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Archiving our personal documented Black British history

Clay Banks Xdqfs 62w7q Unsplash
Black protestors (photo: courtesy of Clay Banks)

One of the defining features of the history of Africa, and its peoples in the wider diaspora, has been the significance of oral tradition. Songs, stories, poems, as well as dance have long held greater significance than documented sources in capturing key historical events. In more recent times, however, the balance has shifted as documentation has become increasingly important. The recording of personal accounts have proved invaluable for research. What Samuel Pepys, Edmund Burke, and Maria Nugent have in common, is the fact they wrote personal accounts which are today are often studied as key primary documents of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively.

Many Caribbean people arrived in Britain in the post-war period, primarily in search of better employment prospects. Although the vast majority did not engage in writing their own personal accounts of their lives in Britain at this time, it is nonetheless important to archive their experiences and contributions to modern British society. It is in this respect that one project seeks to rise to this challenge by attempting to digitally archive the personal documents of Caribbean migrants to Britain. The project, “Letters from Back A Yard” has just been established by a small team at the Birmingham City University (BCU). It is one of the first digital archival projects based exclusively on the collection of such specific documents.

While there are a number of specific Black archive projects in the USA dedicated to preserving the history of Black people in the country, it is mainly in recent times that we have seen similar developments in Britain. One account claims that many Black people in America, have taken to recording and engaging in the auto-archiving of Black experiences on their cameras, videos, phones or other devices to document major events from the civil rights era to the killing of George Floyd. In Britain there is the online “Introduction to Black British History Records” which covers the period from the Medieval times to the new millennium, and also the Windrush Museum in London. In addition, the Black British photographer, Vanley Burke, who was born in Jamaica and has lived in Birmingham since 1965, has been documenting the lives and experiences of Caribbean diaspora communities in the UK, capturing images of everyday life and significant events such as the 1985 Handsworth uprisings. He has been doing this primarily through photographs.

The uniqueness and significance of the BCU project is that it focuses on the very personal documents of post-war Caribbean migrants to Britain. The aim is to collect, catalogue and digitally archive original personal documents related to Caribbean people who came to Britain during the period from 1940-1989. These documents include such items as passports, letters of employment, professional qualifications and certificates, pay slips, bank statements, drivers licenses, and personal letters. Over time, these documents will then be accessed universally by future generations and also provide original evidence that have not been edited modified or translated. One of the main advantages of this collection is that it is a collaborative effort in which members of the Caribbean communities can freely share their personal documents with the research team and get them back, once they have been scanned and catalogued. These post-war Caribbean people were walking, making and storing their personal documented histories without realizing it. Now at last, a permanent repository has been established where this rich heritage can be archived.

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