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Black Spatial Agency Matters: The Rise of Black Geographies By Malaika Laing-Grant

There is an unequivocal push to shed light on the deepening racial divides that continue to underpin the Black experience in the 21st Century. Black liberation movements around the world, from the bustling streets of London to the southeastern coasts of Jamaica, have brought the importance of blackness to the fore. Not only as a tool for understanding the Black identity, but also as a theoretical framework from which to view our emancipatory commitment to social justice, liberation and reconstruction.

From analyses of diaspora to the entangled processes of the transatlantic slavery, colonialism and modernity- Black thought has long been concerned with questions of race, place, and power. Yet, it’s plausible to suggest that these developments, which span centuries and continents, have been systematically excluded from more traditional notions of geography.

Within the past five years, however, Black Geographies as a discipline and epistemology has gained increasing institutional clout, with thanks to the tenacity and ingenuity of Black scholars to carve out institutional spaces for Black intellectual production. But, what exactly is meant by Black Geographies? 

“Black Geographies’ is diasporic in its foundation through centuries of race projects of displacement, concealment, and marginalization that seek to render the Black body as “ungeographic” (McKittrick, 2006)

As a critical nascent body of scholarship, Black Geographies pinpoints Black spatial agency and the intersections between race, the state, and the dynamic distributions of power present in society. From the transatlantic slave trade to the lack of racial integration of Black and white families with similar class affiliations, to the mass incarceration of Black people, Black Geographies examines Black spatial experiences, including how Black life is reproduced in the wake of gentrification and redevelopment. In doing so, Black Geographies exposes the rich processes of Black socio-cultural and spatial reproduction to resist the confines of slavery, underdevelopment, and traditional human geographies.

Importantly, Black Geographies is not just for geographers. Amongst other schools of thought Black Geographies can also provide a foundation of understanding for the various means of organising political movements to both undermine systems of oppression, and efforts to positively contribute to the communal well-being of Black communities; as opposed to the individuality and exclusivity of our current Western world. Indeed, the scholarship of Black Geographies transcends boundaries outside of formal geography.

As the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the globe, renewed efforts to address the ongoing injustices of racism and inequality further challenges the formal canon of disciplinary geography that we seem to value so much. We have reached a critical moment, and it is now time to re-examine our complicity in racial processes, evaluate the processes and frameworks that address issues of racial inequality, and reengage the scholarship of Black Geographies as a body of scholarship. This new body of thought must add to our understanding of the ways that race and place are inextricably linked.

Written by Malaika Laing-GrantBLAM’s Volunteer Blog editor

Malaika is a professional with over five years’ practical experience in the international development space, providing comprehensive programmatic support to drive programme success in areas such as youth and politics, social and economic development, education and capacity building. She is a strong believer in the power of the Black community, Malaika is also committed to education as a form of Black empowerment to dismantle cycles of oppression and systems of social injustice

Source

McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press

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Why was the ‘Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent’ (OWAAD) important?

The distinction between Black feminism and white feminism has long been established, due to the triple burden facing many Black women of race, class and gender. Black feminists have and continue to, highlight the differences in their experiences and issues they are confronted with. On the key issues of family, patriarchy and reproduction,

Black women have distinctly different realities to that of their white middle class counter parts, that often centre the feminist movement.[1] Black women are consistently confronted with racism, resistance and further oppression which white feminism has undermined and silenced. It was in acknowledgment of this that OWAAD was formed in 1978.[2]OWAAD functioned as an umbrella organisation, bringing together various groups of women with divergent interests and focuses.[3] OWAAD had a prominent impact on the women’s liberation movements in Britain, by placing the experiences of Black and Asian women on the liberation agenda. Attracting over 300 women to its first national conference, OWAAD successfully prompted the establishment of Black women’s groups across London.

The ‘Brixton’s Black Women’s Group’ opened in London as the first Black Women’s Centre and Asian and African – Caribbean women founded the ‘Southall Black Sisters’ in North West London.[4] As well as its undeniable influence, OWAAD contributed to several campaigns for the progression of the black experience in the United Kingdom. OWAAD joined the campaign to scrap the SUS laws, which gave the police the powers of stop and search without any cause and was disproportionately used against young Black men.[5] The impact of OWAAD and its initiatives are undeniably powerful and revolutionary. As Stella Dadzie (co-founder of OWAAD) emphasised, OWAAD worked to ‘show people sisterhood in operation’.[6] Not only did OWAAD take on the responsibility of upholding the Black-british community, they also established a legacy of justice and perseverance that remains a fundamental pillar of Black British History.


[1]British Library, ‘Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’, 3rd June 2011 <https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/stella-dadzie-owaad> last accessed 6/12/2019

[2] Ibid

[3] Bethany Warner, ‘The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent: constructing a collective identity’, 2016 <http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/Bethany_Warner2016.pdf > last accessed 6/12/2019

[4] Tess Gayhart, ‘Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives’, 9thMay 2016

<https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/kingshistory/category/teaching/> last accessed 6/12/2019

[5] Sophia Siddiqui,’ Still at the Heart of the race, Thirty years on’, 6th September 2018 < http://www.irr.org.uk/news/still-the-heart-of-the-race-thirty-years-on/> last accessed 6/12/2019

[6] Ibid(1)

By Isabelle Ehiorobo

Why History Should be Important to All Black People

By Michelle  

There are several reasons why we, as people of African descent, must engage with, be aware of, and perhaps even internalise our history. Our narratives, the histories of those before who looked like us, and the histories of our respective ethnic groups (if applicable) are all key components of the building blocks of our cultural identities. It’s important to recognise that as Black people it can be hard to avoid what is paraded as the only relevant part of our history – the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Recently, there have been conscious efforts to establish that though enslavement of Africans is a part of our shared history, it is not the only entry or relevant event. Black history goes further than the immense tragedy of centuries enslavement and colonisation. Black history is diverse, Black history is rich, and Black history is extremely underrepresented. Black history is more. To me, history is not just dates and timelines or analysing sources. History does not always have to be an extensive account dating back several centuries. 

