From the horses mouth… some stuff for Black History Month

I was approached earlier in the year to by some of our students here at the University of Bradford to support them in putting together a performance piece to reflect on the ‘black’ experience and to explore in sociological and political terms what the term ‘black’ means to the student body here.  They did so because I’d worked with (and paid as a professional, she was well good enough, had been involved at Stratford East etc) a student from the School of Life Sciences, Joanne Okonkwo, on a piece of performance for a Uni conference.  She was passionate about exploring these meanings in terms of student politics (with a small p) as a member of the B.M.E Society. I pointed them in the direction of the University of Bradford Cultural Fund, set up precisely to pick up and fund projects like this.

We’re pretty radical here at Bradford Uni regarding the arts and always have been.  Three Fellowships in the Arts established at the Universities founding (1966) at  a Science, Technology, Engineering and Management based institution was radical even then.  To have hung onto them through the vicissitudes of the last 45 years is also pretty radical!  The project outlined below is but a wee sliver, a minor outcropping, of that artist engagement, they are the kind of thing that makes this University such a unique place.  It ain’t always easy but, and it’s a very big but, it has stuck around.                          

As I’ve banged on about here before I’m quite a political artist and the idea appealed to me.  As did the fact that it seemed to reflect a growing radicalism and engagement from the student body that I’d not seen for a while – wanting more than beer, slides and landfill indie.  It also chimed with things that I’ve been picking up across the city, with venues like Bradford Playhouse finding their radical soul once again (god bless you Eleanor Barrett), the Westfield artists protest and our dignified response to the recent EDL march in the city.  It also offered an all too rare opportunity to ‘get right in there’.

At about the same time I was approached by Abdul Bassit Ali, The Student Union B.M.E. Officer who also wanted to put together a celebration for BHM.  I pointed him in the same direction as Joanne and a joint bid was submitted which proved successful.  Excellent. We had a show or two.

Not being a noticeable expert in black history I drew in Alicia Campbell, an artist and theatre worker with whom I have worked on a number of occasions to support me periodically.  Between us and the group we worked with we decided that what we would explore would be current experiences of being black, to question rather than provide answers and to capture confusions and inconsistencies in thoughts and attitudes rather than smooth things out.  For me ‘what does all this mean?’ is very powerful.

I was also sure that I didn’t want these reflections to come from Afro-Caribbeans alone.  So we sent students out with video camera’s to get their fellow students to answer three questions:

1. ‘How do you identify yourself?’

2. ‘What is Black?’

3. ‘When I say Black, what do you see’

We turned the resulting interviews into three short films which were shown as part of the performance.  We also set my regular collaborator ‘The Guvnor’ on to creating us an aural soundscape using student vox pop, political speeches and music of all sorts.  The outcomes will in the very near future find their way onto the Theatre in the Mill website.

We also worked with a load of students, Black, Asian, Greek, Swiss on the making of a theatre work.

Below is what they came up with, in their own words.  I like it.


Film 1: answers to the question “How do you identify yourself?”

Marc: Why, ladies and gentlemen, does a toilet have the shape it has?

Why do you drive on the left side of the road in this country?

If I want a proper chat, I go to a pub whilst my African friends cook dinner and my continental friend’s go to a restaurant: Why?

To try to explain these differences, we use big words that none of us really understand:  words like “culture” or “society”. But what do they mean?

You have to understand that you have ideas in your heads that you are not even aware of having. Unknown knowledge if you like.   A cultural memory of how things are and it’s not just learned at our parents knees but is seen and accepted by us a thousand times over.

These learnt ideologies are innate in all of us.

Do we know how the world works, or rather, do we make the world work according to what we have been taught to think?

6.14% of White British women work in health care. The figure for Black British women is 17%.

BUT: does that mean anything at all? And, why are there even statistics for that?

Looking at the statistics a Caribbean Male is twice as likely to work in a sports or fitness occupation as his white counterpart but he’s also twice as likely (per capita) to be a corporate manager.  An African male is 8 times as likely to work in an elementary security occupation but a white male twice as likely to work in construction.

Zigela:           The word Negro was used in the English-speaking world to refer to a person of black ancestry or appearance, whether of African descent or not, prior to the shift in the lexicon of American and worldwide classification of race and ethnicity in the late 1960s. …

The word “negro” means “black” in Spanish and Portuguese

The usage was accepted as normal, even by people classified as Negroes, until the Civil Rights movement. One well-known example is the identification by Martin Luther King, Jr. of his own race as ‘Negro’ in his famous speech ‘I Have a Dream’.

