The Woyingi Blog

Britain’s Black History Month

October is Britain’s Black History Month. 2010 marks its 23rd year. Black History Month celebrations have spread since the first was held in London in 1987, a period declared African Jubilee Year by the then Greater London Council in recognition of the centenary of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s birth, the 25th birthday of the Organisation of African Unity and the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the Caribbean. British Ghanaian Akyaaba Addai Sebbo, then coordinator of Special Projects at the Greater London Council (GLC) is acknowledged as the originator of UK’s Black History Month along with Linda Bellos, daughter of a Jewish mother and Nigerian father, who was the Chair of the Greater London Council at the time. At one of the Month’s first celebrations, Bernie Grant MP stated that “Ignorance of Black history and heritage breeds low self-esteem.”

Although there were Blacks in Britain before since Roman times, 1948 marks the first major influx of Blacks to Britain. They came as migrants on the ship Windrush from the Caribbean. According to the BBC History website:

The Empire Windrush’s voyage from the Caribbean to Tilbury took place in 1948. Believe it or not, very few of the migrants intended to stay in Britain for more than a few years.

If it hadn’t been for the Second World War, the Windrush and her passengers might not have made the voyage at all. During the war, thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited to serve in the armed forces.

When the Windrush stopped in Jamaica to pick up servicemen who were on leave from their units, many of their former comrades decided to make the trip in order to rejoin the RAF. More adventurous spirits, mostly young men, who had heard about the voyage and simply fancied coming to see England, ‘the mother country’, doubled their numbers.

June 22nd 1948, the day that the Windrush discharged its passengers at Tilbury, has become an important landmark in the history of modern Britain; and the image of the Caribbeans filing off its gangplank has come to symbolise many of the changes which have taken place here. Caribbean migrants have become a vital part of British society and, in the process, transformed important aspects of British life.

In 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war. Housing was a huge problem and stayed that way for the next two decades. There was plenty of work, but the Caribbeans first clashed with the natives over the issue of accommodation. But alongside the conflicts and the discrimination, another process was taking place.

Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, they began to adjust the institutions they brought with them – the churches, and a co-operative method of saving called the ‘pardner’ system. At the same time, Caribbeans began to participate in institutions to which they did have access: trade unions, local councils, and professional and staff associations.

The following is a list of some Black British Firsts:

John Archer (1863 to 1932), Britain’s First Black Mayor

Lord Leary Constantine (1902 to 1971), Britain’s First Black Peer

Bernie Grant (1944 to 1998), Britain’s First Black Councillor and one of the country’s first Black MPs

Paul Boateng, Britain’s First Black Cabinet Minister and one of the country’s first Black MPs

Diane Abbott, Britain’s First Black Woman MP

Baroness Valerie Amos, Britain’s First Black Woman Peer

Arthur Wharton (1865 to 1930), Britain’s First Black Footballer

Vic Anderson, Britian’s First Black Footballer to represent England

Mike Fuller, Britain’s First Black Chief Constable

Bishop Wilfred Wood, Britain’s First Black Bishop of the Church of England

Further Reading:

100 Great Black Britons Website

Black History Month UK Website

Norfolk Black History Month Website

Oral history of passengers on the Windrush from the BBC Website

blackhistory4schools is the leading website in the UK dedicated to the promotion of Black and Asian British history in schools.Since its inception in 2006 more than 120,000 people have used the website.The resources are freely available and cover topics ranging from the Romans to the Windrush

Black Presence: Asian and Black History in Britain 1500 to 1850 Website

Moving Here Website: Caribbean Migration Histories

Untold London Website

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Book Review: Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, Flamingo 1989

Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria’s most well-known writers. She managed to raise her five children on her own, go to university, eventually achieving a Ph.D from the University of London, and write over 20 novels, plays, and short stories. She was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Ibos who had left the Ibo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Ibo) located in what is now called Delta State. She moved to London, England to join her husband in 1962. Second-Class Citizen (1974), her first published novel, is semi-autobiographical, based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him.

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Buchi Emecheta

Adah, the character based on Buchi, is smart and determined to study despite the fact that there is not much means or will to have her educated particularly after her father dies. Adah eventually marries Francis and together they move to London, England in the early sixties. Life is hard. Not only is there racism which makes it difficult to find accommodations, but Francis himself becomes Adah’s greatest obstacle.

Adah is the primary breadwinner for the young and growing family with her job as a librarian. Francis becomes physically abusive towards Adah and cheats on her. Although Francis is definitely portrayed to be an obnoxious bully it is clear that Adah doesn’t entirely hate him. She understands why he’s ended up this way: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over-demanding society he found himself in. (p. 110)” This is sadly probably true for many immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with failure and the setbacks and challenges of life. But why do men often need to feel power over someone in order to feel better about themselves? Where does this need come from?

Adah is a survivor and this novel is the story of her survival. It is also a fascinating portrait of Black immigrant life in sixties London. Despite what could be quite depressing subject matter, Second Class Citizen is actually an easy read and more often than not quite funny. I have actually reread Second Class Citizen several times and I never stop finding great character portraits and home truths.

