For Britain – and Britons – every day is Africa day. This might seem like a wild claim, but think again. We may all have different ideas about what being British is, but outside of the most blinkered or racist mindsets, being British is connected to a long-standing, diverse, and complex net of interactions between Britain and Africa.
Take Africa Day itself as a starting point. It commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. The driving force behind the formation of the OAU was a body of intellectuals and statesmen (there were no women) who had forged a politics of self-determination and ‘Africanness’ after the end of the Second World War. If there was a single moment when the activism that led to the formation of the OAU commenced, it was Manchester, 1945. This was where the Fifth Pan African Congress took place, hosting the ideas of many who would go on to lead countries to Independence. It also reflected a radical political current that emerged in the UK, informed by ideologies and discussions within and between African and Caribbean diasporas, various progressive Christian groups, and the Fabian political left in the UK, all of which pushed decolonisation forward and contributed to a broader narrative about Britain’s place in a post-imperial world.
African independence has defined British politics and public culture, even up to the present day. If British governments felt the anxiety of losing Empire, some succour was gained from the politics of aid which was largely focussed on Africa from the 1960s. Imperial visions were replaced by those of British donor and African recipient. Since the mid 1980s, aid giving has become spectacular: driven my powerful images and emotional appeals, all of which encourage us to think of Britain as being a uniquely virtuous and altruistic nation. Two of the largest political campaigns in British history were largely Africa campaigns: the campaign to abolish the slave trade and Make Poverty History in 2005. The association of British virtue, aid, and British-Africa relations remains today as George Osborne defends the ring-fencing of aid budgets during recessionary pressures to cut budgets.
British popular culture is intrinsically a negotiation of ideas and aesthetics from Africa, black British people who came from Africa via the Caribbean, and of African diasporas: from the smart modernism of Jamaicans in 1950s London through to the sprawling aesthetics of dubstep that evoke the sink estate and the nightbus. Let me type out a disorderly list: the emergence of new churches and mosques; innovations in art; vibrant community associations; participation in local and national government policy (often flippantly derided as ‘multiculturalism’); Olympic gold medal winners, Africa in films, museums, public exhibitions, ‘world music’; tourist and gap year fantasies; Red Nose Day… It seems to me that we might be struck by how British public culture has been changed by Americanisation, but we should also note some Africanisation as well.
If you are disposed to celebrate Africa Day, remember how thoroughly British you are being.
We’re offering discounts on all our Africa related titles this month, visit the MUP website for more details.