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Black history is more than slavery

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS: A recent Black History Walks university lecture on the campaign to end slavery in Britain

BRITISH-BORN entrepreneur and historian Tony Warner dedicates his time to raising awareness of black history in London through his social enterprise.

What started as a small-scale initiative to mentor local black boys in Tottenham soon developed into a powerhouse of knowledge, expertise and creativity that prides itself in celebrating the collective identity and experience of the black community in Britain.

Black History Walks (BHW), as the social enterprise was eventually called, gave Warner a platform to achieve his ambition to “give black people back their history by any means necessary”.

SCHOOLS

“The history of black people is much more than slavery and US Civil Rights, but for some reason that’s practically the only thing that’s being taught in schools to our kids,” he says.

“I started the organisation with the idea of giving young people the chance to be informed, empowered and inspired by their ancestors, something that just wasn’t happening. In 2001, I put on a screening of The Rosa Parks Story featuring Angela Bassett in the Rio Cinema in Hackney.

“I hired out the venue with my own money, invited a load of people down and made it a free event. On the afternoon of the screening, I had 250 people turn up – almost filling up venue – that’s when it became my responsibility to make a difference.”

In the last 10 years, BHW has ran more than 1,500 events in and around London, attracting audiences from the local area and overseas, receiving recognition from The Guardian in 2011 as one of London’s Top 10 Best Guided Walking Tours, and also featuring on BBC2’s Great British History, CNN and Channel 4.


MULTI-TASKING: Tony Warner is also a Chair of the African Odysseys group at London's British Film Institute, which arranges monthly screenings of African and Caribbean films

Through a combination of guided walking tours, interactive lectures, movie breakdowns and film screenings, the company has created a long-standing legacy of black empowerment that Warner believes is needed to create change.

“In 2007, I did my first guided tour with an audience of just two people. I was on the verge of cancelling, but I didn’t. I went ahead and presented the black history of St Paul’s and Bank, and at the end of the tour I got amazing feedback.

“Since then, I have delivered tours to local schools, US colleges, The Bank of England, The British Red Cross, The Metropolitan Police, The Imperial War Museum, and more. It’s clear that there is a need for the history that documents the black experience in London, apart from slavery, and from an African-Caribbean perspective.

“There are 2,000 years of black history in London that are undocumented, so through our work we shine a light on the existence of our ancestors, their positive contributions and ultimately their legacies which are rarely told or heard.”

Warner is also a Chair of the African Odysseys group at London’s British Film Institute, which arranges monthly screenings of African-Caribbean films. Afrofuturism, Women, Spirituality and the Media was screened most recently as part of BHW’s Sisters in Science Fiction season.

This consisted of a whole day of short films about black women in afrofuturist films, plus a Q&A with directors, activists and authors. Additionally, multi-media presentations such as The Black Image; When ‘Aborigines’ Became Human; Medical Apartheid, Black British Female Civil Rights Heroines; Call of Duty: Video Game Breakdown, and How To Brainwash The Youth And Make Them Act Like Fools! are just a few of the many events in the black history talks archive.

As a response to racism in academia, BHW also pioneered and sponsors the Queen Nzingha lecture series which provides a space for black women with expert knowledge on a variety of subjects to share their research and truths to an audience at various auditoriums across London.

Some of the lectures that have been delivered include Mary Seacole Fights Back by Professor Elizabeth Anionwu, The Jessica and Eric Huntley Story by Dr. Michelle Asantewa, and Sex, Violence and Civil Rights by Dr. Althea Legal Miller.

Although Warner targets the black community, he is aware that his work appeals to people from a variety of demographics. He says:

“We have a range of people from different races and classes that attend our events which is great, but my original aim was to empower my own community with the history that has been taken from them.

“It is my duty to give black people back their history by any means necessary. It’s been an ongoing journey to get people to value and appreciate African history. As a black historian, I understand that parts of our history are painful and maybe too close to home for some people to digest, but I think that it’s important for us to all have a sense of awareness and empowerment of our past so that we can begin to create change in our present and future.

“Most of the events that we host are aimed at the family – we believe it’s important for women, men and children to engage in our walks, talks, debates and films. Intergenerational dialogue is so important. Often there is a lot of history held in our elders, but there’s not an avenue for them to share it in – so by us creating these spaces and platforms we bring together families and communities, enabling us to tell our own stories.”


SHARING KNOWLEDGE: A recent Black History Walks university lecture on the campaign to end slavery in Britain

Alongside the work Warner does with BHW, he also works as a management consultant, specialising in diversity and inclusion. In this position, he has spent several years running workshops on institutional racism and diversity with various police constabularies, universities, local authorities, the Home Office, the Museum of London, Transport for London and Penguin Books.

Like many entrepreneurs, Warner saw a problem and wanted to fix it. But it wasn’t smooth sailing – challenges such as financial backing, securing venue space, recruiting an audience and racism generally are some of the many hurdles he continues to overcome – but he hopes that one day these hurdles will all be a thing of the past.

He says:

“In 10 years’ time, my hope is that my company does not exist. Not because I don’t love what I do, but because the work that I do will be embedded into British society, delivered by mainstream.

“The black experience is a fundamental part of British history.”

There are also environmental and technological factors that play a role in providing educational events. Warner says:

“We’re having to compete for our audience’s attention on a larger scale than ever before.

“In the age of new media, it can be hard to sustain an audience, especially when you are an independent company without any mainstream support. The weather also has a huge impact on the work we do. When the weather is nice, people are more likely to attend our walks than film screenings, but living in London, it can be so unpredictable.

FLEXIBLE

“But it’s not all bad. New media has made us more interactive and flexible. We’re currently looking in to streaming events nationally and internationally and creating more of an offline dialogue through social media so we can be more connected to our audience making our communication faster and more personable.”

Warner hopes that by partnering with local businesses, larger organisations nationally and internationally, gaining more mainstream exposure, continuing grass roots activism and community work he will challenge the status quo and make Black History, World history.

For more information on up and coming events or to get involved in the work Warner does, click here.

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