The joy of Black history

As Black History Month draws to a close, BEIS international policy adviser Adam Gordon reflects on the importance of remembering Black British history, and shares some international heroes you may not have heard of
The first-ever Notting Hill carnival, organised by Claudia Jones, whose contribution to the Black British civil rights movement deserves a much brighter spotlight. Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

By Adam Gordon

25 Oct 2022

I am Adam Gordon and work in the international strategy team in the National Security and International Directorate in BEIS. I am also a Faith and Minority Ethnic (FAME) ambassador for my Directorate. I am Black British Caribbean (my family originate from Jamaica and Cuba) and I was born and raised in Birmingham. History has always interested me, specifically Black history, and here I wanted to share my thoughts on why I feel Black history is so captivating. My hope is that rather than learning due to a feeling of obligation or guilt, we can learn more about Black history because of how genuinely interesting it is.   

Where my girls at?   

When we are taught about powerful women through history it is often Boudicca, Queen Victoria, both Elizabeths, and the likes of Marie Antoinette that are discussed. All interesting and inspiring women in their own right. However, for me, some of the most inspirational and strong female leaders in history are Black African queens and empresses. Before Beyonce there was Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba! A fierce leader (with a capital F!) who ruled Ndonga and Matamba, present-day Angola, during the 17th century and led many successful battles against the growing threat of the Portuguese and successfully prevented her lands from being colonised during her lifetime. Nzinga was respected for her intellect and military skill and ruled her land in her own right not by proxy through any husband or son.   

Nzinga is often seen as a paradoxical figure due to her being a slave trader, much like the Amazons of Dahomey who are the subject of a recent Hollywood blockbuster The Woman King. Her role in slavery is not surprising in the context of her time and is a conversation for another day. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that she was an exceptional and multifaceted leader, like many through history, who achieved great things in her lifetime. She was a defiant black woman of history whose determination in the face of oppression was unwavering –  so next time you are in your car singing to Beyonce’s Run the world, just know that Black women such as Queen Nzinga have been running it for years.   

“By focusing on the American civil rights campaign, civil rights in the post-WWII era are seen to be predominantly American issues"

Was there no black civil rights campaign in Britain?  

If I am being frank, I am bored of hearing about the American civil rights campaign rather than the struggles that took place in Britain. I’d prefer to hear about the Notting Hill riots, the Bristol bus strikes, the Handsworth riots, or the real reasons behind Notting Hill Carnival. By focusing on the American civil rights campaign, civil rights in the post-Second World War era are seen to be predominantly American issues. I am not saying that British society ever had anything near the segregation and brutal treatment of Black people that the deep south of America did. However, by focusing on American events to the detriment of history closer to home we ignore the fact that signs were put up on houses to prevent Black and Asian families from moving into certain areas, that Molotov cocktails were thrown in the houses of Black immigrants, and most importantly that Black Britons took to the streets to fight and win their civil rights in the face of significant adversity.   

A picture of a poster pasted on a wall with a black and white photo of Claudia Jones. Test on it reads "Missing from British history: Claudia Jones"Martin Luther King Jr’s name will never die and rightly so, but it is time for the likes of Paul Stephenson, Claudia Jones, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, and so many others to have their contributions to the Black British civil rights movement placed under a much brighter spotlight.  

Before his untimely passing, the late, great Chadwick Boseman was due to star in a Hollywood film depicting the life of the black samurai Yasuke, in what would have no doubt been a Hollywood epic to rival Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Yasuke was African, most likely from around Mozambique, and sources tell us he was the first non-Japanese person to be made a samurai. He lived in the 16th century and served Oda Nobunaga, one of the three key feudal lords that brought an end to years of clan fighting, known as the Great Unifiers of Japan. 

I was lucky enough to do a module at university on Japan before, during and at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate but not once did I hear of this miraculous story. I cannot stress how amazing this achievement is! Japan in the 16th century was vastly secretive and closed off to outsiders. Samurai were not mindless thugs swinging swords in the street for fun; they were part of the upper echelons of society. They had a code, a way of life called Bushido (the way of the warrior) which came with intense honour and duty. So, for a Black African man (arguably a former slave) to not only be accepted into Japanese society but to be welcomed into the warrior class is nothing short of exceptional. He would have had to have had skill as a warrior, have mastered the Japanese dialect to gain their respect, and also have had the intellect to learn the complexities of being a samurai. Oh, and did I mention he was the first non-Japanese person to ever do this?  

This is just scratching the surface  

Black history offers us a different perspective on key global events, inspiring and defiant female leaders, samurai tales worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster… and I have barely scratched the surface. I could have written about King Mansa I of Mali, the richest man in history; the architectural marvel that is Great Zimbabwe; the Ethiopian empire that spanned for centuries; the border war between Namibia, Angola and Zambia that contributed to the end of Apartheid; Benin and its lost treasure trove; or Patrice Lumumba, the former leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo who was assassinated and possibly dissolved in acid during the Cold War (a story worthy of a spy thriller). That is just to name a few!  

Any time is a good time to learn about Black history, not just in October. So stop what you are doing, get reading and get talking! 

Photo credit: Claudia Jones poster by duncan cumming/Flickr
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