Another October. Another Black History Month in Scotland. But this year there is a new sense of direction to the programme celebrating the contribution black women and men have been making to Scottish culture for hundreds of years.
The programme – a stimulating mix of art, film, food, walks, talks, theatre, poetry and music – begins (and largely stays) in Glasgow. But it ends with a highly significant trip to the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool. Except of course that this is not an ending. For CRER (the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights) it is the opening of a new chapter of Scotland’s Black History.
Our vision is that, within the next decade, Scotland will have its own museum of empire, slavery, colonialism and migration.
It’s been a long time coming. Liverpool opened its International Museum of Slavery in 2007, the year of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Scotland has been slower to acknowledge historic links with the transatlantic slave trade and the wealth which flowed home from slave plantations owned and managed by Scots.
But the momentum has been growing steadily in the 16 years since CRER began co-ordinating Black History Month events. And the pace has quickened in this turbulent year. Kate Tough’s poem, People Made Glasgow, touched a vibrating chord. No surprise that she has been invited to take part in the official Lord Provost event in Glasgow City Chambers on 16 October.
Brutalised Africans made Glasgow
amazing disgrace, how sweet
the civic amnesia…
It Wisnae Us
When we know where to look the evidence is all around us: in museums and mausoleums, churches, bars and street names. And nowhere more than in Glasgow
The link with the city’s tobacco and sugar lords was made startlingly clear in 2007. It Wisnae Us, the Truth about Glasgow and Slavery first emerged as an exhibition researched and written by Stephen Mullen with the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust in partnership with CRER (then the Glasgow Anti Racist Alliance).
Stephen Mullen (also appearing at the Lord Provost’s exhibition) went on to write the book of the same name, commissioned by GARA. It Wisnae Us, the exhibition, will be on display again ‘illustrating the links between tobacco, slavery and abolition’ throughout October in Glasgow City Chambers.
At the same time, of course, the Gallery of Modern Art is an elegantly symbolic venue for many events about Glasgow’s role as both perpetrator and opponent of human traffic. The grand 18th century home of William Cunninghame was built with the wealth he made from Virginian tobacco and West Indies sugar.
Traces of the trade
But ‘It wisnae’ just Glasgow. So there are events in Dundee and Irvine too. And this year, for the first time, Black History Month coincides with the Festival of Politics providing an opportunity for a discussion in the Scottish Parliament along with a film Traces of the Trade, ‘one family’s journey in confronting their slavery past’.
And ‘It wisnae’ just in the past. History is important in understanding the present. As the CRER programme points out the United Nations has expressed concern that Scottish schools and history books do not include the histories and continuing part played by African, Caribbean and Asian women, men and children in shaping Scottish culture.
It’s a rich and multi-layered story connecting past and present. Another highlight of the Lord Provost’s reception is 1745, a short film set in the Scottish highlands, which was nominated Best Short of Edinburgh Film Festival this year, and features in the Black International Film Festival in London this month.
The stars, sisters Morando and Moyo Akandé who were born in Bearsden, will explain how they became involved in a story about two African slave sisters and their quest for freedom. In an interview with Scotsman journalist Dani Garavelli (Facing up to slavery in second city of empire) Moyo said she was shocked she hadn’t learned more about the Atlantic slave trade at school.
“We are both young black Scottish women living here and very proud to be, but not knowing this part of our history was quite disappointing,” she says.
Best and worst of humanity
In the same article Graham Campbell, African-Caribbean SNP City Councillor for Springburn/Robroyston, stresses the importance of recognising that it was slaves who abolished slavery. “It wasn’t gloriously nice white liberal politicians, it was slaves who found it intolerable and kept having rebellions; it was slaves who forced politicians to recognise they were humans.”
That point is made clear in Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum which has played a powerful part in the regeneration of the Albert Dock, a short walk from the dry docks where 18th century slave ships were repaired and fitted out.
Since opening in 2007 it has attracted around four million visitors. Housed in the Maritime Museum, the exhibition weaves together the history of the city and the transatlantic slave trade. There are a few mentions of Scottish plantations but the story is a searingly honest account of the global reach of Liverpool (another of several Second Cities of the British Empire). It’s a story that stays with you long after you have left the building, Not just because of past horrors but the persisting legacy in our present lives.
And yet it is also an uplifting experience, celebrating the best of human spirit while not avoiding the worst.
It is the only museum of its kind to look at aspects of historical and contemporary slavery as well as being an international hub for resources on human rights issues. Liverpool International Museum of Slavery
Creating a Black History museum for Scotland will be no easy task and CRER is under no illusion of the scale of the challenge they face. The trip to Liverpool which leaves Glasgow Central on Tuesday 31 October will be the first of many visits to similar museums. It makes a fitting finale to this year’s programme. As the introduction points out, “We can’t expect to resolve the racial inequalities persisting today without understanding the history which brought us to this point.”
Booking deadline for the Liverpool trip is 16 October. For more information contact BHM@crer.org.uk
Featured image: Glasgow Merchant City by Bob Hall, A building detail at the rear of the Corinthian Club, Virginia Place CC by SA 2.0