Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

Centre for African Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT

Tel: 0113 343 5069
Fax: 0113 343 4400
african-studies@leeds.ac.uk

LUCAS Schools Project coordinator

Richard Borowski
R.Borowski@leeds.ac.uk

The Leeds Black History Walk – An Interview with Joe Williams

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The Leeds Black History Walk: An Interview with Joe Williams

[On 10 August 2016, Joe Williams of the Heritage Corner Project in Leeds, met up with Christian Høgsbjerg, LUCAS administrator, to discuss his Leeds Black History Walk, which has been running since 2009 and celebrates African History and Diversity in Leeds.]

CH: I thought we might start with some discussion about yourself. From the walk we learn that you were born in Leeds. Did you grow up and were you educated in Leeds as well?

JW: Yes, I was born in St James’s [hospital] to parents from Jamaica and all my brothers and sisters were born in Jamaica. I am the only one of my siblings to be born in England, and so that created a kind of uniqueness. I grew up hearing stories about Jamaica, and I suppose I wanted to learn stories about Africa, as that was where we originally came from, and the sources by which to find out that information were few and far between, so I thought that was strange. I later discovered that there was African history in Britain and then again there were very little sources to find there, but I would discover that the African history in Britain is what actually connects my history to the Caribbean, and to Africa.

At first the British side of things was rejected by me, because I didn’t think Britain connected to me in any way, really, but then finding those links has allowed me to find a tool for expression for me being born in this country. It tells you why I am here, why I was born here, and what that history is based on and what it is about. To discover that it is not just about slavery was a revelation. The fact that Romans had African priests in their Empire means that there were African priests of high status in Britain. And so you have an esoteric aspect, because that history didn’t go away too far really as in later centuries, the Egyptian mysticism that African priests were modelled on, became a part of British culture through people who travelled, the Knights Templars, Freemasonry, and so on, and so that wisdom has been part of British history for well over a millennium.

In terms of why you initially rejected black British history, this must have had something to do with the school system. Black history was simply not on the school curriculum then – it barely is now – while the kind of history you probably were taught was very Eurocentric…

Well the only non-Eurocentric aspect of history that I came across when I was younger was [TV series] Roots, and that was an education in itself, and it made you feel differently towards British history, but it has to be stated that as a child the history, the environment, the architecture, and the accomplishments made a huge impression, whereby Britain has done everything and nobody else has done anything. I grew up with that feeling of being in awe of British ‘civilisation’, for want of a better word…

The walk is based around Leeds University, near where you were born, and goes around the University, and you point out some of the architecture for example in Parkinson Court, this sense and impression of power it leaves you with …I imagine these were the kind of buildings you would see growing up as well…

Very intimidating. I attended Leeds University in 2011 and I was still intimidated, and in awe. As a black person I definitely got the feeling I didn’t belong. I definitely felt from certain students who I don’t know, you know you meet just in passing, just the surprise on their faces, ‘oh, should you be here?’ It is almost like they want to show you to where the cleaner’s room is. But I think a good way of challenging that is through narrative. That is what Britain has done, created a strong narrative for itself. If you look at J.R.R. Tolkien, who is also connected to the University, what he did, he didn’t feel that Britain had a strong enough narrative of its own mythological identity, so he decided to create one. That started with setting up a society exploring Viking mythology and stories. It is about coming together and sharing narratives that have been represented or misrepresented. We can be in awe of the narrative that likes to be seen as dominant, but it is artificial, so it shouldn’t stop you from establishing your own narrative, and finding your own strength, and I think that will be useful for students, not just at the University but in general, who also find themselves in awe and intimidated…

Working class students for example…

Yes, and so in the Leeds Black History Walk you learn about figures like Pablo Fanque, an amazingly confident black man in the Victorian era, amazingly confident figure who ran his own circus for thirty years and you compare his life with John Lennon, a working class lad who discovered his own power through re-writing his own narrative, and so not just accepting the position that society put him in but establishing his own place in the universe so that he felt where his strength is. You can see why Establishments may not be keen on such a practice, but I think we are in the age and time now, with the internet, where we have to learn to embrace these things or become an autocracy.

