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why do we know more about African-American history than Black British history?

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

*Written in 2020 for Black History Month

Name one Black power figure in the UK.

Now name a Civil Rights activist from the USA.

Do you hear those crickets?

I know you definitely struggled to think of a figure from the UK and ultimately, it’s no fault of yours. The history of African and Caribbean people in the UK has largely been ignored and has only come to the forefront due to public pressure such as the Windrush scandal. The lack of knowledge and understanding of this part of British history has fuelled our general lack of understanding of systemic racism and proper appreciation for a diverse culture. Moreover, the fact our knowledge of African American history is greater perpetuates the notion that racism in Britain is less obvious and is ”subtler”. So many similar events in America happened in Britain so here is a short history lesson of Black British history in the 20th century and why similar American events are more palatable and widely known.

We have a greater understanding of the Civil Rights movement in the USA and how police brutality and racism was met with riots and resistance, especially in the 20th century. One of the most known riots in the late 20th century is the 1992 LA Riots. The riots were sparked by the acquittal of four LAPD officers for police brutality against Rodney King. Video evidence of the incident was widely shared, and the blatant disregard of the evidence angered many and increased racial tension. The riot lasted 6 days and led to 63 deaths and 12,111 arrests. When looking at black radicalism and civil rights activism there has been a particular spotlight on the USA. The general historiographical scholarship on racism in the USA is so much more extensive than the UK’s and has promoted the idea of racism being non-existent in the UK.

When looking at the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the Summer of 2020 and are still happening, there was a general prior knowledge of riots like the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921), the Harlem Race Riots (1964) and the King Assassination Riots (1968) to name a few which strengthened their resistance. Conversely, in the UK, the lack of knowledge of racism faced by Black Brits meant the protests were belittled and didn't receive long term support once the media cycle ended. Riots and resistance have occurred in Britain before, most notably the 1919 Race Riots. Tension grew in seaport areas like Cardiff, Salford and Liverpool following the economic and job instability caused by WWI. This put a target on Black and other labourers of colour as they were deemed threats for jobs and for the attention of white women. There is a greater understanding of "the Brute Caricature" in the US context seen with the myth of the Black rapist which Angela Davis has written on. However, there is less of an awareness of how the caricature existed in the UK especially in an era of nationalism and jingoism where foreigners challenged the national identity Britain was building post-war. From January to August 1919 in various parts of the UK, race riots occurred and sadly a young Caribbean man named Charles Wooton was lynched by white rioters in Liverpool. When Blacks workers did fight back, they were arrested immediately by the police. The lack of knowledge about the history of violent racism and police brutality has fostered an ignorant society about the long presence of Black people in the UK and the issues they faced and continue to face. The distance that British society puts between themselves and racism by using the USA as a case study allows them to feel less guilty about the history of race relations. Even when looking at Slavery there is a distance put between Britain and its actions in its Empire as it mainly occurred in the Caribbean with the Transatlantic slave trade. Without understanding the past, as a society, we won't be able to see how cyclical the pattern of racism and police brutality and submission is.

Where the state failed, the community helped. Our knowledge of the black power groups that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement is far greater in the US than the UK. The most recognised group must be the Black Panther Party. The group was formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale on 15th October 1966. It held nuanced positions appreciating the different power structures that occurred with race and class and when it intersected. The Black Panther Party formed as it became apparent that despite the political changes and improvements like Brown v Board of Education (1954) ultimately there were no visible, practical benefits. Moreover, people like Malcolm Gladwell have suggested that the Supreme Court ruling did more harm than good as when schools became integrated, black schools closed and black teachers lost their jobs. For the Black Panther Party, their focus was improving economic and social inequality with their Ten-Point Program. The presence of the Black Panther Party has been so well documented with imagery especially. From the Black Panthers entering the Capitol fully armed to them carrying out their Free Breakfast Program at their Supplementary Liberation schools - the actions of the Party are so well known. What is less known is that there in fact was a UK version of the Black Panther Party. They were extremely active in the 1970s and fought against racism, police brutality seen with the Mangrove Nine trial and the Immigration Act (1971). In fact, there were many black organisations in the 20th century including West African Students Union, Brixton Black Women's Group and the Black Liberation Front. The Young Historians Project have researched extensively on the Black Liberation Front and have made a documentary which included oral interviews from members of the group. The Black Liberation Front founded in 1971 played an important role in the black community by providing support for Black prisoners and Black children with supplementary schools. Arguably in the US, historiographical work in documenting Civil Rights groups is way more extensive as it was conducted by scholars of the time making this kind of history into the mainstream as there was more information held about them seen with the FBI taking a great interest in them. Conversely, in the UK, it tends to be grassroots organisations who bring awareness about these organisations. However, the fact we don't challenge or even think "were there Black power groups in the UK?" demonstrates our unwillingness to accept there was a need for the movement and therefore British society was flawed and had to be critiqued. This demonstrates why African-American history is more palatable as there can be a judgement placed on America and ultimately left alone but once you begin to assess the society you live in you are forced to make a decision - to ignore it or to do something.

From organised activism to community resistance, we see it occurring in the US and UK throughout the 20th century. Ultimately, African American history is more palatable as it's distant from our society and doesn't force introspective analysis. In our curriculum, we're not taught about the Bristol Bus Boycott, the Mangrove Nine, Black people being in the UK before Windrush. This skipping over Black British history and how at the end of the day this is British history means we are fed a false narrative, and this has led to the way we see Britain today. It has led to people claiming systemic racism doesn't exist. It has led to people telling us to go home despite being here for generations. And it has led to people engaging more with African American history than Black British History because as we all know - ignorance is bliss.

Do you know more about African-American history or Black British history?

  • African-American

  • Black British

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