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Can a National Archive of black Britain change the story?

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Kurt Barling | 14:07 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

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I vividly recall watching Michael Parkinson interview the boxer Muhammad Ali as a 12-year-old; he was asked about his struggle to overcome the indifference of many to the plight of African-Americans.

His response, a very simple explanation of some of life's most difficult challenges, has stuck in my mind ever since. Ali said that the most precious insights and rewards in life are like mining for valuable minerals.

The deeper you go, the more difficult and dangerous the process, but the more precious the stones you find.

Establishing an archive is like creating a gigantic mine where gems of insight and intellectual genius can be mined by some of the liveliest minds in our communities. For researchers sifting through original documents can be much like the mining process.

The art, as powerful institutions like the British Museum and the Bodleian Collection in Oxford or even the National Archives in Kew have discovered over many decades, is astute and careful collection, sharp organisation and trust.

An archive is of itself nothing but a collection of eclectic papers. When the idea of a Black Cultural Archive was first mooted in the wake of riots across Britain's cities in 1981, it was essentially a response to the call for recognition by black communities.

At that point they felt unheard, unwanted and culturally adrift in a society that appeared reluctant to embrace the contributions made by black people to British society.

Since 1992 the Black Cultural Archives has quietly gathered a mixture of personal family archives, incredible records like that of slave holdings in Jamaica, early post-war research notes from academics on the emerging black community and early magazines and newspapers produced from within those emerging communities reporting their experiences.

A typical example is a magazine in December 1958 which headlined, "No Room at the Inn". A story which many from that period would recognise as new migrants sought to overcome prejudice in finding lodgings.

A model of the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton

A model of the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton

In recent years it has become more commonplace to see the stories of black Britons reflected in the mainstream media. They are as ordinary and extra-ordinary as any other community. However, in seeking to capture a moment and mediate that story to the maximum numbers of people, the media cannot possibly tell the whole story

By awarding the National Black Cultural Archive a sizeable grant of £5 million, the Heritage Lottery fund along with the Mayor of London (£1 million) and Lambeth council (the equivalent of £900,000), have secured a permanent location for this archive to take shape.

Located on the edge of Windrush Square in Brixton, the crucible of modern African and Afro-Caribbean migration and settlement, the new archive has the potential to stand as a testament to progress, inclusion and mutual respect.

Millions of taxpayers' pounds have already been spent on regenerating this location into a cultural meeting point. Making it a destination for those interested in understanding the emergence of modern diverse Britain is a challenge but also a sign that this story now matters to more than those who followed in the footsteps of the several hundred West Indians who first arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

Of course this is only a beginning. Even a name has yet to be settled upon but any National Archive of black Heritage will be all about preserving, growing and protecting original source material particular to those communities of African and Afro-Caribbean origin.

In order to do that it will need to quickly secure a reputation and trust. There is plenty of competition for archives from established national institutions. People will not bequeath a lifetime's work to an institution that cannot demonstrate the potential for longevity and care.

The archive has the potential to act as the fount on which an inclusive story of Black Britain can be shared with many more people and new independent interpretations can be generated by scholars for future generations.

In this sense the announcement of funding is historic. But there will be little time for self-congratulation with the derelict building due to come on stream in time for the London Olympics.

Britain has a proud reputation of scholarship and that is built on strong traditions of intellectual rigour. Independent archives are at the heart of this. Protecting the open society from its enemies can sometimes seem like a thankless task for archivists.

The reward in this case could be a powerful sense of worth that black communities will generate in themselves and amongst others as the archive delivers its precious gems in the years beyond 2012.


  • Comment number 1.

    A very welcome article, I especially appreciate: 'Britain has a proud reputation of scholarship and that is built on strong traditions of intellectual rigour. Independent archives are at the heart of this.' The Black Cultural Archives promises to be a very successful development in securing a permanent home in the heart of Brixton. I look forward to seeing it all take shape.
    I just wanted to add in a link to The National Archives site to site alongside the other links, so that you can see the work being done: - this is the official archive of UK goverment, advising the public sector on information management and supporting archives of all kinds across the UK.
    Posted in a personal capacity.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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