Enfield Caribbean Association (ECA) held a lively and stimulating Black History Month discussion at the Millfield on Saturday 31 October. The event examined the history of activism in the UK. ECA chair, Oveta McInnis hosted the debate with Black Lives Matter activist, Delia Mattis and retired metropolitan police officer, Leroy Logan.
They were joined by actor, playwright and director, Kwame Kwei-Armah and playwright, novelist and broadcaster, Bonnie Greer. Sir Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University and human rights activist also joined the panel from his home in Glasgow.
The evening started with a special award presented to Michael Sandilands was the son of Hyacinth Sandilands, who died on 7 August 2020. Hyacinth was one of the original founding members of ECA in 1986. She emigrated to the UK from Jamaica, as part of the original Windrush generation, working as a nurse in the NHS and contributing to British society.
Activism is about knowing your history
ECA’s Black History Month discussion was kicked off with Sir Geoff’s contribution. Sir Geoff wrote a book on slavery, The Enlightenment Abolished: Citizens of Britishness (2007), said “Activism is knowing about your history.” Sir Geoff chose examples of activism from the 18th century including the Joseph Knight case.
The case centred on an African from Guinea, enslaved and sent to Jamaica and later brought to Scotland with his owners. Knight ran away from his owner and brought a claim before the Justices of the Peace court in Perth. A case that would be known as Knight v Wedderburn that is still taught in law schools around the world as an example of abolition.
The case established the principle that Scottish law would not uphold the institution of slavery. It is often cited as the benchmark that Scotland abolished slavery in 1778. However, Sir Geoff reminded the audience that although the court confirmed that slavery could not exist in Scotland in 1778, the practice continued in the West Indies until 1838. Sir Geoff suggests, if Joseph Knight had returned to Jamaica, he would have immediately become enslaved. According to Sir Geoff, “The court case re-affirmed that British slavery in the West Indies was legal.”
Delia Mattis discussed why Black Lives Matter was set up in Enfield to tackle structural racism head-on and campaign on the real issues that affect the black community. Delia emphasised the importance of collaborating with other like-minded partners.
As a result, BLM Enfield is working for a Black Community Centre in the borough. In addition, they are working on the issue of exclusions of African Caribbean youth from schools. Delia demanded that the head of the Metropolitan Police in London, Cressida Dicks should be removed. Cressida Dicks has previously suggested there was no institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police in London. Delia disagrees and says a range of the government’s own statistics and indicators demonstrates this is not the case.
There’s no no-go areas for activism
Leroy Logan, founder and ex-chair of the Black Police Association spoke at the event. Leroy’s autobiography, Closing Ranks – My Life as a Cop, was recently made into a film by producer Steve McQueen, staring John Boyega as Logan. The film opened to rave reviews at the New York Film Festival in September 2020. Leroy suggested “Activism has to have various forms and textures to ensure it gets to people in a form that they understand and think about their situation.”
Leroy suggested that there was “no no-go areas for activism. We all have to be active in all parts collectively, whether on a small scale or larger one.” Leroy became active in the police service, supporting issues around inequalities and injustices. Combating the SUS laws and colour bar that blocked certain professions to black people. Leroy agreed with Delia that Commissioner Cressida Dicks should be removed.
"Somebody in my ancestry decided to live"
Bonnie Greer was a teenage activist in 1968, when Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated and witnessed US cities being burned as people protested the killing. She was part of the Black Panther’s Children for Breakfast programme that fed children in need and got involved in black . Bonnie had her first play about the race riots in Chicago after the first world war performed in the 1970s.
Bonnie taught in the film school in Ghana in 1994 and movingly spoke about her visit to Elmina’s Castle - the point of no return and departure for millions of slaves to the new world. Ghanaians had told her that she would cry at Elmina’s Castle, that many African-Americans cried at the inhumane sight of the dark dungeons and iron shackles.
The trauma of slavery
However, Bonnie didn’t cry. She remembered that “Somebody in my ancestry decided to live. Somebody decided not to jump over the side of the ship. They decided to go through the trauma of slavery. If they didn’t, I would not be here.” Bonnie admits, that at the time, she didn’t realise that she carried the trauma of slavery. For the next 20 years, Bonnie couldn’t forget the experience at Elmina’s castle.
She believes that this trauma of slavery has been handed down from generation to generation. It’s never been studied or understood. “We all carry it”. Bonnie spoke about her new project – The era of Reclamation. A series of conversations, supported by the British Museum. These conversations are all about reclaiming. Bonnie believes Reclaiming is at the heart of many of the great questions and movements of the 21st century. From the return of African objects to their places of origin, all the way to the renaming of our very selves.
Activism of the spoken word
Lastly Kwame celebrated the activism of the spoken word. The activism of the word that is felt by our collective spirit. Kwame paid tribute to those who transmitted the word to his generation. The independent black book shops of his youth. Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley at Bogle-L’Ouverture in Hanwell, West London. Kwame remembers visiting the store as a young man and being introduced to the wisdom of James Baldwin.
In contrast, Kwame remembered visiting his local public library and looking for the Autobiography of Malcom X. He was told that there was only one copy of the book in the entire borough. It was on loan and could take months to be returned back to the library.
Kwame praised New Beacons bookshop, opened in 1966 and the scholars published by New Beacon who educated a generation of people. As Kwame suggested, “We need a black history year, but in particular black history month. Our history was not just stolen, beaten or disguised, but erased.”
Kwame suggested that if Bogle-L’Ouverture was his introduction to Black literature, then Headstart Bookshop was his postgraduate degree. At Headstart, Kwame found himself. Kwame emphasised that “Activism begins with the written word.” He thanked and saluted the activists who are still trying to change the world for today and tomorrow.”
The panelists took a number of questions from members of the public who watched the event on Millfield ’s YouTube channel.
A tremendously affirming event
Oveta McInnis says, “This was a tremendously affirming event. We were honoured to have such brilliant black contributors share their knowledge, research and wisdom with us. This was a very special learning experience.”
The ECA Black History Month event was recorded and available on Millfield Youtube Channel. Click here to view the film.
Enfield Caribbean Association is now planning our 2021 Black History Month and Windrush celebrations. To get involved or support us please email firstname.lastname@example.org.