Black History is World History with Linford Sweeney

Amid his ongoing series of workshops at Central Library for Black History Month, we speak with one of Manchester's most respected educators about the need to overcome ignorance.

By Martin Guttridge Hewitt | 20 October 2021

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Linford Sweeney Black History

Educator, genealogist, and author, Linford Sweeney’s Black History is World History series runs at Manchester Central Library

“Black history has to be in the curriculum, just like every other type of history. Right now it’s classed as Black history. But, sooner or later, I’d like to think we will no longer be talking about Black history, we will be talking about history.” 

Linford Sweeney’s passion and knowledge jump out from the moment our conversation begins. Not that we expected anything less. After all, this is one of Manchester’s leading Black and African history educators, and founder of Inspired Histories, delivering courses to increase knowledge and understanding around Black history. Regularly drafted by the NHS, high schools, universities, colleges, and the Black & Asian Police Association, to name but a handful, he also works as a Caribbean genealogist, and has written two books; ‘At Peace With Myself’, and ‘Dreams of Freedom’.

Right now he’s at the mid-point of four sessions running under the banner ‘Black History is World History’, at Manchester Central Library. The first of which focused on often ancient civilisations, from Egypt and specifically the region of Ta-Seti, close to Nubia, through to less widely studied societies.

Sudan Pyramids Kush

Ancient Kushite pyramids, which can still be found in modern day Sudan

“We also looked at the Kush, in what is now Sudan; Aksum [now Ethiopia], and ancient Ghana,” Sweeney says of the inaugural event, before moving to the second edition. “Then we focused on enslavement and resistance. I do not ever focus on slavery alone. It’s just one aspect and that was 400 years of something that happened, a blip in the timescale of 9000 years, but, at the same time, it has had an enormous effect on how we are living today as Black people.

“So I look at the people who resisted, like Queen Nzingha, Queen Nanny in Jamaica, Harriet Tubman in America,” he continues, explaining the importance of recognising that a multitude of events and figures contributed to emancipation, in turn giving white saviour narratives short thrift. “What we call freedom and emancipation did not take place in parliament in Britain. Look at the British colonies, it took place all over — in Britain, the Caribbean, Africa. And it wasn’t just white people.”

This raises a crucial point and one that fundamentally drives Sweeney’s work. Growing up in Britain, he explains how he was “never told any of this, never told Black history” and had “no Black role models”. Simply put, more often than not Black history is either ignored, or recounted through a European lens Several millennia worth of major cultural, academic, and economic contributions from outside the continent are downplayed. And, perhaps worse still, victims of the slave trade are regularly positioned as helpless until conscientious white men step in.

Cheddar Man

The ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which experts believe had dark skin

“That’s why when the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers started so many people were galvanised by it. They weren’t aware Black people had this history and influence anywhere,” says Sweeney, soon telling us his next Central Library session focuses entirely on Black British History until 1945.

“At one time if someone said they were giving a talk on Black British History it would take about ten minutes. I could make it last probably 12 weeks, but before it wasn’t possible. So what I’m doing is really just an introduction to Black British History, which now goes from 9,100BC with the Cheddar Man, to the Ivory Bangle Lady in Roman times, coming to Olaudah Equiano, John Blanke, Freedom of the Press, Robert Wedderburn, so many people. 

“We’re talking about the first Black policeman in Britain, in the 1800s, the first Black MP was in the 1800s. We’re talking about people in the 1900s that did so much to contribute to the war efforts, First World War and Second,” he continues. “Then there are issues like the Colour Bar, and the 1919 riots in Liverpool, and those in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. We have UK Black civil rights, like the 1963 Bristol bus boycotts, like the Mangrove 9, Learie Constantine, and the [Imperial Hotels] chain he sued and won because of their colour bar which they insisted on. These are things we need to know about.”

Nevertheless, as Sweeney puts it, a lot of people are still under the impression “Black people arrived in Britain for the first time as the Windrush Generation”. A period which the fourth and final Central Library lecture focuses on. Although quick to point out that “Black History is throughout the year”, Sweeney believes Black History Month has had a significant impact on access to information that was hidden from the public for far too long.

“We have been able to highlight and make people aware that Africa, and its diaspora, have a history. Many people don’t actually know that Africa has a history, you know? So highlighting the fact that Africa has been there for thousands and thousands of years, in reality the oldest fossils and finds — the majority — have been found in Africa, going back to 3.2million years ago, with Lucy found in North East Africa,” Sweeney tells us.

“Or look at the Cheddar Man in Britain, the oldest complete skeleton in Britain dating to 7100BC, which has been modelled and found to have dark skin,” he continues, before closing on the overall rationale behind his series. “I call the sessions Black History Is World History because Black history was never included in world history and it needs to be, just like the history of Europe.”

Find out more about Linford Sweeney and Inspired Histories online.

Linford Sweeney’s Black History is World History series has two remaining sessions:

Black British History to 1945 at 5.30PM on Wednesday 20th October
The Windrush Generation and UK Civil Rights at 5.30PM on Wednesday 27th October.

Attendance is free, advance tickets are required.