A new short documentary by 1000 Londoners revisits the limited lens through which we view black history in Britain.
1000 Londoners is an ambitious, ten-year project aiming to capture a digital portrait of London through the short stories and anecdotes of one thousand residents. Episode 313 features Stephen Bourne, a historian who focuses on documenting the stories of the black British community and their often overlooked impact on Britain.
Typically, the black population residing in Great Britain is studied only within the context of their subjugation and, later, their emancipation movements. However, it is Bourne’s aim to celebrate the life and work of black Britons outside the topics of racism, sharing what he calls their “hidden histories”.
Bourne’s interest in the topic stemmed from interactions with his Aunt Esther, a black Londoner adopted by Bourne’s great-grandmother after her father was killed during the 1941 London Blitz.
“On the occasions that I went out with Aunt Esther, people always commented on her accent, that she talks with a Cockney accent, and they couldn’t understand why this black elder talked with a Cockney accent!” he recalls. She would go on to proudly explain that, in fact, she was born in London. Her presence in the family had a huge impact on Bourne, influencing him to better document the historical impact black Britons had on their communities.
For Bourne, reviewing his own family history has made him realise that historians have limited their understanding of the community as a whole by looking at black people in Britain solely as victims of oppression rather than active members of their communities.
Bourne’s effort to spread the positive stories of black Britons is part of a larger narrative as historians are still making breakthrough discoveries related to the role and perception of black communities in Britain. As recently as 2012, the whole history of Black Britons was rewritten when archaeologists examined the skeleton of Beachy Head Lady, a native sub-Saharan African woman who lived in Roman Britain. Previously, historians assumed that the few sub-Saharan Africans who lived in the empire would most likely be slaves, while her grave indicates she may have been a woman of high status.
Bourne mentions that much of the importance of identifying these kinds of stories lies in expanding on positive representation throughout history. While understanding the systematic oppression that black communities face is essential, he notes that bringing forward stories like Aunt Esther can be empowering for young people to discover. We applaud Bourne and the documentary team at 1000 Londoners for amplifying the important role that black Britons have had in our long history.
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