CGDC and ‘composure’ in Black and Asian stories of late twentieth-century Britain

In this blog, Dr Stefan Ramsden from the OHOS History Lab at the University of Manchester discusses how Black and Asian British people have collected and shared digital material that sheds light on race relations in twentieth and twenty-first century Britain.

A Bengali family in London, 1970s(?) – taken from Swadhinata Trust website: https://www.swadhinata.org.uk/bengalis/

In this blog I will use the oral historians’ concept of ‘composure’ to discuss CGDC and digital archives that Black and Asian Britons have created to tell their own stories about modern British history. The term ‘composure’ refers to two aspects of oral history interviews: firstly, to the narrative forms that an interviewee employs to compose their life stories, often borrowing and adapting common formulas from wider cultural discourse so that their story is intelligible and agreeable to others; secondly, the term refers to the ways in which interviewees seek to tell stories about their past which are psychically satisfying, resulting in an acceptable self-image, or sense of composure.1 It is possible to adapt these insights for analysis of digital archives; not only do these archives contain oral history interviews and individual autobiographical narratives, but in many archives we also see collective processes at work through which groups construct shared accounts of the past. I will draw on four digital archives – ‘Tandana – Archiving a Struggle for Social and Political Rights’ (http://www.tandana.org), the Swadhinata Trust (https://www.swadhinata.org.uk), ‘Where Are You Really From? (https://www.whereareyoureallyfrom.co.uk ) and ‘African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire’ (https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com).

The Swadhinata Trust was established in 2000 to promote Bengali history and culture in the UK. Heritage is particularly important to the Trust; the organisation seeks to redress ‘an absence of documentation and social data representing Bengalis’ heritage, historical presence and achievements’ which it believes ‘can contribute towards a sense of marginalisation, low self-esteem and alienation of young people in particular.’2 The website includes oral histories of Bengali people in Britain; these stories often touch on the racism that Bengalis faced in the 1960s through to the 1990s. Julie Begum, the Chairperson of the Swadhinata Trust, grew up in the Digby estate in East London in the 1970s; her family was targeted by racists – among many incidents, her brother was stabbed, and dog faeces were pushed through their letterbox.3 In response, Julie became involved in activism on behalf of the Bengali community, and established the Swadhinhata Trust in 2000.4 In retelling the shocking details of racism that she and others from her community faced, her agency in opposing this racism is clearly important: ‘“If I’m not challenging the injustices that I see then I’m part of the problem… I am not a passive person and I don’t want to be a passive person”’.5 Stories of anti-racism activism on the Swadhinata Trust website suggest that it is important for the community as a whole to be able to narrate not only the injustices and racism they have faced but also the positive action that they have taken in response. For a number of those interviewed, the murders of young British Bengalis Altab Ali and Ishaq Ali in 1978 represented a turning point which galvanised the Bengali community in the East End of London to come together and resist racism. Rajonuddin Jalal recalls his part in setting up the Bangladesh Youth Movement in 1978, which restricted the National Front’s activity in Brick Lane by patrolling the streets. He also helped organise a protest march, with 2000 Bengalis marching from Whitechapel to House of Commons and back.6 This collective action was coordinated through Bengali and Asian networks in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Akikur Rahman recalls how British Bengalis from Brick Lane were joined by a wider coalition:

When Altab Ali was murdered, and we the Bengalis realised we were in serious problem. Especially the youth of my age group, we sit together, like (Rajonuddin) Jalal, like my friend Rafiq (Ullah), and lots of us got together, and we decided we got to do something about it… thanks God we had a lot of friends on that time, even from the other community. They all tried to help us. Especially the people from West Bengal helped us a lot. I should name, two guy, their contribution on that time, during the movement was tremendously good; Aloke Biswas and Bhajan Chatterjee; and particularly there was another Sri Lankan, Patrick Kodikara. Without all these three it was not possible, they were expert, they knew how to mobilise, they knew what to do…[the demonstration after Altab Ali’s murder] was organised by myself and all the colleagues I just mentioned. It was called ‘Black Solidarity Day’. We had one of the biggest demonstrations of this kind by the Asian community. I think about 7,000 people turned up. Restaurants, all the factories everything was closed and we said ‘No, we have to show our solidarity’, people did come from Southall, they came from Birmingham, they came from Manchester, people came from all over the country to join this. Because, we got to say ‘NO’ to the racism on that time. Racism was so strong, all over the country it was not only in Tower Hamlets, it was all over, Bradford, Southall everywhere.7