Interesting Passages from the novel:

Adah is a Christian but her husband is a Jehovah’s Witness. But he wasn’t always a Jehovah’s Witness. While at the maternity ward Adah meets a women who waited 17 years to have her first child. Adah wonders what Francis would have done if it had taken 17 years for her to give him a son:

Suppose she had had to wait seventeen years for all that? She would have either died of psychological pressures or another wife would have been bought for Francis. He would have declared himself a Moslem, for he was once a Moslem when he was younger. Francis was like the Vicar of Bray. He changed his religion to suit his whims. When he realized that equipping Adah with birth-control gear would release her from the bondage of child-bearing, Francis went Catholic. When he started failing his examinations and was feeling very inferior to his fellow Nigerians, he became a Jehovah’s Witness. (p. 122)

Adah befriends Janet, a young Cockney girl who is the wife of a Muslim Nigerian, Mr. Babalola. He is hardly an endearing character. In the following passage, one of the sources of the conflict between Southerners (predominantly Christian) and Northerners (predominantly Muslim) is outlined, of course with a Southern Ibo bias.

Mr. Babalola had come to England, just like Francis and Adah, to study. But, unlike Adah and Francis, he had been single, and had a Northern Nigerian Scholarship. This meant that he had more money to spend, because the Northerners, unlike the over-educated Southerners, would do anything to encourage the men to really get educated so that they could come home and obtain the jobs in the North which were then going to the Southerners. Mr. Babalola was, therefore, a very rich student.
Rumour had it that he had a glossy flat and was always entertaining. This was no surprise to anyone who knew the Northerners. They liked to spend their money, to really enjoy what they had, and to them what they had was theirs only today, not tomorrow or the day after. Allah would take care of the future. That was certainly Babalola’s philosophy of life. (p. 52-53)

Janet, who gets pregnant at sixteen by a West Indian, gets kicked out by her parents because she refuses to give up her baby. Babalola ends up taking her in and using her as a party favour for his friends. As Emecheta writes: “…Janet was being offered to any black man who wanted to know how a white woman looked undressed. Most of Adah’s neighbours had had their sexual adventures with Janet.”

However, this all changes when a broke Babalola (His Northern Nigerian Scholarship is inexplicably revoked) realizes that Janet can receive enough social assistance for herself and her baby to pay his rent. Babalola decides to keep Janet all to himself and she bears him a child. Babalola, like Francis, seems content to depend on women financially, while still treating these women like servants.

Adah reflects on being the child of Ibos from Ibuza living in Lagos:

Well, Adah thought she was eight at the time when her mother and all the other society women were busying themselves to welcome the very first lawyer to their town Ibuza. Whenever Adah was told that Ibuza was her own, she found it difficult to understand. Her parents, she was told, came from Ibuza, and so did many of her aunts and uncles. Ibuza, she was told, was a beautiful town. She had been taught at an early age that the people of Ibuza were friendly, that the food there was fresh, the spring water was pure and the air was clean. The virtues of Ibuza were praised so much that Adah came to regard being born in a God=forsaken place like Lagos as a misfortune. Her parents said that Lagos was a bad place, bad for bringing up children because here they picked up the Yoruba-Ngbati accent.(p 7-8)

Adah reflects on her social isolation in England and how this relates to domestic abuse:

In England, she couldn’t go to her neighbour and babble out troubles as she would have done in Lagos, she had learned not to talk about her unhappiness to those with whom she worked, for this was a society where nobody was interested in the problems of others. If you could not bear your problems any more, you could always do away with yourself. That was allowed, too. Attempted suicide was not regarded as a sin. It was a way of attracting attention to one’s unfortunate situation. And whose attention do you attract? The attention of paid listeners. Listeners who make you feel that you are an object to be studied, diagnosed, charted and tabulated. Listeners who refer to you as ‘a case’. You don’t have the old woman next door who, on hearing an argument going on between a wife and husband, would come in to slap the husband, telling him off and all that, knowing that her words would be respected because she was old and experienced. (p. 72-73)

Adah reflects on the role of religion in her life in England:

There was no time to go to church and pray. Not in England. It took her years to erase the image of the Nigerian church which usually had a festive air. In England, especially in London, ‘church’ was a big grey building with stained-glass windows, high ornamental ceilings, very cold, full of rows and rows of empty chairs, with the voice of the vicar droning from the distant pulpit, crying like the voice of John the Baptist lost in the wilderness. In London, churches were cheerless.
She could not go to any of them because it made her cry to see such beautiful places of worship empty when, in Nigeria, you could hardly get a seat if you came late. You had to stand outside and follow the service through a microphone. But you were happy through it all, you were encouraged to bellow out the songs-that bellowing took away some of your sorrows. Because most of the hymns seem to be written by psychologists. One was always sure of singing or hearing something that would come near to the problem you had in mind before coming to church. In England you were robbed of such comfort.
London, having thus killed Adah’s congregational God, created instead a personal God who loomed large and really alive. She did not have to go to church to see this One
. (p. 164-165)