Going back to the origins of this project and how it developed, growing up in Leeds, you would have had experience of racism, though growing up around Leeds University, you might have perhaps seen or heard about an earlier generation of African students about campus, figures like Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, though I think with the end of the Empire that meant a lot less African students coming to Leeds, and the University became a lot ‘whiter’. Your background though is theatre, drama…

Well, that is where it all starts. It starts on the University campus in that sense, when I went to a special theatre arts school in Bramley called Intake High School. The old Leeds Playhouse, which was based on the University campus, requested two boys for the play, The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. I was put forward, but then rejected. My headmaster appealed, and as I learned later, informed them that there were actually black people in Britain during Sheridan’s time. I would later discover that Sheridan himself was an abolitionist, and so then I was allowed back into the production. That was forty years ago – forty years later we are still struggling to get that information out into the public, which is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. It does not bode well on a system that wants to welcome integration, but not really engaging or investing in a narrative of integration.

I have to say in the 1980s and 1990s, millions of pounds were spent in this part of the world for equal opportunities in the arts. There are no legacies to justify all that money. The money went into institutions and organisations which absorbed the funding, producing tokenistic products without a legacy, and they did not feel that there was anything of integrity to chase after, in terms of equal opportunities for people who have been denied opportunities, denied a narrative, denied their freedom. I think that is quite outrageous, because that money is not going to come back again to invest in this field. Creating this project was my response to that insult, you did not feel my humanity was worth investing in to represent positively, and maintain the status quo. Nothing has changed, and there are no legacies to challenge that suppression of expression. Heritage Corner is actually saying, ‘oh, look, without that money we have found narratives of integrity and projects that are worth sustaining’. Yorkshire is at the bottom of a recent league table nationally of diversity in theatre and the arts. I will gladly contribute what I can to get my county out of that position.

Quite an indictment. I suppose one change from forty years ago is the rise of black British theatre companies…

The rise and fall…

Okay. Some still exist, like Talawa…

Name me another one… I rest my case. In the 1980s there were well over twenty black British theatre companies in Britain but now in terms of regular funding you can count only one…

You mentioned in the 1990s forming Leeds Diasporan Stories Research Group with Carl Hylton…

That is a mixed heritage group, including researchers from Shipley and Knaresborough, and from Otley, and two of these three were actually published authors of quite seminal pieces of work that they have produced, that became standard bearers of black British history and were keen to explore more narratives. At the time I felt it was great that we were looking into black British history, but I didn’t really think there would be that much there. I had no idea that there were that many black people in Britain at the time, and certainly had no idea that there were black people in Yorkshire. To discover that there were came as quite a shock to the system, and took some time to process. It took about another ten years to try and get a project off the ground to promote that fact.

I have a book here that I bought a couple of years ago, A Journey Through Our History: The Story of the Jamaican People in Leeds and the Work of the Jamaica Society (Leeds) by Melody Walker (2003), and there is a sense in that book that the history is sort of Windrush onwards, so giving rise to the sentiment that black history in Leeds and Yorkshire only goes back to the 1940s…

And we are encouraged to do so, because it actually feels subversive when you think about earlier periods, and you think ‘Oh no, my head should not be going there’ because otherwise they would have told me it was okay to go there. So you do feel you are being subversive in thinking about history and society by looking for something that you think exists, but are not quite sure what to make of, and then when you realise there is a lot more substance, and that it actually contains a narrative of humanity, shared humanity, that shows a side of Britain that has not been promoted maybe because of Wilberforce, there is that backlash, and maybe Yorkshire being sensitive to its image in light of Wilberforce that ‘You can’t do business with Yorkshire people because they are too soft-hearted’ and so people feel they have had to go the other way and create a harsher narrative.

