Now this had been a burning question in my brain since forever but particularly pre Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 when funding was thrown at bodies setting up community engagement projects staffed by interns and business types. History walks and multi-cultural kitchen set-ups, African story-telling and taster sessions in architecture and film-making came to the free fore and people never arrived in their droves despite the previews and reviews that everything was amazing.
The answer is “No”.
Days are gone when anyone except those who want it should put the case for Black, African-Caribbean, and Asian local history. Borough support is on-going for ethnically biased community centres and the 1986 generation who secured those premises or benefit from those is older now and knows what it wants out of communities and how much it intends to put in. It appears that attendance at local history meetings is not considered.
Many projects were targeted at African-Caribbean clients during and before London 2012 but the doors could not be shut on other clients because that would have been an unwanted apartheid in communities trying to attain cohesiveness.
It’s always the funders i.e. the banks who want criteria met and people categorized so that an Asian Well-Women’s group may look exclusive on paper but in reality it’s the satisfaction of bums on seats to which the community leaders aspire. Sometimes principles are prejudices such that nowadays if a building is secular it’s okay to have a God/Allah calling session because a part of the ailing community is recognised and therefore served. We learn to waive any notions of principles about secular and non-secular entities and being precious about them.
I have been to many projects where I’ve been the only attendee. It’s not embarrassing because the leader and I always expect that scenario. Still I’ll fill out a feedback sheet because that leaves open an opportunity for others to get what I got.
To get local history that isn’t the history of white English people you have to find people who care a toss. It can’t all be slavery and Black History Month. And those women who worked hours in local factories when they were raising children and running homes for men need skills to share their experiences and know that anyone else is interested in their stories.
Local history will be of interest to older people as a memory trigger or as confirmation that their ancestors did have a place on earth. Oral history is now big business and a great favourite in terms of justifying bids for Heritage Lottery money. It hardly makes for a confident visible generation though. You gives your bit and goes on your way. What’s said remains in Cyberspace, of little use to any other generation.
Personally I think the best way to get at the history of everyone is to go to the groups representing our rich and problematic diversity in a culture in flux and extract interest that way. Going into the community shouldn’t just mean hiring a room in a pub or a smart venue in the evening unless the venue is specific to the task such as the recent launderette reminiscence workshops which took place in an actual launderette. Novel eh? Success for each person in terms of self-worth was never guaranteed. Boxes were ticked though and funders and sponsors congratulated themselves.
I have seen opportunity after opportunity thrown out to people who could represent their own ethnic communities and never was the challenge taken. You can have a twenty something Jewish university graduate flicking through papers prompting more than one word answers to questions put to Bangladeshi women about their personal immigration and settlement stories in a group as though every woman wearing a similarly patterned shalwar kameez wants to share stuff with each other and strangers but how patronising is that?
In an area of an historically high population of African Caribbean residents I have never seen any person from that population at local and otherwise Black History Walks.
Local history has an air of academia about it. It’s a brave non university graduate who can deliver a speech to the learned and it’s got to be delivered with passion. And to sit in a group isn’t always easy either.
“Not me!” says the woman with a French accent and a whole load of local interest. She pulls her scarf over her breasts.
“Not me!” says the Ghanaian father “It’s not for the likes of us”.
“No you’d have to ask my husband!” says the woman carrying a pot of food to her son’s house.
“Never been to Vestry House Museum. Never been to the Village” says the old West Indian former nurse living in Leyton for forty years.
“Do we get a cup of tea? Is there a coach outing? asks a Mosque prayer leader.
“I’ve got a diary, written in Arabic. Any good?” asks my neighbour.
“What do you want to know?” asks the world.