For Black History Month, this blog post is a review of a recently published and new addition to the Black History Collection housed in Archives & Collections service – My Name is Why, A Memoir by Lemn Sissay published by Canongate.
My attention was initially drawn to Lemn’s memoir by the recent serialisation of the book as BBC Radio 4’s Book of The Week. I was familiar with Lemn’s work as a poet and playwright but I knew practically next to nothing about his upbringing. What struck so vividly and pertinently about the broadcast and equally the book was the determination and perseverance exhibited by Lemn. Here is an individual striving to unearth details regards his birth in the face of an indifferent bureaucratic system which robbed him of information surrounding his racial identity – a boy of Ethiopian descent raised in Wigan in the 1960s and 70s in a white household unable to provide a nurturing of his black identity, and one overwhelming governed by a fire and brimstone form of authoritarian rubric.
Lemn was the name given to him by his birth mother, a young student of the Amhara people of Ethiopia. He latterly discovered Lemn means Why in the tradition of the Amhara people who leave messages when naming the new born. Lemn was renamed Norman Greenwood after being processed by the fostering system. Access to information surrounding his birth and origins was denied by a system which appeared only to protect itself and the perpetrators of an uncaring apathy, and at worst, a systematic form of racist aggression, rather than care for the children under its protection.
The memoir is written from the standpoint of Lemn finally gaining access to his case file in 2015 after a 34 year campaign to retrieve records from Wigan Council. It details his birth in an establishment for what was described then as a home for unmarried women in 1967. The memoir charts his long term fostering by a white family just south of Wigan and subsequent entry to the youth care system at the age of 12 via a series of homes run more like a prison rather than an establishment for nurturing the identity of those needing support most.
For Black History Month, this week’s blog post is a review of a recent addition to our holdings: Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satiapublished this year by Duckworth Overlook.
At the heart of this studious discourse rests an argument which provides a new appraisal of the forces which drove Britain’s place at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The central premise of the tome is that the real cause of economic and imperial expansion was due to an exceedingly lucrative military contracting the production of guns and other weaponry which kept the nation in an almost constant state of production and warfare. This revisionist view of the genesis of the industrial revolution places conflict and Britain’s global expansionist desires very much at the forefront of the country’s change to an industrialised nation.
The book is thoroughly researched as evidenced by the extensive footnotes and bibliography, but it also contains an emotional core – in the preface the author describes how a family conflict over a bequeathment heightened to a standoff which involved a gun and the ease with which the trigger can easily be pulled. From this episode the author expands upon and explores further some of the legacy issues brought about by British colonial expansion in the Indian Sub – Continent which may have contributed as factors in the family turmoil.
In September 2017 we were delighted to receive over 40 boxes of material in to the Library’s collections from the Shades of Black Community Project led by Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave. This was to add to a smaller body of material already in the archive from Shades of Black.
Shades of Black began in February 1989 as a response to the Handsworth Riots when five local women met together to discuss what could be done to rebuild the community and take positive action. From this initial meeting to the present day, Shades of Black has carried out a range of successful projects at the grassroots level with the aim of bringing people together and helping community members develop new skills which in turn increases their self-esteem. The newly acquired material is a record of almost 30 years of dedicated community work.
One example of this is the H.E.L.P. Allotments project. Based in Handsworth and established in 1999. It enabled school pupils to get involved in gardening, donating some of their produce to the elderly to celebrate Harvest. The project gained coverage from BBC Gardener’s World and local radio stations as well as immersing many children in the pleasures of growing their own fruit and vegetables.
Archives & Collections has many hidden facets amongst the panoply of resources and materials retained by the section. One such collection is the Black History Collection which is a repository of secondary printed texts relating to the experiences of Asian and Black communities. Follow this link for a more thorough account of the intentions for the collection.
You may initially presume libraries and archives are primarily locations for the storage of dusty and antiquated tomes which are lovely in their own right but this is only one face of our raison d’etre. The following two books published in 2016 have recently been purchased for addition to the Black History Collection and hopefully provide fresh and insightful input to the dialogue and discussion surrounding ethnic identity in modern British culture and society –
London Is The Place for Me. Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race. Kennetta Hammond Perry. 2016, Oxford University Press. ISBN : 9780190240202. Black History Collection, level 4. 305.896042.
This text, the title of which tips a nod to the calypso song of the same name by Lord Kitchener who was a passenger on the Empire Windrush explores different themes in relation to the formation of a sense of Black British identity and the issues of migration and subsequent immigration controls plus the nascent campaign against racial discrimination. The text utilises a wide range of sources in its discourse such as photography, personal accounts and extracts from popular culture such as song.
