In the making

Martin Luther King's visit to Newcastle is one of many untold stories of the north’s black communities over 500 years. Meet the people uncovering them

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In 2018, Britain will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush, the boat synonymous with migration and seen by many as the starting point of the modern black British story. But the year will also mark the culmination of an ambitious programme by Britain’s principal black-led national touring theatre company to dispel the myth that this period was the beginning of multicultural Britain.

“It’s an unmined source of material and inspiration.

It’s been ignored.”

“There are stories that are not being told. Those stories, I have identified, are black British stories,” says Dawn Walton, Eclipse Theatre Company’s artistic director.

Revolution Mix, says Walton, has been designed by the Sheffield-based company to present an alternative to the dominant narrative of black British history, with its focus on slavery, immigration and gang crime. Launched in 2015 and running over three years, the project will showcase the work of 15 British writers, partnered with 12 regional theatres, with the first productions set to open in spring 2017. Each will draw on the stories of real people and events over the last 500 years to tell the “untold black British story”.

Walton says debates within the arts over whether, for instance, a black actor can appear in a costume drama, have influenced Revolution Mix. “They’re ridiculous, because actually if you look at our history, there’s been a revisionism about when black and Asian people existed in this country. Actually, it’s been the last 500 years we’ve existed. So the idea that you can’t include black stories in British history is extraordinary.”

Many of the new plays will explore black history in the north of England. Stories set to be told include the impact of Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle in 1967, five months before his assassination, and the tale of a black British men’s walking group in the Peak District. “Once you step back in time, these people and these stories are outside of London. They’re all over the country,” says Walton.

Walton cites a ream of examples that Revolution Mix could highlight – from a black Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, who was born in what is now Libya but died in York, to former slaves settling in cities like Manchester and campaigning for abolition in the 19th century. And then there are little-known artistic figures, such as the American-born black actor Samuel Morgan Smith, who struggled to get work in his home country and so travelled to Britain. He frequently performed in Shakespearean productions, and lived and died in Sheffield during the 19th century.

“There are so many stories it’s ridiculous,” says Walton. “The thing that’s really interesting is that it’s a completely unmined source of material and inspiration. It’s been ignored, that history. Once you start to dig it out it’s incredible. It’s a really fascinating world to play in and explore.”

One of the first plays, about King’s visit to Newcastle, has been written by Archie Maddocks, who became interested in the story because it struck him as a strange place for the civil rights leader to appear. The visit will act as a starting point from which to explore the black British experience in a city like Newcastle.

“My family came from Trinidad and for some inexplicable reason wound up in Newcastle, and they were literally the only ones there,” says Maddocks. “I thought that might be an interesting way of looking at identity within the black experience, whether that be from an immigration standpoint, or from a first-generation English standpoint.

“I’ve asked my dad and other family friends who were in Newcastle at the time, and none of them went to the university [where he received an honorary degree] to see him. That in itself spoke volumes to me – all these people did regard Martin Luther King as a hero and as a powerful figure in the civil rights movement, but none of them went to go and see him speak. Talking to them, some of them wanted to be kept invisible, they didn’t want to put themselves out there, some of them didn’t know about it, and others just thought, oh, I’ll go next time.”

Professor Paul Ward, head of history at the University of Huddersfield, agrees with the ideas behind Revolution Mix.

“I don’t think black British history has been portrayed at all in the north as something that really exists. I don’t think it’s made it into the mainstream very well at all.” He says there’s a lack of educational resources about black British history, and too few black teachers and university lecturers. He describes Black History Month, which occurs each October, as “problematic”, as it sidelines the black British story as something separate, and implies that the prevailing narrative of Britain’s past is white.

“If you got someone to name a series of British people from the past – and I use the term ‘British’ to mean living in the British Isles – it’s unlikely that they would speak of anyone who was black in that list. It would be Elizabeth I, Henry VIII or Winston Churchill. It’d be a long time before people pictured black faces as part of the national story.

“We need people to understand that the past wasn’t some homogeneous white society that became changed in 1948 [with the Windrush]. In some ways we ought not to have to talk about it, because it should be normalised. You would still continue to get really fascinating stories about interesting figures from the past, but the fascinating thing about them would be that they were in Britain. You can’t write out of history the hostility to black people, because it happened again and again – but there would be a normalisation of a multi-ethnic past.”

Ward also highlights the London-centric nature of the way we view black history in this country. “Lots of people think black history is about London and perhaps Birmingham, and black communities are seen as largely confined to particular areas rather than having made a settlement and impact all over the country, including the north.”

To illustrate his point, he highlights the example of Salim Wilson – an African Christian preacher who did missionary work in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the early 20th century.

Dubbed the ‘black evangelist of the north’, Wilson, according to Ward, “normalised the presence of black people in Britain” during this period. “The description of him as the black evangelist identifies him clearly as different from other people preaching in the north. At the same time, he was the black evangelist ‘of the north’. So it regionalises him, recognises his difference and distinctiveness, and makes him part of ordinary society. There’s nothing hostile in the phrase ‘black evangelist of the north’ – it just draws our attention to the difference that’s happening in society. That’s an interesting story where a black person is both ‘different’ and ‘normal’ at the same time.”

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