To me, the beauty of history is that it is dressed in many forms. History can be your mother recounting her experiences growing up. Something as seemingly simple and nostalgic as her route to school. History can also be your grandmother showing you pictures of her in her early adulthood. Something as amusing as seeing what constituted the latest fashion in the 1940s, on someone who looks a bit (or a lot) like you. History at times can also be that book you see in the library which was checked out on the 31st of August, 1988. Who was the person that had it before? What was their story? 

 For me, history is everything. For Black people, history is (or at least should be) everything. Big events, like the Maroon Wars of 1728-1740 in colonial Jamaica, where Jamaican Maroons fought British colonial authorities endlessly and tirelessly in guerrilla warfare to resist enslavement. History also includes relatively small events, like listening to my mother talk about her childhood and growing up the youngest daughter in a family of six brothers. Although we can argue that wider Black history is not as easily accessible, we can also engage with those around us in our communities. Parents, guardians, older relatives, friends. History was made with them and history includes them. 

It’s no secret that history that is recorded has been known to exclude certain groups, leaving them in the cold shadow of more populous, powerful groups. Creating hollow accounts full of gaps and lacking balance. However, the honest truth about history is that history is for everyone. History has been made by each and every soul that has been on Earth, and history will continue to be made.

History objectively does not have a master, but history can be manipulated. History can be doctored, and history can be skewed. History can place road-blocks in perfectly working paths. We have seen clear examples of all of these, such as when it was reported after an official review that Britain destroyed evidence of the extent of their colonial crimes and atrocities (The Guardian, 12/04/12).  History is a tool that can reveal the unwelcoming corners of humanity. However, these are revelations we have to embrace, because the alternative is confusion and manipulation.

History has no master, but due to its expansive nature, history can be moulded to suit many purposes. From extremes, such as propaganda, to more societal and institutional uses, such as nation-building. History can be great for affirming your identity or sense of belonging. Examine why people love learning about Black history beyond enslavement. Hearing about past thriving African kingdoms and civilisations, for example. The importance as Black people of knowing the history of those who looked like us and walked before us can shape our cultural identities. Our history is expansive and shows us how we have progressed and persisted despite institutional factors which exist to subdue us.

I enjoy engaging with history of every kind because I enjoy seeing progression and regression in society. I appreciate the categorisation, and I appreciate the attempts history makes to create a coherent timeline event despite the confusion that could come from dealing with the past. I believe that history can be cathartic and enlightening, despite the gaps we may see at times. It is extremely important to engage with our history as Black people, because we are the ones who are continuing to create it. We will document our wins, our losses, our stagnation and our progression, because we are the only ones who will tell the story accurately.

Chris Kaba’s family meets with UN

On Tuesday 17 January, our Director Ife Thompson and a member of the Justice for Chris Kaba Campaign supported the family of Chris Kaba while they met with the UN. During this meeting the family discussed their campaign for justice for the police killing of their son. It had previously been mentioned by Ife that the killing was a violation of various Human Rights laws and so this meeting was of great importance. She notes that this meeting was an important step in the campaign in that it highlighted these violations to the international community, in hopes of gaining support in calling out the British state and its institutional racism and globalising our fight for justice. We have seen many cases of Black people being subject to inhumane and degrading treatment and/or dying in police custody and there being no accountability or justice for those incidents. We acknowledge the work the UN is doing to recognise and rectify this issue on a global scale; Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said impunity for crimes that may have been committed by agents of the State was profoundly damaging to the core values and social cohesion of every nation. 1

BLAM UK stand firm in our belief in the necessity of the abolition of the police force. We will continue to fight for justice for Chris Kaba and his family, and will not stop until police murders like this cease. 

To find out more about the campaign and how you can support it, visit; https://linktr.ee/justiceforchriskaba

1(https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2021/03/high-commissioner-human-rights-impunity-violence-police-and-other-law)

The Congo Rainforest

Measuring at 500 million acres, the Congo Basin is larger than France and is the world’s second largest tropical rainforest- it is often known as the world’s second lung. The Congo Basin surrounds the equator, which alongside the massive water supply, makes opportune conditions for the rainforest to grow abundantly. It is made up of the Congo River, rich tropical rainforests and swamps.The Congo Basin is extremely important for regulating climate, as it has a huge carbon sink which traps carbon that would otherwise be C02 emissions. Located in Central Africa, the six countries that contain extensive forest cover are: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Countries that have part of their territory in the Congo Basin include Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia

The rainforest is home to an array of species, including gorillas, buffalo, elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, okapi, and the Congo peafowl. The Congo Basin is the only place to shelter all three subspecies of gorilla: the lowland gorilla, the Eastern lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla. The Basin has been occupied by human existence for more than 50,000 years and supplies more than 75 million people food, shelter and more. An ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle is still lived by the Ba’Aka people, whose wellbeing relies on that of the rainforest. Eight natural sites in the Congo Basin are recorded on the World Heritage In Danger list and 14% of the humid area of forest is designated as protected. The Congo Basin has a history of military neutrality forced upon them by colonists that was decided on in The General Act of the Berlin Conference which tied its signatories to impartiality (this was ignored during the First World War).

