- Isra Hussein
Young Historians in conversation with the Black Liberation Front
Carried by a soulful reggae soundtrack, 'We Are Our Own Liberators' is an educational film which introduces viewers to the Black Liberation Front. The film was produced by the Young Historians Project in 2017, alongside an exhibition. Through this project, YHP attempts to follow the ethos of ‘Each One, Teach One’ also shared by the BLF – to educate and publicise overlooked Black history for school children and the wider public.
The Black Liberation Front was a radical pan-African organisation formed in 1971. The group is mainly recognised for its efforts around the creation of housing associations and supplementary schools. The image above captures a BLF meeting in progress.
The documentary is made up of interviews conducted by YHP with nine former members of the BLF. They reflect on their journeys with activism and wider life experiences during the sixties and seventies in Britain. The decision to base the project around oral history rather than using voice-over narration is highly effective as it brings to life the film’s themes of community, solidarity, and resilience. Personal reflections from the interviews such as “You saw yourself as a subjugated group, but also a group with a potential to free yourself” and “We weren’t lettering anyone call us ‘negro’ or ‘coloured’ anymore”, allow viewers to gain a first-hand understanding of why Black power movements began in the UK.
The film also explores the impact of music on Black British history and activism. Reggae and the Rasta movement are mentioned by many of the former BLF members as a source of inspiration to become politically active – with some even labelling it as “Black consciousness music”. They describe identifying with the lyrics of many reggae songs and becoming emotionally strengthened by its messages. This is related to viewers of the film by its soundtrack. Songs like ‘Declaration of Rights’, by the Jamaican roots reggae group The Abyssinians, playing in the background helps viewers understand the power of music as a tool for self-actualisation and upliftment. Its lyrics – ‘Get up and fight for your rights, my brothers, my sisters’ – provide an example of what people may have been inspired by during that era.
Another major highlight is the film’s insightful critique of the British education system. It brings to light the nationwide systemic miseducation of West Indians during the 1970s, as well as black children’s experiences with harmful racial stereotypes and slurs at school, from teachers and pupils alike. One interviewee, Ansel, explains the importance of supplementary schools, in that they did not simply ‘supplement’ the national curriculum, but brought “an understanding of the arts, the culture, revolution, and the politics of [black] people”.
The screenshot above displays the title screen of the documentary. Click here to view the film on YHP's website!
Striking primary sources are used throughout the film. It interweaves the interviews with a stream of photographs, archival footage, and scans of newsletters and documents – some even from the former BLF members’ personal archives. The voices of the interviewees provide a grounding backdrop to vivid images of protests and community meetings. Black and white photos of civil unrest transport viewers back into the harsh reality of poverty and racism in the 1960s, described by one interviewee as “the nightmare years”. Moreover, images of graffiti scrawls of “Keep Britain White” and “Blacks go home” are effective in situating the viewer and adding more context to an era most thought of in public imagination as the era of The Beatles and colourful fashion. The film’s visuals also promote important material for further study on Black British activism, some of which might have otherwise been forgotten. For example, it mentions newspapers like Black Voice, The Socialist Worker, as well as community hubs no longer in existence like Grassroots Storefront bookshop.
The film usefully contextualises the BLF’s origin and activities within global political struggles of the 1960s–70s. For example, interviewees discuss the emotional impact of viewing the Olympics Black power salute in 1968, as well as seeing Angela Davis on the news, at a time when “Black people weren’t seen on television, and any time we were reported in the news it was never anything positive”. One interviewee also recounts his involvement in student activist groups at the University of Hull against the Vietnam war, and their efforts to raise money for ambulances. This adds richness to the film in that it links events and communities most viewers would not have previously considered alongside each other. This widespread gap in public knowledge is anticipated by one interviewee in the film, Winston, as he complains about the coverage of Black Panther Party in the US, but not of Black power movements in the UK. Moreover, the documentary not only teaches viewers the definition of Pan-Africanism and its basic tenets, but also how it was internationally practised by the BLF. For example, as a response to the Zimbabwean independence movement, BLF members gave their support by bringing medical aid and supplies through airport luggage.
The image above is a poster from the BLF's newspaper 'Grassroots' which lists the group's objectives and serves as a call to action.
Ultimately, the documentary raised questions in me such as ‘What have I done to contribute to Black British history?’ and ‘How will events during my lifetime be investigated and depicted by future historians and scholars?’. It inspires viewers consider each of their own places in history and the activism that surrounds them in the current moment. It also makes us to look at elders in our community in a new light and want to thank them for their revolutionary activism and radical spirit.