Whereas the material in the Swadhinata Trust relates to British Bengalis in London, material contributed to the voluntary-run digital archive ‘Tandana – Archiving a Struggle for Social and Political Rights’ comes from second-generation British Asians who have been part of anti-racism and equal rights activism in Northern England and the Midlands. The Tandana website ‘has been created to record the political ephemera produced by the Asian Youth Movements in the 1970s and 1980s, and includes selections from interviews with veterans of these movements.8  Just as British Bengalis in London were organising protests and neighbourhood vigils to deter racist attacks, so too were British Asians living in Bradford, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. Among second-generation British Asians, the emphasis was on taking control, rather than relying on older community leaders or external politicians, as Tariq Mehmood from Bradford recalled: 

It was there that we really started thinking that we’ve got to get our own house in order, we can’t have this, we can’t leave our future in the hands of people like – what we hated were community leaders or the Labour Party types who would take control of our future. We can fight and we can win them and we were very confident that we had lots and lots of people with us and I think that that would have been the seeds of where the Asian Youth Movements began to be formed.9

In 1981, there were disturbances in Bradford, as in other British cities, caused by tensions over racism and police treatment of young Black and Asian people. Jani Rashid recalled these riots as collective defence: 

That was my first recollection of a riot in Bradford basically, you know, where police cars were turned over, paint was thrown at them, and being chased by police on horseback, you know, and that was basically because they’d allowed the National Front, I think it was Martin Webster at the time, that came to Bradford to hold a meeting in a school in Manningham. You know, so that was, I suppose, the first real campaign that I can recollect of any kind which was about defending our homes and our communities.10

These veteran activists feel that their stories of resistance are necessary to inspire the next generation to resist racism in the UK. Tariq Mehmood reflected: ‘The first point, I think I learnt then was to anchor yourself in the history of those who have struggled before you and that was exactly what we were doing as well.’11 For Anwar Qadir, his generation’s experience teaches the importance of standing up for yourself: ‘I would say to the youth of Bradford, erm, “don’t listen to the politicians, don’t listen to the Council and its officers”, right, “organise yourselves”’.12

Asian Youth Movement poster, 1981 – taken from Tandana website: http://www.tandana.org/data/pg/aym/aym_05.html

The stories of battling against racism told on the Swadhinata Trust and Tandana websites can be seen through the lens of composure: the protagonists compose autobiographical narratives which show how they have confronted and dealt satisfactorily with troubling episodes and events in their life histories. The stories from the Swadhinata Trust and Tandana sites took place amongst Bengali and Asian communities in cities, contexts where a large number of people with similar backgrounds were suffering from racial discrimination and violence. Shared experience made possible collective resistance. 

However, many Black and Asian individuals and families live in towns or rural areas and have suffered the hurt of racism without a local community to draw on for support or shared resistance. In 2001, the journalist Jay Rayner mapped Home Office statistics recording racist abuse and assault and found that in areas outside cities, where lower numbers of people from ethnic minority groups lived, a higher percentage of the population experienced racist abuse.13 Community historians including Louisa Adjoa Parker, as well as academic researchers Neal Chakroborti, Jon Garland and Paul Cloke have addressed the invisibility of rural racism by bringing to light the extent and impact of racism in the English countryside.14 Online digital archives of oral histories collected by volunteer-run community projects including ‘African Stories in Hull and the East Riding’ (https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com) and ‘Where Are You Really From?’ (https://www.whereareyoureallyfrom.co.uk) provide first-hand testimony from people with Black and Asian ancestry living in the English countryside that extend our understanding of race relations history beyond the ‘race relations capitals’– inner city neighbourhoods of cities with large Black and Asian populations.15  Many of those interviewed for these projects do not tell stories of collective resistance similar to those on the Swadhinhata Trust and Tandana websites, since they were not surrounded with other people undergoing the same kinds of experiences of racial discrimination. Interviews in the ‘African Stories…’ touch on the difficulties of suffering and resisting racism in isolation whilst living in largely white communities in East Yorkshire, a rural county, from the 1960s to the early 2000s. The ‘Where are You Really From?’ website includes stories from people with Black and Asian heritage who grew up in, or lived in, rural parts of south west England in the later twentieth century and twenty first century. For Martha, whose story is told in ‘Where Are You Really From?’, the constant feeling of being different in the Cotswolds village where she grew up lead to an unsettled sense of belonging, neither fully at home in rural landscapes nor in a more multicultural city:  