Despite the widely held knowledge that the Congo Rainforest is essentially the Earth’s second lung, there is still major exploitation that goes on there. ‘Land grabbing’, which is the act of renting or buying large areas of African territory for exporting resources, is something that is on the rise and there is no consideration for the ecosystems, food security and economic developments that ‘land grabbing’ is harming. For local communities Illegal logging of timber is also an issue within the Congo Rainforest that destroys wildlife, negatively affects climate change and harms local communities such as that of the Ba’aka people, for example climate change linked to deforestation massively affects seasons, causing droughts and floods which prevent adequate foraging. Timber that has been illegally cut is currently banned in both the United States and EU. However, as long as the product is still shipped into China (China has not created restrictions concerning illegal timber), the problems will persist. 

Due to the dangers being posed to the forest, the Dzanga- Sangha special reserve was created in 1990 to protect certain areas of Central Africa including the Congo Basin. There are also the issues of conservation and National Park building which are life threatening to the Ba’aka since it cuts them off from the forest. Conservation-related malnutrition among tribal peoples in the Congo is already a well-documented problem. In 2017, concerns were raised that conservation had contributed to the deaths of several dozen Ba’aka children during an epidemic in 2016. The deaths were attributed by a medical expert to malaria, pneumonia and dysentery, aggravated by severe malnutrition.

Ba’aka people

The Ba’aka people are a hunter-gatherer society of people living in southeastern Cameroon, Northwestern Congo and North Eastern Gabon.. With a population estimation of 25,000 Their hunter-gatherer society is also one that is acephalous, meaning that there are no hierarchies or political leaders, which makes it difficult to assimilate with other surrounding hierarchical countries. Politically, the Ba’aka people make decisions through consensus. Their nomadic tendencies as well as their stunted height (they have an average height of five feet) means they are often marginalised from society.

Both men and women hunt everyday and their hunting adheres to laws created to protect the forest which state that only traditional nets and spears can be used. Men hunt in a way which uses non- toxic chemicals which starve the fish of oxygen and make them float to the top for simple gathering, whereas the women carry out a type of hunting called ‘dam fishing’, where water is drained from a certain area and the fish are collected. The extensive knowledge that the Ba’aka people have of the forest is often heavily exploited by ivory traffickers, who use Ba’aka poverty to provide incentives for killing elephants for their tusks.The Ba’aka traditionally only hunted elephants for celebratory occasions such as weddings. There are some Ba’aka people taking a stand against these kinds of deals, being employed by the Cameroonian government as eco guards against poaching.

The Ba’aka people have managed to preserve their language (Baka). However, this is becoming more and more lost as they are forced to move from their traditional lands (due to illegal deforestation and logging). This means that they lose their knowledge that is directly associated with the land.

In terms of religious beliefs, the Ba’aka people are animist and believe in a forest spirit named Jengi, who they see as a guardian and mediator to the sovereignty, Komba. Some religious rituals include:

  • A post hunting ritual called Luma, in which the Ba’aka people sing songs of thanksgiving and praise to Jengi for what they have collected
  • A ceremony called Jengi where young boys volunteer themselves to be initiated by Jengi. After this initiation, they are free to walk in the sacred forest.

Traditional medicine is very important to the Ba’aka people and mainly involves herbal treatments taken from the forest, pureed into a pulp to treat things such as infertility. Their medicines are effective enough to attract non- Baka people who have taken ill.

Ba’aka people and COVID-19

Since the COVID pandemic was announced in Mid-March, the Ba’aka people have been isolating, grouping themselves by family or village. They returned to their camps in the forest, emulating their age-old tradition coined ‘molongo’ in which they go deep into the forest for extended periods of time to hunt and gather. However the low densities of the Congo Rainforest means that adequate protection from the spread of disease is difficult to meet. 

My journey to loving my natural afro hair

By Mya Imadojemun

Finally, at the age of twenty-one, I feel I can say truthfully that I love my natural hair. All of it. All its coils, kinks, curls and knots. I am happy with my hair but this journey has been far from simple.

When I was young, all I wanted was dead straight hair. I would stare at the white girls in envy, watching their ponytails swaying side to side as they walked the school halls, their long tresses cascading down their backs. I watched how effortlessly they scooped their hair up into a messy bun and came into class with fringes and an array of hairstyles my natural hair would never conform to. One morning before going to primary school, I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the ends of my plaits in an attempt to make my hair ‘stay down’. I was left with a botched haircut, plaits that stuck up even more and tear-stained cheeks. Global definitions of beauty have been determined by Western Eurocentrism, so all I saw in the media were white women with flowy hair. I would wander the beauty aisles, gazing at the women with shiny straight hair on the box of hair products, yearning to have the same hair texture. Growing up, shops like Tesco, Asda, Superdrug, Boots etc did not even sell Black hair products. My mum had to go to the Black hair shops in East and South London to pick up a tub of Blue Magic and a bottle of Luster’s Pink.

As I got to secondary school, my relationship with my hair worsened. I no longer wanted my childish plaits so my mum let me take charge of my hair. With European textured hair, throwing it up into a ‘messy’ bun is acceptable. With Black hair this is not the case, our buns are seen as unruly, unkept and unprofessional. I’d come into school with what I thought was a stylish messy bun, only to be asked by my classmates why my hair was so untidy. I eventually began attempting ‘wash and go’s’ to lengthen my curls, but this was short-lived as an hour later my hair would shrink back to its natural state and we were back at square one. One day an interaction I’ll never forget took place. I queued up to go into my art class and a boy came up behind me. He yanked my hair and recoiled in horror. “Your hair is so oily, it’s disgusting” and he wiped his hand on his blazer. 

So the argan oil Ecostyler gel became my best friend and I slicked my hair up daily, leaving my edges (and me) in tears. I would visit an African hairdresser now and again to get braids. As the blow dryer pick ripped through my knotted hair, I could feel their frustration and in the end, they would charge me extra because my hair was “too thick”. Even today when I sit in a salon chair I find myself automatically apologising for my thick hair; something I should not feel I have to do.

