Looking Back to Look Forward: June Givanni, Pan African Film and Black British History
In March of 2018 the Young Historians Project was invited by June Givanni, the foremost Pan African film historian in Britain, to screen our documentary film ‘We Are Our Own Liberators’, about British Black Power group, the Black Liberation Front (BLF), which we had completed in October 2017. The June Givanni Pan African Cinema Archive (JGPACA) provides a great service in promoting, preserving and celebrating the work of black film makers.
June’s invitation for us to screen our film was a significant opportunity to celebrate the work done by a generation of black activists, and to celebrate our film’s role in documenting this. June explained that the screening would mean a lot to her as she had been a BLF member during the 1970s. The JGPACA is situated in the MayDay Rooms on Fleet Street, which offered a beautiful room for the film to be shown, with walls covered in Africa Liberation Day posters and Leftist ephemera – providing a sample of the material available at the archives. I was fortunate to be able to meet with June before the screening and gain an insight into her time with the BLF. Our meeting took place in her office, which looks out onto a section of Fleet Street that often prompts her to recall her experience on the 1981 Black People’s Day of Action march. She remembers that it was at that section where mounted police officers blocked her and fellow marchers’ paths. Powerful scenes such as that which had been etched into June’s memory were captured in Blood Ah Go Run by Menelik Shabbazz, which holds a favourite spot for June in black British cinema. It is ironic, June notes, that she should find herself preserving black cinematic treasures on Fleet Street of all places, which during the 1970s-80s was home to various mainstream newspaper headquarters that propagated anti-black and anti-immigrant rhetoric to the British public.
Chaired by Nkechi Noel, who works alongside June at the JGPACA, the screening brought together a range of different attendees, and many were familiar with the history of the BLF. June’s personal guests included two other former BLF members, Dada Imarogbe and Celia Graves, who were pleased to see their organisation’s legacy preserved by the efforts of young black people of today. The film screening’s time collided with an anarcho-communist meeting in the room adjacent, and some attendees were drawn by themes of the film regarding anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and black revolutionary politics. While it is unfortunate our film couldn’t detail all of the BLF’s activities, it worked well to spark a dialogue about inter-generational activism. A Q&A session after the film took on a collaborative approach, and former BLF members and supporters in the audience were able to go into detail about the more hidden aspects of the group’s history, such as frequent trips to the African continent, relations with other liberation groups, and fundraising efforts to support anti-imperialist causes.
In reflecting on the work done by June in collecting and housing important historical material, Dada pointed out that during his time in the BLF he and others were so consumed by the daily responsibilities of the organisation, that although it would have been worthwhile to maintain an organisational archive, members had no time to consider maintaining proof of their legacy. This translated into advice for YHP to ensure we record our history in the making. In the age of social media, we not only have new ways of connecting to various groups and individuals, we also have new ways of archiving history. The very act of looking back, to look forward, means taking responsibility and taking control of one’s future. As we discussed the many barriers the BLF faced, we also reflected on the challenges of documenting its history, which ranged from difficulties in sourcing informative archival material to contacting former BLF members to be interviewed, and keeping the project going amidst YHP members’ commitments outside of the group.
But what most stood out during the Q&A session was the audience’s overwhelming astonishment at YHP’s work in shining light on such an important aspect of contemporary black British history that is little known outside the circles of people who lived it. This encouraged us Young Historians to continue turning under-represented histories into acknowledged and celebrated histories. We do need to share our stories with each other and understand that black activism is first and foremost a tradition. In considering that, June and others mentioned the importance of appreciating how the world today is not the same world that fuelled the Black Power movement, it was in fact a very distinct era filled with revolutionary vigour.
We should analyse the present state of the world and of the black community in Britain, instead of repeating the actions of past generations. The act of looking back to look forward, is an indelible tool for young people to pay homage to those who came before, yet still challenges us to be dynamic. We hope to link up with the Pan African Cinema Archives again, and YHP will continue to act as a bridge between the old and the new.