Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A New Center for Black History in the 21st Century

The Black Cultural Archive's new Heritage Center in Windrush Square, Brixton (London, UK)
photo by Edmund Sumner
by Andrew E. Colarusso

Brixton, in the south London borough of Lambeth, is now home to the Black Cultural Archive's Heritage Center. Opened last week, the Heritage Centre is located in Windrush Square, the arrival site of the first major Afro-Caribbean wave of immigrants to the United Kingdom. The Windrush Empire made its voyage from Jamaica to Brixton, London in 1948 carrying 492 passengers (one stowaway) and the rest is history. Brixton today carries this cultural legacy with a thriving West Indian and African community. So what is this new Heritage Center and what does it mean?

The Heritage Centre is a £7 million project, housed in a renovated Georgian building. Long in the making,  the center counts among its illustrious patrons and backing institutions, Idris Elba--well-known to us here in the states. 

The Heritage Centre, while receiving little attention in American media outlets, presents interesting opportunities and much potential for Africana studies. With a living archive of black culture in the U.K. we may begin to see inklings of a new international awareness of the diaspora, its stories and legacy. 

Still, for those of us who are self-proclaimed realists, or even pessimists, the notion of yet another site for black cultural study may seem inane. Yet another empty coffin, a concession of the state. But the Black Cultural Archive's Heritage Centre is the first of its kind in London--not something to balk at. And while it takes decades to shape identity and culture substantively, we have in the Heritage Center a venue for study and black agency--not unlike the Schomburg Center in Harlem (so named for the Afro-Puerto Rican archivist whose private collection and vision helped shape over a century of succeeding black study)

The question is, how will this be received in the United Kingdom? How will it impact succeeding generations? Much of the world's perception of Blackness, not to speak of the United Kingdom, is driven by the popular proliferation of American media--movies, music, television. But the United Kingdom has its own idiosyncratic blackness, developed and adapted to and from its distinct historical context. If there is such a thing as Blackness in the U.K. how has it been shaped by blackness in the U.S.? How is it unique to the U.K. and why? 

It seems, in reality, we are all ignorant of the ways in which the diaspora has adapted and shifted in various regions of the globe. Do we, in the states, understand the way Blackness as a cultural phenomenon has developed in the United Kingdom? For the most part the answer is no. More importantly, how do the British understand Blackness?

On Mar. 19, 2014, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and British author Zadie Smith for a night of pithy and unforgettable conversation. Topics discussed included but were not limited to psychological acuity in literature, deliberate fashion and beauty, race and international identity politics. When asked by Chimamanda how Blackness and/or Black identity is received and manifested in the United Kingdom, Zadie Smith responded, almost taken aback...

"How do I put this? Um...In the's not... there is no...I don't think there's a sense of a kind of positive black identity, or a strong black identity. And [in America] even if it's been created in defense, or in response, there's so much that's beautiful in it. And so much that feels strengthening. And now, when someone calls me sister, I find it a very joyful matter to be called sister by a stranger in a shop. I think that's an extraordinary thing...In England, the whole of England is about being the good black. You always have to be on your best behavior." 

In Zadie's candid account alone we can draw parallels, intersections, and divides in general perceptions of Blackness in the U.K. and U.S. Now imagine what possibilities the Heritage Center will provide for further study. What potential to bridge an otherwise underdeveloped historical channel in the Atlantic Ocean's long list of forgotten channels. These stories must not only be told (because anyone with able ears can hear), but shared with those for whom it truly and profoundly matters.

For more information on the BCA's Heritage Centre visit:

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