Unmasking hidden histories – by Shereen Lafhaj

Wednesday, 08 January 2020

If there is an unfortunate characteristic of Londoners, and believe me there aren’t many, it’s that we often don’t know much about the history of areas that aren’t our own. London’s North, South, East, West divide looms large enough that just going to another part of the city can seem like a mission let alone immersing yourself in its background. The polished blanket history of London is one we are all too happy to accept, as local stories of inequality and activism that still impact our lives today are left bubbling under the surface.

As a West Londoner I always took it for granted that the history of my area was relatively well known compared to others. Watching people make the effort every year to get to Carnival, reading the annual news articles on its origins and going to school in the richest borough in the country instilled within me a sense of comfort. I knew lots about my local history, my home and resultedly myself. So when I signed up for Activating Newham, and prepared to help produce an exhibition on its history of anti-racist activism, I did not have a real personal connection to the discomfort of such important local histories being hidden. 

The first Activating Newham session I attended was an arts workshop where we were tasked with making blue plaques to wheat paste onto boards. These plaques were to be based on an aspect of Newham’s history, information on which lay about the room. It was here that I first discovered the Newham 8, eight Asian youths who defended themselves against plainclothes policemen in 1982. Their story was one of a number that particularly resonated due to significant modern relevance. As I later learned of an anti-racist school strike in the borough, numerous articles I had seen questioning the validity of current youth activism came to mind. This hidden local history was proof that youths in London have long been subjected to varying forms of violence and rebelled against this. Ignorance of these stories had allowed a modern lack of understanding. 

The arts workshops became some of my favourite parts of the Activating Newham project, largely because the forms chosen were absolutely relevant to the themes being discussed. If you are outraged by essential histories being ignored, why not make versions of the most iconic memorials in London and learn how to stick them up around the city yourself? When you are feeling proud of the work done by activists who came before you, come and make badges to wear this pride. Not only did the workshops allow us to create beautiful pieces for our final exhibition, they were an important method of documenting an emotional response to the history being explored which at its core dealt with difficult everyday lives. 

The other main section of the project was a series of panels in which activists from the area, both historical and contemporary were invited to come and share their experiences of anti racist activism in the borough. These sessions provided an indispensable insight into the lived experience of NMP and how the issues the project addressed are still being tackled today. Many of the Newham Monitoring Project speakers who attended were still involved in similar work and were happy to talk about their experiences and answer our eager questions. I admit I did lament not getting to talk to more former NMP members, particularly those who had not since been involved in any activism. Unfortunately, with pre-organised speakers and events laid out there was no great scope for building relationships with less willing potential speakers. The panels we did have remained fascinating. As Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper spoke of knife and gang injunctions currently affecting disadvantaged youths, it was one of many moments in which I was struck by how vital these discussions were for preventing stories from being buried.

My early incredulity during Activating Newham arose from the revelation that the history of a borough which had set precedents for the rest of the country (first to evict a family from council housing for racism et cetera) was not even known to someone from the other side of the city. I have since fixated on what we can do to end this. How do we ease the discomfort this erasure causes? It is my opinion that even on this dedicated project we have not had enough time to make a serious dent in the amount of uncovering and sharing necessary. A tight schedule meant that our curatorial steering group only had a few meetings to plan our final exhibition and the incredible final film was made separately with no real opportunity for our input. However, what we did produce with our final exhibition was an engaging and informative space in which important stories were given their due prominence. It has encouraged me to continue spreading Newham’s legacy and tackling the issues that strip London communities of their histories.