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Is the opportunity for real racial change in Bristol getting lost in “changing names and toppling statues”?

The trial of the “Colston 4” yesterday, reminds us that 2020 was a year which again prompted Bristol to reckon with race, slavery, and the legacy of the city’s political economy. After the summer resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of the Colston statue in June, the Colston Hall – just feet away – was renamed the ‘Bristol Beacon’.

Accompanying the name change is a ‘transformation promise’ that outlines plans to increase diverse representation in programming, audience makeup and workforce over the next decade.

While the venue has made a clear statement, and has been working with the diverse, youth-led organisation Rising Arts, it remains a white-owned, majority white-staffed organisation funded by numerous public bodies in addition to well-heeled patrons.

The example of Bristol Beacon begs the question, is Bristol really a beacon for Black culture?

‘Changing mindsets and toppling inequity’

The city’s former Lord Mayor and Green Party councillor, Cleo Lake, twice last year tabled a motion to discuss support for an All-Party Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Truth & Reparatory Justice – as an opportunity for Bristol City Council (BCC), to cement further, tangible changes. 

Each time, the meeting has overrun and the motion has been dropped. Lake has since commented that real change in Bristol won’t be found in “changing names and toppling statues”, but “changing mindsets and toppling inequity”. 

The motion asks for “more support for Black cultural centres in the city” and “to lobby the government to set up a commission that would discuss, acknowledge, apologise and instigate reparations for the UK’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade”.

It is part of the wider Stop the Maangamizi campaign (Maangamizi is a Swahili word representing the Afrikan holocaust and its resulting colonialism), and was put forward by Lake and Green Party councillor for Lambeth, Scott Ainslie. Last autumn, the Green Party was the first major national party to commit to seeking reparations.

Struggle to get funding

All of the Bristolians I spoke to for this piece were clear that the relationship between the city’s council and its Black cultural community is not adversarial. “It’s certainly not a case of the council just abandoning people” says activist and consultant Jendayi Serwah, “we’ve got an administration at the moment that is particularly keen to support and develop community spaces.” 

But, Serwah notes, Bristol’s Black culture spaces have struggled to secure funding and support in the past. Managed and patroned largely by the local Rastafari community, the Kuumba Centre in St Paul’s lost its Arts Council funding after its white director left in the mid-90s. Without that funding, it struggled to attract other investors. 

That director had done a great job, Serwah says, but she felt it was a lesson: “the powers that be are prepared to invest in you as long as you have a white man in charge.” Kuumba Centre was forced to shut its doors for a number of years; recently, community organisers and BCC have worked together to revitalise it.

New Black-owned venues

Filmmaker Michael Jenkins agrees that last year has seen positive change, but that we need to “move past statues and names of buildings”. As we discussed his plans for a new Black culture space in Bristol’s harbour, he remembered:

We need to “move past statues and names of buildings”

“When the city was pitching for Channel 4 to come here, a lot of the conversation was around diversity and I was sat in this room surrounded by all the big production companies in Bristol. I was the only Black person there. And I was thinking, ‘everyone’s chatting about diversity, but there’s not one diverse-led company, so who are the people who are pitching all these ideas?’” 

When the city’s approach to ‘diversity’ is formatted from within existing white-led structures and contexts in this way, “it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an authentic place” notes Jenkins. This year, he and Dr. Mena Fombo have held discussions with BCC to develop a new permanent, Black-owned-and-led city centre venue – a tourist attraction that will educate people about Bristol’s history and support its current Black communities.

“The fact that there are no Black-owned venues in the harbour space, considering the significance of those waters to people from the African and Carribean communities…that is something that we really want to change.” 

Jenkins fully supports Lake’s motion: “to me, reparations doesn’t mean a cheque – it’s bigger than that.”

More work needed

The Malcolm X Community Centre was founded as a response to the St Paul’s uprising of 1980, and today is run by a number of volunteer committees. Of the two buildings that make up the centre, the council leases one – which still has a 40 year old boiler from the time the centre was founded – and owns the other. 

“Our mission is to provide a hub that addresses the basic needs of people from African and Carribean communities,” says Vice-Chair Madu Ellis. “Historically, the Malcolm X Centre was given a grant by the council. That’s no longer happening.” BCC leases the buildings to the volunteers, who manage it for the community. “I think that should be better appreciated.”

Ellis says that support “shouldn’t just be measured in money – I believe Malcolm X could be utilised better”. He says BCC can’t deny there remain unaddressed race equality issues in Bristol and that they could, for example, better use the hub for educational purposes: 

“You can’t give somebody ten years of cloth to build a suit that takes sixteen years to make”

“I think some services could be decentralised here. We should be supported to be able to provide services to people. I have people come here who are having problems accessing education – I believe the council could commission us to do that kind of work.”

There’s plenty of work to be done, and the volunteers are there to do it. But with limited resources both from BCC, and within the community, it’s difficult: “you can’t give somebody ten years of cloth to build a suit that takes sixteen years to make” explains Ellis.

Neocolonialism, Serwah says, is characterised by “notions of ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’, which are often put forward as solutions, but are in no way sufficient enough to restore power and sovereignty to people who have long since lost that”. Bristolians of African-descent “need to resurrect and implement their own notions of self-determination on a local level. Community spaces, the cultural calendar and planning processes all feed into that.”

*Huge thanks to Jendayi Serwah for providing extensive background on the history of Black culture spaces in Bristol.

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  • Michael frost says:

    I can’t believe all this Wokey leftie nonsense,
    Bristols history is we’ll documented, and all this BLM crap makes us look stupid, black lives do not matter anymore than anyone else’s, this city was built on commerce “of the day” slaves, cotton, tobacco, just get over your selves

    • tim meehan says:

      I can’t believe you wrote those sentences by yourself. Please get back under that stone.

    • Tim says:

      Michael, you need to do your research. BLM isn’t about black lives mattering more than anyone else’s, it’s about how currently they matter less. And until black lives matter, no lives matter.

      If I was feeling less charitable, I’d say it doesn’t take BLM to make you look stupid.

  • Bone Shifter says:

    your comment here….What would Marcus Garvy say ?
    What would Malcom X do ?
    Maybe you cannot look to corrupt government, be it local or national. Power is knowledge. Knowledge is power. No government will allow that. They are the power that held you down. They are the power that continues to hold you down. No matter who their figure head is.
    Gain allies.
    Aim for independence.
    And peace.

  • Desmond says:

    I think this article plays down the extent to which the council has actually left black cultural institutuons blowing in the wind.

    You have the Malcolm X centre desperate for cash while the council pours tens of millions into the Hall formerly known as Colston. Last year they almost sold off a rastafarian cultural centre for private housing. And look at how they’ve cut and capped funding to St Pauls Carnival.

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