October is Black History Month; what is the objective of the initiative and why is it such an important observance?
Black History Month is a designated time to recognise the significance of the descendants of the African diaspora who were forcibly removed from Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries, in an historical, and more recently a contemporary, context in the UK. Although the observance began in the US in 1926, in an historical context the British Black experience is quite unique.
Much of the wealth and power of Great Britain that was attained during this period is founded on the back of slavery and conquests. Many of the great houses and, at one time, the vast wealth of many landowners, had strong links to slavery and the seafarers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The City of London was founded on international trade and during the “boom” centuries the waterways of the River Thames were filled with vessels transporting goods. Many of these goods were bought and traded with the profits related to, and as a result of, trade with Africa and its enslaved diaspora.
Although circumstances somewhat changed during the 19th century, it has to be acknowledged that eventually Great Britain were leaders in bringing down these heinous activities. It must also be recognised that Black people did live in Britain during that time as free men and women. This history, though complex and at times embarrassing, is not taught in schools even in its most simplistic form, and Black History Month gives all British people an opportunity to find out more and have a greater understanding of our collective past as British people.
Notwithstanding, it must also be acknowledged that up until the 19th Century, Britain was no utopia. The horrors of the African slave trade were not so evident in Britain but the majority of the ordinary British population here simultaneously had their own issues. Many were either very poor or living under the constraints of serfdom with little and often no rights.
How can people get involved and show their support for Black History Month?
Over the past five years there has been a growing momentum across the country, in schools, town halls and institutions, to raise awareness of Black people in the UK through talks, plays and guest speakers. Diversity and inclusion have been the buzzwords and many organisations have been proactive in perpetrating this. However, the most important catalyst is the media. To work towards a fairer and more inclusive society, we must understand the truth of its origins. As such, the great wrong that has been done by excluding this from the history books needs to be rectified. Thankfully, there are a growing number of historians who are writing and bringing about change as a result – though some might say not quickly enough – but many institutions and companies do have substantial records in their archives, which, if published, would make a significant contribution to increasing general awareness. There is a need to develop a clear mantra such as ‘We Support the Learning of Black History’, because one has to bear in mind that, as a nation, we are all learning new things day by day about our history.
There are many events taking place during Black History Month, which people wishing to educate themselves further and show support for the initiative may like to attend and promote. A simple search for Black History Month on Eventbrite is a great starting point. As is Black History Walks, which offers London walking, bus and river tours, as well as films, talks and workshops.
What inspired you to found Editions Media, which publishes Editions Lifestyle Magazine and the Windrush newsletter?
I recognised there was a need for positive stories to be told in a format that is appealing to all, which shows that the community has the same problems and vulnerabilities as any other community, And, more importantly, there were certain sections of the community who, though quietly thriving, did not have a voice. The magazine is published annually during Black History Month and is available from the newsstands in the major supermarkets. The Windrush newsletter is also published in June, to coincide with Windrush Day. The digital versions are available online all year round through the Editions website and issuu.
Editions Lifestyle magazine; Joy Sigaud pictured at the Unveiling of the Windrush and Commonwealth NHS Nurses and Midwives Statue, for which she composed Windrush Variations, which was played live by the Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2021
Tell us about the book you are releasing to coincide with Black History Month 2021: Jamaicans in Britain A Legacy of Leadership
The book charts the lives of more than 500 Jamaican people and their descendants, who predominantly came to the UK between 1948 and 1972. The lives of many individuals from the Caribbean were difficult and the main focus was to get by from day to day as best as one could, often in the face of adversity. As well as documenting the hardships this community faced while adapting to a new life in Britain, the book also contains empowering examples of how members of the community overcame the difficulties they faced to become leadership figures.
This topic is important, and remains relevant, because whether looking at events in the UK such as the Windrush Scandal or the police shooting of Cherry Groce in 1985, or the recent police killing of George Floyd, in the US in 2020, these are all, for the most part, descendants of the same people, who were taken out of Africa. The struggles and racism they face, fundamentally, have the same root. The book has been five years in the making and going forward we will be updating and recording new findings as they come to light. It is another example of the current call to document our history ourselves.
How would you describe the impact that Black people have made, and continue to make, on London – culturally, creatively and economically?
This is a wonderful question because the statement so often used is ‘they have contributed culturally, economically and creatively’ yet it is rarely quantified.
