Trailblazers; Georgians; Sports; Arts; LGBT+; Physicians; Performers; Literary World, and Community Organisers. By doing so, the map aims to highlight how Black people have played an intrinsic role in all parts of British life for thousands of years.
For more information on Black Cultural Archives, click here.