SINCERE CONGRATULATIONS to Anna Rothery, who recently became the first black Lord Mayor of Liverpool.
I am extremely delighted about it, so I can only imagine how ecstatic the ancestors are. I imagine their spirits are dancing with joy.
After all, many of them were brought to the city in chains to be taken across the ocean as human cargo in the inglorious ‘triangular trade’.
Moreover, they built the city by the sweat of their brows in the so-called ‘New World’ without a pay day.
Years later, free Africans (many of them sailors) would follow a similar trajectory to ‘Scouse Land’ to settle there for generation after generation after generation, building what would become one of the oldest surviving black communities in Britain.
Their descendants, like counterparts in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, where Shirley Bassey comes from, created a colony in a suburb of the metropolitan city – Liverpool 8 it used to be called until the neighbourhood erupted into rioting in 1981 and the media described it as Toxteth.
Liverpool doesn’t mind talking about Toxteth and the riots, but short of a truth and reconciliation commission I cannot see where the real and necessary discussions about the discontent that led to those clashes, nearly 40 years ago, are going to come from.
Liverpudlians who are fiercely proud of their African heritage (some of them as white as the Chelsea and England footballer Ross Barkley with his Nigerian roots) are regarded as scousers but somehow still treated as ‘other’. Consequently very little changes.
Those of us whose African heritage is within living memory have not been all-embracing of our Liverpool 8 bredrin either. We have treated them like the so-called ‘Cape coloureds’ were regarded during South Africa’s apartheid period.
For the phenomenon of fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh or eighth or ninth generation black Britons is still a relatively unfamiliar one to us in the grander scheme of our existence here. Third generation, perhaps and fourth, at a push.
But when faced with an African who is scouser through and through, our race ‘detectors’ are somewhat discombobulated. By rights the whole of black Britain should have been up in arms about the way our brothers and sisters of African heritage have been marginalised in Liverpool, but we don’t seem to be able to make the connection that makes us one.
The boxer John Conteh, for example, who in his day was the greatest pound for pound fighter in the UK. I knew him in the mid-’90s and was at one time commissioned to ghost-write his autobiography.
He is a really nice guy and has a fascinating Liverpool background. But I just couldn’t get a handle on him in the way that I can with people of African Caribbean heritage who came to the UK from overseas or who were brought up in the UK from parents or grandparents from overseas.
I hope this does not sound patronising as I really do not mean it to be. I genuinely have love for the people of Liverpool with African heritage that I have met.
People like the lovers rock star Sylvia Tella, the actress Cathy Tyson and her one-time beau, the actor, poet, comedian and DJ Craig Charles. But their experience of Britain and, perhaps even racism, is very different from mine.
Or maybe the experience is the same but the impact is different. I always felt that I could go back to Nigeria where I was born if racism in the UK was ‘nuff. But the further and further you are away from those roots, the harder it must be to face racism in this country and the more demoralising it must be when Britain is all you’ve got to call your own.
Lord Mayor Rothery, however, may just be a game changer. She has lived in Toxteth all her life and has represented it on the Council for 13 years. And what gives me great hope are the words from her inaugural interview with the BBC on becoming the first black Lord Mayor of Liverpool.
“For me it is about unity and diversity, and equality,” she said. “We are looking at times where there is a lot of discourse and a lot of division and it’s a time when we need to be united. Because we’ve got some really big challenges coming down the track over the next couple of years.
“People are more open to change, probably more so now than ever, and I think that the recognition of our diversity and the positivity of our diversity, is now being realised. So for me, I’m not bothered that people make a big deal of me being the first black Lord Mayor, I’m proud of it.
“It’s an achievement on a personal level, within our community and across the city. It’s about ensuring that those who come behind me don’t have to face the same kind of problems that I’ve had to face.
“The doors are open. We’re opening the doors and we’re putting the ladder down and we’re ensuring people come behind us, the door is wedged open.”
Honestly, this was one of the most powerful words I have heard any politician speak in Britain, because it is loaded with so much ‘equal rights’ and ‘justice’ that it would make even Peter Tosh acknowledge that you will have no piece (or peace) without those two requisites.
The doors she talks of that they’re opening, for example, are the ones that have been closed to many people from her Toxteth community. The doors to jobs in the city centre. The doors to opportunities right across Liverpool.
And her manifesto of “unity” and “diversity” is a realisation that (again to paraphrase the Bush Doctor/Mystic Man/Stepping Razor of The Wailers) no matter where you come from as long as you’re down with the city you’re a scouser, whether your people come from Ireland or they come from Scotland or whether they come from Africa, you’re a scouser. All inclusive.
But what is most reassuring for all scousers in what the new Lord Mayor has said is that she’s not that bothered about making history by being the first anything. And in that she is schooling all of us who feel that being the first black is some great achievement in politics.
It’s not. You just happen to be in the right place at the right time. And we have too many black people who were the first in some aspect of political life or other, but when you check what they have done, it’s nothing.
We don’t need no more firsts, we need equal rights and justice, right there in Liverpool.