Racism, Resistance and Resilience – Introduction to Black Europe by Rianna Raymond-Williams

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I attended the Introduction to Black Europe a year ago with UBELE and Untold Empowerment. Here I had one of the best Erasmus+ exchange experiences of my life. So much so, that I decided to come back a second time around to take part in the immersive, inspiring and nourishing learning experience, but also play a hand in helping UBELE as an organisation evaluate the project.

As a social entrepreneur and Erasmus+ coordinator, I know the importance of monitoring and evaluation to help improve performance and achieve results. Playing a dual role on this programme helped me to see all the things that worked well for me and other participants, but also some areas that may need improvement to ensure quality long-term.  

Just as I experienced a year ago in 2018, I met a wide range of people doing amazing community work, many of whom shared the same interests in arts, youth development, health and wellness and African history as myself, but most importantly people who like me, were keen to do work that directly benefited and positively impacted people from the African Diaspora.  

Over a period of 7 days, me and the other participants engaged in a structured learning programmeconsisting of talks, presentations, study visit and interactive activities to begin to understand how colonialism and imperialism negatively impacted the African Diaspora globally, in addition to looking at the tool, initiatives and community groups that have emerged and continued to preserve heritage and customs, build community cohesion and encourage racial esteem.

Here’s a recap of our 7-day trip in The Netherlands:

DAY 1

On arrival in Amsterdam, we came together as a group in our hotel meeting space, were we were asked to think about a question that we would ask ourselves as part of the course, to help frame the work that we do individually in line with the course activities.

For this activity, my question was the following:

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Reproductive justice is "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities," according to SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, the first organisation founded to build a reproductive justice movement.

As a sexual health practitioner and researcher, I am aware of the negative sexual and reproductive health disparities that exist across the BAME communities, in addition to how much we are underrepresented in data regarding sexual health behaviour, attitudes and access to services. As a result, I work to address these issues in the community using interactive tools such as film, peer led training and resources in the form of posters, magazines and leaflets to start these conversations.

I am currently developing my own qualitative survey to help understand the sexual health behaviour and attitudes of our communities with the aim of this data being shared to program and policy makers. After conducting the research, I am keen to use a range of art forms such as digital media, theatre and dance to communicate these messages to our community and wider audience so that we can begin to advocate for reproductive justice more effectively.

DAY 2

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Here we engaged in a drumming workshop delivered by a local musician and his son. During the workshop, we had to opportunity to participate in playing a range of sequences on the Djembe as a collective. This was also an opportunity for us to speak about the importance of the Djembe drum in African tradition which was used for communication - particularly in a time when enslave Africans were forbidden to speak to one another - but also to see how the Djembe drum was used to enhance spiritual practices of faith and worship in uniting the community in playing and singing together.

This was followed by a presentation by Jerry Afriye, a poet and human rights activist spearheading the Kick Out Swarte Piet Campaign in The Netherlands. The campaign aims to stop the racist and discriminatory yearly festivalSinterklaas in which some white people in The Netherlands parade around town as a blackface character Swarte Piet (Black Pete) with large gold earrings and exaggerated lips.

In 2015, the United Nation Committee urged the Netherlands to get rid of Black Pete in a report published on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which highlight that Black Pete is directly connected to Dutch slavery history “the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

Despite Jerry and colleagues holding peaceful protests in recent years, they have faced on-going backlash from white supremacists resulting in harm, threats, and arrests. Hearing Jerry’s presentation reminded me of just how much work still needs to be done to address racism and discrimination on wider scale, globally, but particularly in Europe where this offensive festival still takes place.

DAY 3

Here we took a trip to the Black Archives in Amsterdam, similar to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, the space provides historical documentation and artefacts from African scholars and intellects, that have often been overlooked. As one of the only black owned building in Amsterdam, the Black Archives provides a space for exploration and understanding of past and present events. Some of the collections that currently exist are from Waldo Heilbron, Glenn Willemsen and the Otto and Hermine Huiswoud.