In the 1807 general election in Britain it was noted that Leeds was seen as a weathervane for the country, so whichever way Leeds was looking to vote that would be reflected nationally, and so you could get that sense of Brexit atmosphere long ago in Yorkshire, a feeling that people had had enough diversity and didn’t want anymore, and it’s that atmosphere that produces fear of exploring other narratives. We are supposed to be patriotic, nationalistic, we are supposed to adhere to what we are fed, adhere to what Big Brother dictates. In an ideal world I would love to just get on with my life, and go along with the national narrative. But if it excludes me, and if it degrades me, and impacts on the quality of my life then I have to question it.

It’s interesting how Englishness I suppose in a sense is still tied up with whiteness in a way that perhaps is different for Britishness in general, and with that the specificity of Yorkshire, and one thinks of Yorkshire cricket club and the historic racism that has marked that. Going back to books, one thinks of the classic work Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984) and all the history revealed there, a brilliant overview, and yet how much more work there is still to do…

That was my early Bible, just stunning. In the early 1980s that was awesome really, building on Black Britannia: A History of Blacks In Britain (1972) by Edward Scobie, which came much earlier and was written by a black writer. It is important to establish that the pursuit of this kind of knowledge came from the black community. The desire of that would have been translated to Peter Fryer, black people he knew, and he would have picked that up and obviously working for the Yorkshire Evening Post there was no question about his integrity, he was an excellent journalist and researcher and put together I think an excellent project which really brought it home. What’s lacking in society especially when it comes to people who were formerly degraded for one reason or another, what’s important is that we redress that degradation and that has never been done. So Peter Fryer was one of the few to actually do that, and it was very, very welcome and appreciated. It introduced you to the fact that there was an intelligent element to black history, that it is worthy of study, but that is an argument that still has to be filtered through to institutions who still regard black history as an anomaly, that it is there for cultural humour rather than for serious study.

Yes, I see Peter Fryer as kind of ‘the Herodotus of black British history’, a pioneer who pulled together a whole lot of work which had been done previously. If we could move onto the Leeds Bi-centenary Transformation Project which you were part of helping pull together around 2007, and then move onto the launch of the Black History Walks in 2009, which perhaps were a natural flow coming out of that…

Well, the natural flow came from the Leeds Diasporan Stories Research Group, which as I said was a mixture of academics and artists, so about three artists, and about four academics. The point was to make academic material accessible through the arts. In that context, in 2003, in Sheffield I embarked on a project about Olaudah Equiano. In 2005, I wrote myself a play on Frederick Douglass and his 1859 visit to Leeds, which opened a lot of eyes and drew a lot of attention, including from Leeds Metropolitan University [now Leeds Beckett University], which was very welcome, and a lot of debates and discussions and other projects came out of that. Then in 2007 the Frederick Douglass play came back again and Equiano was also revitalised, and it was hugely successful. I was able to perform – and make a living from performing – Equiano from 2005 to 2009. By 2009, the population had had enough of slave narratives and wanted to return to normal life. So then I lost a living, but it wasn’t about giving up …

 

In 2005 we increased our fundraising as a community with the bi-centenary. Arthur France MBE brought together a group of individuals – quite an assorted group really because we all felt passionately that something should be done, and to use that opportunity to bring information out to make people aware of local connections, of history that had been suppressed, to explore what the real history might be.[1] We invited one of the top historians in African history from London, Robin Walker, who wrote a book When We Ruled, and again that was just a phenomenal piece of work about the history in Africa, the oldest civilisation in the world, with the oldest documented religion in the world, and we are being told there is no culture or civilisation there! To have this information, to disseminate it to communities, to creatively interpret that material, to positively engage with that material, in a way that hasn’t been done since before the plantations, because we were discouraged from reading on the plantations, let alone practicing cultural heritage. To actually be one of the first generations to positively re-interact with that heritage, it’s very empowering. Maybe it’s a power that certain sections of society don’t want to see happen. They may say ‘Go back to where you came from?’ and I would like to ask ‘well, where is that then? Because we were taken to build this economy’. It’s not so much what was done, in terms of reparations, because we can repair ourselves, although I think the debate about reparations needs to happen, but I think it’s more a case of where do we go from here?