Culturally, one aspect that cannot be denied is that, through speech alone, many Caribbean expressions have been incorporated into everyday colloquial speech. Some of our staple foods – such as sweet potatoes, yams, plantains and okras – have become recognised and are now classed as ‘superfoods’, available in mainstream supermarkets much to the delight of many. We have many prolific writers – author Bernadine Evaristo OBE, who won the Booker Prize in 2019, is just one example. Her book Girl, Woman, Other is now included by the OCR (UK awarding body) in the curriculum for A-Level study. The late Andrea Levy’s Small Island was a sell out at the National Theatre and publisher broadcaster and writer Margaret Busby OBE was awarded the prestigious London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.
Creatively, the arts are a perfect example. Notable photographers have documented milestone moments and events. Simon Frederick’s Black is the New Black exhibition, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2019-2020, became a catalyst for showcasing some of the most eminent of the community in media, fashion, film, science and sport. Alongside the exhibition, the BBC ran an acclaimed in-depth series, also named Black is the New Black, which featured all of the artists that were portrayed in the exhibition discussing their views. Clips of this series continue to be broadcast at regular intervals. Shirley Thompson OBE, of Jamaican descent, was the first female to compose and conduct a symphony in Europe for over 40 years. And composer Errollyn Wallen is a regular at the annual BBC Proms. David Adjaye is another multi-award-winner for his architectural feats.
Economically, according to Promota Africa, Black consumer spending is in the region of £300m per annum. This does not include the wealth generated by Black businesses, which far exceeds that figure. It is, however, a market that is often overlooked, taken for granted and simply not catered for. It has become a ‘hidden figure’ in all the posturing of media, institutions and retail outlets. One blatant longstanding example is the airline industry. For decades, flights to Nigeria, Jamaica and other countries have always been full, and the scramble for first-class seats is painful. Are these not signs of a people with spending power? And yet they are ignored and not adequately catered for. The current diversity and inclusion drive trend is promising, but the hub of the matter has yet to be properly researched and explored. In Britain, we could do better.
As well as being an editor and publisher, you are also a successful composer, with your works performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra. How did you come to have two careers and how do you juggle them both?
This is an interesting story. Both started as hobbies, although before getting married I had worked in the international publishing sector. Now I merely use my publishing skills for the benefit of the community, through the magazine, newsletters and the aforementioned book. The music, on the other hand, is a passion. It gives me the opportunity to express my true feelings without causing offence. It is always based on the things I see and learn about my history, which in turn reflects the history of so many others, and I believe that is why listeners find it moving.
Joy Sigaud with conductor John Gibbons and the Philharmonic Orchestra at her concert at Kensington palace
You are also a patron of the arts. Tell us about the organisations you support, why patronage is so important and what it means to you to be involved in philanthropic work.
I was raised in an environment where we always look out for the welfare of those around us, if we can. I have a particular love of the arts and have always used my music to promote the wellbeing of others through concerts and events. I always try to give at least one young person the opportunity to perform and showcase their talent. Having said that, with regards to the Philharmonic Orchestra, I am merely a humble individual who stands on the shoulders of the great composers of the past and believe in the amazing work of the orchestra. I can say much the same of all the organisations I support, and have supported in the past, ranging from the UNHCR DR Congo, The Princes Trust – who have made a life-changing impact on many young disadvantaged people’s lives – as well as smaller organisations such as the Rainbow Trust who counsel and look after families with terminally ill children. I am just pleased to have the opportunity to make a difference, if I can.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Black History Month?
I hope that Black History Month will continue to raise awareness of the disparities many Black people face within society – including the workplace and on a social level – and to promote education about the various ethnic groups, many of which have differing customs, needs and aspirations. All do not stand of the same foundation but until the Black community in its entirety ceases to be marginalised, both historically and in day-to-day life, there will be a need and a purpose for a Black History Month.
Joy Sigaud is the founder and editor of Editions Media, which publishes Editions Lifestyle Magazine and the Windrush newsletter and provides a platform for positive stories to be told about the Black community in a format that is appealing and accessible to all. She is also a composer whose works are performed by the Philharmonic Orchesrtra. The book Jamaicans in Britain A Legacy of Leadership, will be published mid-October; editionbhm.com
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