23 October 2004

The struggle of memory against forgetting

By Marguerite Finn

I started this column knowing little about black history. At the launch of Black History Month I embarked on a voyage of discovery and learnt about organisations and projects I never knew existed here in Norwich.

It was not just that I was ignorant of the contribution black people make to society in Britain and around the world, I also realised that the history I had learned had been distorted to prevent me from appreciating that contribution.

Empowered by my newfound knowledge, I asked 20 people, randomly chosen, what they knew about Philip Emeagwali. None had heard of him, which is astonishing because Dr Philip Emeagwali invented the 'super-computer' and is the father of the internet. Born in Nigeria, he survived as a boy soldier in Biafra and now works in America. President Clinton described him as "one of the great minds of the Information Age". He is the most researched scientist on the internet today - yet most of us have never heard of him. Why?

Ignorance of black history is not confined to white people. Young black people are often unaware of the achievements of black and ethnic minorities. This deprives them of meaningful role models. It is disenabling to live in ignorance of one's history.

One day Theo asked his mother, "What if there were no black people in the world"? Mum thought for a moment and said, "Follow me around today and let's just see what life would be like if there had never been any black people in the world". Theo got dressed but his shoes weren't there because Jan Matzelinger, a black man, had invented the shoe last. His clothes were wrinkled but Mum couldn't iron them because Sarah Boone, a black woman, invented the ironing board. "Oh, well," said Mum, "comb your hair, at least". But the comb wasn't there because Walter Sammons, a black man, invented the comb. Mum couldn't brush her hair either because Lydia O'Newman, a black woman, invented the brush! To help his Mum with the chores before going out, Theo swept the floor. When he looked for the dustpan it wasn't there because Lloyd P Ray, a black man, invented the dustpan.

Mum wanted to put the washing in the dryer but it wasn't there. George T Samon, a black man, invented the clothes dryer. Mum decided to go shopping; she reached for her fountain pen to write out her list but William Purvis, a black man, invented that. In the garden, Theo noticed that the uncut grass - John Burr, a black man, invented the lawn mower! The car wouldn't work without the automatic gearshift invented by Richard Spikes, a black man, and traffic clogged up the roads because there were no traffic signals. Garret Morgan, a black man, invented the traffic light. When they returned home with the groceries, Theo went to put the milk in the fridge but it wasn't there - John Stannard, a black man, invented the refrigerator. The evening grew chilly. Theo went to switch on the heating. Nothing happened - Alice Parker, a black woman, invented the heating furnace.

Theo's Dad was late home from work. There was no bus - the electric trolley was invented by a black man, Elbert R Robinson. He'd had to walk down from his office on the 20th floor because Alexander Miles, a black man, invented the elevator. When he got home Theo and Mum were sitting in the dark - Lewis Latimer, a black man, invented the filament in the light bulb. Dad then told Theo about Dr Daniel Hale Williams, a black doctor who performed the first open-heart surgery and Dr Charles Drew, the black scientist who found a way to preserve and store blood, leading to the first blood bank.

Inventions are one way of contributing to society; developing solidarity within local communities and gaining respect throughout a region, is another. Everjoice Makuve and Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne are two such black people, the first in her work with Norfolk Minority Ethnic Support Forum and African Worship ASOW, and the second with his work with the Norfolk African Community Association (NACA). It is through the work of these imaginative individuals that such groups become woven into the fabric of our society and enrich it - like the glorious quilt in black author Alice Walker's The Colour Purple.

In Western society, white arrogance often struts when it should pause for thought. As cultures from different sources pour into evolving societies, there are inevitably struggles, which Milan Kundera called "the struggle of memory against forgetting".

Remembering our common history is the best antidote to exclusivity.