For the past 18 months I’ve been part of a team at the BBC making a landmark history series, Black and British - A Forgotten History.
The series was born out of an ambition to challenge the idea that black history is a specialist subject, only of interest to black people. We set out to re-imagine black history as part of mainstream British history and bring little-known stories to the public in a new way.
An integrated history
The first historians of black history in the UK, who began work back in the 1960s and 1970s, dedicated themselves to the reclaiming of a lost past. Through their work, a great pantheon of black Britons was brought to greater attention by the early black histories. The next stage, in my view, is to better integrate them and the worlds they occupied into the main narrative of the British and imperial past. Black and British - A Forgotten History, is, we hope, more than just a TV series. It is a call to arms.
To realise this ambition we’ve been working with our partners – HLF, Historic England, The Black Cultural Archives, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and The National Archives. Together we’ve done something that has never been attempted before on television.
More than just a TV series
The four one-hour episodes of Black and British - A Forgotten History will be broadcast on BBC Two in November, but the project is more than just a TV series. We’ve also borrowed an idea from the heritage industry and used it to make a new form of TV.
Within the series we’ve erected 20 specially made heritage plaques. They’ve been placed on buildings and in heritage sites in Britain, Africa and the Caribbean. There’s one on a slave fortress in the Sierra Leone River, one in a village in Jamaica that was destroyed during the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. There’s one on Samuel Johnson’s house here in London, where he lived with Francis Barber, a former slave and servant who became – virtually – Johnson’s adopted son. There are BBC Black History Plaques in Dundee and in the Welsh valleys, by the Mersey and by the Thames.
With our partners we’ve used the BBC Black History Plaques to stamp a forgotten history physically back on to the landscape, but also to bring communities together – some communities you wouldn’t always associate with black history - and empower them to celebrate their shared part in a history that stretches back almost 2,000 years.
The people of East Dean in Sussex came together at their village summer fete to celebrate the life of 'Beachy Head Woman', a sub-Saharan African who grew up in that part of Sussex 1,700 years ago; she is the oldest ‘black Briton’ known to us. The people of Freetown Sierra Leone gathered under the shade of the ‘Cotton Tree’ in the centre of their city to remember the early settlers, former slaves from America who founded Freetown. While in the North of England, the people of Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria met on the site of the former Roman fortress to remember the Afro-Roman soldiers who guarded that stretch of Hadrian’s Wall in the 3rd century AD.
A deeper history
I wanted to make this series and tell these stories in order to show how deep this history goes and because I think that for too long we’ve been under-selling black British history. Black British history stretches back far further than we often imagine; and it is more surprising, more shocking, more compelling, more global, more contradictory, and more British than we usually think. What I hope the series shows is that it is impossible – or at least it should be – to explore the history of Britain without encountering black people; men and women of African descent.
When the series is broadcast we’re hoping it will be a call to arms for those interested in exploring and uncovering more of this country’s black history. It has been incredibly moving to witness the enthusiasm that communities on three continents have shown towards the idea of remembering and marking these lost stories and people. The interest is out there, and this project, that has brought so many partner organisations together, has harnessed that enthusiasm in a way that has been exciting and at times, humbling. We’re delighted that the HLF will be supporting community groups who wish to undertake further research into black history as a result of this series.