Having natural hair felt exhausting. Constantly seeing European beauty standards on TV and in magazines made me frustrated I did not have the same hair texture. Black hair is not even thought about when it comes to the beauty industry. I once remember my sister walking into a hair salon in Harrod’s to ask whether they cater to Black hair- to which they said no. If you don’t have Afro-textured hair you would not even realise how everyday things are not Afro-hair friendly. I worked in a kitchen previously and the uniform required me to wear a hat- it did not fit. I spent weeks repeatedly telling the managers how the hat will not fit over my hair until eventually, they let me wear two hairnets. Even recently for my graduation, I walked the stage without the hat because again- it did not fit my natural hair. These are covert forms of hair discrimination and are as insidious as overt forms. Anti-Black hair sentiments have been present for centuries. From the slave trade, where Afro hair was seen as a sign of uncivilization and used as reasoning for the dehumanisation and enslavement of Black people. To the present day, where stories of individuals being sent home from schools and workplaces for wearing their natural hair are unfortunately a common occurrence. Openly embracing your Afro-textured hair in a society that has continuously told you not to is a revolutionary move. 

Arguably now there is much more representation when it comes to natural hair. Today there are millions of natural hair videos on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok filled with tips and tricks on how to treat Black hair. At the end of secondary school, I was over constantly slicking back my hair and decided to begin looking after it. By the time I started university, I had watched an uncountable amount of videos on natural hair journeys, big chops, LOC methods and more. My friends and I in sixth form would grab a cup of water, drop a strand of our hair into it and watch to see what our hair porosity was. I spent my weekends walking the aisles of Queens Cosmetics intently reading the ingredients of hair products. After years of despising hair care, I now have a routine that works best for me and my hair. Instead of natural hair being a mundane chore for me, I now find it therapeutic and comforting to spend time finger combing and moisturising. My insecurities do occasionally surface and these have a lot to do with the beauty standards on social media favouring type 3 curly hair, but I continue to work on this. I love my natural hair and have come a long way from the deep-rooted hate I used to have towards it. Rather than wishing for my hair to be something it is not, I feel liberated having natural coils and that is something I wish the younger me had the opportunity to feel.

Bun the MBE, OBE and CBE and all other trinkets of Babylon’s Empire

By Rianna

Key:
OBE – Officer of the Order of the British Empire
MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire
CBE – Commander of the British Empire

In Britain we have what is called The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is a set of honours established by King George V in 1917 to honour those who had served in a non-combative role and expanded the Order to reward contributions to the Arts, Sciences, Charitable work and Public Service. However, the honour system in general in Britain dates back to as early as 1066. 

The Empire;

At its peak, the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known. It was made up of colonies, dominions, protectorates and other territories. 

It is important to note that empires are built on violence, theft and murder.

England conquered its neighbouring nations and then expanded its reach to the rest of the world. After America declared its independence from England, efforts then focused on extending The Empire to Asia, Africa and the Pacific. England later came back to the Americas, this time focusing on Latin America and what we know today as the Caribbean. Attempts date back to the 1600s, however they weren’t particularly successful. It was later on that the British Empire colonised the area and labelled the region ‘The British West Indies’; made up of 18 nations, including Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and more. The colonisation of these islands and some African nations paved the way for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Empire was complicit in the Slave Trade. 

Of course, most of The Empire’s colonies have since declared independence, but the legacy of the period can still be felt.

So what’s the issue with Black people accepting the honours?

The concept in theory is fine, recognising people’s positive contributions to their communities and society as a whole. Giving people their flowers. However, given the violent history of The Empire, why are we still giving out awards that are rooted in it? These awards commemorate the violence perpetrated for over 2 centuries. Every time an OBE, CBE or MBE is bestowed, it glamorises and glosses over the true history of the empire. They serve as a distraction.

The issue is, The Establishment has never formally acknowledged or apologised for its atrocities (atrocities that are still ongoing by the way). Prince -now King- Charles said he believed the Transatlantic Slave Trade was an ‘atrocity’, but that’s where it ended. Reparations weren’t offered, no promises to remove remnants of the empire, just an empty statement. The Establishment just expects the descendants of slavery to simply move on. 

So as a descendant of those who were brutalised by The Empire, why would you willingly accept these awards? Said awards were previously given to Generals and other military dignitaries, people who had a major role in the extension of  the empire; and others who directly benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Why would you want to be a Member of the British Empire? An Officer of the Order of the British Empire? 

Many think of the British Empire as a distant relic, that British society has since evolved. That would of course be incorrect. The Commonwealth is a flagrant parade of Britain’s former ‘glory’. Former colonies who have declared themselves independent but still have the monarchy as their head of state. The racism faced by our grandparents when they moved to this country, the racism faced by us as adults in various institutions and even the racism faced by our children in schools and in their interactions with the police.  Or how about the Windrush Scandal? West Indian migrants who were invited over to help rebuild the country but have since been treated abominably. We are constantly reminded of the remnants of the empire and its effect. 

The poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his OBE in 2003, in a very public manner. Here he speaks about the reasoning behind that decision.

He is not the only Black person to have rejected an award. He is joined by footballer Howard Gayle, education campaigner Gus John, George the Poet, LGBTQ+ activist Lady Phyll and the academic Savenaca Siwatibau. The list is unfortunately rather short. The list of Black people who have accepted an honour is much longer, and when questioned many have given weak excuses. I’m not here to pass judgement on individuals, but I’m definitely side-eyeing them small. Black people who have dedicated their careers to campaigning for our rights and fighting against injustice are happy to have the empire in letters after their names – it’s mind-boggling. 

