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Onyeka: Rewriting black history

THOUGHT-PROVOKING WORK: Onyeka

LECTURER IN law, historian, author, educator and playwright. These are just some of the ways to describe Onyeka Nubia, British author of Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins.

The book is the first of its kind and reveals that well-to-do African people were very much part of everyday society in cities like London, Plymouth, Bristol and Northampton in Tudor England.
Here, The Voice talks to the man of many talents.

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You are an author, playwright, historian and law lecturer. How do you introduce yourself when meeting someone new?
Writer and researcher, since all these occupations require those skills.

You began your research for Blackamoores in 2003, and it was published in 2013. Why did the process take 10 years to complete?
It actually took over 20, because there was background research, which needed to be done. And the presence, status and origins of Africans in Tudor England has never been examined in detail and published in a book until Blackamoores.
No one until now has had the courage to say that the Africans living here at this time were not all slaves, and that many came from civilizations that were more advanced than Tudor England was. It is only because of 20 years research that one can make statements such as this.

Were there times when you hit a wall and felt like giving up?
Whenever one conducts groundbreaking research there are always hurdles and obstacles. Sometimes these are about what you research, other hurdles are because of who you are, or it may be a combination of both factors. There are also issues about what you find and how you interpret it. Because of my experience I was able to interpret what I found, but my interpretation often displeased those academics with less knowledge of the African diaspora.

Why do you think that was?
Sometimes this was because they had entrenched perspectives built up from long held unchallenged views; because I was presenting not only new perspectives, but new evidence. It has been difficult to refute my findings, so sometimes the result has been indifference from the established academic community. Other senior academics incensed by the information I present, have threatened my livelihood and promised to stifle any academic advancement. With other racist groups and organisations, there have been credible threats of violence to stop the work. But the idea of giving up has never arisen, not then, not now.

Why do you think the few historical references of Africans in Tudor England are depicted only as slaves or transient immigrants to be viewed with suspicion? Was your main aim to disprove this?
It is easier to marginalise a people by saying, ‘oh they were all slaves’ or just ‘temporary visitors.’ It is like now when politicians say the race problem in Britain is really about immigration. And by default, they classify every person of African and Asian descent as an immigrant – which we are not.
But when I started my research, my aim was not to prove or disprove anything. I believed Africans were slaves or temporary visitors to Tudor England. The evidence showed something else.

How long do you think it will take – if ever – to see Blackamoores added to a course curriculum?
[Social/creative organisation] Narrative Eye in response to my findings and the publication of Blackamoores attempted to raise the profile of this work. Firstly by holding the book launch at the House of Commons, secondly by developing an online and paper petition to put Africans in Tudor England in the curriculum. The Petition got over 5,000 signatures within a short period of time and was presented to the House of Commons last year. Now we go on and how quickly change comes is up to us. If you support this work change will happen quicker, if not, slower – or not at all.


HIT: Onyeka's groundbreaking book, Blackamoores

What do you think of young people's attitude towards history and black history?
Most people dwell in the modernity of now, where the history of rock and roll and the light bulb have no connection to them. It is hard to make sense of history; to grasp concepts about why history is important and what this means to human beings in a technical age where everything of worth is far removed from a book. But these challenges are not in surmountable and the technological revolution has opened up many avenues for information delivery.

What is it about history that entices you?
It is permanently growing and unlike the present it is tangible. History is our best teacher because it shows failings, triumphs and places an enormous spiritual marker on a people. This is why it is so important that more people of African descent and other people write history.
To read history makes you a part of that time and shapes your feeling of self-worth in the present. Knowing this I am not surprised about the constant regurgitation of books and films about slavery and gang culture. If this is the only history we have in our minds then it starts to erode at our soul too.
We must learn to cherish world history otherwise 100 years in the future even more young people of our community will feel completely estranged from us living now.

Last year, you were nominated in the Positive Role Model category at the National Diversity Awards. How does it feel to be considered a role model?
I appreciate this acknowledgement, and I thank all those who voted for me.
However, I think we all should be role models. I think by designating someone a role model often allows others to feel they have less responsibility, and that is something our community cannot afford to do.
Or the person becomes the next source for scandal! However, I do hope my work inspires people to read and write and I hope this helps to change the way people view themselves and the history of this country.

You recently went on a tour in the United States. What did you get up to out there?
Myself and a team from Narrative Eye travelled to Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year.
We visited and spoke at the historically African-American institutions, which included Fisk in Tennessee, Clark Atlanta and Vanderbilt University.
We also held book signings and workshops in local community academies. The tour was a very important and rewarding experience.

Why do you publish your books under just your first name?
Onyeka is sufficient

Onyeka will give a talk entitled Active Agents of Change at the National Portrait Gallery on May 28. Visit www.npg.org.uk

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