It was great to speak with the staff at the archives to hear about all the amazing artefacts that have been preserved and collected over the years. Although the archive is still being developed, the staff are keen to allow tours and visits to create awareness of the space and the opportunities for exploration that it offers.

Following the tour of the Black Archives, we went down to the Tropen Museum. Here we engaged in  tour of their permanent exhibition Afterlives of Slavery. It was great to see that the city has acknowledged the role they played in Slavery and the impact it had on African communities, but also important for the exhibition to be accessible all year round to a wide range of people living in and visiting The Netherland.

Our personal tour guide AshakiLeito - a long-time friend of Untold, specialises in African History tours - could provide a breakdown of the events and correct some of the factual inconsistencies to the museum to give us a clearer picture of the past. As a person visiting the exhibition for a second time it was disheartening to hear about the past atrocities, but nourishing to hear about the activism and resistance that existed, even in the past. It also encouraged me to think about how important it is that we are engaged in the work that is produced about our community, which is often not informed by the experiences or knowledge of people from African descent. We each play a part in sharing our history and making sure that it is factually accurate and representative, which can only be done through our own engagement.

In the evening, some of us went down to see the performance put on by Swazoom, which is the local Youth Services for the south-east community in The Biljmer, Amsterdam. SWAZOOM, was established as a broad welfare organization in 2004 for children, young people, their parents and other residents with a focus on leisure activities for children. The performance was a talent show in which young people took part in a range of stage performances that consisted of physical theatre, dance and rap. It was inspiring to see how talented the young people were and also how similar the youth culture in The Bijmer was to inner-city London – the only thing that was different was the language.

DAY 4

In the morning we visited the OBA Bijlmerplein, in the centre of the Bijlmer community. Here we were invited to have a tour of the collections on youth, the Surinamese Community and Antillean community collection. We saw a wide range of historical artefacts and documents that retold the history of Africans in the The Bilmjer and Netherlands. The OBA is a cultural institution that aims to promote free movement of information in Amsterdam society. The space acts as community hub for residents to read, work and study.

In the afternoon, we engaged in a Black History Tour of the city which was deliver by a Sister Benji, also a long-time friend of Untold. She specialises in walking tours of the city and could provide us all with detailed account of events and historical building and monuments across the city which still have evidence of the Dutch involvement in colonialism and imperialism.

Throughout the tour what rung true to me was the infamous quote about things “being hidden in plain sight”. All the historical evidence of events of the past is undeniable and has been left for us to find, we just have to be conscious and interested enough to seek the information and knowledge. The experience made me think more about my life in London and how much information is visible in the city and streets that I live.  

After the city tour, we visited the Slavery Monument in Oosterpark, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands in 1863. The monument was unveiled on 1st July 2002. Every year since, a celebration called Ketikoti, has been held in remembrance, which translate to ‘broken chains’ in Sranantongo (one of the creole languages spoken in Surinam).This work by the Surinamese artist Erwin de Vries represents the past, present and future. The thin figures chained to one another represent the slave past. A figure walks beneath an arch, breaking through the wall of resistance: the present. And in front, big, strong and glorious: the future. Freedom!

The monument is powerful and it was great to see so many people in the park for the festival which shows that the history is not forgotten.

day 5

On this day Michael McMillian, lecturer, playwright and author of The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home, a presentation and workshop. Here he spoke to us about his installationThe West Indian Front Room, previously featured at the Geffrye Musuem in East London in 2005 – 2006 which represented his vision of the traditional ‘West Indian’ front room, drawn from memories of his parents’ and relatives’ homes in the 1960s and 1970s. As someone who knew Michael’s work it was such a pleasure to meet him and talk in depth about how he used art to retell his lived experience, like many other activist.

After the presentation, we each had the opportunity to divide into groups and use a range of pictures, words or physical theatre to express our own experience as part of the trip. Although we were only given a short space of time to create a present it was powerful to witness the creative nature of our group, which encouraged us all to think about how we could each develop they wok we produced to create a showcase in the future, to document and archive our experience as participants of the course.

