Africa Utopia: History: Memory and Consciousness
Over the last week, I paused on writing. I felt it was necessary to process the number of conversations taking place over social media and real-life about the Black Lives Matter movement. As I mentioned in my previous post, this conversation about race is part of a long history. At present, conversations and actions are moving rapidly. Last week, debates on the removal of problematic statues with links to slavery was a global talking point. Yet, I believe there is a distinction between commenting on a topic and understanding the context of a topic. This is where I see the importance and relevance of history, as being key to building understanding. However, history is not always accurate. Choices are made as to what we remember and how we remember. This inevitably has an impact on how the public conscious is shaped. Which got me thinking about several questions:
- What events in history are remembered?
- Who is remembered?
- What’s the impact of selective memory on the public conscious?
I feel these thoughts of today relate to an event I attended back in September 2019.
The Southbank Centre hosted the History: Memory and Consciousness event which explored where Black cultural memory is preserved. While this conversation drew from an academic perspective, I felt this was a key starting point in addressing a) what Black cultural memory is remembered, b) how it is remembered and c) where this history is preserved.
As someone who has studied history to degree level, this was a fascinating conversation to observe, while being introduced to academics I had not come across before. This discussion was chaired by Ed Emeka Keazor and included Professor Abosede George, Akala, Dr Angelina Osbourne and Professor David Killingray. Each speaker explained how important memory is within the subject of history. And how this inevitably has an impact on how the past is recorded and understood within contemporary society. But to take this further, how history can be used as a weapon of power to uphold certain values and even erase people’s histories for a particular gain. To paraphrase David Killingray, a historians task is to record history and ‘involves employing integrity, with balance and empathy’. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. For Angelina Osbourne, ‘we are working on contested grounds’
While I was at uni, these weren’t the type of conversations held during seminars. The histories I studied — mainly the World Wars — was selected without a proper conversation on why certain events and people were remembered. There was also an emphasis on the written word being the most reliable source of evidence which historians refer to. Yet, this places non-written texts as automatically unreliable within this view. To paraphrase Professor Abosede George, historians valorise text over other forms of documentation — which is problematic. As not all people record history in a written form. And some people’s histories who have been written have been deliberately destroyed.
Some histories are in the process of being revised by both academics and people who are self-taught, to address this imbalance of exclusion. Some academics have created campaigns to highlight more voices in academia. For instance, the #CiteBlackWomen movement was started by Dr Christen A. Smith to acknowledge the presence of Black women as knowledge producers within academia. Some people are writing their own histories as they unfold, taking control of how they chose to be perceived. I think the following books are doing this in their own way:
- 4 Brown Girls who Write by Roshni Goyate, Sharan Hunjan, Sunnah Khan and Sheena Patel.
- Rise up by Stormzy
- Don’t Touch my Hair by Emma Dabiri
My key takeways:
- Afterwards, there was a moment to speak with Akala. His response to our questions was very thoughtful in offering useful and practical advice on connecting with our community.
- This event reminded me that the subject of history has a lot of issues that still need to be addressed. However, it is encouraging to know that this conversation is actively happening. And people are finding creative ways to draw this conversation into other spaces such as social media.
- Knowing history is great. Understanding history is powerful. But this is not enough. It is also about realising when history has been used in unethical ways and acknowledging this. It is about recognising the work of people who have shifted our understanding of how history is conceptualised and shared with others. It is about highlighting how lessons from the past can support better decisions today, to lead towards a brighter future. It is about encouraging a range of people to record histories to ensure more voices are present within the stories of world history.
I have also pulled together a short list of people and organisations I noted down from the event to check out:
- Dr Angelina Osbourne — panellist at the event and historian
- Orlando Patterson — historical and cultural sociologist
- Hugh Trevor Roper — historian
- African Studies Association — a membership organisation committed to enhancing the level of information about Africa
- Timbuctoo by Felix Dubois — a 19th-century French reporter who travelled to West African countries colonised by France