The distortion of history and erosion of legacy is something communities the world over struggle to reconcile. In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, preserving and documenting culture, as well as the beauty in our everyday existence has never been so crucial. History shows that memories can be moulded into neat narratives, rewritten to make for more comfortable accounts of a culture, destroyed to protect ‘honour’ or simply be taken out from National Archives.
Old rappers need to quit talk about legacy / I don’t give a fuck about what he or she sold – Little Simz (King of Hearts)
In 2015, Islamic state militants tore through Mosul’s central museum, and Mosul’s central library, decimating artefacts, books, manuscripts and sculptures – dated over thousands of years. Priceless artefacts from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires were eradicated on film in a move the Guardian described as a ‘rampage which threatens to upend millennia of coexistence in the Middle East’. A leader of the Syriac Military Council, Kino Gabriel said at the time: “In front of something like this, we are speechless. Murder of people and destruction is not enough, so even our civilisation and the culture of our people is being destroyed.”
But this suppression of history isn’t limited to recent volatile Middle Eastern relations. The end of the British Empire in the mid-twentieth century also resulted in colonial records worldwide being destroyed by the government or secretly hidden away. ‘Operation Legacy’, was the code-name for the bonfire of records during the de-colononisation handover process, when thousands of files were destroyed in an attempt to save Britain’s honour – ‘implementing one of the most spectacular destructions of historical records known in our time.’ Ian Cobain’s book The History Thieves, explores the shady side of the legacy created to attention away from the atrocities committed during colonisation.
‘What’s burnt won’t be missed!’
At one time, Catalonia was an independent region in the North-East of the Iberian peninsula (modern day Portugal and Spain), with it’s own language, customs and laws. Catalonia has long been a nation with its own rich, historical culture outside of a simplified ‘Spanish’ identity. In 2017, the Catalan people took to the streets and the ballot box in a fight for independence.
Yet, more than 700 years of Spanish history has also been systematically erased from the record, covering an era when the Moors ruled in Europe, then known as Al-Andalus. Now archaeologists and historians are parsing through relics, uncovering hidden cities and learning the true beginnings of European enlightenment, a forgotten chapter in history. The Moors arrived from North Africa and ruled Spain from 711 AD, establishing a society so rich and powerful it was the envy of the known world, a progressive and intellectually curious culture with an abundance of libraries, medical schools and universities. Their story was written out of history after the Catholic monarchs took over the city of Grenada, expelling all the Moors and destroying any evidence that they had ever been in Spain. The Alhambra Palace in Grenada, built in the 14th Century at the height of the Moorish rule still stands but every single account of life in it’s archives was incinerated when almost a million Arabic books were burnt in the Reconquista.
Similarly, after the US Civil War, Confederates embarked on the “Lost Cause” a post civil-war effort to distort historical records and rewrite history. In 2017, chunks of white America cried foul, protesting (without intentional irony) about the erasure of history in the wake of the Charlottesville march when the monument of Robert E Lee was removed ‘on the grounds it was a symbol of injustice’. The long-running narratives of the Confederacy are finally being challenged, as monuments across America are being removed, acknowledging them as a representation of a dark racist history of slavery.
But as viral images of the refugee crisis filtered out across the internet in the past year, the horrors of what were meant to be ‘old’ histories came sharply back into focus. Refugees crossing the seas in pursuit of security, had been caught in the trap of human trafficking and slavery. High definition images of Africans being sold at auction in Libya – first reported by CNN back in February – led to a slew of protests around the world and condemnation from American celebrities who called for immediate action, unity and an end to the stain of slavery. A battle that many thought was long over.
“I find it quite weird that people can’t get their head around the continuing relevance of these past atrocities.” Goldie says in his new book ‘All Things Remembered’, “So long as it’s post-Twitter and we can see it and it makes an impact, then we can really get uppity about it. But if it was pre-internet, ‘Ooh, sorry, I’m not sure about that.’ It’s almost like people of black origin are not allowed to have a timeline in the modern world, which I think is ridiculous.”
Closer to home in the U.K., the manic right wing press have doggedly stayed on hand to shout down any sniff of a discussion on progress, when it comes to owning our history. Both the Daily Mail and Telegraph wildly distorted a piece about Cambridge University students daring to consider alternative perspectives in their reading lists. Over 150 students at Cambridge signed a letter questioning the choices of author and perspectives when studying English. ‘Teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others’, their letter wrote. What the Telegraph heard was: ‘Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors’ and the kind of hysterical headlines that later followed, forced the paper into making a correction. Despite having a presence in Britain since the Tudor’s, the known histories of BAME communities in the U.K. is patchy to say the least.
The right-wing rewriting of history is far from over, Britan’s leading racist newspaper leaped to the defence of Professor Biggar for his piece in The Times where he had claimed that the British Empire should ‘not feel guilty about our colonial history’. Targeting their venom instead towards what they claimed was a ‘hysterical social media mob’, they then proceeded to attack the 58 Oxford University Academics, who had written an open letter declaring their ‘firm rejection’ of Biggar’s ‘agenda’. Two years ago, ironically, Professor Biggar was wrapped up in another controversy, vehemently opposing the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the architect of apartheid, from Oriel College at Oxford University. A man who “did more than any Englishman of his time to lower the reputation … of the Empire.” The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign is led by BAME students, who strongly feel that the university has maintained a policy of exclusion for those who do not fall into a specific identity group.
Unbeknownst to most is the inclusive attitude of the Moors, whose knowledge also contributed to the intellectual life of the University of Oxford in it’s early days. A Brit, Daniel of Morley, left England and studied in Toledo bringing Arabic mathematical theory to the UK in 1200. Returning with a ‘precious multitude of books’ from Moorish Spain and a memoir he talked of their great thirst for knowledge. It was the concrete advances by these so-called ‘ethnics’ in philosophy, mathematics, science, astronomy, art, photography and agriculture that propelled the West out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.
