Windrush Day could become a national holiday and help the UK teach colonial and post-colonial history. Just as St Pauls Carnival in Bristol in July and Notting Hill’s in London in August, it reminds us of the positive contribution of the Caribbean communities in the UK.
After covering the Windrush events in London in 2018 and 2019, I participated in an online event with My Future My Choice, live from a ship, the MV Balmoral, in the centre of Bristol. The event explored Bristol’s fascinating multicultural heritage of migration, colonialism, maritime history and activism, notably in favour of an evolution of the school curriculum and the recognition of movements such as Black Lives Matter. It included poetry workshops with pupils and short animated films produced by filmmakers of 8th Sense Media, in collaboration with Roger Griffith, MBE, writer and social activist.
Since the assassination of George Floyd in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown steadily in Europe, especially in the UK. The protests are reopening deep colonial wounds, especially in cities like Liverpool, Oxford and London.
In Bristol, a port city enriched in the 17th and 18th centuries by triangular trade, the statue of the merchant Edward Colston, famous for his philanthropy but responsible for transporting tens of thousands of Africans enslaved, was overthrown in early June. These images have since gone around the world to reopen debates on reparations, restitution of works of art and racism in British institutions.
The celebration of Edward Colston had been controversial for over 20 years, as had the statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford and southern general Robert Lee in the United States.
For Cleo Lake, a city councillor in Bristol and artist representing the Jamaican community, “this is an important step, and it would not have happened without demonstrations. When some criticise this movement, they should reflect on their own history and think for example of the suffragette movement, of women who also used force to obtain change! Their story is often watered down, but they were radical, used violence, and that was how they got it done.”
Dr Shawn Sobers, a teacher of the history of cultural practices at the University of West England, believes these questions must evolve with society. “The history is still there,” he explained. “Many people do not have statues but are very well known; we do not need statues to remember their actions. When I arrived in Bristol, I worked on proposals to add a plaque to explain its history, because I feared that the next generation would forget this side of the story. So it took me a while to form my opinion. But then I realised the statue did not have to be there, and that its place was in a museum.”
Black British achievements like the Bristol Bus Boycott must be included in our curriculum.
In 1963 the Caribbean, Asian or African workers started a strike against the Bristol Omnibus Company, which refused to employ them. The movement was led by a young social worker, Paul Stephenson, born in 1937 to a Jamaican father and an English mother, and lasted almost four months. The Bus Company eventually backed down and agreed to employ non-white workers on August 28, 1963. The same day, In America, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The Bristol Bus Boycott mobilised all around the UK to obtain a change in legislation. And the Race Relations Acts was consequently implemented in December 1965, to address racial discrimination.
Artist Michele Curtis created seven murals to celebrate men like Paul Stephenson the neighbourhood of St Paul’s in Bristol to celebrate men like Paul Stephenson.
“My project started out as a passion,” Michele told me in 2018. “I drew these people to introduce them to the younger generation and make them known. There are two neighbourhoods here where the black communities have settled, St Pauls and Easton. I grew up in a part of town called Easton, surrounded by workers, activists, people who have done a lot for the community. I started to draw these portraits and write these people’s biographies to share our story. I’m constantly thinking about how to reach more people with our positive story and the ‘Iconic Black Bristolians’ because there’s still a lot to do.”
Photos by Melissa Chemam