Whilst I understand that the feeling of recognition for one’s work must be euphoric, we must remind ourselves that that euphoria was built on the backs of our ancestors. By accepting these awards, we are not dismantling racism or ‘sticking it to the man’. Instead we are being complicit. We are disrespecting and disregarding the efforts of those who have gone before us. Being an Officer or Member of the Order of The British Empire should be seen as a badge of shame, not honour. It helps to further perpetuate the rampant anti-Blackness in this nation. Feuling the rhetoric that if you work hard enough you’ll be seen as different, set apart from the rest; despite this rhetoric being rooted in white supremacy. Being part of the 4.7% of recipients to be Black isn’t the win for diversity you may think it is.

In all, it is important that we as Black people living in Britain do not forget our history. We cannot be participants in the ongoing attempts to rebrand The British Empire.

Heri Za Kwanzaa

By Michelle

Kwanzaa is a popular holiday that is unique in its origins. Like other major holidays, it often received its own special episode in TV programmes – especially Black TV programmes – such as The Proud Family, Everybody Hates Chris, and other classic sitcoms. In this blog, we will explore Kwanzaa’s origins, its traditions, principles, and clear up some preconceptions and myths. 

It’s celebrated from 26th December to 1st January, and affirms positive social values, places emphasis on the importance of family, and helps to preserve heritage and culture. Kwanzaa (sometimes spelt Kwanza) was created by Maulana Karenga in the 1960s. Alongside being a professor at California State University, Maulana Karenga was an advocate for the unity of Black people around the globe, and the integral preservation of Black cultures and identities. He was a recognised figure in Afrocentrism. 

The desire to preserve Black cultures inspired him to model Kwanzaa around traditional African harvest festivals such as the first-fruits celebrations in Southern Africa, the Yam Festival celebrated in Nigeria and parts of Ghana, and the Homowo Festival celebrated by the Ga people of Ghana. These festivals have themes of celebrating their respective cultures, affirming their heritage and interacting with the community with food as a unifier.

Further in line with the preservation of African culture, the name Kwanzaa has Swahili origins. It comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” , with kwanza meaning “first”. The extra ‘a’ in Kwanzaa was added by Karenga to represent each of the seven children who were present at the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1966. 

Kwanzaa’s creation was in the aftermath of the violence and turmoil of the Watts Riots, to empower and unite African American communities. The Watts Rebellion was a series of riots that began on August 11 1965 in Watts, Los Angeles, a predominantly Black neighbourhood. Riots broke out as a result of a white police officer attempting to arrest two Black brothers. 

The effects of the riots were severe – there were 34 recorded deaths (most of whom were Black), just over 10,000 injuries, 4,000 arrests and the involvement of about 34,000 people. A substantial amount of damages were caused, worth approximately $40 million. After the Watts Rebellion, community spirits were low and Watts residents were still reeling from the losses, injury, and damage both to property and community. The conception of Kwanzaa provided the community with a chance to reflect on positive societal values and the importance of family, and community.

Although it’s often thought of as an alternative to Christmas, it’s possible to celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas. Many people believe Kwanzaa is an alternative to the festive holiday. Maulana Karenga did not conceive Kwanzaa to be a religious holiday, like other major end-of-year annual holidays. He writes, “Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality”. He goes on to say that Africans of all faiths can (and do) celebrate Kwanzaa, and it can also be celebrated by non-Black people. In addition, although Kwanzaa is recognised as an African American holiday, it’s also celebrated outside of the US, with celebrations taking place where there are a large number of African descendants, like in the Caribbean. 

Like many holidays, Kwanzaa comes with its own set of principles. There are seven principles of Kwanzaa which originate from Swahili: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). These seven principles are in place to affirm African heritage, community, and positive societal values. There are an additional seven symbols of Kwanzaa: fruits, vegetables, nuts, a straw mat, a kinara (candleholder), corn, gifts, a communal cup and seven candles. 

Kwanzaa is typically associated with the Pan-African colours of red, black, and green – these are the colours of the candles to symbolise the seven principles. Three of the candles are red, representing the struggle for liberation including the lives lost; one of the candles is black, representing people of African descent; three of the candles are green, representing the land and hope for the future. It’s common that celebrating families wear these colours, or decorate their homes in these colours.

On each day, the celebrating family comes together to light one of the candles in the candleholder and discuss the principle for the day. For example, on one day they may discuss the principle of Umoja (unity). On December 31st, families celebrating Kwanzaa join in a community feast known as the Karamu. Homemade and educational gifts are encouraged when celebrating Kwanzaa, which promote a closer family bond and sustainability, as they avoid commercialisation and promote deeper connections, consideration and thoughtfulness. Gifts when bought are related to culture, such as art, books, or music-related gifts with cultural significance, preferably from a business that is Black-owned. 

Kwanzaa places emphasis on community reflection and cooperation, as well as cultivating a habit of reflection and consideration towards others. The focus on community values, self-development and care towards yourself and others is one which makes it a great holiday for children to be introduced to. Alongside the promotion of positive values, it helps to affirm culture and heritage as people of African descent.

You can read Karenga’s annual address here

Will you be celebrating Kwanzaa this year? Let us know!

BLAM UK condemns the behaviour of Shortlands Station staff

On December 5, 2022, at Shortlands station, two young Black school children were harassed by rail staff and British Transport Police (BTP) officers.

Anti-Blackness from rail staff 

When considering the adultification of Black children by the establishment, this is a prime example. At no point can it be justified to have this number of adults restraining a child, regardless of the alleged ‘crime’ that may have been committed.The ratio of adult to child was unacceptable. Subsequently, the two brothers have first-hand racial trauma at an early age stripping away elements of their childlike innocence. Despite it being prohibited for the police to use force in a manner which results in degrading treatment or punishment. Such force was used against these Black children in a situation initially involving a forgotten free travel pass.

Following on from this brutality, the elder brother who was en-route school to undertake his GCSE mock exams was then detained and taken to a police station. His responsible adult, in this case his mother, was never informed. When his mother contacted Bromley Police Station, she was lied to and told he wasn’t there. This young boy sat in the police station alone for hours.

