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A monument to the Unknown African?

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A monument to the Unknown African?

Leaving Covid-19 and other nasties aside, the past year in the UK seems to have been a celebration of everything Black and African. But, despite the massive exposure, Africa’s contribution to the UK is still not properly acknowledged. Is it time for a permanent symbol to be erected? asks Clayton Goodwin.

2020 has been like no other year in my recollection. Do we really wish to be reminded of Covid-19 – which hasn’t gone away and is likely to make the next few years similarly special for the wrong reasons?

It was also the year in which Brexit became a fact – a political pestilence to match the medical plague. Yet staggering though those events have been, and will continue to be, the past few months have been unique mainly in forcing the rest of the world to recognise the African presence.

Politicians and peoples can no longer hide behind the masks of avoidance. While the past is under scrutiny as never before, the present and, by implication, future demand comment and decision.

I have never seen Africans represented so extensively in the British media – having made my first appearance on London television back in February 1977, arguing the very case for greater representation.

At the height of last summer, I was kept busy fielding questions from White friends and relatives as to how they could participate more effectively in Black History Month and get to know their African and West Indian neighbours better. 

“Good morning. How are you? I am …..”, which previously had seemed to be a mantra passing all understanding for even normal, decent citizens, may now be the key to more harmonious neighbourhoods. (If only the virus had played along with the mood and not prevented households from coming together…)

So, everything is right with the world, respect and justice reign on our television screens, in our magazines and in social relationships?  Hmm … why am I so sceptical?

It isn’t only because I have lived through enough false dawns to light up the firmament. The warning signs concern not so much what is being said but the identity of those who are doing, and have commissioned, the saying.

Narrow range of Black views

The widespread exposure of Black voices is narrow in depth. Much written in the papers, enacted or said on television, has been by the academic, artistic, and college-educated – predominantly a certain Black privilege talking to White privilege about Black lack of privilege and under-representation.

Black commentators, articulators, actors, philosophers, entertainers there have been a-plenty, while engineers, manual workers, scientists, directors, and the masses who have no definable ‘label’ on which to hang a thesis or journalistic pitch, are still noticeable by their absence.

Power continues to reside with those who have always held power. When Black ceases to be the “new black”, the coterie will still be there to wipe the slate clean for the next seasonal flavour. For some, ‘taking the knee’ is in danger of becoming a fashion accessory as much as a matter of principle. However, if this current recognition is driven by the appreciation that there are substantial new markets, some changes could become permanent.

There has been much talk of pulling down statues honouring the colonial past and replacing them by those of more appropriate Africans. The same names keep occurring – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela. Even Boris Johnson has got in on the act by suggesting Muhammad Ali – possibly the only Black person he could remember.

The media and social authority have arrived at the point of accepting that – in their view – everything African / Caribbean in the UK started and ended with the long-neglected Claudia Jones!  (She was a West Indian communist, agitator, feminist and activist. She founded Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette in 1958.)

Not that I have anything against Claudia, who gave me my first career break, but she didn’t do everything, especially alone. There should be something more specific to the community in which we live.

This day of writing, the Observer newspaper reported Darlington’s tribute to Arthur Wharton, the first professional Black footballer. Towns throughout the land need to similarly recognise their own local hero(ine). The concept of celebrating somebody who isn’t White isn’t new. My own home-town, Gravesend, has long honoured Pocahontas, the Native American, who died there.

The UK’s debt to Africans

None of this, however forceful, encompasses adequately the tremendous debt the UK has owed to Africans this year. Early in the lock-down I started to write about the carers, nurses, doctors, cab-drivers, public transport workers and … so many … who have lost their lives and their health to Covid-19.

It was impossible to mention some individuals by name and, inevitably through lack of space, ignore many thousands more equally deserving. The Black Lives Matter experience has brought home to the country the historical scale, and the wide social and ethnic extent, over which the debt has been owed.

A hundred years ago the world stood at another crossroads. How could we honour best those who had given their industry, their commitment and – yes – their lives to the struggle in the greatest slaughter and devastation yet known to mankind in the First World War?

Should that effort be symbolised by the statue of a successful general, or maybe royalty, a politician or a scientist, even a nurse, factory worker, or those whose fortitude kept “the home fires burning”?

In the end the powers-to-be, showing rare good sense, chose an otherwise anonymous symbol to bring together all who had contributed to the cause in whatever capacity. In burying, dedicating and revering the bones of an unknown serviceman, the concept of the Unknown Warrior, the pinnacle of respect, was created.

Looking at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior I see again and sympathise with my grandfather who was seriously wounded but, fortunately, not killed; his brother-in-law who was drowned in the molten mud of the Western Front; my great-aunts working to provide food for those who did the fighting; my grandmother and all those who endured deprivation at home; and the similar, even more extensive, involvement and suffering in the subsequent Second World War.

In doing so I share in the sentiments of millions on millions of people of all races, social classes, gender, religious and political convictions, character and aspirations throughout the world. All of humanity’s 20th-century experience comes together in that one symbol.

What more effective way, too, would there be to honour and encapsulate the entire African experience than the statue, not of any individual but of the Unknown African?

Although my brief is to write from London, from the UK, and, by implication, from the British and European related experience of the Diaspora, the same argument applies to the African Motherland.

Much has been written and said about British dependence on the blood and toil of African slaves and their descendants. That would be represented here. So, too, would be the glories of the African empires of yesteryear, Africans who experienced colonisation rather than direct slavery, those who remained free, those who subsequently attained freedom, and contemporary Africa with both its riches and its poverty – at home and overseas, the achievements and the as-yet-unfulfilled aspirations.

There are suitable sites. Trafalgar Square has long sought a representative occupant for its fourth plinth. Heroes are regularly hallowed at Westminster or Whitehall, respectively the seats of culture/religion and government – though it might settle uncomfortably, rubbing shoulders with the military and the political.

Perhaps somewhere in the City of London financial sector, to which African blood, sweat, toil and tears have delivered so much. Maybe, too … locations are plentiful once the principle has been approved. With similar memorials set up throughout the continents, those who look on in contemplation will do so in tune with millions of others worldwide, with the past, the present and the future, and with their own role in that kaleidoscope …

…at the Unknown African in which all Africans are known and commemorated.

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