Written by Marnie Duke
We are taught that history means truth. There’s no room for revision or rewrites. But large chapters have been lost in the careful process of crafting the eurocentric version we are taught in schools. Black history has been unrecorded, buried and washed out from the narrative.
Feeling disconnected from the past can lead young people to feel that they are not part of history and had no role in shaping it. This is a particular problem when it comes to young, black people in the care system, who lack the traditional support systems that help them to feel grounded within society. A sense of belonging – within history and society – is therefore a constant theme of contention for them. The Big House, a theatre company working with disadvantaged young people, is working to change that. They are launching a project that will increase access for young minority ethnic people to their cultural heritage.
Feeding into a longstanding oral tradition within black culture, the company is launching a series of investigative podcasts that will explore unheard tales of black heritage. Workshops will be led by Dee Miller, author of ‘Black Enterprize’, a book which tells stories of black innovators through history. The young people will learn skills in heritage and archiving, and be free to select the stories that represent and inspire them, working alongside partners like George the Poet, DJ Target and Certy Podcast. The project will be shared with students across the UK via a brand new digital platform called The Big Mouth.
I chatted to Dee about the importance of feeling connected to the past.
What was it that led you to start writing about black history?
In school I never really cared about history. It was boring to me. Every year during Black History Month, they would print off pictures of the same people like Oprah and Jay-Z, put them up and say ‘that’s black history’. And in school, all we were taught about was slavery. So I didn’t really care to learn about it. It was all sad and depressing.
After school, college and university I started doing my own research and discovering my passion. I liked writing about topics that were a bit more challenging, like gentrification and generational wealth. But I was still writing about the same people I’d learnt about in school, all the obvious people. I thought there must be more creative and interesting people out there that aren’t as famous. I didn’t want them to come from just entertainment or sports backgrounds because it’s stereotypically perceived that those are the only areas black people are prolific in. I wanted to help change the narrative in my small way. It led me to find different people. I wrote articles and blogs online about them. My aim was to get 10 articles and I ended up with a book.
Why do you think it’s important for young black people to feel connected to their history?
One of my favourite writers and activists Huey P. Newton said the reason why black people can’t progress is because our self image in the media is very negative and generally has been since the media began. That’s mostly because the people in control are not black, and if they’re not black, they’re not going to care about how the black community is received. The problem is the lack of consistent positive images. If all you see is black people in sports and entertainment, there will be an oversubscription of people from black backgrounds trying to be in that same space. So many kids choose that route – not only because they’re good at it, but because they think it’s the only way out. I wanted to change that. Black people are in every walk of life and every career path. But it’s not being translated into the mainstream media. It’s important that young people know that there are options out there. If people see it, they can believe it and achieve it. That’s where I want the narrative to be changed.
I have my book currently displayed in several branches of Soho House which was really interesting for me. When you go to Soho House, there’s loads of black people there doing interesting things with different career paths. But 9 times out of 10 none of these people make it to any mainstream coverage. The only black people who ever reach the cover of the Soho House magazine are in entertainment or sports.
But my aim wasn’t only for [the book] to be found by black people. I sometimes feel like black people live in a vacuum. Our losses are translated into mainstream media but our wins stay in the vacuum, bouncing around to ourselves. The wider community doesn’t really know about them (unless it’s in sports and music). Growing up I had to learn about white history whether I wanted to or not. So I think it should be the same for all cultures.
Dee Miller, Author of ‘Black Enterprize’
The Big Mouth project launches in January. Meanwhile, you can buy tickets for their latest production here. Expect raw, visceral drama unlike any other, inspired by the real stories of the disadvantaged young people at the heart of their projects.