Arike Oke is the Managing Director for the Black Cultural Archives, the home of Black British history. She’s worked in heritage for over 15 years, from the seminal Connecting Histories project in Birmingham, to building Wellcome Collection’s archive, and co-convening Hull’s first Black History Month. She is a board member for the National Archives’ strategic Unlocking Archives initiative, and is a fellow of the Arts Council’s Museums and Resilient Leadership programme.
How is the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) changing the way that we perceive Black history in Britain? How has its purpose developed or changed?
BCA has been around for roughly four decades. It was instituted as a charity in 1995 but our conception was 1981. It was set up as a positive action and way forward for the African and Caribbean community after the St Paul’s, Brixton and Toxteth uprisings. Another motivation was the How The West Indian child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain book (Coard: 1971). Years after the Windrush Generation had re-built the country after the Second World War, they, their children and the next generation were victims of structural racism: education and career opportunities systematically ground away from them. At that time the Black part of British history was not known about; ignored or erased from mainstream history creating the mainstream impression that British history was mono-cultural.
The BCA was created by a collective of parents, artists and educators who wanted to make sure that the next generation had the best chances possible by seeing themselves represented and having a more rounded understanding of what British history is. Len Garrison, the co founder, collected historical objects and created archives, which became the conceptual foundation of our monument. You could see the influence of the community in creating a more rounded and healthy British history, not based on division.
We are now taking the BCA back to that. It has had a building, at 1 Windrush Square, since 2014 but many of the years before that were geared towards getting one. Now we need to understand what it is to be an institution, not only an activist organisation. We are also working to continue to professionalise the archive and its conservation. In our 10-year strategy, which will be launched this year, we will return to our founding principles: teaching Black history, as well as workforce development and collaborations.
By 2030 one of the aims is to use our active voice, which means collaborating, championing and advocating for the Windrush generation. We’ll be campaigning on why our communities have been disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus. We also want the teaching of Black British history to be available to everyone; not just schools in their curriculum but intergenerational groups, overseas visitors and the wider public. We want to make our collections available online, touring and in person. Our archive is incredibly well used, recently author Louise Hare mentioned using it on Women’s Hour. We want our object collections to also be as accessible for creative responses and new research.
Your current exhibition is about breaking down barriers for Black British people. What are some of the obstacles that still stand in the way for the Black British community today?
There are multiple. Racism is endemic across British society. It is still the case, even though Stormzy gets push back when he says that. We try to use our mission to address this; in terms of the Windrush Scandal, we host free legal surgeries for those affected, to help them navigate compensation claims. People are more comfortable coming to our building to get advice than a government building because of the lack of trust in the Home Office. There is still a disconnection with government and the communities they are supposed to serve.
All of the major funders have an ethnicity-funding gap and Arts Council England is aware of it. Each time they publish a strategy and they make it clear that this is something that needs to be done. BCA is the leading Black heritage institution, so we become a focal point for everyone’s projects. We need far more BCAs, there should never be just one of us; we try to have a national reach. The knock-on effect of a scarcity of funding is that there are so few Black-led and funded organisations, like the Africa Centre and Culture& with too much demand and not enough people to get the work done.
How does the Black Cultural Archives represent the changing multi-layered identities of Britain’s Caribbean, African and fast-growing mixed race population etc?
We try to be as open as possible to understanding what kind of opportunities we have to reflect different Black British identities, which are incredibly layered. We are aware of some of our gaps; we have not fully engaged with the Black gay population or people with disabilities. Intersectionality is not something we have been involved with properly yet. We are having conversations with different groups so we can be a platform for them to showcase their identity. It is quite exciting. I do this job, not to be BCA’s director but because I believe in our mission and thinking about the mission holistically. It is a mission for society so what does that mean or imply for us? Dr Hannah Ishmael, our Archivist, has been very involved in leading the archive sector conversations on intersectionality. Decolonisation in the collections and dismantling white supremacy in archives is a conversation that is happening in the profession and she has been instrumental in bringing that to our archival practices.
How do you envision the future for the BCA archive post pandemic?
