By Dr Kerry Pimblott
The key to a more just future lies in a real reckoning with our collective pasts.
At least that was the thinking of the eminent scholar-activist, W. E. B. Du Bois. Writing in February 1905 – at the height of what many consider ‘the nadir’, or lowest point, in American race relations – Du Bois stated,
We can only understand the present by continually referring to and studying the past: when any one of our intricate daily phenomena puzzles us; when there arises religious problems, political problems, race problems, we must always remember that while their solution lies here in the present, their cause and their explanation lie in the past.
Du Bois’s call to ‘look-back-to-move-forward’ rings no less true today than it did over a century ago. Last week it was this dictum – in a new nadir typified by the twin tragedies of Grenfell and the growing Windrush crisis – that propelled University of Manchester history students into the archives.
Co-hosted by the History Division and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre (AIU), Manchester Movement Histories is a special archival workshop designed to spotlight the lived experiences of people of African and Caribbean heritage in Manchester.
Our focus on ‘movements’ was tri-fold.
First, a focus on Movement People – the migration stories of African and Caribbean people many of who relocated to Manchester during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Second, Movement Politics – an exploration of the approaches employed by people of African descent to resist racism and promote empowerment in Manchester. And, finally, Movement Cultures – an examination of the dynamic cultural production and contributions of Manchester’s African diaspora communities.
There is perhaps no better place to do this work than at the AIU, a world-leading library and archive ‘specialising in the study of race, ethnicity, and migration.’ Established in 1999 by sociologist Lou Kushnick, the AIU holds true to its founding vision not only to preserve and celebrate Manchester’s diverse histories and cultures but also to combat ongoing racial inequalities.
The day opened with an introduction to the AIU’s history and services from Collections Access Officer Hannah Niblett after which students received their ‘brief’ from BBC Professor Michael Wood.
The task before them was a big one: to create a dissertation in a single day.
To aid them in this endeavour, students received hands-on-support from University of Manchester historians including, Dr Christopher Bannister, Dr Linda Briggs, Dr Charlotte Faucher, Dr. Michael Hoeckelman, Dr John Morgan, Dr Kerry Pimblott, Professor Julie-Marie Strange, Dr Mark Whelan.
Then the work began. Boxes were cracked open. Folders pulled out. Papers rifled through. By noon students were poring over government records, oral history transcripts, old newspapers, and other ephemera.
One group stumbled on newspaper accounts and original documents from the Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945. Others discovered photographs of early African residents such as ‘Tiger’ Freeman, a Nigerian seaman who like many in his trade made Manchester a permanent home.
Another group focused on the Windrush migration, reading oral histories conducted with the Caribbean men and women that undertook the journey.
Others examined the Moss Side rebellion of 1981 comparing official accounts to the perspectives of community members.
The day closed with students delivering their dissertation ‘pitch’. What was their research question? How would they approach answering it using the sources they had discovered? And, most importantly, why does it matter?
To take just one example, students working on the Moss Side rebellion wanted to better understand the causes of the conflagration as well as the reasons behind the disparity between governmental and grassroots accounts. Hand stenciled zines created by and circulated among Moss Side residents told quite a different story than the official governmental report.
The students reminded us that in moments of conflict and crisis, whether that be Moss Side in 1981 or Grenfell and the Windrush scandal today – listening to the voices of those directly affected matters. The disparity between official and grassroots accounts suggests a knowledge gap that undercuts the potential for understanding and effective solutions. Echoing Du Bois, the best lessons on how to move forward are often found by looking back.