It seems to me, even among liberal friends, there is what I would regard – me personally – as an inexplicable lack of empathy. So I had great friends, when there was funding for equal opportunities, and I was invited to join this discussion and that discussion, but when that money dried up, those connections ceased, the work stopped, and didn’t continue. I am not sure there is a full understanding of just how detrimental that history was for our current situation. Because many people think well, ‘that was a long time ago’, but… it connects with every generation. When you think that my parents were the first generation to earn a decent days wage for a day’s work in my genetic family history, through the slave period, they may have worked in Jamaica, but the pay was hugely under par under colonialism, so to come to Britain and get a relatively decent wage for a day’s work for the first time in 400 years, that’s how it affects us, because you are, at every stage, disempowered through the generations, until this generation. That leaves a legacy of exclusion that is dark, painful, disease ridden. The amount of the people dying from cancer, you can tell, unnecessarily … and also mental health issues, we are over-represented in the mental health institutions, and we are over-represented in the prison institutions, which many people would like to see as a natural genetic state rather than as an impact of a trade tyranny that was practiced by this country.

The Leeds Black History Walk

When we think about some of the precursors to the work you are doing and some of the narratives you are trying to tell, you mentioned on your walk one of your ‘heroes’ was Martin Delaney, who coined the phrase ‘Africa for the Africans’, and then that was taken up and popularised by Marcus Garvey, and his Garveyite movement and the wider Pan-Africanist movement, all stressing the glories of African civilisation in the face of imperialism. That seems to be one tradition in a sense you are standing in and building on. Another ‘hero’ figure who features on your walk was Wilson Armistead of Leeds, and his 1848 work A Tribute to the Negro, which again is an incredible work of 560 pages, which had material on Africa as well as a whole range of biographies of more recent black figures. Back in 2007, just to take us back to this moment, an undergraduate student at Leeds Trinity University [Alexis Bissett], had written a 10,000 word dissertation on Armistead, and this made the local news. I found this quote from the leader of Leeds city council at the time – “Leeds has a proud tradition of supporting social justice, and there are events taking place across the city this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. We would be very keen to learn more about Wilson Armistead, and to explore a fitting way for the city to pay tribute to the part he played in bringing about an end to this cruel and barbaric trade.”2 From your walk it was sad to note that there was still no plaque to him…

Well, I can only respond to the councillor’s enthusiasm in 2016, ten years later, to say, well, I look forward to it… Concerning Armistead, well, Leeds was quite radical at the time. But then I guess if you look at the financial sector in Leeds, and look at the representation of the ‘Negro’ on 18 Park Row, he is in a loin cloth, stooped over a bale of cotton, that was done around 1902, so there was a decision to represent Africans in that way, long after slavery had been abolished, and so the African continued to be a commodity of financial gain rather than a human being, and that’s the legacy, instead of Wilson Armistead’s legacy. That is the legacy we have inherited today. But it is not too late to bring out that old Armistead history, and promote a more compassionate Britain. We didn’t see that recently, with the murder of Jo Cox. Jo Cox was the Wilson Armistead of her day, and from Yorkshire again, and she was murdered. In a similar way Wilson Armistead’s legacy was murdered and put to bed. Is that how we want to continue? On this note I am pleased to say that we are teaming up with Leeds University and the (Old) Leeds Library (on Commercial Street) to celebrate Armistead and his contributions – in November this year.

If you think about Leeds as a city, you don’t think about slavery –you associate slavery with Liverpool and Bristol – you think of Leeds as being nice and built on woollen textiles. But when you think about cotton, and the wider material legacies of colonialism and slavery, your work shows that Leeds in fact was an imperial city, many of the buildings of which were built from the profits of enslaved Africans… you think about the Lascelles family, slave-owners…

And many others. Before the trans-Atlantic trade, Liverpool was a small fishing village, and Leeds was a small woollen market town. And the Leeds-Liverpool canal, which you might say became the River Nile of its day, with the trade of empire flowing in and out again, in terms of Yorkshire, in terms of manufactured goods, that would be processed through factories, creating employment for local workers, wealth for the industrial factory owners and so on, and that economy filters through society. So there were many areas of society developed from the trans-Atlantic trade that you just wouldn’t think there was any connection to slavery, and so instead of just looking at slavery as an issue, if you look at the trans-Atlantic trade as a mode of operation that included insurance, banking, finance of course, but also impacted on the growth of the health sector, education, transport, engineering, etc.

