By turning a black lens on social history, the BCA does something unique—and vital. In the year of the Windrush scandal, proper funding is the least the government could offerby Bolanle Tajudeen / December 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the last few days of October, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna confronted the government for the lack of financial assistance given to the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), accompanied with a letter signed by 100 MPs urging the government to step in to secure the institution’s future.
Since then, supporters have used the #backBCA to put pressure on the government to support the largest archive dedicated to preserving the history of Black people in Britain.
Not only was the hashtag used persuasively, it was also used to rally membership and donations from the public. Black Girls’ Book Club auctioned off a signed copy of Michelle Obama’s new memoir Becoming, with the winning bid being distributed to the archives and other black-centric platforms.
In December, a small victory was won, when the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced they would provide an interim payment of £200,000 to support the BCA.
Quite frankly, this is not enough—especially in the year the government was exposed for wrongfully classifying the Windrush generation as illegal immigrants.
Over the last few months, we have witnessed heated debates around the place of black citizens in Britain’s recent history and in its present, including Amber Rudd’s resignation as Home Secretary and subsequently an effective ongoing campaign to ensure Windrush victims are properly compensated.
Since the BCA opened in 2014, it has provided visual historical evidence of racism in Britain, and of the disastrous efforts of those in power handling race relations. A recent photography exhibition, Neil Kenlock’s “Expectations: the Untold Story of Black British Community Leaders in the 60s and 70s” traps a history that could have predicted current Black British affairs. The archive is full of stories, some of which serve as a timeline tracing how the black community in Britain has resisted oppression through political action.
Although the BCA is tucked away in Brixton, they are doing their best on limited resources to restore the balance of archival and visual power. Unlike other cultural institutions grappling with ethnic diversity amongst curatorial staff and struggling to produce displays which tell a realistically inclusive story, the BCA provides a juxtaposing narrative to the angelic whiteness of Britain, providing a black lens on social history. The stories of Britains’ African and Caribbean community are told truthfully, even it is painful, and not reduced to the “good immigrant” narrative common in mainstream curatorial programming.
The BCA also allows space for the reinvention of the black image, grounded by history in a way I can only describe with the words of the late Maya Angelou: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” Just as Angelou describes her appreciation for the past but is adamant to move forward, the BCA offers a platform to look to the future.
When I visit the BCA, I leave feeling ignited with a greater understanding of the history of the people who look like me living in Britain, and more secure in the future I want to create for the next Black British generation. To have this space is a gem. As much as I love visiting the Tate, V&A, and British Museum, I am sensitive to how colonisation and violence have shaped collections. Moreover, I am disappointed by what is missing; a diverse, self-determined collection of works from people of colour.
Britain used to proudly boast about its jewels collected from foreign lands. Now, the tide has turned. New jewels are emerging on British soil, and descendants of those who bore the pain of injustice are resisting the erasure of history.
Britain should be proud to financially support the BCA as it allows for visitors to have a deeper connection to the makeup of British culture. The BCA should receive a yearly block grant regardless of other fundraising activity—just one of the first corrective steps that can be taken by the government to prove they are really repentant for the past, and genuinely value different voices narrating and recording the history of life in Britain.