At BLAM we continue to campaign for Black children. We believe that Black children should be allowed to just be children, free from trauma and brutality. We are happy to offer our services to this family providing access to our cohort of therapists who have expertise in racial trauma. 

We are calling for communities based on care. The care manifesto reminds us that we have been encouraged to feel and act like hyper-individualised, competitive subjects who primarily look out for ourselves. In order to really thrive we need caring communities. We need localised environments in which we can flourish: in which we can support each other and generate networks of belonging. We need conditions that enable us to act collaboratively to create communities that both support our abilities and nurture our interdependencies.

Excerpt From: The Care Collective. “The Care Manifesto”. Apple Books. 

We understand that the British Transport Police have referred themselves to The IOPC (The Independent Office for Police Conduct). BLAM has very little belief in the IOPC’s ability to effectively identify the root cause of this treatment. Whilst the surface issue was the belief that the boys had committed fare evasion, the underlying issue that led to this horrific treatment was racism and anti-Blackness.We recognise that the height of the child coupled with his skin colour led officers to exhibit extreme force, the kind that would be used on a grown adult male. The adultification of black boys, and the ways in which society sees them as men, means that they are often subject to quite harrowing experiences by law enforcement. The deep-rooted perceived maturity of Black children means that an independent review simply isn’t enough. 

The parents should have been the first point of contact, not the police. The rail staff should be equipped to deal with these situations without escalating it further to an institution that continues to show it has no regard for young Black lives. Regardless of the alleged crime, all of the adults involved had a duty of care to these underage boys. A duty the institution has fallen short of time and time again. 

Therefore, we are calling for the firing of all those involved in this incident and for the abolition of the BTP. We are also calling for a review of policies and practices around dealing with young people on public transport. Any protocol that provides for the calling of the police on children in these circumstances is unjust and excessive. 

Not Everyday Shaku Shaku, Sometimes Adumu Adumu: Dance Cultures of Eastern Africa

Dance is a big part of life across the African continent. It serves many purposes; entertainment, enjoyment, religious rituals, celebrations, some are even used before warriors enter into battle. Whatever the dance is used for, the all share one characteristic – they are all very well structured and require a certain amount of talent to perform. Whilst West African dances are incredibly popular worldwide, dances from around Eastern Africa are less known (by those outside of those cultures), and so we’re here to help try and change that!

Adumu

It’s highly likely that you’ve seen this dance before but may not have known what it was called. 

The Maasai are a Nilotic group living in parts of Kenya and Tanzania. What does Nilotic mean, I hear you ask…

Nilotic adjective

1: of or relating to the Nile or the peoples of the Nile basin

2: of, relating to, or being the languages of the Nilotic people

The Adumu is part of the Eunoto ceremony which marks the transition from boy into fully fledged warrior man. It is an important rite of passage that has been performed for centuries. The Adumu involves the men jumping in the air to drums, chanting and clapping. They jump up with rigid straight backs and their heels aren’t allowed to touch the ground. It’s almost a competition, the higher the jump the louder the cheers from the crowd. 

Dhaanto

(Dhantur)

The Somali ethnic group are largely found in Somalia (obviously), but they can also be found throughout the Horn of Africa, including in Ethiopia. It is a Somali clan in Ethiopia that is thought to have first created the Dhaanto dance. The cultural folk dance is often played at celebrations and parties, it is an artistic expression of how the camel moves – how it walks, grasses and socializes with other camels – it is reflected in the dance moves. You see participants bobbing their heads and tapping their feet to the rhythm. It’s a very fun dance to watch.

Bwola

This dance is performed by the Acholi people of Uganda. The Acholi are a Nilotic (remember this term?) group, they can be found in both South Sudan and Uganda. The Bwola is performed by men only, after an intense training process in which they must learn the steps. The dance used to be performed by warriors upon their victorious return to their village, however in more recent times it is reserved for special, royal occasions such as the swearing in of a new chief, or funerals and weddings. Elaborate headdresses are worn and sticks are used to imitate the spears warriors would’ve once used. 

All of these dances are still performed regularly today, and it is important that we continue to document them as they are important cultural histories that should be preserved and protected. And maybe one day, they’ll be incorporated into the mainstream party scene. Imagine people doing the Adumu during the Afrobeats set at a rave, that would be a sight to behold!

The Artistic Tradition of Yoruba Culture & Art

By Pamilerin Thompson

The arts of the Yoruba are as numerous as our deities, and many objects are placed on shrines to honor the gods and the ancestors. Beautiful sculptures are made from wood and brass and the occasional terracotta. The Yoruba also have varied masking traditions that have resulted in a great diversity of mask forms. Additional important arts for the Yoruba include pottery, weaving, beadworking, and metalsmithing.

The Yoruba people are a Nigerian ethnic group that inhabit West Africa. Today, they are found around the globe but historically resided in what is now known as Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. These areas constituted what was once known as ‘Yorubaland’. Additionally, in oral history, the origin of the Yoruba peope can be traced back to their ancient father and divine Oduduwa who migrated from an ancient city now known as Mecca.

‘BENIN BRONZE HEADS’

The most widely known piece of Yoruba art are the ‘Benin Bronze Heads’ also known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, but they should not be confused with the ‘Ife Head’ (or ‘Bronze Head from Ife’) which has a slightly diffrent history of dishonest appropriation. 

The ‘Benin Bronzes’ are a group of thousands of objects that were taken from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, in 1897. (Their exact number is unknown, though it is believed to exceed 3,000 and reach up to 5,000.) These objects—including figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask—were looted by British troops, and have since been dispersed around the world, with the bulk of the works now residing with state museums in Europe. Contrary to the name, not all of the works are made of bronze. Because they made their way beyond West Africa as a result of a colonial conquest, the Benin Bronzes have faced calls for their return, both within Nigeria and outside it. There are over 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum’s collection, the most in any institution around the world.

