Reflections on Representations of Black British History at the National Portrait Gallery's Teachers Seminar

December 9, 2018

As part of Black History Month celebrations, the Young Historians Project was invited to the National Portrait Gallery to speak at a Teachers Seminar on the 12th October, discussing cultural diversity and the importance of representing people who’ve made an impact, from the past and present. The evening began by taking in the 'Black is the New Black' photograph display by Simon Frederick, which is showcased at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th January 2019. Frederick had photographed remarkable Black Britons in many fields, ranging from fashion to sports, and the display recognises their contributions and achievements whilst allowing us to reflect on our own lives and potential. 

 

 

What really stood out for me is when Jean Campbell (Artist and Educator) recalled how when showing the display to primary school children, one asked “do you think this will end racism?”. It conveyed that any age group could sense how powerful the photographs were. We were honoured to hear Neil Kenlock (photographer) and Emelia Kenlock (Curator) at the Seminar. Neil talked about the backstory to his photographs in his Expectations exhibition which was displayed at the Black Cultural Archives throughout the Summer and Autumn of 2018. The exhibition acknowledges key figures such as George Berry, who in 1965 became the first black person to own a pub in the U.K, but was forced to rebuild after the National Front burned his pub down. The Expectations project explores Black Britons' expectations of Britain and the expectations that were placed on them, as Arthur Creech Jones (Colonial Secretary) thought they “wouldn't last one winter in England". 

 

We were given the opportunity to discuss our work in highlighting the importance of the Black Liberation Front and our new project about the vital role African women played in Britain during the 20th century, and their longstanding presence in the British Health Service. As a significant number of women of continental African descent have been involved in the NHS, and indeed the British Health Service even before the NHS’ creation, we decided to record the stories of those who had worked in any health care role during the 20th century in the hopes of constructing a more positive and more accurate social history. 

 

The project has already made some headway as I helped interview Esther Adi, who is a former nurse and current social worker. I found it interesting as she recalled a sense of entitlement from West Indians as they were invited by the British government and Africans weren’t. What really stuck out for me is when Esther said “For Africans, education is everything” because it conveyed the resilience of Africans who went through a massive upheaval to come to study, train and work in the UK. The interview also demonstrated Esther’s strength, as she faced many challenges whilst pursuing her nursing career. As we’ve engaged in more interviews, it's been fascinating to see similar themes emerge. I had the privilege of helping to interview Mariama Seray-Wurie, who is Director of Programmes for adult nursing at Middlesex University. She came to the U.K. from Sierra Leone aged two, as her father was a doctor and wanted to specialise. Despite not feeling protected from discrimination in the workplace, Mariama remained determined and didn't let it deter her from being where she wanted to be in the health service, and later the teaching profession.  

 

As it was a Teachers Seminar, we also reflected on the experience of learning Black History at school. We saw how there is a strong culture of acceptance to teach African-American history but not Black British History. We also came to the conclusion that the lack of diversity, when it comes to historical perspective, is why the continual drive for representation is so important. This is why the work that YHP does is significant, because YHP gives young black people opportunities to fully engage with black British history, and the encouragement to become black historians.

 

As a group, we hope that YHP will encourage people to learn more about black history and the contribution that black figures have made to Britain. Studying History at school allowed me to find my passion. However, after joining the Young Historians Project, I was able to find a specific strand of history that I was interested in and that I was able to fully engage with it – this being social history. Being part of YHP has given me many opportunities to publicly speak, to interview and to research. It has also given value to my perspective as a black historian.

 

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