I spent seven years in Tanzania and Zanzibar thinking and writing about agency for Islamic women, of all ages.How being represented and nominated in the public sphere is so vital to having a sense of self, agency, citizenship, power and ability to make choices. Of course I can bore on about the problems of ventriloquism and representation, I won’t do that here. I also worked as Africa Editor for Index on Censorship, and discovered that Freedom of Expression and Representation are surprisingly dear to my soul.
Now I’m back in the UK I’m finding this is equally true. I spent an extraordinary day this Friday (18.3.16) at The Imperial War Museum Space Invaders conference, courtesy of my generous smart friend and inspirational fellow change-maker Sara Wajid. It was the point where conference becomes activism, there were some truly awe-inspiring BAME women who work in the museum and public spaces sector. I listened to Shami Chakrabarty, who reminded us that with the ever-restricting university policies around debate, the domestic (anti) terrorism laws, the restrictions of press, press freedoms the funding crisis in BBC, more than ever museums and other civic spaces must be places of debate and critique.
By replacing The Human Rights Act with the considerably more diluted British Rights and Responsibilities Act, now more than ever, we need to represent, show, talk and critique diversity. It is a key part of democracy.
Hold that bad boy diversity up to the spotlight and talk about what we actually mean.
I am flooded with a desire to see much more use of active contemporary history making. IE going out there, looking for material, for interviews, and meeting people were they are, not demanding they come to us. Much more use of British and international archive (The National Sound Archive, local collections, regional museums and community centres, in the BBC, Pathe etc) that reflects how racially mixed, how immigrant, how ‘colourful’ (ahem) how inter-racial, cross-cultural, er ‘DIVERSE’ the UK has always been…
As a reporter, researcher and broadcaster working at the BBC for much of my life, in one form or another, I know how massive these archives are.
This one is particularly good for me- I went to school next the council estate featured.
I want to see exhibitions and representations and audio-visuals that make the realities and textures of our lives jump out at us. No more oil paintings. At the Geffrye Museum in 2005 I saw representations the Black British front room, curated by Michael McMillan such a clean, straightforward idea, yet what I remember were huge crowds of people howling with laughter and recognition. And some hilariously garish glass vases. I genuinely have never heard a museum so full of happiness and noise. Whole rooms splattered with colour. Literally.
It scares me how much of our history, our culture, is being eradicated. Where is the oral history of Greenham and the feminist activism? The actual voices! Including the massive presence of lesbians, women of colour and working class women. That was the thing, I was there, Greenham wasn’t just middle class women from Cheltenham, or trustafarians, that’s what made it so wild; it was working class Welsh women who got it started. Let’s not forget that.
The ‘lie in’ at Greenham Dec 1983, where we sang ‘Carry Greenham home’
Whilst I’m on a roll, where are the histories of the Southall Black sisters or of Women’s Aid in the large public spheres? Again the actual voices? Told by the people who were there. Or by skilful researchers and archivists who are ‘inside’ not outside looking in. Where are the big, national celebrations and achievements of people of colour who made it in the literary industry despite the barriers? What about a history of diversity in the public sphere, looking at why Channel 4 was so radical, in its day?
What about more views of Africa that mix it up a bit? Or the activists like Minnie Pickens, so imporant in the istitution of the Pan African Congress in 1927.
We do need to diversify the pool of decision-makers who curate universities. And give them more funding and choices. And, ask, really early on, whose gaze are we adopting? What is our perspective?
Problematic exhibitions like Art and Empire at the Tate recognise that there are some brilliant BAME minds (and supporters) who would be delighted to critique, shape exhibitions like this, and frankly it’s absurd not to plunder the glorious abilities of, say, some of the staff at SOAS, like Amina Yaquin or Professor Nadje El Ali, who would have made this exhibition much more interesting, edgy, relevant and politically/intellectually more robust.
And brought in new audiences.
Luckily the Tate’s education and learning website says “By suggesting ways of re-framing the ideas raised by the exhibition, they -Barby Asante and Evan Ifekoya- offer an opportunity to contextualise the exhibition for yourselves and your students”. The point is, however is that
We are not living in caravans isolated on Sahelian desert: we have some of the most incredible resources in the world at our fingertips. Let’s use them.
We can use old archive– but we MUST critique it.
Women bus drivers
at the Fulwell Bus Garage Twickenham 1947
I know I’m being a bit scattergun.
And a bit ranty.
But the point is that more flexibility is needed in how we document, what we document, and where.
“Why are institutions not telling the story of the role women played in creating the Rap and Hip Hop genre? Sylvia Robinson put together the Sugar Hill Gang (the first hip hop group) and produced their first record, how many people are aware of this? Telling this story will help communities see that there is a long history of women fighting against and reclaiming misogynistic lyrics and spaces in the music industry.”