This was followed by a presentation delivered by two local activists in The Netherlands Andre Reeder and Roy Wijkswho spoke to us about their journeys in activism over the years. Through listening to the presentation, we were able to see that much of the issues faced by the Black Community in the Netherlands, is no different to the issues Black communities faced and continue to face in London such as deprivation, police brutality, issues with social housing and ongoing issues of racism and oppression.

Lastly, we were given a presentation about Organising and Leadership in the African Community by  scholar, activist and community organiser Cecil Gutzmore. As an elder in the community it was insightful to hear about all the past and present organisations and movements that have been created to unite Africans in the fight against oppression, but also motivating to think about what role I as an individual play in the grand scheme of a movement. Here we were all invited to think about how we could organise more successful to achieve more, but also work more effectively as a collective with a united aim.    

day 6

The morning started with a short session delivered by Aminato Cairo who lectures in Inclusion and Diversity at The Hague in Amsterdam. To start the session we used a range of sound and movement as icebreakers which acted as an induction to the session, much of which was rooted in ancestral practices of African Communities to build and strengthen bonds in the community. In the sessionwe looked at understanding the context of certain behaviour and thoughts, that may be oppressive or racist. That’s not to excuse the behaviour, but by understanding the context of behaviours and thoughts, we can help ourselves in forming better reactions to situations that may be harmful or hurtful.

Here we were asked to think about how we can communicate messages of joy and pain succinctly using 1 – 3 word sound bites in pairs, in addition to thinking more collectively about power and control in relationship to race, class, gender or ability.

This was then followed by a session about journeys facilitated by Michael Hamilton in which we played out the roles of interviewee, questioner and observer in groups in an attempt to understand that makings of an activist, motivations for attending the course, reflections on the course so far and intentions moving forward. We heard stories of change and triumph from Yvonne Field about how her campaign to enrol in a grammar school acted as the catalyst for her life long career in activism, in addition to hearing other antidotes from speakers about elders who enabled them to develop the tools and skills to challenge oppression in their own ways.

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DAY 7

On the last day of the exchange we took part in evaluation in which we each were given someone names in our group randomly on a piece of paper and were asked to write some words about them in relation to what we’d learnt about them through the week, how they’ve inspired or motivated us or any comments or words of advice. It was a great experience to witness so much love and support, but also to be a part of an amazing group of change makers who all contributed to an amazing emotional, education and enriching week as part of the Introduction to Black Europe program delivered by UBELE and Untold.

Throughout the week course, we as a group began to unravel the unspoken truths about the Dutch involvement in the slave trade, alongside the role other European powers such as Britain, Spain, Portugal and France played in enslaving Africans and the continued impact of oppression in modern times. But also the inspiring and motivating acts and initiatives of resistance and resilience that were and have continued to develop in the face of oppression among the Black in the community, in Europe, but globally.

Unfortunately, across the globe, the narrative about African diaspora is often negative and evokes conations of disadvantage, struggle, poverty, lacking in education, resources and opportunities, however the small community of people I shared the same space with over the duration of 7 days were a testament to how false these ideas are as we emulated a community rich in ideas, experience, knowledge and resources each with our own plan to help shape and change the perception of our communities.

Overall, the course provided a space for exploration of African culture and traditions, understanding of activism in the face of oppressions and awareness of existing structural, political and economic issues that continue to displace Africans in the Diaspora.

Since travelling with Erasmus+ to over 10 different European countries over the last 18 month I have found that I am often 1 of or the only person from the Black Community. This highlight a need for Erasmus to do more to make their programs more accessible to African and Caribbean people across the continent, which I feel UBELE is trailblazing the way with.

I’m thankful to the friends that I have acquired throughout the week who made the learning experience such an amazing one. Moving forward, I would like to see courses like this feature as permanent part of educational syllabus, that is not only aimed at the black community but everyone! African history is world history and without understanding the past we are unable to move forward.

Yvonne Field