A rich history

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Nene Essien has spent the last four years encouraging black youngsters to spend time talking to their parents and grandparents about life "back home". "It's the only way they are going to really learn about themselves unless they want to subscribe to the 'white man done me wrong variety' of black history," says Ms Essien, who runs the Papa Mandela London Project from her south London home.

"We have a rich history, but black children are ashamed to bring attention to it because they think it began and ended with slavery", says Essien. "And media images of African war, poverty and famine does not exactly encourage self-esteem."

So every Saturday morning, armed with their own ancestral sagas, children pour into the project's headquarters to share their stories and learn about their African connection through drama and songs which Essien has translated from the Nigerian Idibio language.

Now thanks to the launch of Channel 4's Black and Asian History Map, a website that acts as a gateway on to the Internet for projects looking at black and Asian history, these youngsters' quest for a connection with their roots is no longer a secret.

Together with more than 170 other sites dedicated to unlocking the hitherto untold stories of the black and Asian presence in British history, the Papa Mandela Project provides a fantastic opportunity for members of Britain's minority ethnic community to learn about themselves through their past.

"It is using history to build up a tolerant community in the new Millennium", according to Stuart Butler, head of history at Brockworth school in Gloucester. His Year 7 pupils have put together a site with information they gleaned from researching three generations of their families and listing references to black and Asian people in the local parish records from 1603.

Butler says that in order to tease out the hidden history he had to mobilise parents and hold meetings to encourage them to talk about their past. The result is a site that includes genealogical trees and perspectives on being black and Asian in Britain today in story, features and poetry form.

"I still have a lot of contributions from young poets and eails from Gloucester's African-Caribbean community, but haven't had the time to put them on the site," says Butler. "What I would like to see is the county taking it on board so that it can become an evolving, dynamic site not totally dependant on the pupils' voluntary labour."

Others tempted by the warp speed of the Internet and Channel 4's offer of help to design and develop a website range from personal and family histories to the contributions made by black and Asian people in music, medicine, the arts, sports and politics. While the Women's Jazz Archive saw the map as an opportunity to document Wales's black musical history, GCSE history students at Deptford Green school have packed their pages with stories of migration from Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Spain, Israel and South Africa. Some they got from home, others are the results of interviews they conducted on the streets with members of the community.

Meanwhile pupils from Fairlawn primary school couldn't resist putting Sam King, Lewisham's Jamaican-born mayor in the hot seat. Their pages bear testament to how they probed his past and commiserated with his bouts of seasickness on board the SS Windrush which brought him from the Caribbean to England over half a century ago.

Britain's role in the lucrative slave trade and the legacy of that period of our history is addressed by some of the sites on the Map such as the Mountravers Sugar Plantation project. It documents the lives of the slaves belonging to the Bristol sugar planter and merchant John Pinney between 1762 and 1808 and tells of the appalling death rate among the slaves while they adjusted to their new home during the "seasoning" time.

The notion behind the Black and Asian History Map is one of a shared history and the relationships between individuals today.

"We want schools to help take the shame out of black pupils' eyes by encouraging them to search out their own history. And to do that they need to be involved all the time, not just for one month each year," says Essien.

Maureen McTaggart is a TES staff writer


The Black and Asian History Map: www.blackhistory.com4

Learning: www.4learning.com

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