Blackness in Britain. Edited by Kehinde Andrews and Lisa Amanda Palmer. Routledge. ISBN : 9781138840638. Black History Collection, level 5. A 305.896041. (Please bring your Birmingham Library card as ID should you wish to view this item).
This book explores via a series of essays the attempt to place Black Studies more prominently on the academic agenda and in the public consciousness by collating a series of scholarly voices on the topic of Blackness in Britain. Topics covered in the text include discussions regards the marginalisation of black people, the appropriation of a sense of black identity via writings, issues surrounding black identity and the teaching of Black Studies in education and the position of black female identity in the UK.
You can view resources from the Black History Collection at any point during the library’s core opening hours of 11 am – 7 pm Monday & Tuesday and 11 am – 5 pm Wednesday to Saturday.
Between the years 1863 and 1865, American abolitionists became increasingly concerned about the welfare of slaves freed following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, Levi Coffin, an American Quaker (1798 – 1877) from Cincinnati, Ohio, acting as an agent of the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, decided to visit England.
Having been brought up in a family who were opposed to slavery, Coffin had been involved in helping slaves since he was a young man. Together with his wife, he provided shelter and provisions for runaway slaves escaping northwards to find freedom in Canada. Their home became a crucial part of the Underground Railroad and Coffin came to be known as its president. In a letter dated June 15th 1864 to Benjamin Cadbury and Arthur Albright of the Birmingham Freedmen’s Aid Association, he explained,
The number of slaves I have had the privilege of assisting in their escape from slavery is over 3000. The most of these I have had the satisfaction of sheltering under my roof and feeding at my table. This has been through the course of more than thirty years past, and mostly before this cruel war commenced.
(Birmingham and Midland Freed Men’s Aid Association, ref MS 3338/1)
By 1863, Coffin’s work took a different course. Having travelled to the camps where thousands of freed slaves were sent, three quarters of whom were women, children and the sick, Coffin was acutely aware of the destitute conditions in which they were living and their need for bedding, clothing and food. He decided to devote his time to helping the freed slaves, and working with the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission established that year, he travelled around the country raising awareness of the plight of the freedmen, visiting freedmen’s associations, asking for provisions or money and receiving and forwarding donations to where they were most needed. Continue reading “President of the Underground Railroad visits Birmingham”→
In celebration of black history month I delved in to the archives to find out more about material we hold relating to black lives and black history. Although a number of collections caught my attention, I decided to focus on the Papers of Henry Gunter (MS 2165). These papers provide a fascinating insight in to the life of a black citizen in post-war Birmingham who tirelessly campaigned for positive change.
Henry Gunter (1920-2007) was born in Portland Jamaica in 1920 where he trained as an accountant and also wrote on political and social issues. After working in Panama and the U.S.A. he moved to Birmingham in 1949. In the June 1949 edition of ‘Jamaica Arise! The Political and Labour Guide’, Gunter wrote about some of his reasons for coming to Birmingham saying ‘I have placed myself in the industrial heart of the country so as to meet more of the workers’ (MS 2165/2/1).
Although Gunter had skills in accountancy, he was sent by the Labour Exchange to work as a mate in a brass rolling mill. He lost his job after challenging the shop steward for racist verbal abuse. He then went on to work in other factories in the city as a machine operator and a tool cutter and grinder. Alongside his day job Gunter joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He was the first black member of his union and the first black delegate to Birmingham Trades Union Council.
Gunter used the positions he held to write and speak out against injustice and to inspire action. Material in the archive includes Gunter’s writings on the struggles faced by black citizens in post-war Birmingham. In the Caribbean News, February 1953 (MS 2165/2/4) he wrote that landlords either refused to rent out rooms to black people or exploited them by charging rents above the market rate. Although West Indian workers had been encouraged to come to Birmingham during World War Two to work in munitions factories, Gunter wrote about the huge unemployment issues they faced after the War with major firms refusing to employ them.
One of his key publications, which survives in the archive, was ‘A Man’s a Man: a study of the Colour Bar in Birmingham- and an ANSWER’ (MS 2165/2/5). In this document Gunter discussed problems faced by black people in areas of employment, housing, hotels and social activities. He suggested five actions that anyone could take including ‘Take a stand against colour-bar and the spreading of racial prejudice wherever you find it.’ The pamphlet was published by the Communist Party in 1954.
It’s still time to get involved in this year’s Black History Month. There are events running across the City so why not have a look at what’s on near you. You can find event listings on the Black History Month website and also local listings, for example at The Drum in Aston. So why not learn about and celebrate the diversity of our wonderful City!
Don’t forget you can also use sources at Archives, Heritage and Photography to research Black History – the Connecting Histories website highlights some of our fascinating resources and you can learn more about the Library’s Black History Collection on the Library of Birmingham website.