Celebrating Black History Shapers

Authors: Jece Shunmugam
  • Reading time: 5 mins min.
  • Posted on: October 5, 2020

For over 30 years, Black History Month has been commemorated in Britain not merely as a way to understand and honour the history of Black Britons but also as a way to celebrate blackness, black culture and community. 

This year, we’re spotlighting black history shapers whose work and life is dedicated to their community. From equal rights activism to preserving history and culture, watch this space for some of our Black History Shapers.

| Creating Safe Spaces for Black Queer People

Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, or Lady Phyll as she’s commonly known, is the Co-Founder of UK Black Pride, one of the first organisations to focus entirely on creating a safe space for the UK’s Black LGBTQ+ community. She realised the need for a Black Pride in the UK after attending a gathering of Black lesbians in 2004. At the time far-right groups such as the BNP were increasing in popularity, and hostility towards queer people was on the up. At the gathering, the group recognised the desperate need for a space for them to “come together” and “see ourselves.” 

Soon after, UK Black Pride was born. Since then the organisation has gone from strength to strength, providing an essential space for the African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean-heritage LGBTQ+ community.

“Importantly, I’m most proud of the people that support and attend UK Black Pride and claim it as their home and chosen family.”

2020 proved to be both the year that finally put racism and discrimination faced by Black people on the global stage, and that COVID-19 shutdown mass gatherings. Knowing that there was perhaps never a more important time for UK Black Pride to be held, Phyll and the UK Black Pride team were determined to keep it running – albeit virtually – to provide a space for marginalised communities to reflect and heal.

Outside of the UK, Phyll also campaigns for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in countries where they face discrimination. Her voice, as the CEO of The Kaleidoscope Trust, is one of the loudest and most crucial voices fighting for intersectional equality. If she could speak to her younger self, she would say:

Outside of the UK, Phyll also campaigns for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in countries where they face discrimination. Her voice, as the CEO of The Kaleidoscope Trust, is one of the loudest and most crucial voices fighting for intersectional equality. If she could speak to her younger self, she would say:

“It’s never going to be easy being a Black woman, or a Black queer woman, within the context of the UK, but you will be ok.”

Watch Lady Phyll’s video below, and support UK Black Pride by donating here.

| Teaching Black History Across the UK

Meet Lavinya, the 23-year-old founder of The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise aiming to deliver Black British history across the UK and fighting for its inclusion within the national school curriculum. 

“As I’ve become older, I’ve been able to understand myself as connected to my homeland, which is Africa, and that is part of the experience of my Black British history.”

Lavinya was a student at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) when she became acutely aware of the omission of Black British history from the UK’s national curriculum. As part of her degree, Lavinya visited New Zealand to study their national dance, and was taken aback by the country’s unique commitment to teaching indigenous culture and educating on its own troubled, colonial past.

The parallels between her own history and that of New Zealand’s became clear, and soon after, she started The Black Curriculum as a way to ensure all British schoolchildren are taught Black British history. Lavinya and her team go into schools, providing workshops and resources that educate the often untold history of colonialism, the Windrush generation, and other issues that have shaped the racial discourse of today. The pandemic has meant that much of their work has moved online but they remain committed to providing a more rounded education to children across the UK. 

Representation is a guiding principle for Lavinya. Without rich examples of Black British history that are specific to Black Britons, she fears students are “getting a constantly reinforced idea of themselves as subhuman”. If there’s one thing she wants young people to know most about being Black and British, it’s that:

“There is no one fixed identity. You can be many things, you can decide to be many things and break those norms that have been placed on us.”

Watch Lavinya’s video below, and support The Black Curriculum through donations here. Special thanks to Brixton Library as our filming location. 

| Celebrating Black Caribbean Culture in Britain

Matthew is the Executive Director of Notting Hill Carnival, an annual celebration of all things Caribbean and a long-standing bastion of Black British culture. For many Black Britons, like Matthew himself, Notting Hill Carnival represents a safe space to celebrate what it means to be black, to celebrate black culture, from the arts, music and dance to the activism that is deeply rooted within the Carnival itself. 

Indeed, Notting Hill Carnival was born from the race riots of the 1960s, and to this day, holds a special place in the hearts of many for its role both in preserving cultural traditions and in spotlighting and pushing for change on the racial issues of the day. In 2018, a minute’s silence was held to honour the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the tragedy happening only a few miles away from where the Carnival is held.

“I feel like I was almost born into Carnival”

For Matthew, overseeing Notting Hill Carnival is not just a job – it’s almost a birthright. His Dad, an immigrant from Trinidad, was the founder of Mangrove Marching Steel Band, and he grew up playing pan and wearing costumes from a young age. To be part of Notting Hill Carnival, he says, makes him proud as its a safe space for the black community and a place to celebrate the arts.

Watch Matthew’s video below, and consider supporting the Carnival Village Trust, the main organisation in London that seeks to preserve and promote Carnival Arts that are rooted in Caribbean traditions.