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  • Aleja Taddesse

History Matters - so, how do we convince the best part of a generation?

Problems are ubiquitous and multiply of their own accord, so we should focus on solutions..

Solutions were the running theme at the Museum of London Docklands this week, where members of the YHP gathered to present a project report and mark the launch of Professor Hakim Adi’s new title, Pan-Africanism: A History. Amongst topics discussed were, the Nation of Islam, Gaddafi’s role in promulgating a United States of Africa, and getting young people to feel more invested in history - be it as educators, enthusiasts or entrenched academics!

The evening commenced with a presentation by a few of the Young Historians. We gave an overview of the project’s trajectory to date- from it’s inception as a brainchild of History Matters attendees, to the BLF project, and to the current iteration which is focusing on African Women and the British Health Service 1930-2000.

Following on from the History Matters Conference in 2015, the Young Historians Project has reaped success in many areas. This is not just an over-zealous member speaking! We need only measure this claim against the project’s initial aims - to engage young people of African and Caribbean descent with history by redefining the parameters of historical study - to see how far we have come.

With a secured grant of £46,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we young historians are on the march and galvanised toward further uncovering vital histories. Ultimately, we have a channel by which to decide what history represents and looks like for us.

After a recap of the woefully low numbers of history students and academics of African and Caribbean heritage in the UK, we told an attentive audience of how the YHP comprises just one response to this issue.

An overview of the Black Liberation Front project was next, with succinct insights and explanations from YHP's Amelia, on the BLF’s activities in housing and supplementary education. In addition, she underscored the Grassroots’ role in raising awareness around issues which disproportionately affected black communities in Britain, such as police brutality.

YHP's Ayo then provided a brilliant summary of the current project on African Women and the British Health Service. As well as outlining the rationale behind the project, which entailed placing African women-led narratives at the heart of black British history, Ayo shared some early findings about the nuances of African and Caribbean relations in Britain at this time. This included ways in which some interviewed health workers felt this had impacted work dynamics and opportunities to progress.

Perhaps a hallmark of lesser known (read: silenced) histories is that coaxing them to the surface can be a labour-intensive process. We know this all too well as Young Historians, as at every stage of the first project cycle we were pushed to our limits in gathering historical source material.

Without the substantial training we received in archival work, oral histories and film-making workshops, we probably would have been at a loss for where to begin.

However, it is all the more gratifying to know that the unavoidable shortcomings of the initial project phase are being mitigated against this time round. It is clear that a great deal of reflection went into conceiving the idea for the current project, especially in regards to its foregrounding of women at the centre of the Black historical narratives (something that, for all our efforts, was not achieved in the first project, largely due to factors outside of the YHP’s control).

For the second portion of the evening, ears and eyes were primed for a sweeping, and very insightful, survey of Pan African historical traditions by Professor Hakim Adi. Big up!

Starting with early “forerunners” of Pan African thought, such as Oluadah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, Prof. Adi takes us through seminal Pan-Africans and Pan-African meetings throughout modernity. The former two, figures who campaigned to end Britain’s involvement in trafficking humans as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also founded Sons of Africa, one of the first Pan-African organisations in existence.

What’s more, black women have been integral drivers of Pan-Africanism at various points in history. For example, sisters, Jane and Paulette Nardal, are featured in the book for their part in articulating Negritude - a cultural theory and movement which denounced colonialism and avowed a united African identity. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and W. E. B. Du Bois are among other pivotal figures explored in the book.

Personally, the most compelling idea for me was the fact that most contributions to Pan-African movements across the globe (prior to WW2) were, in the main initiated by global diaspora. This is seen most acutely in the organisation of the Fifth Pan African Congress in Manchester, 1945, which is recognised today as an important instigator of African independence.

In the round up, the Q&A segment brought several pressing concerns to the fore. Most notably, the question of how we can engage young people and disenfranchised groups, such as those imprisoned by the state. It is worth noting that the same prisons which, in spite of being underfunded by the state, also contain some of society’s most impressive minds.

These concerns will not be resolved overnight, nor will they even necessarily be rectified in the near future. However, with the concerted effort of academics, community educators and involvement of young people in projects that address these issues in pragmatic and tangible ways, I am hopeful that we can inch, and in time leap, toward opening history up to those whom it concerns- all of us!

And another thing...

If you enjoyed our event, or reading about it, we ask you to kindly share this post amongst your networks- In the spirit of each one, teach one!

Lastly, we would like to thank the staff at Museum of London Docklands for facilitating the event and providing us with a platform, and to Prof Adi for generously sharing the platform with YHP.

If you were an audience member and are now considering joining the YHP team (as a good few of you did), a huge welcome to you, fellow historians and friends of YHP. We look forward to working together on this and future projects!

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