During the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some African American leaders in the United States objected to the word, preferring Black, because they associated the word Negro with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse.

The term black people usually refers to a racial group of humans with skin colours that range from light brown to nearly black.

Negro was a term used by Portuguese and Spanish people during the discovery period to describe red Indians. For black people the term ‘Piece from Guinea’  or ‘Gentile from Guinea’ was used instead.

Negro first was used to designate people from Africa around XV century

Jeffrey:          What’s that about when you’re filling in an application?  At the back of it you have the equal opportunities sheet asking whether you’re White British, Black British, Asian British etc.

                        Honestly, what difference does it make?

                        Is my ability to do a job dependant on my race?

Why is a certain way of life associated with skin colour? He is black and he speaks the Queen’s English so he’s white.  He is white but he dances like a black person.  She is black but she listens to classical music so she’s a cocoanut.

Genetically race does not exist. “Race” is just a way to describe someone’s skin colour.  Culture is a way of life.  Culture does not have colour. If a white child grows up in Nigeria he will have a Nigerian accent, a Nigerian mentality.

Racism doesn’t make sense.  Amongst white people there are differences – ginger hair, blonde hair, brown eyes, blue eyes.  Black and Asian, some have lighter complexions than others.  The discrimination is in our minds.

There is no point applying for this job.  I’m black so they won’t even look.  I believe that charity begins at home, so once we stop subconsciously seeing ourselves as second class citizens then maybe the limitations we feel we have will be broken.


Joanne:         The gollywog image was a major anti-black caricature of its time, which kinda lead me to the blackface image which was used in minstrel shows, were white people used to dress up and burn cork, rub it on their faces, with exaggerated lips and woolly hair and white bulging. I mean the darky iconography, googly eyes and inky black , this is how black people were depicted. There’s even  arguments that these images were a form of endearment? Apparently there’s still even a darky day in Cornwall were they dress up as black people in jest.

The most potent line, i just cant get over, i kept reading it over and over again. Is that the ‘darkies’ in the minstrel shows were displaying what they thought was innate qualities on blackness, which was inherent musicality and athleticism.. i mean What’s scary that  how different are these perceptions  the ones held about black people in  today’s society? Why after so many years is it seen that that’s all black people are good at, music and sports. its not a thing about colour, its not genetic. Its not that black people aren’t smart enough or we are not able because what is blackness, being black anyway? I mean its a colour. So what,  how does having a large amount melanin in my body mean I’m not able?. How does this pigmentation effects a persons mind, or ability to think and function as well as there white counterparts. I don’t think its an issue of being black, because at the end of the day being black, the skin , its just a pigment.


 Film 2: answers to the question “What is Black?”


Marc:              Everybody wants to belong.

We all want to belong somewhere, to some group.  And within our groups we understand ourselves as diverse, as individuals, because we do not see ourselves as a group from within the group.

I couldn’t explain to you what the stereotypical white guy would be like, but Chris Rock can.  And if I feel that way I’m pretty sure that it must be hard for a black person to talk about stereotypes too.

Joanne:       Its no secret that Young black males do statistically worse in mainstream education than their white counterparts but why? When i was younger and the grime scene was really coming up, young black boys were spitting bars, practicing for hours on end. And i remember my school just couldn’t understand it, they even tried to link it to gangs, it was like, what are these black children doing?

But then one teacher took the time out to actually listen to the words that were coming out of these young black boys mouths, and the content of their raps and he realised it was poetry, intelligent poetry, they were referencing historical and current affairs , with complex storylines, its just amazing. But then you hand them a book or some Shakespeare and suddenly they can’t decode it and it begs the question why, because they aren’t stupid. Then my school started to look at maybe its the format we are trying to deliver this information, maybe it’s how we treat them, trying to make them to the ideals they have created instead of celebrating individual difference and culture. Racism is institutional and i think its gonna take some time to weed out.

 Zigela:           I have some questions.

Why do we assume that success for black people lies in the areas of sport or entertainment?

Does the media influence the way we think?

Why do we assume that by becoming successful a black person is more white?

Is success white?

When will a successful black lawyer just become a successful lawyer?

Can we change our mentality around the word black?

Are we using the freedoms our parents fought for well?

Can we really fight racism if we don’t believe in ourselves?

