Interview with Asher Jael (Part 2)Tags: Black History UK
In our previous interview with Leeds-based writer and activist ASHER JAEL, he talked about growing up in a white British community and the liberating impact Nigerian author Chinua Achebe had on him as an artist. In this concluding part, he discusses openly his own awakening to black history, what it’s like to strive with the duality of being black in a white society, and his involvement with Heritage Corner’s Aire to There project…
Heritage Corner's advocacy work around inclusive practice goes back many years, based on community aspirations and campaigning over decades. A unique partnership, formed around key research by Heritage Corner, prompted Aire to There, an intensive three day programme at the start of June in which ten young people from Leeds were invited to explore and to uncover the hidden local and international histories of Leeds Waterfront.
Leeds-based writer, performer and activist Asher Jael worked on the pioneering project.
Why is it so important for young people to engage with the past and to make a connection in this way?
It took me a long time to learn about black history. I liken it to taking my clothes off, these clothes that other people had given me to wear. I spent a long time learning about the history of British racism. I remember thinking it was some kind of salvation to discover there was a civil rights movement in Britain and then spend an entire Masters uncovering the history of resistance in this country.
However, there’s something more powerful than learning to take those clothes off and that’s putting new clothes on: to learn about pre-colonial Africa, to learn about African civilisations and genius and intellect – the universities of Timbuktu or the music of the kora (a stringed instrument with lute and harp-like qualities) which has been passed down for a thousand years without being written down – that empowers me, not images the media hand me of being a black man growing up in his twenties.
I suppose people like Stephen Lawrence – people who have fallen victim to knife crime and racism – these were the iconic images and narratives that surrounded me. To learn that this is not my history and that there is much more to my history than that took a lot of undoing. It gave me a ground to stand on. I was always someone who was creatively intelligent, especially at school, but it took a long time for me to find something to put my focus on. When I learned about the Tudors and Henry the Eighth, these were things that just didn’t take my interest. I skipped through school, getting good grades, but just not being passionate about anything I was learning.
As soon as I started to learn about black history, I found myself in something and it meant something to me. It had an importance and therefore all of a sudden, I wanted to learn and to read these books.
How old were you when this happened?
I remember looking at a picture of a slave ship during school and that was the only image of black people that was ever presented in text books. I never had a black teacher. I’d say when I began to learn about it properly, other than a handful of tokenistic names, was when I was doing youth work and community arts with Solidarity Hull.
Alongside others we established a community group of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds and I was posed with some tricky ethical questions to make me justify why I should be allowed to take home a small wage from that work.
One of the questions was what shared experiences did I have with these people? This was in 2016, so I was twenty-four at this point, and that started me learning about what I had in common with people coming from the Congo or Eritrea or Ethiopia or Kenya. I began to investigate the history of racism in Britain which I had to experience and the narratives which exist in this society and this country which I had had to inherit and which these people were inheriting now.
I guess it was after this that I went on to do my Masters in Peace Studies and I particularly focused on the black British experience. At this point I was twenty-five years old, so that was my first real time delving into black British history. It’s quite late on in my life. I did go to Ghana to do youth work in 2014 and I was really interested in Ghanaian history, but I only really scratched the surface.
As I mentioned earlier, I was still taking my clothes off. I was only looking at Kwame Nkrumah and the Independence Movement – Ghana was the first (African British) colony to gain independence (in 1957) and it had this sort of Pan-Africanism built into its Constitution by its founding fathers – but that’s not where Ghana really begins.
Important as it felt like at the time, looking back I was really only skating the surface and it wasn’t until much later that I really started to delve into the pre-colonial history of Africa. It was empowering. I found it strengthened my identity and feelings of self-worth. Just that understanding about where I fit into this country and the fact that Britain wouldn’t have had the Empire it had, wouldn’t have won the wars its fought, without my ancestors. It makes me feel like I deserve a place in this society.
There’s always been at the basis of black heritage this discussion about duality. W. E. B. DuBois talks about ‘two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder’ (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903). That’s the duality we’re constantly living if we grow up in a white society that doesn’t accept black culture and black heritage. We want to pay homage to that, but we also want to get along.
As for myself I didn’t even know where my dad was from for the first nineteen years of my life, so there’s a whole different duality of someone who considers themselves white, but is thought to be non-white by society. It’s almost as if my blackness was only skin-deep and I had to learn about the narratives which society gave me, so there are all kinds of dualities which I was learning to live within.
What things came up in your conversations with the young people at Aire to There?
The young people I worked alongside were ambitious to go to college and very aware that the institutions they’re stepping into do not contain black history and black heritage in their understanding. They’re very conscious these institutions do not nourish the black experience, but they’re still ambitious to go.
One thing which I really noticed was their emotional intelligence which I like to think is a sign of progress. When they went out with (sound recordist) Tony from ChapelFM asking people questions along the canal, they were very comfortable discussing issues with people. They were talking with all the emotional sentiment you’d expect when talking about slavery and the history of sugar and cotton coming in from Liverpool, yet their demeanour was very peaceful. It was liberating because we saw older people become very uncomfortable talking about slavery. To me, we need to raise these hidden histories, we need to ask these questions and I wouldn’t have been able to act with such maturity at that age.
Their engagement massively inspired me. Every night I came home and I was writing spoken word, which is the thing I used to do a lot as a practising artist, but it’s sort of fallen off the cliff of late. But just engaging with the young people and hearing how liberated their tongues are, how confidently they talk at length about these topics, I thought, ‘If they can do it, why can’t I?’ I didn’t expect to be inspired that way round because I was putting all my energy into trying to inspire the confidence in them to engage with these responses, but I was the one who went away inspired.