No doubt, 2020 has been a torrid year for so many reasons.
For Black people, the increased incidence of COVID and the continuing fight against racism – highlighted most starkly by the death of George Floyd in the US – has made it a year not to be forgotten.
And now we are in the middle of Black History Month, and it’s clear to Kebba Manneh that Black history needs to be seen and heard, discussed and taught, all year round – not just for a single month each year.
Back in March, Kebba was elected as the new chair of UNISON’s national Black members’ committee – just as the country found itself facing up to COVID-19. For Kebba, education is a particular concern.
As a UNISON activist, he has been heavily involved with the work of the Cymru/Wales Black members’ committee, which has been working hard to promote its vision of Black history as part of the national curriculum in Cymru/Wales.
Speaking in mid-October, Kebba said: “I am honoured and proud to confirm that the Welsh government has accepted our representation that Black history should and will be taught as part of the national curriculum in Wales.
“And on 1 October 2020, UNISON Cymru/Wales Black members’ committee sponsored Race Council Cymru to launch Black History Wales instead of Black History Month, reflecting teaching of Black history 365 days a year.”
It’s a major achievement.
Kebba is a senior physiotherapy technician at the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in Wales and has been a UNISON member since 1994. Looking back over this year, he says that what has been revealed by the pandemic cannot be ignored.
“I think the lessons for the country and our UNISON family must be that COVID-19 has shone a bright spotlight on all that is ill in workplaces and communities across the UK in terms of institutional racism,” he observes.
History is a major key to understanding this.
“Academics, historians, broadcasters and journalists have recently argued that Britain’s wealth was built on the backs of the slave trade and slavery,” Kebba notes.
“In 1562, the British government commissioned and encouraged John Hawkins and Francis Drake to engage in the slave trade. According to Professor David Richardson, British ships carried 3.4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas,” he explains.
“Racism is the by-product of slavery and colonial prosperity. For some, these facts can be rather difficult to hear and accept, but the key to a change must be through education.”
A personal history
But what does Black history mean to Kebba on a personal level?
“I’m a proud Mandinka Welsh man and Mandinka history is Black history, Black history is an African history, an African history is world history – all of our collective history.
“I had a positive childhood experience, born and brought up in the Mandinka clan dynasty called Nyanchos. Mandinka language, culture and traditions are structured, taught practices, and organised civilisation which dates since time immemorial passes down from generation to generation through the rites of passage.
“The clan and tribe are direct descendants of the Mali Empire. Hence, surnames were very important in Mandinka culture, tradition and history, because not only does your surname determine your role in civil society, but your status in terms of the society’s expectations.”
Kabba explains that, in school, he learnt about Mansa Musa, the tenth mansa or emperor of the Mali Empire. “Nyanchos are the only clan to be installed as successors to the throne of Mansa Musa, who was a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, a prince and ruler, but above all, founder of the Mali Empire.”
He also learned from a griot – a West African oral historian and storyteller – that Mali Empire was a province of Nubia.
Kebba is proud too, of the achievements of the national Black members’ committee in, for instance, promoting within the union the commemoration of the United Nation’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition on 23 August each and every year, and having a zero tolerance approach to violence and abuse against emergency workers – “many of whom are Black”.
But while history is of vital importance, the future is also always with us.
And among much work that the national Black members’ committee faces, Kebba sees it urging UNISON to “lead our call to the UK government and other devolved nations for Black history to be taught throughout the year, rather than just in the month of October”.
UNISON can help turn the future into positive Black history. As Kebba himself puts it: “We can no longer sustain the status quo as it stands.”