The point is, from the moment one leaves the house the notion of legacy becomes inescapable. Whether that history appears in the form of a statue or monument, a street named after a historical figure, the halls of the universities we study in, or the clubs and music venues that have birthed entire genres of music, legacies have vanished and been rewritten time and again in a bid for commercial gains. In his best-selling book Sapiens, Yuvah Noah Harari, explores the basic narratives of human history, how cultures are propagated but not always for our benefit: ‘The nationalist virus presented itself as being beneficial for humans, yet it has been beneficial mainly to itself’. If there is one legacy that Brexit may leave us with, is the feeling that we may finally be ready to challenge these controversial narratives.
And I don’ wanna sing a song that says / “The struggle live on” / When I wish it would die and wither away / No more struggling at all – Damian Marley (The Struggle Discontinues)
More than six months on, the charred shell of Grenfell Tower looms large over West London. Accountability for the tragedy remains in short supply while mistrust hangs heavy in the air. Like the smoke that came before, a smell lingers at the edges of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – thick and unspoken – it contaminates the lines between residents and authorities, obscuring the path towards justice.
In the immediate days after the inferno, Labour MP David Lammy took to his website to urge Theresa May to allay fears of a potential cover up, “Within the community, trust in the authorities is falling through the floor and a suspicion of a cover-up is rising. The Prime Minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law. We need urgent action now to make sure that all records and documents relating to the refurbishment and management of Grenfell Tower are protected.”
Construction maintenance company, Rydon, was the main contractor for the £8.7 million refurbishment last summer. By June 27 2017, the Independent was reporting that the company had removed details of what they did and how long the maintenance contract lasted from their website. Elizabeth Campbell, leader of the Kensington and Chelsea Council claimed resident’s safety was not the council’s responsibility as long as the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (TMO) retained control of housing.
Authorities in this country have a long, and well documented history when it comes to the erasure of inconvenient truths, whether it’s Hillsborough or Operation Legacy.
Against a frowsy Brexit backdrop, still, 131 families remain in hotels – the promise of permanent rehousing for survivors has apparently fallen by the wayside. Significant and lasting fire safety reforms are still yet to be implemented, but the final death toll has been widely reported at 71 – an impossibly low figure for most people to fully believe considering the scale of the inferno. The ‘Justice for Hillsborough’ campaign has already illustrated that truth and change only comes from those communities that demand it. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry was set up four weeks after the fire took place to bring those responsible to justice. Our fight now is to ensure that history of neglect that led to this avoidable tragedy isn’t dismissed, overshadowed or rewritten.
It has been announced that works by Khadija Saye, an emerging artist who lost her life along with her mother in the blaze are to be exhibited as part of the reopening of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Before the fire, 24 year old Khadija was asked to be part of the show. Now, instead of taking heart in the success of a talented black creator breaking through the stale upper-middle class arts world, we’re left with a legacy of what might have been – what should have been – and the white hot anger creeps up all over again.
If anybody gettin’ handsome checks, it should be us / Fuck rap, crack cocaine / Nah, we did that, Black-owned things – Jay Z (Family Feud)
UK culture continues to thrive on all facets and as a result more and more successful milennials are taking responsibility when it comes to shifting the needle of conversation in this country. 2017 unearthed a host of new voices in our culture, tired of waiting for the ‘one-in-one-out’ pass from conventional gatekeepers. These young up-starts continue instead to do it themselves, creating new networks, connecting dots, authoring works that are filling in the gaps for the generations to come. These are just the beginning of a new legacy.
In publishing, Wiley, Reggie Yates, Otegha Uwagba and Reni Eddo-Lodge represented a clutch of new authors in 2017 who set about documenting culture and society and are a part of shaping new conversations. In 2018, more authors will join their ranks with stories and accounts of our histories, from Slay In Your Lane to Grime Kids to Brit(ish) and Darling, plus a new imprint ‘Dialogue’ books, these are just some of the many new stories coming this year.
2017 also saw the launch of the UK’s first ever Black Girl Festival, a celebration of women in media, black motherhood, style and beauty came together in London. Using their presence and clout to create a space where black women could be unashamedly visible, Paula Akpan, gal-dem social media co-ordinator and co-founder of the ‘I’m Tired’ project, and Nicole Crentsil, founder of ‘Unmasked Women’ created the event with the future in mind. London’s inaugural Black Girl Festival returns for 2 days on 27 – 28 October 2018 and is the crystallisation of what happens when we take ownership of our new histories.
The work of collecting the archives of black British photographers has also begun, and in January 2018 the Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive project will see its official launch. Ronald “Charlie” Phillips (born 22 November 1944), a Jamaican-born photographer and documenter is now best known for his photographs during the post war period of West Indian migration to London. Phillips has been described as “a visual poet; chronicler, champion, witness of a gone world … one of Britain’s great photo-portraitists”. From an immigrant community who made a historical stronghold in England, Phillips is now concerned with the legacy of the next generation. “It’s about the fifth generation who has a missing gap both culturally or historically or socially. These are the things you can never find on YouTube – we’ve been left out of the mainstream documentation of England.”
Political change often comes by way of public opinion and all these things – musicians telling their stories of success, young professionals creating networks and founding companies with huge ambition all work in our favour. Ownership of your legacy is the major key and it’s only by doing, thinking, creating and shaping the conversation in this country that we get to reap the rich rewards.
“This is what we have to do, we have to create our own legacy and don’t depend on the institutions to do it for us.”