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  • Lamesha Ruddock

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

As part of Black History Month celebrations, the Young Historians Project was invited to the National Portrait Gallery to speak at a teachers' seminar discussing cultural diversity and the importance of representing both historic and contemporary impactful figures. 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's photographs celebrate remarkable Black Britons in many fields, ranging from fashion to sports. The display recognises their contributions and achievements whilst allowing us to reflect on our own lives and potential.

George Berry in his burned down pub, photographed by Neil Kenlock

What really stood out for me is when artist and educator Jean Campbell recalled that 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 from curator Emelia Kenlock and photographer Neil Kenlock at the seminar. Neil talked about the backstory to his photographs in his Expectations exhibition which was displayed at the Black Cultural Archives this summer. The exhibition acknowledges key figures such as George Berry, who in 1965 became the first black person to own a pub in the UK, 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 many authority figures like the Secretary of State for the Colonies Arthur Creech Jones 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 British health service, even before the NHS’ creation, we decided to record their stories in the hopes of constructing a more accurate and positive social history.

The project has already made some headway. I helped interview Esther Adi, a former nurse and current social worker. 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 African immigrants 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 UK 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 didn't let anything deter her from being where she wanted to be in the health service, and later the teaching profession.

Mariama Seray-Wurie being interviewed by YHP

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 historical 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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