In terms of industry, one of the fascinating things your walk draws attention to that I hadn’t really ever thought properly about before was the interest of certain industrialists in Leeds with Egyptology, if you think of Temple Works down at Marshall Mills, but then just on campus you draw attention to obelisks and so on…

There were obviously great pillars in the Egyptian temples, and the impression being created is that that came from the Greeks. But there were Egyptian temples and pillars, when these temples existed literally thousands of years before the Greeks came along, so it is a misdirected and misinformed narrative. Egyptians and Nubians worshipped the same supreme being. They had several deities, that they called gods, but one supreme being. So there is a lot of misinformation, particularly promoted by certain plantation owners in America after they lost their slaves due to emancipation and they came up with the most ridiculous theories on African history, and because they had the money to promote those ideas, that is the legacy that has come down to us today. And it depends if we think Africa is worth re-writing that history for, because again it will take finances, and where is that money coming from?

Just to keep on Egypt, you trace the history going back to the Leeds Mummy, Nesyamun, which shows the sheer period of time we are talking about. Your walk focuses on all the range of black individuals who came to Leeds, people like Ira Aldridge, Sarah Paker Remond, and it seems Leeds doesn’t celebrate these individuals as a city. Even in a more modern period, people like Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong performed in Leeds. You would think Leeds as an aspiring ‘city of culture’ would make more of these at least, even before we get onto the lesser known figures. I recently came across Ernie Benson’s autobiography – Benson was a working class activist around Leeds Communist Party in the 1930s – and he describes for example John Douglas – known as ‘Black Douggie’ – who was well-known and liked black activist in Leeds Communist Party at that time, and who on a May Day demonstration in Leeds in 1934 helped knock a policeman’s helmet off with the Communist Party banner pole.3 So you get a sense that there is a lot more work still to be done…

Well, until civil rights, black people were viewed as a non-entity, they were dehumanised and our history and our heritage and our personage was cruelly vilified and degraded. It was not until the 1960s with the civil rights and Black Power movements, with ‘I am a man’, ‘We shall overcome’ and fighting for civil rights and to be regarded as human beings, so that’s in the last fifty years and it is met with a lot of resistance as it is regarded as ‘political correctness’ not to call black people ‘niggers’. There are some who don’t want to move on from there, but again it comes down to funding – where are the resources going into challenging the misinformation, so yes, there is a lot of work still to be done…

For me as an actor, as a person of the theatre, it is about representation versus misrepresentation. As a black actor, do I feed into the misrepresentation, or do I challenge that with presenting positive representation, as it should be, and history is great for that, because even though it is invisible history, it is still there, and it is my job to make the invisible visible, and to bring it into contemporary discourse, to have people talk about it, because then you exist – if people don’t talk about you, you don’t exist. At the same time I regard exclusion as a misrepresentation, because it is, because you are excluding people who were actually there, that is misrepresenting history, it is misrepresenting that situation and misrepresenting people. One of the key factors of the walk, which is very important, is to highlight the representation of intelligence in Africans, because we have had countless reports on how African intelligence is inferior to European, and so whenever anyone makes such a statement it gets wide publicity, but nobody challenges it and says that it is wrong, they just say ‘well, you are not allowed to say that these days because of “political correctness”’.

So it puts in young people’s minds the idea that though it might be factual to say that African people are less intelligent, because of ‘political correctness’ you are not allowed to say it, when in reality there is a lot of evidence about intelligence of Africans throughout history is there and it is a matter of representing that in the right way. This walk introduces participants to many Africans of intelligence throughout the ages, and that opportunity is rare if at all possible.

You learn so much by going on the walk – it is like a two-hour intensive seminar!

But many black people themselves believe the misinformation because they are not told anything else – nothing else is offered. I grew up myself looking around at the fantastic architecture growing up in Britain thinking ‘Aren’t these people brilliant? Isn’t my race rubbish because we have not done anything’ and that is not a correct analysis at all.

