‘We Want the Ability, Space & Time to Retell Our Own History’
Melissa Chemam speaks to campaigners and creatives taking part in Black History Month in Bristol, where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was brought down in June and discussions about past and present racism continue to run deep
Michael Jenkins is a film-maker and activist. Since 2015, he has been working on a film about his city’s relationship with the “myth of Edward Colston” for his own Bristol-based production company, Blak Wave.
For him, 2020 has been a game-changing year. For Black History Month, he has been invited to share the first trailer of his film Colston: A Bristol Story at the Bristol Old Vic theatre, one of the oldest in the UK, as part of five events curated by the award-winning Bristol playwright Chinonyerem Odimba.
“My father is mixed-race, his father is from Jamaica and his mother from Swindon; and my mother is from Domenica so, for me, retelling the history of Caribbean people is a passion and a duty,” Michael says. “With this film, I hope to help people get a better understanding of people like Edward Colston.”
For over a century, the slave trader has been celebrated in Bristol as a philanthropist and a benefactor. “Do we really want to celebrate people like that?” Michael asks.
In June, Colston’s statue in Bristol city centre was torn down during a Black Lives Matter protest. Since that day, Bristolians have been fiercely debating the consequences of the watershed moment.
Before the statue fell, a group known as Countering Colston had been campaigning for its peaceful removal by the city council for years. The former Lord Mayor and current Green City Councillor Cleo Lake had managed to remove his painting from the city hall a couple of years before. American British historian Madge Dresser and film-maker and Professor Dr Shawn Sobers had worked on a plaque to rebalance Colston’s history, but it was not approved by the current mayor Marvin Rees, himself half-Jamaican.
“For long, I thought I would conclude my film with the pose of this plaque,” Michael adds, “but the democratic process was not allowed to go through. So it was only natural the statue would eventually go in some other way.”
Michael was born in Southmeads, Bristol. His parents had moved to Bath to avoid constant racism. When he learned about American and Caribbean history as a 12-year-old, mainly through films such as Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, he started developing a keen interest in history and a passion for cinema. “I grew up followed by the police just because I was black, so I had to educate myself to understand the deeper reasons,” he explains.
“At 12 or 13, when in Bristol, I couldn’t care less about the statue. But then I heard that the band Massive Attack refused to play in the city’s auditorium, because of its name, Colston Hall. And, in 2007, an exhibition also retraced that part of the city’s history. Then I looked around and saw that Colston and his organisation, the Merchant Venturers, were still celebrated everywhere in Bristol, almost like a cult.”
Colston Hall recently changed its name to the Bristol Beacon, while the Colston Girls School also announced that it would be changing its name. A pub has changed names too, but Colston still seems to haunt the area.
At some point, white people will have to give up their seat to others, for a while, so that we can properly live together.Aisha Thomas
For Michael, the discussions being had around Bristol’s history are positive in that the issues they are raising are now less hidden, compared to neighbouring cities such as Bath or Oxford.
“All we want now is the ability, space and time to retell our own history, and our own stories,” he says. “That’s my mission and my goal.”
His film, a passion project for which he had no funding, is now complete and will be shown by the end of the year in local cinemas such as the Watershed and the Cube.
COVID and Racism
Aisha Thomas, an educator, TEDx speaker and activist, is also a guest at the Bristol Old Vic’s series of events for Black History Month. She is the founder of Representation Matters and was invited to talk at the weekend about education as a tool of resistance and how the National Curriculum can be made fairer and more explanatory for all British children.
A teacher and associate principal, the mother-of-two is constantly engaging with her community on these issues, with 2020 being a very unusual year for her profession.
“COVID completely knocked us down and then there was the issue of racism,” she says. “For instance, I was screamed at in the street. A woman refused to let me be in the same queue as her at the local supermarket, saying black people brought everyone COVID. So, on top of suffering, we have to explain that, if people of colour are more affected by pandemics, it’s not about genetics, but about having jobs in the frontline, or less access to healthcare.”
Following the killing of George Floyd in America, she says that some of her pupils came to her crying, saying “Miss, it’s so hard being black”. She wrote an open letter to the school “to explain how we live through this”.
As a result, Aisha managed to introduce some books to discuss in her classroom, such as Akala’s Natives. She believes it is necessary to start educating children about prejudice as early as possible.
Other Black History Month events in Bristol discussed women in creativity, considered how to decolonise universities, and celebrated the tradition of the Caribbean carnival in Britain – embodied by St Paul’s Carnival in Bristol and Notting Hill in London.
Speakers also addressed the need to celebrate the positive part of black history. University of the West of England Bristol lecturer, broadcaster and activist Roger Griffith gave a talk about the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, which saw black activists protest against the local transport company refusing to employ people of colour. The movement contributed to bringing about the first Race Relations Act in 1965.
Meanwhile, the historian Roger Ball discussed the impact of the 1980 St Pauls riots in a Caribbean neighbourhood n Bristol, which saw young black boys protest police brutality.
“Segregation pays and it still continues,” says Aisha. “Marginalised people want change but we need allyship. At some point, white people will have to give up their seat to others, for a while, so that we can properly live together.”
We’re definitely not there yet.