Benin suffered a bloody and devastating occupation. No exact figure can be given for the number of Benin’s population who were killed in the conquest of the city. However, it is clear that there were many casualties during the sustained fighting. The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction, looting, and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Benin Royal Palace was burned and partly destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were stolen to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank. This included objects removed from royal ancestral shrines, among which were ceremonial brass heads of former Obas and their associated ivory tusks. The looted objects also included more than 900 brass plaques, dating largely to the 16–17th century, found in a storage room within the palace. Having previously decorated the palace walls, these plaques were key historic records for the Benin Court and Kingdom, enabling illustration of historic practices and traditions. Following the occupation, the Oba was later captured and sent into exile, while a number of Benin chiefs were executed. Justified as legitimate military action against a ‘barbarous’ Kingdom, this brutal, violent colonial episode effectively marked the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.

Nevertheless, the modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II. Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin continue to be performed today. Despite the brutal and imperialistic attack by British colonial forces the traditions and cultures they aimed to destroy and wipe out have prevailed through oral hisory.

‘Benin Bronzes’ were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City. The Kingdom also supported guilds working in other materials such as ivory, leather, coral and wood, and the term ‘Benin Bronzes’ is sometimes used to refer to historic objects produced using these other materials.

Many pieces were commissioned specifically for the ancestral altars of past Obas and Queen Mothers. They were also used in other rituals to honour the ancestors and to validate the accession of a new Oba. Among the most well-known of the ‘Benin Bronzes’ are the cast brass plaques which once decorated the Benin royal palace and which provide an important historical record of the Kingdom of Benin. This includes dynastic history, as well as social history, and insights into its relationships with neighbouring kingdoms, states, and societies. 

In October 2021 the British Museum received a written request for the return of ‘Nigerian antiquities’ from the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Nigeria. In addition, representatives of the Benin Royal Palace have made various public statements asking for the Benin collections to be returned, most recently at the Benin Dialogue Group meeting hosted by the Museum in October 2021. In spite of these recent requests and several other requests over the decades the only institution who has committed to repatriating a ‘Benin Bronze’ work is the the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who called its 1957 acquisition of a sculpture of the Oba at auction in London ‘extremely immoral’ and has vowed to send the work home. 

As artist Victor Ehikhamenor, wrote in his New York Times op-ed on the subject in 2020 ‘[g]enerations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent. We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours.’

We join the many others who continue to call upon and demand that the British Museum and other institions located in the Global North return stolen artefacts to their rightful homes in Africa.

IFE HEAD

The Bronze Head from Ife, Wunmonije Heads, or Ife Head, is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people. It is believed to represent a king. It was probably made in the fourteenth-fifteenth century C.E. Like most West African ‘bronzes’ the Ife Head is actually made of copper alloyed with other metals, described as ‘heavily leaded zinc-brass’. Modern practice in museums and archaeology is increasingly to avoid terms such as bronze or brass for historical objects in favour of the all-embracing ‘copper alloy’. The Head is made using the lost wax technique and is approximately three-quarters life-size, measuring 35 cm high. The artist designed the head in a very naturalistic style. The face is covered with incised striations, but the lips are unmarked. The headdress suggests a crown of complex construction, composed of different layers of tube shaped beads and tassels. This decoration is typical of the bronze heads from Ife. The crown’s surface includes the remains of both red and black paint.

The Ife Head was found by accident in 1938 at the Wunmonije Compound, Ife, during house-building works amongst sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper half of a brass figure. Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound and neighbouring areas ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces were taken from Nigeria and are now in the collections of major museums. This pictured Ife Head was taken from Nigeria by the editor of the Daily Times of Nigeria, H. Maclear Bate, who probably sold it to the National Art Collections Fund, which then passed it onto the British Museum in 1939.

The Ife Head is thought to be a portrait of a ruler known as an Ooni or Oni. It was probably made under the patronage of King Obalufon Alayemore whose famous naturalistic life-size face mask in copper shares stylistic features with this work. Today among the Yoruba, Obalufon is identified as the patron deity of brass casters. The period in which the work was made was an age of prosperity for the Yoruba civilisation, which was built on trade via the River Niger to the peoples of West Africa. Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people as the place where their deities created humans.

The excavation of the Ife Heads had a massive impact on art history which for years racistly argued that the Ife Heads were an anomaly and had been cast by a colony of ancient Greeks in thirteenth century BCE. This is now widely understood as stemming from colonial racism and the Ife Heads are not only representative of inigenous African traditions, they were likely created by a highly talented indiviual artist in a single workshop.

PRINCESS ELIZABETH OLOWU

Princess Elizabeth Olowu is a sculptor who is recognised as the first female bronze caster in Nigeria. Born in 1939 in the royal house of Benin to Oba Akenzua II, Olowu took interest in the objects in the royal court—Benin Bronzes—and started learning the skill of bronze sculpting alongside her mother.

Olowu’s focus and desire to learn the skill of bronze sculpting was encouraged by her father—at a time when women in Benin were not allowed to participate in the craft. She was educated at Holy Child College, Lagos and in 1966, she enrolled at the University of Nsukka to study Fine Arts. Her artistic abilities and academic performance earned her the top first-year student award in Fine Arts but her education at Nsukka was cut short because of the Biafran War.

In 1976, she enrolled at the newly established department of Creative Arts at the University of Benin, where she graduated as the department’s first sculpture major in 1979. In 1984, she became the first female recipient of a Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Benin and was recognised as Nigeria’s first female bronze caster. She was awarded the Bendel State Award for Art and Culture in 1985.