Why aren’t we picking up our phones and recording the experiences of our elders and the dance hall culture in the 50’s and 60’s? Or the illegal gambling drinking dens that I know proliferated in London and must have been elsewhere?
I’m a leetle bit sick of white men interviewing white men talking about white men, to be read by white men. Know what I mean?
Last week, in Ealing, at a bus stop, a West Indian couple in their eighties started reminiscing, to me, about the area in the 60’s when they arrived and their close knit friendship groups. My friend’s mum has told me over the years of her shock of leaving privileged Nigerian society (where she was a headmistress, and minor royalty) to spend the next forty years of her life as catering assistant (and finally manager) in South London.
(Image on right of Amy Jaques, nationalist leader)
What about the voices of the Pan-African leaders in exile, feverishly planning the next independence of their countries in the sixties at the LSE and other academic institutions? Or the role of UK historically in providing intellectual and actual refuge for political exiles (as it did for my parents, thousands of Iranians etc etc..) and a safe haven? Or the experiences of second generation Somalis and Sylhettis who came here in the70’s/ 80’s and survived despite, not because of, British ‘support’. (I tutored the kids of a family where the mum literally never left the house and her five year old daughter paid the bills and did the shopping, as she was so lonely and disorientated. There were no translators or community workers at all in the 80’s in Tower Hamlets.)
There are so many stories on this island. Why is there no celebration of the Peruvian and male and female Columbian cleaners? Some of whom are political exiles from the drug wars in the 80’s and 90’s who keep most of the city mile, and most of SOAS- spotless.
There are some victories, many in fact. The low-key, but really completely fabulous organisation The Oral History Society will dedicate April’s issue to migrants and community. They’ve been practicing good intersectional history since day one, in 1969.
Another that jumps out at me is this recent exhibition at the People’s Museum in Manchester, which celebrates women working in mines, thieves, children and the history of ‘grafting’.
I think that in this age of ‘millenials’ where it’s too easy to be slipshod and to dehumanise, ‘other’ anyone different or just forget anyone who’s not a white, eton-educated hipster, we need to work harder than ever to make sure the other voices are singing out, loud and clear. Let’s not be afraid of complexity.
Image of Dagenham sewing machine strikers, 1968
This was my late mum’s lifelong professional dedication: working to get diversity (or multi-culturalism and racism-challenging work) Into public spaces and the curriculum. There is a lot of ‘diverse’ history that I know because of her work (and many others like June Bam Hitchison.) Now in the noughties, much of this work is in danger of being sidelined. I thought now in 2016 that Alice Walker, Zora Neale Thurston, Angela Davis and Betty X would be mainstream. They are not. Listening to the stuff on Friday I felt ambivalent- there is still so much to do, there are so many talented incredible BAME people who should be getting funding for kickass projects that link contemporary issues with historical ones.
As Sharon Heal said, (director of the Museums Association) the British Museum could do an incredible exhibition linking its Syrian (and other Middle Eastern) artefacts with contemporary issues. Including refugees and the barriers they face, right now, to get established and build lives.
Winner of World Press photo of the year 2016: Hope for a New Life. A man passes a baby through the fence at the Serbia/Hungary border in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015 Warren Richardson, Australia. For more World Press photos click here
Steelyard-weight, Roman, Syria
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Image id: 00563805001
Object type: steelyard-weight
Period / culture: Roman
Production date: 6thC-7thC
I’d like to quote my mum. I’ve never done it before. But she sums it up well:
“A democracy does not imply unanimity of values: on the contrary, the possibility of criticism and change are essential to its health. Citizens in democratic societies expect that reasonable strategies will be in place to resolve conflicts and do not normally expect to be silenced or penalised for holding minority opinions (other than where they transgress the law and have to be handled through that forum). Think of the suffrage campaigns, the abolition of slavery, scientific inventions like the lightening conductor or smallpox vaccination, attitudes to children at work or compulsory schooling. With hindsight, we evaluate some positions as reactionary and unjust and judge the commitment of those who challenged them as responsible for progress. Many current controversies have historical parallels – whether it’s militancy versus passive resistance, conflicts between religious and secular power or claims to rights to territory”.
The Representation of the people Act will have it’s 100th anniversary in 2018, let’s reflect on what that means. The challenge to represent, and to represent ourselves is bigger than ever, and is a key part of democracy. We have a wealth of knowledge, ability, and (speaking globally, relatively) money to push forward a view of ourselves and our lives that is glorious, contradictory, odd, funny, poignant, sometimes melancholic, filled with resistance, adaptation, triumph and failure.