SEARCHING FOR AND FINDING OUR HEROES

A capacity audience filled the V&A Lecture theatre on Sunday 8th June 2014. We were invited to “Search For the Hero” and were treated to a magical afternoon of cultural performances, tributes and celebration as the Huntley Biography Project was launched and the story of our heroes came alive.

THE GRIP

Whilst others lapped up the gorgeous sunshine in the grounds outside, something enchanting was being experienced inside the museum. We were taken on a journey back to the future, reliving the experiences of African and Caribbean migrants, recalling their hopes and dreams, appreciating their hard work and contributions to a society where they were often unwelcomed. The aspirations for a better life were neatly folded into a single “grip” – a hardy suitcase with which many African Caribbean people travelled to the “motherland,” as it was then regarded. Actress Nataylia Roni’s sketch of this shared experience perfectly captured the sour-sweetness of that first arrival in the 1950s and 1960s.

THE TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

This was extended by Imhotep Oyortey’s depiction of the curious scrutiny by white Britons who found it difficult adapting to the complexion and wave of their new Black neighbours. He gave a humorous and charismatic performance of Wole Soyinka’s incisive poem – “The Telephone Conversation”.

MAMA AFRICA

The duo later reunited on stage to take us on a deeper journey, back to the history and memory of African Caribbean people. As well as the experience of migration, there was the shared history of enslavement and colonisation; the reason that led to them travelling in search of opportunities outside their respective homes. Their psychological survival depended on remembering the ancestral wisdoms of Mother Africa. In a poignant and compelling performance of Mervyn Weir’s script, Nataylia and Imhotep urged us to keep alive the memory of Mother Africa by working together, having respect for each other and building our communities. Mervyn in fact, wrote this as a tribute to Jessica, capturing her wisdom and passion to pass on our rich legacy to the youth.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

Although the Huntleys came as ordinary people who would face inequality and obstacles relating to cultural differences, these ordinary people would go on to do extraordinary things. We were reminded by hosts and organisers of the event, MargeLowhar and Mervyn Weir that the Huntleys were ‘humble, prepared to stay in the background’ heroes. They dedicated their lives to the struggle for justice, equality and self-determination for African Caribbean people in the UK and abroad.

‘AH SOH DEM SEH’

One of the heroic achievements of the Huntleys was co-founding Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, which was among few Black owned publishers during the 1960s and 70s. The event opened with Valerie Bloom’s reading of one of her poems – “ah soh dem seh” – providing a lyrical sample of Jamaican dialect and social commentary. Her collection of poems Touch Mi, Tell Mi was published by Bogle L’Ouverture precisely because it brings to life the culture and sound of Jamaica, reminding migrants of home and affirming their identity.

DOING NOTHING IS NOT AN OPTION

Though humble, the Huntleys were formidable, both Eric and Jessica having strong views about the ways things might be done. Their different approaches but agreement that something should be done was outlined by Margaret Andrews, author of their biography Doing Nothing is not an Option: the radical lives of Eric and Jessica Huntley. In the introduction she writes that the Huntleys are “symbols of courage, dignity and self-sacrifice,” whose “modesty makes it difficult for them to accept deserved praise for their contributions to Black communities in the UK and other parts of the world.”  

NEW HEROES

There was the inevitable promise of continuity when we heard the radical rendition that “doing nothing is not an option – it doesn’t matter if it cause an eruption” from Eric and Jessica’s great grandchildren, Zachary and Tafari Osei. This journey now into the future was revealing new heroes for “injustice must be defeated but it won’t be by those we elected,” as their chanting went on.

THE ROSA PARKS OF THE UK

Other young people who made up a fair proportion of audience and performers expressed that they were inspired and motivated by the work of the Huntleys. Spoken Word artist Onysha Collins – who performed one of her poems said “I was inspired to learn that there were contemporary activists in Britain that I hadn’t known about when I was younger. So it is an honour to be part of the event.” Her poem was a tribute to Harriet Tubman who liberated many enslaved Africans during the American Civil War. She was one of many African heroes absent from Onysha’s year 8 history class – where she didn’t learn about “Africans seeking life” and “holding on to generational pride.” For fellow spoken word artist Imhotep Oyortey the Huntleys “are the Rosa Parks of the UK, frontline activists, contributing to art, culture and history.”

IF THEY CAN DO IT, I CAN DO IT

Rio, a young member of the audience said he was pleased to learn about the different cultural things the Huntley brought to the UK. He found the poetry educational and would be happy to tell his friends about the event. Teenager Infinity, who has written and published her own collection of poems, said she enjoyed learning about the lives of the Huntleys and how many people they affected. “A lot of people need encouraging,” she said. “And if they can do it, I can do it.”

WEBSITE LAUNCHED

The launch of the website aims to provide easy access to learning materials about the contributions the Huntleys have made to the cultural, social and political landscape in the UK. Eric Huntley was called to the stage to press the online button, symbolic of the ribbon cutting ritual that gave us the first view of the live website. This historic moment was particularly special because it extends the Huntleys’ journey from humble but impressive beginnings in publishing into the age of modern technology. This online resource will give greater presence to their work and that of the communities they support. The organisers of the event shared their aspiration that schools, educators, young and adult learners would make use of the resource. Leah Gordon, a secondary school teacher said about the event: “the launch gave a really good overview of the Huntleys’ contribution to our community. The cultural performances were fantastic! They were truly heartfelt and appealed to all ages. The website looks great. I will be working the free educational resources into the Black History Month programme at my school.”

JESSICA REMEMBERED

For some time there was an empty stool, just to the left of the stage. If not intentionally, it wouldn’t take much for the audience to imagine why it was there. Jessica Huntley knew of the project but did not live to see its fulfilment. Part of the enchantment of the afternoon was that one could picture her sitting on that stool left of centre stage. Flautist Keith Waite’s musical tribute to Jessica was added to the wonderful, dreaminess of the afternoon; beautifully evoking not only her spirit but the vivid, rainforest sounds of the Huntleys’ birthplace Guyana. Our spirits were further uplifted by the powerful musical performances of gospel singer and jazz vocalist Celia Wickham-Anderson. Her slow, deliberate interpretation of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” appropriately set the mood for the afternoon. There were many heroes among us. The Huntley Biography project could not have been possible without the heroes of the organisation Krik Krak who decided that it needed to be done; who put their ideas to action and applied to the Lottery Heritage Fund through which it was then made viable. It showed what can be accomplished with conviction, self-belief and love; when like the heroic lives we were there to honour it was recognised that “doing nothing is not an option.”

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Celia reinterpreted Marvin Gaye’s song “Abraham, Martin, John” to honour Black female contributors to liberation, independence and creativity. Against their images beaming from the screen she sang these words, moving many to tears: “has anybody here seen my old friend Harriet … can you tell me where she’s gone…Has anybody here seen my old friend Claudia, you know she always fought for equality, transforming our society, I looked around and she was gone…Has anybody here seen my sister Maya, she gave us words and still I rise, I looked around and she was gone…Has anybody here seen our good friend Jessica, can you tell me where she’s gone … mother, friend, sister and wife, building community was her life, I just looked around and she was gone…” Gone but they left behind powerful legacies from which we can continue to build. Finally in closing, everyone rose to their feet to mark our appreciation for the radical lives of Jessica and Eric Huntley. Drum beats played us out, “if I had wings like a dove, I would fly, fly away…” livelying up the otherwise quiet Sunday at the museum. But the love and energy was so magnetic we didn’t want to leave, not even to embrace that other kind of sunshine outside. We came in search of heroes, we found them, but more than that, we left inspired and challenged to be the heroes for the next generation. Michelle Asantewa