The other thing that is amazing about your walk is that you get little glimpses of your wider theatrical work, with recitations of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass and Pablo Fanque…

‘Oh, anything for an audience darling…’

Well it is a real highlight, and it reminded me of the work of Tayo Aluko, who does the show Call Mr. Robeson about Paul Robeson, and he has recently developed a new show, Just an Ordinary Lawyer, about Tunji Sowande, a Nigerian who became the first black judge in Britain…

The whole thing about the arts, and injecting the arts, which is why it is a shame about the 1980s and 1990s, is the arts are a vehicle to demonstrate humanity. If you are excluded from the arts, then that expression of your humanity is excluded. That is why the Leeds West Indian Carnival is vitally important, especially in an environment where we are not perceived to be participants in ballet, and in the classical arts, which is the ‘real arts’ in terms of this country’s perceptions. In more liberal arts, it is unfortunately sadly tokenistic, so therefore for me it is natural to use the arts to vehicle these narratives, whether it be music, dance, theatre, visual arts, whatever art form, it brings across the humanity of the narratives. It encourages you to engage with these narratives as one human to another instead of as a statistic, subject of incarceration or police brutality or social demobilisation.

You are developing a new play…

That’s right, so my latest work following on from my one man show on Pablo Fanque, my latest piece of work is William and Ellen Craft, who in the 1851 Leeds Census are registered as staying in the house of Wilson Armistead, which was then Virginia House, now Lyddon Hall, student halls of residence. They were fugitive slaves, and so in the section for ‘occupation’ they are registered as ‘fugitives from slavery in America’, the land of their birth. They stayed twenty years in Britain, living in London and escaped the plantation because Ellen was quite fair-skinned, William is dark-skinned, so she pretended to be a man, and he pretended to be the slave of this ‘man’, and that way they travelled one thousand miles through various slave states, desperately afraid that they were going to be captured at any given moment if their disguise unravelled. But they made it, and when they made it to the free states, they became celebrated runaways, and two years later, in 1850, the fugitive slave law was brought into legal tender and they were then afraid again of being recaptured, so they came to England and then in 1851 they happened to be in Leeds, during the Census. So I am interpreting that narrative through movement and performance. It will be playing at the Ilkley Literature Festival, at the British Library, at Kirkstall Abbey, because people do want to know about this fascinating history. It tells you a lot about Africa as well and so I use the elements from the walk.

The actual walk creates a formulaic approach to the creative work that Heritage Corner produces, and those elements largely have to include African integrity as well as British integrity. We will never attempt to make out that all British people were bad and all Africans are good. We are very much interested in the compassionate side of Britain, the radical side of Britain that was prepared to challenge wrong-doings, and that is the kind of Britain that I would like to live in. We are not exactly a just society but we are striving toward justice for all, and for other people in the world as well. That is something we can afford to engage in at the moment, until such a time that the powers that be think that ‘oh, let’s tighten the bootstraps so that people don’t engage in this kind of philanthropy’. But I feel we would be hypocritical if we didn’t challenge injustices, because as we know slavery still exists today. The numbers are higher than they were in the notorious trans-Atlantic trade period.

Thinking about the other side of British history, the more radical side, your walk also rightly brings in abolitionists like Edward Baines, Thomas Harvey…

Thomas Harvey! I regard Wilson Armistead very highly, and no-one worked harder, so what William Wells Brown said about him I think is true, “Few English gentlemen have done more to hasten the day of the slave’s liberation than Wilson Armistead” – but Thomas Harvey holds a special place in my heart because he was a chemist. I mean Wilson Armistead was a mustard manufacturer for crying out loud! Thomas Harvey had his own shop on Commercial Street, and when he heard about the injustices of the apprenticeship system in Jamaica which replaced slavery [in 1833] but was actually much worse than slavery, he took the trouble of travelling four thousand miles to the West Indies to investigate and bring back evidence to present to Parliament who then abolished the apprenticeship system [in 1838]. I just think that is phenomenal, because I am not sure that I today, with the ease of travel, would travel four thousand miles to the Congo, let’s say, to report on the atrocities that are going on there, in the name of international trade. But he did that, in times when it would take months to get from one place to the other, and not very comfortably either. I just think that’s phenomenal, so Thomas Harvey has a place in my heart. But of course Wilson Armistead, writing In Tribute to the Negro, that was a phenomenal act of sacrifice, because he put his own business on the line. Doing all this anti-slavery work put his business at risk. Eventually his son took over, fortunately, saved the business, and it was then bought by Colman’s Mustard, so yes… that takes us somewhere else…