Art has always held massive cultural importance and value in the Yoruba cultural tradition. It depicts history, social standing, remembers royalty, celebrates life and death, and is a part of our traditional attire. Everything from ancient bronze antiquities to the gele and adire we tie. Yoruba culture is infused with a rich artistic history. The lasting impact of Yoruba art and culture on  global art history cannot be understated!

Mami Wata, La Sirene, Mama Dlo

Mermaids in African & Caribbean Mythology

By Michelle

The myth of the mermaid is a universal cultural staple. They feature in fairytales, fantasies, adventures, and the like. The concept of mysterious beings who live in the sea and other bodies of water has captivated the minds of those who live on land for milenia. The myth of the mermaid is layered, diverse, and dynamic. This can be attributed to the fact that the myth varies from culture to culture, and even by region on the same continent. Like other mainstream mythological creatures, mermaids have roots in many cultures around the world, from China to Russia to Senegal – several cultures across the world have legends of these aquatic beings. In this blog, we will be exploring the long-standing mermaid mythology of Africa and the Caribbean.

Although they may be referred to by different names, plenty of what we would call mermaids around the world have the same, or at least similar, physical traits. Many of them feature a being with the upper body of a woman and the elongated bottom half of a fish, with a tail and fins replacing legs. In West and Central-West Africa, mermaids are generally referred to as Mami Wata, a name which has unclear origins. This blanket name refers to mermaids, and the deity which resembles a mermaid.

Since the myth of the mermaid is one that features in so many cultures across the world, it is no surprise that the appearances of mermaids vary. Despite the popularised image of mermaids being white, Black people have always had their mermaid myths and legends albeit without the involvement of tridents, princes and ‘happily-ever-afters’. Black countries in Africa and the Caribbean in particular have a unique relationship with the myth of the mermaid. Generally, in these areas, those who live near bodies of water (rivers, lakes, seas) are aware of her existence. Reactions on mentioning Mami Wata could range from wariness to indifference, the sort of indifference that comes from talking about something that is a known fact or a part of life. 

Interestingly, it is also generally agreed upon that mermaids are inherently supernatural, with equally supernatural abilities such as hypnosis. In West and Central West Africa, Mami Wata is not only the blanket name for mermaids – it is also a deity, meaning that there are people who worship her. She has a multitude of abilities, including healing the sick, increasing female fertility by ‘blessing’ women with baby girls, as well as providing wealth and other material rewards. As a goddess, she is described as jealous with a potentially fatal wrath when angered. She can also cause sickness, and bad luck which ranges from failure in important aspects of life, to the more drastic – death. There is a certain unpredictability associated with mermaids and Mami Wata, who is said to be hostile and dangerous at times and welcoming at other times. There are some aspects of her lore which involve luring men to their graves – similar to European mermaid myth. However, unlike the European mermaid myth, African and Caribbean mermaid mythology can be argued as being more complex as mermaids in these places are believed to have supernatural abilities, are worshipped, and are associated with curses and blessings.

Mami Wata is said to favour women and seek them out to ‘bless’ or influence them to worship her. Her priests are also commonly women, high priestesses who dedicate their lives to her worship. She, and other mermaids in general, are also referred to as water spirits. It is important to remember that she is an integral part of lore and is a vital part of traditional religions in the continent as well as variations and denominations that were created in the African diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean. She is associated with good luck, fertility, beauty, material gain, success, and the like and is said to bestow these to her followers. Mami Wata and mermaids in general are feared and revered by many people, but they are also a source of captivation due to the mystery that surrounds them. Although they are the subjects of fairy tales, mermaids are very real to many Black communities. In some of these communities they are responsible for random drownings, disappearances and other sudden and inexplicable events. It is common to hear anecdotes about them, about a strange and mysterious beautiful woman who offered children, wealth, and beauty to another woman, or about a mysterious being who was trying to beckon someone, and so on.

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans who were kidnapped and sold into slavery carried their religions, practices and folklore with them to their destinations. As mentioned earlier, Mami Wata is a deity who has been worshipped for an immeasurable amount of time. As she is also heavily associated with rivers, lakes, and seas it was no wonder that her legend quickly spread into the Caribbean with the arrival of enslaved Africans who wished to preserve their religions and myths. Interestingly, she is not the only deity to have been transported into the Caribbean and the Americas. The Ghanaian deity and folklore character of Anansi, who is commonly represented as a spider, was another deity worshipped and incorporated into folklore in the Caribbean with African roots. Although she may also be called La Sirène in the Francophone parts of the Caribbean, she is still venerated in a very similar manner that she is in Africa.

Mermaid imagery is commonly used in art in Africa, particularly along the West African coast. They usually represent Mami Wata. It is not unusual to see her image in a mural outside of buildings such as gambling houses, temples, and other general buildings. She is commonly depicted with a comb or handheld mirror (sometimes, even a combination of the two) which are symbols of beauty and vanity. In addition to this, her image is also associated with snakes. She can be depicted with a large snake draped across her shoulders, or carrying one above her head. In African and Caribbean lore, Mami Wata has the ability to shapeshift, but it’s said that her preferred form is a beautiful young woman. She also has the ability to turn into a large snake, hence why she is associated with them.

There has been more of a discussion about the appearance of mermaids and a subsequent dive into their diversity. As mentioned earlier, the mermaid is a universal cultural staple – it features in several cultures around the world, particularly those in countries with coastlines. Mermaids do not have a default appearance, and they do not all have features commonly associated with white Europeans. The mermaid myth in Black countries is ancient, rich, and complex. Mermaids, particularly the deity Mami Wata, are venerated as well as feared. Her lore and status was transported during the Transatlantic Slave Trade and spread across communities of people of African descent. Although the image of mermaids that is mainstream and widely popularised in film and other media does not resemble Black people, Black people have always had mermaid myths and legends which are rich, layered, and longstanding.