It has proved to everybody that the possibilities of collaboration and use of digital technology are much more available to us than we thought. Everyone in the cultural sector was super busy before, now this has made us all stop and think about how we can work together. The reality is that we can work from wherever and make adjustments for people’s personal circumstances. The work you do can also be delivered internationally and is not building specific.
It has also bought home our understanding of the inequalities of access to digital advice services. Our Windrush advice surgeries tend to attract elders, homeless people, a lot of people without access to technology. There are also safeguarding issues online. A lot of people who come to the surgeries have found us through word of mouth or a flyer. It is interesting that so much has been made available digitally but there are still those sections of society who are isolated.
In the short term, we have moved online and are supporting staff to work from home. In the medium term, we need to understand the effect of social distancing and think about how we can be as flexible as possible so we can program but without relying on using our building. Long term, is going back to our 10-year strategy but thinking about what people are going to want. Will they be desperate for engagement with culture or are they going to be too scared? Collaboration is going to be so important. I think we are having a rebirth of how we perceive community.
China has been the first country to go into the next phase and there has been an increased paranoia and racism there, with Black people not allowed in restaurants. That’s not a good sign.
How have perceptions of Black identity changed? Is the rise of mainstream cultural figures like Stormzy evidence that the contribution of Black British artists is acknowledged or are they just part of Britain’s international brand image?
I don’t really think that in mainstream culture, perceptions of Black identity have changed. It changes super slowly anyway. Identity is very layered and this catch all identity that has been taken on in mainstream British culture, has none of its complexities. Stormzy is lauded and people love him but when he reported that Britain is racist, it evoked dissonance and people criticised him. That shows the depths of the problem. We have decided what Black identity is but only that cut out of what a Black British person is. We need to understand ourselves and our intersections. The way that Meghan Markle has been treated, as a Black woman again demonstrates how racists have so many ways of explaining themselves. She doesn’t fit into the cut out of how a ‘good’ Black person is supposed to behave.
Why has it been important for the BCA to collaborate with Culture& on our 2020 decolonisation mantra?
When we talked to Culture& about it, we were in agreement on every point. We also believe in speaking with one voice and adding voices to make something louder. Culture&’s approach to decolonisation as a series of ‘re’ word is very interesting and a really practical way to approach it. Tristram Hunt, talking about decolonisation as decontextualizing holds no water, when you think of it as a ‘re’ rather than a ‘de’. ‘Re’ words are at the spirit of what we are regaining; a mutual understanding and a correction of erasures and omissions. When Errol, Culture&’s CEO, explained it to us, we wanted to talk in one voice with him.
Can you tell us about a Black British figure in our history that we might not know and should?
Sadly last week, our BCA patron Dame Jane Jocelyn Barrow OBE DBE passed away. She would have been 91 this month. People might not have heard about her, she was incredible and has done so much. The country should be grieving her. She was Trinidadian, arriving here in 1959 to finish her teaching qualification so she was part of the Windrush generation. She was a founding member and Vice Chair of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, responsible for the 1968 Race Relations Act legislation. She was a teacher in formal education at university level. She introduced multicultural education to Britain, tailoring the needs of people from ethnic backgrounds. What BCA is trying to do is something that she was a pioneer of. She was the first Black governor of the BBC and the founder and Deputy Chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council, Governor of the Commonwealth Institute and the BCA’s first patron. She had an OBE and DBE. She championed and was the face of race relations in this country and I think she is someone we don’t think about or hear about enough even though she is central to the rights we have now. We have that platform at BCA because of the work she did. People in the 1960s knew her but she hasn’t passed into history yet but she is definitely someone we need to talk about and celebrate more.
What’s your favourite book so far of 2020? What did it teach you?
I have been sent this book to review called Archive that. Comrade –conversations in archive about ownership, voice and decolonial practice. Some other really good books are Nels Abbey’s Think like a White Man, a satire of the patriarchy about how to get ahead by taking on the persona of white men. Another great book last year was Jeffrey Boayke’s Black, Listed.
Arike Oke was interviewed by Sam Allen