I suppose it takes us to Norfolk, and so back to the birthplace of Pablo Fanque…

Absolutely…

So a circle… The walk started in 2009, and has developed up to now, how do you see it continuing to develop?

Well, there is so much information that is being suppressed and excluded, that it could go on, because it is as long as humanity itself. I mean we are talking about a history that is as old as humanity itself, so in every sphere this history fits into every aspect of society. So in terms of ancient African heritage and religion there is so much stuff that I don’t know, I only know the tips, but what is interesting is that in all aspects of the walk, I can find British connections or European connections. So to say that Africa was the oldest civilisation, I can echo that through local contacts like Wilson Armistead, who said the same thing. With African religion he makes comment on that as well, and there are others we can quote, so everything has a local connection. So I am not looking to get to the depths of African history for the sake of it, it is to make sense of places like Temple Works – what are the origins of a temple dedicated to Horus, which is the Greek name, or Heru, which is the Nubian name, where the Greek name ‘hero’ came from. It is those kind of connections which make sense, so then it is a history that can be passed on to the next generation through local reference points. The long term aim for the walk is to develop inclusive creative projects, presentations and opportunities for discourse.

This kind of work you are doing really speaks to the new movements today around #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall, #Whyismycurriculumwhite and so on, particularly among students. Last year I saw Akala come and give a packed out talk about African civilisation at Leeds University Union for Black History Month. Thinking about these movements to ‘decolonise’ universities and wider society, you start your talks by talking about your desire to help ‘drum up a movement’ as well…

I am not within the machinations of the university … my objective is to get narratives of integrity that demonstrate African intelligence. The movement I was referring to was about improved education around Africa, so that we have African Studies, that African history is seen as a serious subject right from O-Level [GCSE], from BTEC right through to PhDs, which it is not at the moment, but should be. You can understand why it is not, because it is African, and it demonstrates a pre-European intelligence which is totally at odds with current curriculum work. Whilst I would like to make a contribution to those movements you mentioned, that’s not my objective, because I think a growing movement will naturally address that issue. I think to be effective we have to be focussed on what we can achieve. With institutions they are so ingrained … I have worked with a few. You can contribute ten years of work, and within three seconds of a new administrator coming into post, it’s all gone.

You say your work is more about the community than the university, but it is interesting how this #RhodesMustFall movement has the potential to spread to other campuses. So the University of Liverpool have Abercromby Square, named after General Sir Ralph Abercromby, an imperialist figure like Cecil Rhodes, so the colonial legacy is in your face there quite clearly, but the University of Leeds is not quite like that, in terms of the names of its buildings and so on. However your walk stresses how the origins of the University of Leeds has to be seen alongside that of Manchester and Liverpool, which then does connect to this wider history of colonialism and slavery…

Well, just through Manchester cotton, which was a large contributor to that triumvirate, to Victoria University as it was known between Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, but a lot of people have made money through the trans-Atlantic trade, reinvested that money through other fields, and so it is difficult to trace that money and what it did. But that is a PhD in itself. There was a great documentary by David Olusugo about the University College London Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, and that work is invaluable. It is not about naming and shaming, it is about showing the real economic history, so that this generation doesn’t kick itself thinking ‘Oh, why can’t we be as great as the Victorians?’, as some of these television historians think. ‘If the Victorians were so fantastic, why can’t we be like that?’ ‘Well, because they inherited a lot of money from trans-Atlantic trade, colonialism, so then they could just build an underground system, no worries, water off a ducks back, move on, and then fight a world war afterwards’…

Huge exploitation in the factories of England as well, child labour…

Which Richard Oastler quite rightly protested about to the abolitionist paper the Leeds Mercury, which is why the Emancipation bill and the factory reform acts fall around the same date – 1833. There is no doubt exploitation can increase our economic strength, but we shouldn’t think ‘oh, well, it’s worked before, whatever that was, let’s do it again…’ No, we don’t want to do that again. We need to wake up to what was done and to explore other options…

Yes. Is there anything else you would like to add?

