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Black (British) History Month

Black (British) History Month

Selina Stone reflects on the variety of roles played by Black churches in Britain, past and present. 02/10/2018

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Even within communities of African and Caribbean heritage, there are mixed feelings about Black History Month. For many it is an opportunity to celebrate histories and cultures that are often misunderstood or misrepresented for the other eleven months of the year. It is a chance to travel back in time to even before the Windrush, to discover the Black Britishness that began way before the 1950s. This is the time for us to consider the presence of Africans in Roman Britain, those African members of Sir Francis Drake’s crew or those who fought for Britain in the First and Second World Wars. Yet, this month may also be seen as a solemn reminder of what is missing from common narratives of British history and may trigger a feeling of being ‘othered’ once again. Can British history ever be complete without the inclusion of Black history?

The importance of recognizing the forgotten elements of British history seems even clearer in our current climate. The question of who should be recognized as part of Britain seems to be central to recent debates including those on immigration, refugees, anti–terrorism and Brexit. This age–old question of belonging is nothing new, but commonly resurfaces (often in the most aggressive ways) during times of economic pressure and political upheaval. These circumstances bring to the forefront basic human concerns for survival which are then intensified by fear and anger. The end result is often the marginalization of those who are considered a threat to the survival of the majority.

The implications of this question of belonging have always been central for Black communities here in Britain. Living as ethnic minorities in a majority white country has meant developing the capacity to inhabit two different cultural spaces simultaneously. On the one hand is a desire to continue to enjoy the richness of one’s heritage and home culture. On the other, the demand to adopt cultural norms and values that will help you to navigate a society and political life that have developed historically without you in mind.

For many within Black communities, churches have been the spaces which have helped them to handle both of these challenges. Determined to create places to worship that were welcoming and familiar, these congregations have changed the face of British Christianity. Black churches have been known historically and also today for vibrant styles of worship, passionate preaching and a commitment to a caring community. Yet they have also been sites of economic development, social engagement and political action. In this way they have acted as safe spaces for communities often faced with racist hostility, and have offered tools for creating a better life.

In 1979 the Pentecostal Credit Union was founded by Pastor Carmel Jones and his wife Iveline from Jamaica. At a time when Caribbean migrants were facing discrimination from English banks, these women and men drew on their own traditional models of financial development in order to subvert the system. This organization allowed members to take out personal loans (and at good rates), allowing them to find their financial feet, to buy houses and even church buildings. Today this innovative organization not only remains standing, but is the second largest in the country. Its concern is to contribute to improving the standing of people in Britain who today face the kinds of discrimination experienced by its founders.

From these congregations have come leaders whose innovation has gone beyond impacting Black communities to shaping cities around this country and the nation as a whole. Canon Rev Les Isaac OBE, himself a Pentecostal Christian, has led Ascension Trust and Street Pastors for over 25 years. This organization, which was founded in order to address concerns about youth violence has seen over 10,000 men and women trained to be a presence of peace on the streets of Britain. These volunteers (some of whom also serve in local schools) offer care and support to those who may find themselves lonely, vulnerable or at risk of assault or violence.

While this may be the month to highlight the historic and contemporary contributions of Black communities to Britain, their impact is year–long and so should their recognition be. These stories are not just Black History, any more than stories of the contributions of white communities to Britain should be categorized as White History. This month is an invitation to consider the ways in which British life has been and continues to be impacted by different ethnic identities, including whiteness. While ethnicities which are not white are often placed under scrutiny in Britain, whiteness is not, although it is the most significant in terms of population size. The stories of whiteness should not be normalized as truly British while stories of other ethnicities are seen as ‘other’. Together these various stories have the power to shape British identity by allowing us to celebrate past victories, to learn what must not be repeated and to cultivate hope for what could be possible in the future.

 

Image of Shiloh Pentecostal church, Hackney ca. 1970. by Dennis Morris. Available from the Victoria and Albert Museum Collections. 

Selina Stone

Selina Stone

Selina Stone is a Tutor and Lecturer in Political Theology at St Mellitus College. She is also a part time PhD student at the University of Birmingham researching the impact of Pentecostal theology and ministry on issues of social justice.
@selinarstone

Posted 2 October 2018

Britain, Church, Communities, History, Identity

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