‘A clue, a starting point’: hidden histories and representations of heritage in Brixton

   Mural by the R.A.D collective on Railton road commemorating the 1981 uprising in Brixton

In June 2022 project intern Adassa McDonald Dixon and Brixton researcher Miranda Armstrong took a heritage walk in Brixton and its surround, visiting sites of cultural significance and examining attempts to remember its late twentieth century history. The following conversation explores what they saw on that walk and connects it to the research project’s questions of if, how, and for what purposes the urban town is recording its past.

MA: On this walk we agreed to include visits to sites where we knew the building of interest was no longer there, such as the former site of Brixton Black Women’s Centre at what used to be 41a Stockwell Green. We thought it was still important to go to places like that because one thing this research project is engaging with is hidden history, less-discussed yet significant histories that we can’t see.

AMD: Hidden histories are also about how we commemorate and memorialise events and figures, and I expected there to be more. When you’re in the heart of a community that has such a rich history, you expect to know it, to feel it. I hoped it would be visible and it wasn’t. It felt like a treasure hunt to find these secret places. Like ghost hunting, looking for these places that don’t exist anymore apart from in the memory of some people when you ask the right questions. Much of the radical history we sought out that day, such as Olive Morris’s fight for housing rights, are fights that are still being fought probably by some equally cool central figures whose names we don’t know yet.

MA: It definitely seems to be safer to talk about past periods and past figures and past movements rather than engage with struggles in the present.

AMD: It’s very hard to think about how to completely break out of that structure. It relates to the current conversation we’re all having at the minute about decolonising things, decolonising the curriculum, decolonising the archives, decolonising academia and that means thinking completely outside of the box. And recognising the limitations of how we currently herigitise and memorialise the inner city.

MA: I think murals are a new exciting form of historic preservation, like the recent one now on the 198 Gallery by the R.A.D mural collective (pictured above). There is also a mural series done across London but also in Brixton, which I found out about after our walk called ‘You are Enough’ by the visual artist Neequaye Dreph Dsane, otherwise known as Dreph. It recognises everyday black women. The subjects have each been on unique journeys and are inspirational in various ways. I really like that even though they’re not well known at societal level they’re still seen as worthy of recognition.

 

Mural of educator and artist Linette Kimpala by Dreph on Somerleyton Estate (from London Calling Blog)

AMD: What’s special about that series is that it’s about real women, people who exist in the community, and it tells relatable stories. In Brixton there has been a recent new move to ‘highlight’ black culture in Brixton – but in a very commercialised way. If we compare the ‘Come in Love, Stay in Peace’ mural on Brixton Road rail bridge to the ‘You Are Enough’ pieces, the latter has a deeper sense of poignancy and relevancy to the reality of the Black presence in Brixton. People definitely have their own opinions about graffiti, about whether or not it’s considered art but I think the bridge was in itself a record, an accumulation of art that reflects a history of individuals who make up the community, like a collaborative canvas. It seems to me that it was replaced by a purchased and sanitised show of Blackness. It reminded me of what Oumou Longley calls ‘selective visibility’ in regards to Black women. I think we can speak of a selective visibility or presentation of blackness in Brixton.

MA: Yes, street art is being managed and controlled and presented in an authorised way. 

One mural in Brixton that really stands out for me is Children at Play by Stephen Pusey that was created in 1982. I think for me that image represents how black and brown children in school were at the coalface of multiculturalism during the 1970s and 1980s, in a way that maybe some of their parents weren’t. They had to fight against racism in those spaces, as some were labelled, simply ignored or stereotyped. They were fighting a struggle that some parents arguably did not understand. In the book Heart of the Race (Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe. 2018[1985]), black women’s childhoof experiences of schooling in England are documented and it touches on this (p. 61-82); the rapper and writer Akala has reflected on this in his work also (Akala 2018:65-88). I think that mural is quite unique for hinting at this history a little bit, even though it is, again, a sanitised image.

AMD: I think there’s a very interesting conversation to be had about generational experiences of racism, racial politics, activism, because we’re talking about completely different time periods. My primary school years were long after the primary school years in the 1960s that people like Olive Morris and Liz Obi experienced, and yet there’s lots of experiences that apply to both; That sense of difference between what a child experiences and the parent’s experience, of having to fight battles on your own or that your parents haven’t experienced. Secondly, I’d like to talk about the whole idea of multiculturalism and integration and how we present that. I definitely think you can look at that mural as a presentation of children of different ethnicities, all playing together as a community. But a diverse community doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s integrated or harmonious.

 

Children at Play by Stephen Pusey on Stockwell Park Walk

MA: In the literature, it talks about how in the 90s the multiculturalism of Brixton was developed into a narrative to attract investment (Mavrommatis 2010; Lees 2016), commodifying the ethnic mix and cultures. One tagline was the ‘United Colours of Brixton’, which borrowed from the slogan of the clothing brand Benetton. It is true that Brixton is a very diverse place but it seems that there isn’t much mixing between certain groups, they rub along ‘tectonically’ without becoming truly involved in each other’s lives (Butler and Robson 2001). Representations of harmonious multiculturalism gloss over uncomfortable realities.

AMD: Commodification is a really important term for this conversation. In the commodification of blackness, there are these buzzwords that are often used: “urban”, “ethic”, “exciting” and “the interesting”. It can seem as if the most interesting parts of the city are where the minorities are, like gay clubs in soho or the black parts of South London. I was thinking about the way that we share spaces and how we designate what space belongs to whom. In the research interviews with Yvonne Taylor, she lists places she frequented as a gay black woman, and these were places known as popular and safe in communities. Those spaces don’t exist in the same way now, especially amongst the same generation of people. Many have transformed into other things that are definitely not designated to each of those groups in the same way. Does this mean that multiculturalism has improved because there are less designated spaces for minorities? Or is it the opposite, that there has been an erosion of those original communities in those spaces?