Nonga:          Black History Month, I believe, should not be a time where we just discuss all the great Black people who have walked the face of the earth.  In fact we should understand why they did what they did.

                        A great man once said “Death kills us once, but fear kills us over and over again” – what he meant by that was when you are frightened or feel intimidated and let that fear have power over you then and only then are you defeated. 

Fear is powerful, it can stop a great man achieving his goals.  If Martin Luther King had been afraid to go on stage to make his famous “I have a dream” speech, in fear of his life, in fear of the corrupt system in which he found himself – then many people too would have been robbed of the courage he showed.

I believe we should not celebrate the accomplishments of Black people but rather their capacity, their courage to rise above fear.

The fear I am referring to is the fear you feel when you go to work, the fear you feel when you switch on the television, the fear you feel when you are approached by a policeman.

The fear you feel when you forget that you have been born free, not born into bondage, not born a slave.

I think that this is what Martin Luther King realised, and Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Tupac to name but a few.

We, as a nation, need to break these invisible chains, stand up for what we believe in, in that moment, the moment when the fear arises.  You have to free yourself from that fear.

It is written “For god has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and a sound mind”.  Let us stop pretending people, whatever label they have given you – Black, White, Yellow, whatever.  Understand that the change starts in you and I can tell you this from my own experience:  When you believe in yourself, have good intentions, a strong faith in god, believe me, then anything is possible.

Joanne:         Growing up in my end of east London, there is a gang culture. I mean E7, E9, e13, postcode wars and all sorts and they kinda coined it as a black problem. I mean there’s a whole division of the metropolitan police dedicated to black on black crime in London Trident.  And its scary cos i look at my little brother and he’s sixteen and this weekend gone, a 16 year old boy was gunned down five minuites away from my house and for what? Wrong place, wrong time, or some one from his crew had done something and this was payback. And it makes sence to them, there rules and regulations as to how it all works , you take out someone from our crew and well take out someone from your, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the person who pulled the trigger or stabbed the person but so long your associated thats you!  And its scary because what happens it they try drag him in, if he does hes in trouble, if he don’t he aint kool. And they have coined it that its a black problem, its a black issue and its not, it a gang culture, it’s got nothing to do with their colour. They’ve made it seem like there’s something wrong with this kids, like there just incapable of acting right and its because there black, bit its not! A gang is a gang, whoever or wherever it is. It’s because of the social-economic circumstances there living, its because of the state of housing, education, they got parent working shift trying to put food on the table, its like a recipe, you put those situations together and its high possibility that you will have a gang, wherever it is. I mean look at Manchester, you don’t hear that it white people are killing white people, no, it just a gang, its called violence, crime, but when black people do it, its different, there must be a deeper reason. Its a gang culture, they need to look past the colour.


Nonga:          Chanelle Sasha Jones 17 Aberaeron 02/08/09 Stabbed

Tigela:           Adam Paton 17 Angus Montrose 24/04/08 Stabbed

Jeffrey:          Jessica McCagh 17 Arbroath 25/04/09 Other

Marc:              Laura Thomson 18 Ayr 01/06/08 Stabbed

Nonga:          Michelle Stewart 17 Ayrshire Drongan 14/11/08 Stabbed

Tigela:           Boris Reavey 19 Bedford 15/11/08 Stabbed

Jeffrey:          James Murray 19 Belfast 05/12/09 Other

Marc:              Ashley Horton 16 Birmingham Kings Norton 27/03/08 Stabbed

Nonga:          Sabrina Larbi-Cherif 19 Birmingham Ladywood 15/09/08 Stabbed

Tigela:           Stephon Davidson 19 Birmingham Ladywood 05/08/08 Shot

Jeffrey:          Amy Leigh Barnes 19 Bolton Farnworth 08/11/08 Stabbed

Marc:              Nathan Ridler 17 Bournemouth 24/02/08 Other

Joanne:         All the young people mentioned there are not black and were killed by people of their own race but we do not talk about white on white violence.

Film 3: Answers to the question “When I say black what do you see?”



I want to take this work further, I want to work with these young people for an extended period of time. We staged the show as part of a bigger event where I saw some of our young people here spitting poetry that knocked me sideways and so I want to link it with the nascent Northern Spoken Word Forum that is beginning to take shape, I want to pick up the idea that Joe Kriss and I were talking about of having an inter University poetry slam, I want to talk to people like Jonzi D further about him making some work with us.

I short, I got REAL excited!