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Past Diversity and Present Riches

  • 3rd December 2020
  • Posted by Leeds 2023

Black History Month might have concluded but there is always work to be done and conversations to be had around diversity and inclusion. So we thought it would be great to ask Joe Williams and Ness Mudd from Heritage Corner to give us some reflections and thoughts in a year that has been so profoundly challenging for so many and in so many different ways. 

Joe
Leeds has invaluable stories, from those who faced wars and challenging times in the past. Stories, per-haps, that could inspire us to beat COVID. These narratives have been documented and archived for good reason and we benefit from and honour those experiences by listening and remembering.

If your history and heritage is made absent, so is the vehicle that communicates your humanity. Those who profited from slavery knew this and stripped their human ‘property’ of heritage and dignity. This is the main reason we have a Black History Month (BHM), to challenge the invisible legacy of exclusion and lies. Black Lives Matter has also been forced into existence to challenge those who wish to perpetuate dehumanisation as a birthright.

Whilst there are monuments to animals who served Britain in both World Wars, Africa’s immeasurable contributions to Britain over many centuries are only now being recognised and valued. This year the people of Yorkshire reached out with a genuine yearning to know more. From a documented presence two thousand years ago to a more recent intensity of relations, Heritage Corner presents research into a shared heritage that is neither simple or insignificant.

The Leeds Black History Walk was born out of a community initiative in Chapeltown, spear-headed by the indefatigable Arthur France MBE, a founder of the Leeds West Indian Carnival. After commemorating the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 – the walk was born in 2009 as a legacy project.

This year, in the most challenging of circumstances, inspiring historical figures and other African connections and contributions to Yorkshire have been retold to more than double our usual numbers. Initially with limited resources, then with additional support from the Geraldine Connor Foundation, Ignite and Leeds In-spired.

BHM 2020, for me, has ended with a week of live walks, online presentations, podcasts and an unprecedented number of email requests. Years of invisible work has also been rewarded by a much appreciated Black Health Initiative Legacy Award for Arts and Culture at Leeds Town Hall and an Honorary Fellowship from the awesome Trinity University.

Heritage Corner encourages an open discourse that celebrates a shared heritage reflecting Leeds’ rich diversity today. For the past couple of years, I have been joined by Jordan Keighley, with heritage expertise and Vanessa, with support and educational liaison.

Vanessa is currently delivering a ground-breaking heritage intervention project for young creatives. Like voices from the wars can help us to understand our resilience as a city and nation, these young people may inspire others to positively navigate challenging heritage issues. As the past has shown, time and again – by coming together there is nothing we cannot do. I am humbled and grateful to the people of Leeds.

Ness
I would like to echo Joe’s sentiments about the importance of culture and heritage. I grew up with the music of Two-Tone which fused Caribbean and African roots reggae with the energy and attitude of punk.

Avowedly anti-racist in stance, bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat prominently featured black and white members playing alongside one another, by no means a commonplace at the time. This was the late seventies and early eighties, a dark period of mass youth unemployment and rising support for the openly racist National Front.

Two-Tone, along with Rock Against Racism, gave my generation its voice and the inspiration to take a stand. It was empowering, a message of appreciation not appropriation. It was an education in the shared cultural heritage at the roots of the music. And what bloody great music it is!

At Heritage Corner Leeds we embrace this power of creativity with its capacity to enhance and enrich lives. We believe the hidden stories of the past offer a way to move forward together. They help keep us alive.

The Eulogy Project exhibition, organised by the Jamaica Society in 2019, is a case in point. A public recognition and celebration of the many real contributions to Leeds and the UK by the Windrush generation, its impetus stemmed from a desire to preserve people’s stories for future generations.

Recently there has been much public discussion about statues and plaques in Leeds. Joe’s point about ones publicly dedicated to the service of animals during both World Wars, but not to Africans, is apposite here. This summer showed us we can all do better, but perhaps sometimes we just forget we haven’t said, ‘Thank you’ enough to the proper people.

Let’s try to address that. I have a suggestion which recognises the importance of dance to Leeds and celebrates key characters in its story. Could Leeds commission a sculpture to David Hamilton, Donald Edwards and Vilmore James, the founding creators of Phoenix Dance? (There’s pavement space outside Phoenix amid the creative culture present in that area.) Theirs is an incredible journey which, to my mind, remains un-der-imagined, even within the lobby space of Phoenix Dance Theatre itself. What youngster could fail to be inspired by the story of working class boys from Chapeltown and Harehills who started an internationally acclaimed dance company in the heart of their community?

Like the stories we tell on the Leeds Black History Walk, it’s one which bears retelling.