MA: Something that has come up in research interviews is the dispersal from Brixton not only in terms of residency but also in regard to the night-time spaces that served groups with less power. It’s been documented (Talbot and Bose 2007) how the licences of some black night-time venues were not renewed for dubious reasons. And there’s also the experience people have on a night out. An essay by the journalist Symeon Brown, Where do Black Men go to Dance? (2019), talks about young black men refused entry to nightclubs playing music genres which emanate working class black culture. It happens to black women too, recall the story about the incident at the London nightclub DSTRKT? There’s been this mainstreaming of black culture and music but also this continued refusal to young black people just wanting to enjoy the night-time.

AMD: I believe Yvonne Taylor also talked about the significance of spaces like that and times like that. I get the impression that during the 1980s it was about more than going out to dance, it was also about the solidarity of community building, the recognition that you weren’t isolated, and finding catharsis for the release of frustration. I wonder from a sociological perspective what the loss of spaces for black expressions of frustration and of joy and of community does for race relations in places like Brixton.

 

“Soul II Soul first gigged live here”: a celebratory plaque on Electric Brixton, formerly The Fridge

MA: I think that’s what is so special, even radical, about London’s Carnival now, black people taking up space and celebrating their cultures, in a place like Notting Hill, which has been gentrified for decades. For me, Carnival needs to continue for as long as possible because it is an act of resistance in that space. I wonder how aware people are of the large black community that once resided there? There is a black history tour done by the organisation Black History Walks in Notting Hill because there’s so much hidden history, which a number of plaques indicate. It could be said that plaques are not a complete act of commemoration but I think they do serve as clues, they leave a trace and they’re perhaps a starting point for conversations and reflection. I am interested in why there aren’t any markings where Brixton black women’s group met or where Brixton Black Women’s Centre was. Local women’s groups and women’s centres are largely missing from London’s landscape now.

 

The formers sites of Brixton Black Women’s Group (above) and the Black Women’s Centre (below)

AMD: Well now we have to talk about Olive Morris, specifically Olive Morris House. To me, that building on Brixton Hill was like a shrine to the person. It was an incredible achievement: Lambeth’s housing offices being named after a figurehead of the squatting movement which had the intention of serving the local population, a large portion of whom were black communities, including black families and black queer people. For that building not only to be demolished but to be replaced by private housing is an offence, an ultimate offence to that shrine.

MA: It does feel quite symbolic of what’s happening across London.

 

Private development on the former site of Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill

AMD: A paper by Oumou Longley asks important questions such as how Olive would want herself and her achievements to be represented and if we are doing her justice or an injustice. I think asking those questions is a really humanising way of thinking about how we can decolonise the archive and reimagine historically significant urban spaces.

I was also thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and the renewed emphasis on saying the names and displaying the faces of black people killed by police, for example the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murals that were created. For me, this also feels like a more humanising way of remembering. I feel like that’s what’s missing from the way that we currently memorialise people. The large absence of black people’s faces from plaques and statues kind of removes the racial element of history. The visibility of people is significant in the way they can exemplify movements.

 

The Bronze Woman, envisioned and campaigned for by Cécile Nobrega, in Stockwell Memorial Gardens

MA: I think efforts to recognise everyday people collectively are important too. The Bronze Woman monument in Stockwell Gardens, is a striking example of this for me. The monument is the result of a 15-year campaign by the poet and educator Cécile Nobrega (Burin and Sowinski 2014:116-117) and is an embodiment of her poem by the same name. The Bronze Woman is the first permanent display of a black woman in England. I interpret it as a tribute to black mothers, as recognition of their struggles during slavery and beyond to protect and nurture the next generation. It represents an anonymous group of women who did and continue to do the hidden labour of carework every day, important and vital work which is still largely naturalised due to the gendered division of labour and women’s excessive responsibility for care. This is arguably what the most significant commemoration displays do: recognise and make visible the difficulties, the everyday lives and the achievements of the underrepresented and undervalued.

 

References

Akala (2018) Natives: race and class in the ruins of empire. London: Two Roads.

Brown, S. (2019) ‘Where do black men go to dance?’ i􏰀n Owusu, D. (ed.) Safe: on Black British men reclaiming space. London: Trapeze, pp. 145-156.

Bryan, B., Dadzie, S. and Scafe, S. (1985[2013]) The heart of the race: black women’s lives in Britain. London: Verso. 

Butler, T. and Robson G. (2001) ‘Social capital, gentrification and neighbourhood   change in London: a comparison of three South London neighbourhoods’, Urban Studies, 38(12), pp. 2145-2162.

Burin, Y. and Sowinski, E.A. (2014) ‘Sister to sister: developing a black British feminist archival consciousness’, Feminist Review, 108, pp. 112-119.

Lees, L.  (2016) ‘Gentrification, race, and ethnicity: Towards a Global Research Agenda?’, City & Community,15(3), pp.208-214.

Longley, O. (2021) ‘Olive and me in the archive: a Black British woman in an archival space’, Feminist Review, 129, pp. 123-137. 

Mavrommatis, G. (2010) ‘A racial archaeology of space: a journey through the political imaginings of Brixton and Brick Lane, London’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(4), pp. 561-579.

Talbot, D. and Bose, M. (2007) ‘Racism, criminalisation and the development of night-time economies: two case studies in London and Manchester’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(1), pp. 95–118.