“Where are our monuments?” – The Black Cultural Archives as source for London history

The Black Cultural Archives in Brixton at Windrush Square. © Matt Brown

British politics are currently shaken by a scandal surrounding the „Windrush Generation“. Between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s, tens of thousands of Caribbean workers were recruited to England as guest workers to help rebuild the country after the Great War. After years of tightening the migration guidelines, the “Generation Windrush” – named after the boat “Windrush,” which shipped the first group of workers from Kingston, Jamaica, to Essex in 1948 – is now suddenly threatened with the loss of all rights and removal from the country, although they immigrated as British citizens and had paid taxes for decades.[1]

The history of the Windrush generation is conflictual – and has together with the history of Black people and communities in the United Kingdom long been neglected. The Black Cultural Archives are a unique place that has set itself the goal of representing the history and culture of black Britons.

The archives originated in 1981, founded following a series of protest and clashes between young black Londoners and the Metropolitan police labelled the „Brixton riots“. They were fuelled by a dep-seated feeling of alienation and exclusion from society by a generation of young black people which had its roots at economic problems following wide-spread unemployment, Thatcherism, open racism and election success of the extreme right „British National Front“.[2] At the time, the presentation of non-white immigrants to England in the media and politics was either predominantly negative or absent. Coupled with the protests grew the desire within the black communities of London to have their culture and history represented – if not by state institutions, then by themselves, as the title of the poem „Where are our monuments?“ by the Black community activist and educator Len Garrison expresses.[3]

In a small bookstore in Brixton, volunteers started to collect the first historical records. They received archival donations in the form of documents and photographs that people from the community found worth keeping for posterity. Over the years, the collection has professionalized, catalogued, and moved from one location to another until 2014 with the support of donors, community and public funding, it opened at its current location at Windrush Place in Brixton.

Founded as a cultural and documentation centre for people in the UK with a direct or distant African family background, the Black Cultural Archives today contain a unique wealth of grey literature in the form of leaflets, brochures, photographs, personal stories of black immigrants and political activists in the UK, both written and oral. Today, the artefacts not only cover the post-Windrush generation, but also contain sources of the history of black people in Great Britain from the Roman occupation and imperial history to the present day – among them are likely to be promising sources for the “London Moment” project, such as the black community in London during the Second World War.

[1] A summary of the current political debate on migration laws and the Windrush generation is offered by BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43792411

[2] Nicole M. Jackson: “A nigger in the new England“; “Sus“, the Brixton Riot, and citizenship, in: African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 2015, Vol. 8 (2), 158-170.

[3] Len Garrison: Beyond Babylon (Black Star Publications, London, 1985).


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