Review: Akala on the history of black people in Britain 

Pravanya Pillay reviews Akala’s lecture at Bristol SU as part of Black History Month

Any talk by Akala is guaranteed to be comprehensive, articulate and incredibly engaging. Thursday’s presentation – ’The History of Black People in Britain’ – was no exception.

As I entered the Anson Rooms, seating myself as close to the stage as I could, I looked around at my fellow audience members, and for the first time in four years at the University of Bristol saw the society in which I had been led to believe that I lived: a representative, multi-cultural Britain. Akala had brought together individuals from all backgrounds with variant experiences in a wholly captivated audience. However, it wasn’t just his positive energy and charisma that entranced the room, it was also the story he was telling – a story people were desperate to hear. Not the white washed incomplete history that fills lecture halls and classrooms, but rather the complete one that recognises the massive contribution of people of colour: the human story.

The talk commenced with what Akala described as “preamble”, highlighting the colonial propaganda which led to the common misconception that the history of black people began with transatlantic slavery. He debunked the narrow Western history which teaches us that pre-colonial African civilisations were primitive. He citied realities of incredibly advanced, major African powers such as the 800AD Kingdom of Benin (present-day Benin City in Nigeria), which was considered a major power in Western Africa, containing the walls of Benin, one of the largest earthworks in history.

After a very brief introduction on pre-colonised African History, Akala began to address the history of black people in Britain. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, white British families prospered immensely off the backs of black slaves, but this exploitation is only a part of the black British story. Accomplished black figures appear throughout our history, from the woman of black African descent buried in fourth century Roman York, adorned with extravagant ivory jewellery that illustrates her obvious wealth, to John Blanke, a trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. Crucial, too, to our narrative are the thousands of black people and other people of colour that sacrificed their lives to fight for the British Empire in the First and Second World Wars, and yet received next to no recognition.

Drawing closer to the present day, he eventually embarked upon discussion of the time in which most people assume Black history in Britain began: the mass immigration of West Indians on the Empire Windrush. He spoke about how many questioned the right of these people to become citizens of the UK, despite the sacrifices they had made for Britain in both World Wars, and how the continued miseducation of British society led to the belief that those with white skin were superior to those with black: a belief which formed the basis of the institutionalised racism that continues to this day.

Throughout the arc of his talk, Akala illustrated that our history – British history – is littered with forgotten heroes, nearly all of them black. That is not to say that such discussion forced the point that the presence of black people throughout our history makes that of the cisgender, straight, white male invalid – it simply exposes it as narrow and incomplete. From the flurry of questions at the close of the talk, it was clear that this message resonated with every member of the audience: the message that it is vital to recognise the sacrifice and contribution of the people of colour that made Britain “great”.

In summation, after an eye-opening and enlightening hour, the lesson to be taken was that the British people should not be complacent. They should, without qualms, demand to know their history and should fiercely, and unapologetically be themselves, informed and celebratory of our shared history.

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Image by Maya Jones

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