Welcome to Age UK’s celebration of Black History Month. The events of this year, in particular the killing of George Floyd and other connected events that have followed it, have made this opportunity more important than ever.
One of the most fundamental truths of our human condition is that we cannot take control of our present, or shape our future, without knowledge of our past. So when we in Age UK think about Black history, we are looking to the past in order to help us in our work changing the world in the present and in the future, because we will not be able to bring about the change we wish to see if we do not understand the history that has brought us to where we are today.
Learning the lessons of history
It is because the past has such a powerful influence on us – whether we realise it or not – that how we tell the story of the past is so important. We know of the achievements, voices, experiences and opinions of those who have been most powerless are those least represented by history. Over the centuries, choices are made about whose creations and records are preserved and whose are discarded, destroyed, or looted; whose experiences are recorded and published and whose are ignored.
This year, during the long months of lockdown, I’ve been enjoying David Olusoga’s important book ‘Black and British’. I’ve been listening to the unabridged audiobook version, read brilliantly by Ghanaian-born British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. This gripping, entertaining book wears its scholarship lightly, and zips by, shedding new light on every period of British history while challenging much of what we think we know. You can also find the programme based on the book on iPlayer.
It made me realise that the stories of the past that all of us who were born and grew up in Britain carry in our heads, create a picture shaped both by the absence and presence of Black people in that history. David Olusoga starts his book much earlier than we might expect, exploding the idea that the presence of Black people in these islands is a relatively recent phenomenon, and showing us that modern science reveals people of African heritage not only lived on these islands but also occupied positions of privilege and power in Roman Britain.
Olusoga also up-ends our myths about the role of the British in the Atlantic Slave trade, highlighting the contribution of Black slaves and former slaves to the struggle for abolition, while reminding us that before any White Britons expressed opposition to the trade, we played a central role in creating, perpetuating and profiting from it. He shows us, too, how many people of African heritage fought in Britain’s armies and navies from at least Tudor times and demonstrates by taking us to Nelson’s column how easily this history is visible to us if we only choose to see it.
The message for Age UK
What is the message of this book for us at Age UK? Firstly, that we need to remember our responsibility to use our platform well. When we tell the story of older people, we make decisions about whose story we tell, whose pictures we show, and whose voices we amplify. If we leave Black older people out of that story, we are contributing to, and reinforcing, a wider silence in our culture, when we could choose to break it.
Secondly, it reminds us of something that is very dear to us at Age UK: that older people are the most important agents in their own lives, and that our task is to support them to have choice and control. Specifically, this means that we need to make sure that we understand, reflect, and support the experience, views, and choices of Black older people.
Thirdly, we need to remember that we cannot assume older people feel we are here for them, and that they feel confident we welcome and cherish all older people equally. We need to remember that the experiences of a lifetime of racism will have created significant barriers for Black older people and that they will have good reasons to be wary of organisations like ours unless we very deliberately remove those barriers and make it both clear and true that we are here for Black older people.
A time for serious reflection
Our organisation is 80 years old this year, and when we look back on our own history through the lens provided by David Olusoga, we can conclude that we could have done better and that the choice either to see, hear and support Black older people – or not to do so – has been one present from the beginnings of our network of organisations, and that we’ve not always made the right choice.
Turning to the present, given that by 2040 a quarter of people will be over 65, we need to focus more on those older people who need us most. We know that the experience of Black older people means they are far more likely to be in poverty, poor housing or in poor health than others of the same age. Black history helps us understand why this is the case, and specifically how deep-rooted and damaging the causes of this disadvantage are.
Age UK’s Black History Month content
Above all, learning from history will make it more likely that we can change life for the better in the future. This month, Age UK colleagues will bring visitors to our site a series of articles on different aspects of the experience of Black older people in Britain, and on how we are responding to those experiences today. We cannot change the past, but we can change the present and the future, and we must do so.
The Windrush scandal
Emily McCarron, Age UK's Policy Manager for Equality and Human Rights, discusses the Windrush scandal's impact on the lives of older Black Britons, and what it tells us about the presence of institutional racial inequality.
6 inspirational figures
Emma Sutton, Policy and Research Officer at Age UK, profiles 6 individuals whose lives and experiences provide a positive example for others to follow.
Coronavirus and Black older people
In the fourth of our Black History Month articles, Dr Elizabeth Webb looks at the latest coronavirus statistics to examine the impact of the virus on Black older people and the role played by structural inequalities.