Introducing Farhad Ahmed, our new non-executive director, as he shares his personal reflections on Black History Month
For me, Black History Month fundamentally is about education; but education, politics, culture and economics go hand in hand and influence how we perceive and experience race in society. Black History has been a recurring theme in my life, shaping who I am and what motivated me to become a NED at CWP. As someone of Bangladeshi heritage, my sense of my place within society has changed over time according to the environments and situations I have found myself in. I want to recount this journey through a kaleidoscope of personal anecdotes and reflections set within the context of recent decades.
The 1980s: Race Riots; Militant Tendency vs Thatcher; Live Aid; Docker’s strikes; National Front leaflets at football grounds; John Barnes and the banana skin; Heysel and Hillsborough
Going through the education system in the 1980s, we never had Black History Month at school so whatever I did learn about Racial history was from my late father who regularly mentioned the exploits of the East India Company, Lord Clive’s treachery and the Battle of Plassey (1757) which paved the way for the British colonisation of India. I was struck how he painfully relived these “mea culpa” moment centuries after they had happened. Only visiting once, my perception of Bangladesh was mediated through the country’s media representations: an exotic, flood-ridden, destitute “Third World” country- not somewhere I really wanted to be associated with and at school, it didn’t make any difference anyway, because all my class perceived my identity as Asian above all else- “Where’s Bangladesh anyway?”
The 1990s: Mandela, Malcom X Biopic, Stephen Lawrence, Rodney King, McPherson Report, The Real McCoy & Goodness Gracious Me; Jamie Bulger; Combat 18; New Labour
As an adolescent, racist insults and negative stereotypes centred on my “otherness” defined by my skin colour. Yet the comedies above proved ethnic minorities- a term which really took off in this decade- could laugh at how they were perceived suggesting we were comfortable in our own skins. The sad fact was that there was a disconnect between what our passports said and our acceptance within wider society especially as McPherson had coined the term “institutional racism”. Passing the Tebbit Test didn’t mean that much because I would’ve been far happier adopting the Pakistani cricket team than the England team which hardly had any success.
In History lessons, I felt like an interloper to the glorious achievements of the British Isles. It was through oral histories from my maternal Uncle, that I learnt about his campaigns in Burma and Japan fighting for the British Army in WW2. This was an entire body of knowledge I didn’t find in my school textbook despite the fact that millions of Commonwealth soldiers died in the war. English lessons were similarly skewed and I remember being taught Shakespeare’s Play “Othello” was nothing to do with race, even though he is described as a “Moor” which was a term given to the Muslims of Spain and North Africa; something I became aware of later in life.
The 2000s: Iraq War; 9/11; murder of Anthony Walker; 7//7, Extremism and British Values; European Capital of Culture; Liverpool One; Barack Obama
Working in Education, on Saturdays I would also voluntarily tutor young people from ethnic minority backgrounds who were falling behind in school. Within that local library in Toxteth, hung prominent pictures and profiles of heroes from Black History: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, W.E. du Bois, Martin Luther King and others. This was a revelation as I was unaware of these figures; there certainly weren’t any monuments to them as there were to Lord Clive.
It was the first time I was referred to as “Black” by a fellow volunteer who cast himself as something of an activist “When I say Black, I mean politically Black”, he said. From then on, I felt a greater solidarity with the Black history of the city especially by 2008 when Liverpool used the strapline “World in One City” to celebrate being European Capital of Culture. Fortunate to have several Black mentors at this time, I would learn more about prominent Black groups and institutions in the city, their struggles and the wider heritage of the Black community in the city through colonialism and slavery; as well as more recently through the Merchant Navy and refugee migration. I could never look at the sculpted heads above the windows of the Cunard Building in the same way after that.
The 2010s: Coalition Government, Equality Act, 2011 Riots (death of Mark Duggan), EU Referendum, UKIP & Calais Jungle; Windrush; #MeToo
I was proud to work in the voluntary sector (“Big Society” anyone?) especially because I had learnt how in Victorian times it was the precursor to the public sector we enjoy today. With austerity setting in, many ethnic minorities including the recent European arrivals from EU Accession States were becoming increasingly concerned by the erosion of key services such as libraries and Sure Starts; but also by the language being used in the public discourse, externally defining communities, rather than their being able to define themselves. Tensions were ramped up by the polarising popularist “little islander” rhetoric during the EU Referendum. This jarred with my own version of high-minded Britishness embodied in figures I had always admired- Roscoe, Wilberforce, Dr Barnardo, Florence Nightingale, Emily Pankhurst, Nye Bevan and William Beveridge. I felt my sense of belonging, enshrined through “protected characteristics”, was now unravelling and I was desperately seeking a middle ground where I could root my identity.
Thankfully, I found it; but in the last place I expected- in another corner of unexplored history: not the history of my Bengali ancestors but the history of British Islam exemplified in the Victorian Liverpudlian William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam. Through him I came to learn about its origins through the Black history of the Tudor Blackamoores and individuals like Ayuba Suleiman Diallo- a freed slave from Senegal- whose picture sits in the National Portrait Gallery recognising his contribution to the collection of Sir Hans Sloane who founded the British Museum. This tradition took on a new lease of life through the Barbary Pirate John Ward but most spectacularly through Quilliam who founded a significant community of White converts to Islam and established Britain’s first mosque in 1889. Described as the first multiculturalist, he unabashedly challenged Victorian taboos by conducting marriages between different races and social classes. He also founded an orphanage and schools funded at his own expense. Quilliam’s egalitarianism and internationalism struck me across time like a thunderbolt because of the contemporary parallels. It might seem strange that I should finish this blog about Black History Month by saying I found my identity by discovering a White English Liverpudlian; but then again perhaps not, because universal principles of social justice, helping the needy and global citizenship transcend race and creed and we should cherish them wherever and in whomsoever we find them.
2020s towards a better future: Coronavirus, Mane & Salah, BLM & BGT, Brexit, Marcus Rashford…
You’ve heard about how I challenged my attitudes and beliefs and I feel a richer person for it. I would like to invite you to learn about someone new in the spirit of Black History Month. A starting point could be to consider reverse mentoring, a concept I heard mentioned by the BAME+ Network in the CWP BHM Youtube video which is worth watching [insert link]. As a new NED, I’m fortunate to be mentored by Rebecca Burke-Sharples which I am finding rewarding. Reaching out to colleagues in the spirit of empathy and appreciative dialogue, especially someone different to ourselves, will help us grow supportive relationships which we all desperately need during these difficult times. I hope we can hear some of these stories in future within this blog.