I felt that the difference between being Black or brown in the city as opposed to the countryside was that you could have a community of people like you, a feeling of belonging and comfort. I wanted that for myself. To find a new balance between connection and disconnection, people and place. I’ve lived in the city for ten years now in a community that feels like home but a landscape that doesn’t. I find myself longing for the fresh air and an empty horizon, a wilderness where I can belong and my Blackness can belong too.16

Oral historians contend that it can be difficult for individuals to ‘compose’ stories about experiences which are not already acknowledged and validated in wider culture; it is especially difficult when the society to which they belong would rather ignore these kinds of experience.17 Just as there has been significant pushback from largely white British voices when public history institutions attempt to highlight the pernicious effects of historical racism,18 it is likely that predominantly white rural communities prefer not to hear stories of discrimination told by their Black and Asian members. Black and Asian communities and individuals establish digital archives to correct dominant, exclusionary historical narratives and to record the racism they face. The stories recorded on the Swadhinata Trust and Tandana sites describe activism on the part of second-generation British Asians during the 1970s and 1980s, and show a route through which ‘composure’, in the form of a psychically satisfying autobiographical narrative, can be achieved through collective stories about resistance. However, for those experiencing racism and marginalisation without the community support available in cities where there were large Black and Asian populations, developing collective narratives about these experiences was not always easy. Digital archive projects such as ‘African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire’ and ‘Where Are You Really From?’ provide spaces where these stories can begin to be told.  


References and endnotes

  1. Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.manchester.idm.oclc.org/lib/manchester/detail.action?docID=547347, pp.66-7. ↩︎
  2. Swadhinata Trust ‘About Swadhinata Trust’, (webpage) https://www.swadhinata.org.uk/about-us/ [accessed 23 Feb 2023]. ↩︎
  3. Siva Thangarajah, ‘Swadhinata Trust’s Julie Begum: “If I’m not challenging the injustice I see, I’m part of the problem.”’ In Roman Road London, November 28, 2020, (online)
     https://romanroadlondon.com/julie-begum-swadhinata-trust-interview/ [accessed 23 Feb 2023] ↩︎
  4. Thangarajah, ‘Swadhinata Trust’s Julie Begum…’ ↩︎
  5. Thangarajah, ‘Swadhinata Trust’s Julie Begum…’ ↩︎
  6. Swadhinata Trust ‘Interviewee profiles and full transcripts (Strand 2)’, (webpage) https://www.swadhinata.org.uk/interviewee-profiles-full-transcripts-strand-2/ [accessed 23 Feb 2023]. ↩︎
  7. Swadhinata Trust ‘Interviewee profiles…’ ↩︎
  8. Tandana, ‘Oral Histories’, (webpage) http://www.tandana.org/index.php/oral-histories111 [accessed 23 Feb 2023].  ↩︎
  9. Tandana, ‘Kala Tara: A History of Asian Youth Movements in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s’ (PDF online) http://www.tandana.org/kalatara2000.pdf [accessed 23 Feb 2023] p.15.  ↩︎
  10. Tandana, ‘Kala Tara…’, p.14. ↩︎
  11. Tandana, ‘Kala Tara…’, p.29. ↩︎
  12. Tandana, ‘Kala Tara…’, p.29. ↩︎
  13. Jay Rayner, ‘The hidden truth behind race crimes in Britain’, The Guardian, 18 February 2001, (online) https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/feb/18/race.foodanddrink ↩︎
  14. Louise Adjoa Parker ‘Why black lives matter in the British countryside’, The Countryside Charity, 26 June 2020, (website) https://www.cpre.org.uk/opinions/black-lives-matter-in-the-countryside/ [accessed 15 May 2023];  Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland ‘Introduction: Justifying the study of racism in the rural’ in Chakraborti, N., & Garland, J. (eds) Rural Racism (2004), pp1-14; Paul Cloke ‘Rurality and racialised others: out of place in the countryside?’  in Chakraborti, N., & Garland, J. (eds) Rural Racism (2004), pp 17-35. ↩︎
  15. Kieran Connell, Black Handsworth. Race in 1980s Britain, University of California Press, 2019. ↩︎
  16. Where Are You Really From? ‘Meet Martha, From the Cotswolds’, (webpage), https://www.whereareyoureallyfrom.co.uk/meet-martha-from-the-cotswolds/  [accessed 8 May 2024]. ↩︎
  17. Abrams, Oral History Theory, pp.69-70. ↩︎
  18. Ben Quinn, ‘Insurgents to bring war on “wokeness” to National Trust AGM’, The Guardian, 1 Oct 2021, (online) [accessed 23 Feb 2023]. ↩︎