BY ANY yardstick, the recent election of Sadiq Khan as London’s first Muslim mayor is a historic occasion.
Although the struggle to shift perceptions remains, Khan’s election is a powerful symbol of the mainstreaming of the Asian and wider Islamic community in British life. It also provides a dynamic contrast to the current narratives of Islam as inherently alien and dangerous.
Indirectly too, Khan’s election is also an important event for Britain’s black communities. In an election in which Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith not so tacitly made race and religion the centrepiece of his campaign, the black British vote in support of Khan undoubtedly contributed to his victory.
And the key constituencies of the black vote, the Caribbean and African communities in the UK, united- however fleetingly- to make history.
The black British population of the UK is approximately 2 million divided almost equally between Caribbean and African communities.
HISTORIC: Sadiq Khan is London’s first Muslim mayor
Together they form about 3 per cent of the UK’s population. United and separated by history and social geography, the two communities in the UK have often exerted a huge cultural influence and impressively contributed to the cultural life of the country.
The black imprint in the UK is often seen as post-Second World War, but it dates back centuries, with black labour and ingenuity (both slaves and freed people) contributing to British industry, shipping, education and the health professions. Legendary 19th Century nursing icon Mary Seacole is known and revered as much in Africa and the Caribbean as she is in the UK.
In the 20th Century the Caribbean and African communities in Britain – sometimes referred to as such, but at other times called “Black British” or other designations depending on the political temperature of the day- have followed distinct but often complementary and sometimes interwoven trajectories.
Although culturally and socially distinct, historically they have much in common, as mentioned above. And post 1945, both communities, as new immigrants to Britain, faced prejudice and a harsh acclimatisation to their adopted country.
Caribbeans and Africans tended to gravitate towards the same jobs including work in public transport, the National Health Service, teaching and local government. Internationally the 1945 Pan -African Congress and Pan-Africanist movement; and the anti-apartheid and civil struggles provided a collective narrative of activism for human dignity which, during their high water marks in the 1960s and 1970s, brought together Africans and Caribbeans at legendary venues such as the Africa Club in London.
There was a cross pollination of ideas and, at key moments, a simmering solidarity. For instance, the Caribbean community have arguably never received their full meed of credit for their contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. And Africans in turn played an important role in the anti- racism activism of the 1980s following the riots in Toxteth, Brixton, Chapeltown and other urban areas across the UK.
UNITY: A black youth confronts a police officer during the 1981 riots. Both Africans and Caribbeans played an important role in the anti- racism activism that followed the disturbances
Marriages between Africans and Caribbeans, although less fashionable now, were in vogue two or three decades ago. And there was a shared struggle for advancement, particularly when it came to empowering children through education
But there was, and remains, as the popular saying goes, plenty of vinegar in the honey. Whilst there is much that the communities have in common, there is also a great deal which has caused division. The nursing and teaching professions in particular, have been sources of communal rivalry for access and advancement as Caribbean immigration tailed off and was replaced by a surge of African immigration.
In May 2006, Labour MP Diane Abbott’s critique of Nigeria [and perceived critique of Africa and Africans ] engendered furious responses from the African community in the UK and beyond, and laid bare the inter-community differences, with the former mayor of the south London borough of Wandsworth, Chief Lola Ayorinde, concluding her stinging rebuttal of Ms Abbott by saying that “by heritage, they [Caribbeans] were once Africans but… they are not Africans anymore.”
ANGER: Lola Ayorinde
And that, one might think, was that. Except that Africans and Caribbeans alike criticised both Abbott and Ayorinde for making divisive statements. And there was vociferous support for the idea that the two communities had more, not less in common.
Fast forward ten years, and there is every good reason why the African and Caribbean relationship in the UK should be re-tooled, reinvigorated and made fit for purpose in the 21st Century.
Firstly, the communities are bound by a shared history which is both enervating and empowering. There are an increasing number [and popularity] of black history archives, museums and events across the UK, curated by and attended by both communities. The sense of collective struggle remains; re-imagining the sense of collective purpose is the challenge.
But it is not all about the history. There are right now collective challenges and opportunities too. A new generation of Caribbeans and Africans are making their mark in the UK in sectors including politics, academia, finance and business, culture and the arts, health, sport, and a range of other fields. And they are talking to each other and breaking down entrenched inter-communal barriers as well as the glass ceiling of race and advancement in the UK.
CONTROVERSY: Comments made by MP Diane Abbott in 2006 seemed to expose a divide between Africans and Caribbeans in the UK
Sadly, there is a less positive side – a growing number of youths of African heritage have been caught up in UK gang culture and have made common cause – or deadly enmity – with gangs of young people of Caribbean heritage.
Internationally, African and Caribbean countries have increased their trade, diplomacy and cooperation against Transnational Organised Crime [TOC] through enhanced dialogue and forums such as the Commonwealth, the African, Caribbean and Pacific partnership [ACP] and the African Union; but there has been relatively little trickle-down effect to the Caribbean and African diasporas in the UK. Now there are the Africa Rising and Black Lives Matter narratives. Both are imperfect and porous in some ways. And no, they are not mirror images.
RAISING QUESTIONS: The Black Lives Matter movement
Globally, African Americans, Caribbeans and Africans are different and have different takes on the past, present and future and the same applies in the UK. But acknowledging our differences doesn’t weaken us; and these narratives are providing a nexus for 21st Century black consciousness and Pan Africanism. There is a collective strength and wisdom in diversity; and we have enough in common historically and contemporaneously, to make it worth the effort to build a Caribbean-African partnership for the 21st Century. Because the Africa Rising, Black Lives Matter, Black Heritage Month and the awkward questions raised by the influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees into Europe, are part of a fundamental question. How best can people of colour position themselves, and empower their communities in an interconnected and fast- moving global society?
There is no simple, one size fits all, answer; and much is already being done.
And a dialogue between African and Caribbean communities aimed at enhancing- or rebuilding- that “special relationship” , should be part of seizing the day.
We need to tell our stories to each other as well as to the world. And we need to define the future as well as the past instead of having it defined for us.
This takes us back to Diane Abbott. Critiqued, with good reason, by many in the African community then and now, she nevertheless made a telling statement during that contretemps of 2006.
She said: “If you have a divided black community everybody loses, West Indians and Africans.”
In that, she spoke truth to power.