People should see African history as something that’s fun to engage with, through the arts, but we do need investment as well, particularly where that history coincides with British history, and it should be seen as British history. 2018 is the bicentenary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, and also the 250th anniversary of circus in Britain, so it’s a case of how will Pablo Fanque’s story be told, and how will Frederick Douglass be commemorated in this country, because this country supported not only his newspaper, The North Star, but they also paid for his freedom which allowed him to transform himself from a fugitive slave to return to America as an international statesman. That is something to be proud of, that someone was relinquished from bondage and their natural status was elevated, so therefore that is something to celebrate. How are we going to do that?

A few years ago there was some sort of local commemoration of Douglass in Leeds…

In 2009, we did a city wide commemoration then, commemorating the 150th anniversary of his 1859 speech at the Mechanics Institute which is now the Leeds Museum. There is a picture of Frederick in the museum, so these campaigns can lead to a contribution towards the demonstration of diversity and that is what we need, we need more representation of diversity in history throughout the city. Diversity is not a swearword, it is not radical, it is not about overturning the government. It is about making a contribution to improving the lives of people who are now resident today in Leeds.

I think the historian Janet Douglas did a walk in Leeds around slavery at that time too…

Yes, it was about abolition and talks with Janet inspired the idea for this walk. The Leeds Black History Walk map is a great example of the use of the arts as well, because we worked with a community group, a group of people with learning disabilities, who themselves do training work amongst other people with learning disabilities on cultural diversity. So they loved the idea of the walk, and they wanted a map that would make it easier for them to show the people they are working with about the diversity in Leeds’s history, to counter-challenge the narrative of invisibility. That was a great project, and it is a great map, I love the map, and it was a really good project, designed by graphic designer Sai Murray, who many people will know as a poet in the city.

Another positive recent development in Leeds – which I think Sai Murray is also involved with – is the David Oluwale Memorial Association…

I think they have done some great work, that society, they have met regularly, they do regular activities to raise awareness and they are doing a fantastic job in persisting, to show that David Oluwale’s loss of life should not be in vain. We only need for it to happen once whereby we should be engaged in securing that these things don’t happen again, that we challenge ignorance around racism and identity. When my parents came here, the British people knew nothing about their history, when really their history is directly connected to this country. We can’t afford for that history to repeat itself, so while some people might not be interested, we have to be interested. It is in our interests to be interested in this history. Inclusion boosts economies, exclusion creates dependency.

[1] See Leeds Bi-Centenary Transformation Project in association with Education Leeds, Trading Roots: Creative Writing on African British History (Leeds: LBCTP, 2009).

2 ‘Forgotten hero in the battle to end slavery’, Yorkshire Evening Post, 20 April 2007,
http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/forgotten-hero-in-the-battle-to-end-slavery-1-2107579. See also the work of Yosra Awad and the ‘Transatlantic Abolition: Nineteenth-Century Yorkshire’ project, http://www.transatlanticabolition.co.uk/

3 See Ernie Benson, To Struggle is to Live: A working class autobiography, Volume 2: Starve or Rebel (Newcastle upon Tyne: People’s Publications, 1980), pp. 132-133.

 

Joe Williams is an actor/writer and director of Heritage Corner, exploring African heritage in Yorkshire, since 2014. Joe is a founding member of several community and arts groups, with a focus on education, since the 1980’s and has performed nationally. In 2015 he took his one man show – on Pablo Fanque, Victorian circus owner of African heritage, buried in the grounds of Leeds University – to New York.

 

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp. 151-169]

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