Black and Asian histories are a vital part of England’s story. Yet in our books, at our historic sites and in our records they're not well represented.
Racist perspectives labelled people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage as inferior and foreign. They bundled them into a homogenous group of 'coloureds' and 'immigrants'. However, the identities of people coming to England were and still are, as varied as the number of people arriving.
Depending on identity, place of origin, ethnic background and many other factors, people's experience of England was different. Some post-1948 migrants from the Caribbean imagined that they were coming home to the 'mother country'. They were often surprised at the cool reception they received.
Often migrants were drawn to parts of the country where they were connected to an existing historical community. Over time these communities gave places distinct characters that have enriched the culture of the nation. Hybrid identities were formed where migrant communities mixed with each other and existing populations. Places like Liverpool, Hull, South Shields and London are good examples.
To celebrate their own culture - and at times to escape a hostile environment - Black and Asian people created places of sanctuary. These spaces of living and loving included restaurants such as International Afro Restaurant in New Oxford Street in the 1930s and the Mangrove in Ladbroke Grove in the 1960s/1970s. They included bookstores such as Headstart in Tottenham, New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, Bogle L'Ouverture in Ealing. There were night clubs too, such as Florence Mills Social Parlour in Carnaby Street in the 1930s or later the Q club in Paddington - all these in London alone.
Places of worship were also important safe spaces to practice and maintain their culture for Black and Asian communities. As the presence of communities from India and Pakistan grew in England, the number of mosques expanded. The earliest mosques were formed through the conversion of houses such as Preston Mosque. There were other large scale conversions. Then came purpose built mosques such as Regents Park Mosque in London and with these the emergence of Islamic architecture in England. Other religious spaces emerged such as Sikh Gurdwaras. The first appeared in Putney in London but also in Birmingham and West Yorkshire where there was significant migrant populations from the Punjab.
Many of these spaces of sanctuary were home to a spectrum of Black and Asian cultures. They became melting pots of creativity and cultural hotspots for the broader population. Whole areas have become known as locations of cultural resistance at certain times. Some organised cultural celebrations like the many Caribbean carnivals that take place throughout the country. The most famous of these is the Notting Hill Carnival in West London, initiated following the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane and the location for wide-scale opposition to police violence in 1976.
Organised and informal events changed the way people thought about their streets and public spaces and created new ways of sharing space to celebrate the collective experience of living together. Notting Hill Carnival started as an expression of Trinidadian culture and became an international event. The Muslim annual Eid prayer is held in parks across the country. The Hindu festival of Diwali sees fireworks, lanterns and other displays around the country. And so our public spaces have become sites for a rich experience of cultural exhibition.
Underground events like parties and raves, featuring reggae, jungle music, garage and grime became hubs for counter cultures. The example of the band Soul II Soul and their rise to stardom in the late 80's as a result of their regular gigs at The Africa Centre in Covent Garden is one illustration of how new forms of music, art and spoken word have emerged out of these spaces and influenced mainstream creative culture in turn.
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