By Thomas L Blair © January 2013
“Erasure” controversy foreshadows loss of the digital Black Experience in the information age. Black communities and scholars are firmly on the internet and social media, but are overlooked by Britain’s heritage institutions. So how to ensure a place in the gigabytes of national heritage?
The Voice, Britain’s top Black weekly, warns against “removing black heroes” from primary and secondary school curricula. The erasure of icons Mary Seacole, the Crimean war nurse and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano “could deter undergraduates from gaining an interest in black history”. Crucially, it “would have a knock-on effect on academic research”, it thundered.
However, my concern is how to add the Black Experience to new national digital heritage collections.
National heritage enhancement is the new buzzword in the information professions. “We’re in danger of losing our memories”, said a director of the British Library. Indeed, capturing and sharing community and intellectual digital heritages is the long-term goal of major portals of archival and research professionals.
“Listen to our voices!”
This is a formidable challenge, of course. Experts estimate there are approximately 8 million .uk domain websites and that number grows at a rate of 15-20% annually. The scale is enormous and the value of these websites for future research and innovation is vast. Nevertheless, there are fears that “minority interests and issues” may get lost in the scrum.
This doubt and an aversion to such a risk are signs of healthy skepticism towards information professionals — a skepticism that deserves to be dealt with head on.
Significantly, cyberspace contains a complex of electronic communications that make up Digital Black Britain.
A range of voices are on the digital frontiers — from community leaders, cyberscholars and online citizen’s journalists to public intellectuals, writers and artists – all using social networks to get vital innovative views out and bring about change.
Black Britons are using their smartphones and tablets to find information and inspiration. This keeps them connected to “what’s happening” in things that matter: home life, education, the job market, and in business, public affairs and civic participation.
Faith leaders have launched colourful websites to reach their E-congregations and to attract the most impoverished and unchurched multitudes.
Blogging adds new dimensions to the digital frontier. It is the grassroots intranet, inexpensive, uncomplicated and beholden to no one. Moreover, in an increasingly tough economic climate, political bloggers focus on building social capital and organising local solutions to neighbourhood problems, an important national issue.
These daily digital interactions are the memories of the present that will be lost to the future if not saved and shared.
Why the institutional problem, then?
Well, the important information archivists and guardians are publicly funded institutions. It is their job to find, store and share information and act in all our interests. However, evidence shows they lack good digital materials on Black Britain and its significance. Chronic neglect and underfunding leave “marginal” interests at serious risk of exclusion. This identifies an endemic problem that requires a new action plan. These findings are very worrying but not surprising. However, it is not too late to take aggressive remedial measures.
Black history is moving from print to pixels and from uniquely great icons to the gigabytes of everyone
Here are some start-up actions to create a Digital Black Britain community and scholarly legacy. Black advocates should urge a focus on the E-trails of “living in the city”. They should theme the fateful migration to Britain and narrate the ascent from “dark strangers” to troubled citizens of the ex-colonial metropole.
They should hard-drive family histories for posterity. Think of all those folders of souvenir photographs and music, the anxious e-mails to threatened kith and kin, and the published web sites on their computers. Moreover, don’t forget the online “I love you’s”, the “best wishes on graduating” and tributes to “those who passed over to the Ancestors”.
Cultural archivists and historians have their role to play. They must see to the digital recording of the varied works of modern Black scholars. They are the griots who shaped the post-colonial attitudes of Black Britons and the African Diaspora.
Cross-party Black parliamentarians and financial experts, increasingly affluent and influential, must devise and ringfence funding solutions. Moreover, campaigners must call for a National Action Plan and staff to place the Black Experience in Britain’s digital heritage. Schools, communities and local public libraries should have open access to this permanent legacy.
Create the political environment for archiving Digital Black Britain
This list of tasks takes us back to my original concerns. The “erasure” furore prompts us to safeguard the rapidly emerging digital Black Experience. Our collective actions backed by rational discourse can save a digital legacy in the balance.
The challenge is two-fold. To “detoxify” the worst examples of current archival exclusion. Moreover, to embed Digital Black Britain in the national heritage that fully represents Britain’s diversity.
New proposals for reform must support this challenge. Government should be urged to launch a new Public Sector Archival Equality Duty. It would require national heritage institutions and public information bodies to set out their plans for minority inclusion in their heritage collections. Many would see this as a sign that government had not turned its back on equality measures. Establishing the political environment to achieve this will undoubtedly be one of the most closely fought civil rights issues of the information age.
This article introduces his E-book Decolonising Knowledge – Expanding the Black Experience in Britain’s heritage. Copyright Editions Blair© 2013. In it he shares his thoughts on the why, what and how of connecting Digital Black Britain to the national heritage grid.
To be published in early spring, ten (10) prepublication pdf copies are available for useful commentaries. For your review copy, e-mail Prof Thomas L Blair at firstname.lastname@example.org