Young Historians speak at event for Centerprise
On the 7th of May, Ama and I were asked to speak at an event in Hackney. The event was organised to celebrate the launch of A Hackney Autobiography: a mobile app and website alongside the publication of The Lime Green Mystery: An oral history of the Centerprise co-operative. Following this, a panel discussion would take place focusing on radicalism and its relevance.
The women behind the app's creation, Rosa and Laura, spoke initially about what they had developed, describing it as Poetic satnav, mapping Hackney through the writing and memories of its people. I thought this was a really innovate idea and creative way of merging an application, history and art.
The event moved on to the discussion, which made me increasingly nervous. I hadn’t experienced Centerprise first hand and it started to dawn on me that whatever we had to say might come across underwhelming in comparison to the heart-felt testimonies circulating the room. It turned out the discussion initiated much more conversation that I expected. The more I learned about Centerprise in regards to its role in the community, political activism and its running as a co-operative, the more I found comparisons and comments I felt I could contribute in regards to YHP and our project on the Black Liberation Front.
The transition into my and Ama’s turn to speak felt quite natural despite my doubts at the start. Ama said as a young black person she felt it was important to document the agency of black political activism in the UK, the BLF being largely absent from historical literature. She explained a wanting to connect the agency of black historical figures of the past with the experience of young black people today. I went on to say I had very similar opinions to Ama but was also interested in creating engaging ways of making history accessible, the documentary we were making as an example.
Ama went on to highlight that black historians in the UK are largely unrepresented and that a project like ours would encourage more young black people to own history, to study history and to celebrate their ancestry and culture. I echoed her point in that an understanding of your history, especially if it has been misconstrued or manipulated, is important in a person’s understanding on self and therefore their future. Ama said that in school the history of black people was not taught as having any victors, so within our project it is important to highlight the history of black British people is one of strength as well as one of struggle.
Questions of representation and radicalism fed into conversations about Centerprise which, when it opened, was the only bookshop in Hackney, one of the most deprived areas in England. The Radical founders of Centerprise believed this was a deliberate omission by the arbiters of culture. In accordance with this, opening the bookshop was a political act as access to books was a “cultural right”.
This parallels our project in the sense that, we see black history as misrepresented, which highlights the importance of our work. It could be argued that deliberate omission has politically come into play in this case too. Accessing the histories of Black British people should be our right, as young British black people but also for everyone. The importance of recording and celebrating the histories of these “radical movements” are of utmost significance given the circumstances.
There was a lot of emphasis being put on the significance of Centerprise’s primary function as a bookshop, a safe environment centred around literature and learning. Other branches stemmed from this source including welfare advise groups, chess clubs, cafés and childcare. In our research the BLF had demonstrated tremendous achievements including the Ujima housing association, grassroots newspaper and African liberation day. It struck me that a reoccurring theme had been the need for independent bookshops, featuring black publishers and writers of both fiction and non-fiction.
Many of the people we have interviewed during our project cited the writings of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Angela Davis as among their inspirations behind activism. Three independent north London bookshops were directly associated with the BLF. It seems access to information and environments to felicitate discussion had a big influence on members and associates of the BLF as well as those of Centerprise. I questioned what could be learnt from that. Multiple community ventures in London are being subject to increased unaffordable rents and unrealistic funding requirements. With these spaces evaporating it seems inevitable that dialogue will cease and without the infrastructure to facilitate development, things will get worse.
However it is important to note, information centres prompted activism in the past and do now, only the means of accessing information are changing. The Internet allows us to access more information than before and social media platforms allow more voices to be heard too. Although these mediums can become overwhelming they must still be seen as useful tools when faced with the kinds of changes London is undergoing. Perhaps spaces for community activism and development are undergoing transition. This brings me back to the app spoken about at the start of the event as an example.
Activism is as relevant as it was in the 1970’s when the Centerprise co-op was founded, and although its closure seemed grossly premature and unreasonable it has set a president for a standard of a community led initiative. In times of rapid technological advancement and thanks to the hard work and love put into Centerprise by its participants and associates I left the event with a better understanding of the importance and strategy of an organisation like this. Both the BLF and Centerprise made achievements that we have the responsibility of documenting. I feel lucky to actively participate in this process as part of The Young Historians Project. I hope that engaging and spreading the history and legacy of these organisations and others like them, can be continued into the future for the benefit of the people.
 The Lime Green mystery: an oral history of the centerprise co-operative, Rosa Schling, 2017
Speakers at the event included: Toyin Agbetu from Ligali, Vivian Archer from Newham Bookshop, Nana Fani Kayode, teacher and radio producer, Gary Molloy from Core Arts, Marie Murray from Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, and Jasmine Breinburg and Ama Gray for the Young Historians Project.