Black history finds its rightful status

Black people in Norfolk have a greater history than you might realise and Black History Month, running during October, aims to highlight that.

Norfolk is celebrating Black History Month in style - with a showcase of more than 50 events, ranging from music and dance to competitions, lectures and football.

If the aim is to highlight the contribution of black cultures, and of black men and women, to the city and the county in the arts, education, business life and many other spheres, this line-up - which ranges from jazz to bhangra, from stand-up comedy to painting and from crafts to history - speaks for itself.

It marks the third appearance in Norfolk of a month-long celebration that has its roots in ignorance.

We owe Black History Month (BHM) first to the outrage of one Dr Carter Woodton, an American son of slaves who spent his childhood working in the Kentucky goldmines before gaining a PhD from Harvard. It was when he reached academia that he realised American history virtually ignored black experience - and began a crusade to rewrite it, launching a Negro History Week in 1926... forerunner of BHM.

In this country, the impetus came in 1987 when a Greater London Council worker, Akyaaba Addai Sebbo, was saddened to hear of a colleague's child asking why he wasn't white.

The need to emphasise the positive could not be more starkly illustrated. And the message has spread.

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In Norfolk, a range of community groups, arts organisations and statutory bodies have come together for the last three years under the leadership of Norwich Education and Action for Development (NEAD), to focus on a cultural link that goes back further than many people imagine.

Finbarr Carter, co-ordinator for NEAD, said: “There remains a lack of knowledge about black achievement. We need to share knowledge of our common human ancestry in Africa and of the continuous presence of black people in Britain for at least 500 years.

“We should be aware of people such as Mary Seacole, a black nurse in the Crimea at the same time as Florence Nightingale and, in her time, also famous and feted.

“Locally, it should be well known that the only black British circus owner, Pablo Fanque, was born in Norwich in 1798 and that Britain's first black mayor, Allen Minns, was elected in Thetford in 1904.”

The name 'Pablo Fanque' may strike a chord. He featured in the Lennon and McCartney lyric Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Born William Darby, he was still in his home city when, at 23, he is recorded as appearing as “Young Darby” in another man's show as a horseman and rope walker. But Mr Darby was a black entrepreneur as well as a showman. In 1841, he set up on his own account - with two horses.

Allen Minns, our black mayor, born in the West Indies, was a British-educated doctor serving as medical officer of the Thetford Workhouse.

The launch of Norfolk Black History Month 2005 is today, September 28, at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, and the event offers a showcase of music, drama, talks, live visuals, world disco and food.

Highlights include a vibrant African market in the Forum on October 1, jazz legend Dennis Rollins alongside 16-piece North Stars Steel Orchestra at the Playhouse on October 15, a programme of Cuban and African drumming workshops in libraries throughout Norfolk and much more.

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This year's logo for Norfolk Black History Month is the Akan symbol Sankofa. The symbol is that of a bird moving forwards while looking backwards. Its long beak holds an egg (the future), and this is turned in the direction of its tail (the past). Although the bird is advancing, it has to examine its past to ensure a better future.

“Sankofa - look to the past to create the future” will be used as inspiration for a poetry and writing competition that will be open to all. There will be three age categories: under 12, under 18 and over 18.

The competition will be actively promoted in schools and within other appropriate community groups; 5000 postcards have been distributed throughout Norfolk and responses to the saying will be invited.

Postcards are available from the World Shop on Exchange Street.

The closing date for the competition is October 3 and it is hoped the winners will read their entries at the Café Writers event on October 10.

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