Stephen Bourne, Honorary Fellow“If we portray black people in history only as victims of racism, we are silencing their voices” - researcher and writer on the histories of black Britons Stephen Bourne
Stephen Bourne is an Honorary Fellow of LSBU's School of Law and Social Sciences. Stephen is being honoured for 25 years of dedicated work researching and writing the histories of black Britons and their contributions to British life and culture. We also recognise his active role in reclaiming LGBQT voices in history and his involvement in police-community consultations across the borough.
"There was a point at which I saw no future for myself. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and no idea about what to do with my life. I went to a secondary modern school and it steered us all towards shop work or factory jobs. It was 11 years before I finally made it to the London College of Printing (LCP) and got my degree. But all the time I was at school and in the years before I went to LCP, my interest in history and first-hand testimony was growing and I pursued it in my spare time.
"My relationship with my adoptive aunt Esther sparked an interest that would shape my life. I would abscond from school to visit Esther and my other elderly aunts in Fulham. Esther’s story – as a black Briton who lived in London through two world wars – fascinated me. As it unravelled in our conversations over the years, I realised that voices like hers just weren’t being heard. This was the 1970s, an era when the National Front was free to march down Peckham Road, and no one was interested in the experiences of black Britons. I think that fired my enthusiasm even more and I began to trawl the archives for other forgotten stories.
"My degree, when I finally got it, opened all sorts of doors for me. I walked into a great temporary job doing research in the BFI and BBC archives for a TV documentary on the black British experience. At the same time I started talking to community publishing ventures about making Aunt Esther’s story into a book. When the Hammersmith and Fulham Ethnic Communities Oral Histories project agreed to publish it in 1991, I felt as if my writing career had been given a kickstart.
"I’ve had a long career and at times it’s been a slog. The worst period was probably the eight years it took to get my book Mother Country published. I’d been researching and giving talks at the Imperial War Museum on the black British community’s experiences on the home front during the Second World War. I knew there was enough material for a book and I put together a proposal, but no one would touch it. Publishers told me it wouldn’t sell because black people don’t buy books. I suspect they just didn’t want to think about a more inclusive view of history. I had knockback after knockback between 2002 and 2009 but I kept at it. Finally, the History Press agreed to publish Mother Country, which came out in 2010. It had been such a slog that I felt I’d broken through the pain barrier and no rejected proposal would ever get to me again. In fact, the book was a success and led the way for The Motherland Calls (about black servicemen and -women) and Black Poppies, my most successful book so far, about black Britons in the First World War.
"The success of Black Poppies has given me some great opportunities. I’ve been invited to speak all over the place, from City Hall to the law firm Slaughter & May via my old primary school (Oliver Goldsmith on Peckham Road), the BBC Radio Drama department and the National Army Museum. I was also invited to speak at a boys school in Tottenham by a history teacher there. He was uncomfortable teaching the national curriculum line on the First World War to his mostly black students. It was a fantastic experience to speak to these boys and to share so many stories from the book. They seemed really surprised to learn the extent to which black Britons were involved in the First World War, because they are simply not mentioned in the curriculum. It’s interesting, for example, that Britain didn’t segregate black soldiers in the way the US did – but this is never discussed. Of course there was racism in Britain and it’s part of the story, but it’s not the whole story and it’s important that people can hear these hidden voices. Readers often feel surprised and empowered by the richness of their experiences. If we portray black people in history only as victims of racism we are silencing their voices.
"In the 1980s there were so many diverse media outlets and community-funded publishers, but no internet. Small community projects and black newspapers (at one time there were six) and radio stations, along with Spare Rib and other feminist journals meant that work like mine could get reviewed and talked about. That’s all been lost as funding has been cut over the years, but we now have the internet, which brings a whole new set of opportunities. You have to use whatever you can to get your work seen.
"We all suffer knockbacks but don’t let them stop you following your instincts and doing what’s right for you. I was passionate about carrying on with my research in the years before I was able to study for a degree, even though I felt intimidated and underqualified going into the archives. And I was bloody-minded about not giving up in the eight years I couldn’t get published. Don’t be afraid to question things and don’t be afraid of failure – it’s all part of growing up. Smile, be friendly and carry on – eventually the world will see what you have to offer."