#TBBSUNDAYREAD Interview with Onyeka Nubia author of ‘Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England,Their Presence, Status and Origins’

Blackamoores_Africans in Tudor England_Their Presence_Status and Origins

British-Nigerian, lecturer in law, historian, educator, writer…

These are just some of the ways to describe Onyeka Nubia, author of  ‘Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins’; (Narrative Eye, 2013) and nominee in the category of ‘Positive Role Model’ 2014 National Diversity Awards. He has also caught some international attention, having involved himself in the construction and establishment of educational infrastructures which benefit black children; he was the first black British author to address the Detroit Public Schools African Child Symposiums (2002). The voting panel of the African Achievers Awards recognised the importance of his fictional, London-based Trilogy (1998-2008) in its portrayal of the black British experience, and granted him 2009’s Communication and Media award.

The British Blacklist caught up with Nubia in anticipation of the National Diversity Awards at the Hurlington Club, London on September 26th 2014.

Nubia has written 2 plays – The Great Challenge which toured nationally,1992–1994, and The Whirlwind and the Storm, staged at the Cochrane and Shaw Theatres in 2001. These were interspersed with his trilogy of novels – Waiting to Explode – How to Stay Alive (1998), The Black Prince – Leopards in the Temple (1998) and The Phoenix – Misrule in the Land of Nod (2008). They are enjoyed as fiction, but, as the AAA recognition showed, are also regarded as both educational and as (recent) historical narratives. The temporal spacing of the novels and this first non-fiction book intrigued me…

Was the delay [between volumes 2 and 3] influenced by the inspiration to begin the 10 years of research for your latest book, Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins?

When you begin such a task you do not quantify how long it will take, only the necessity of it being done. Contrary to what many people may think, the history of the African presence in England is vast and to do it justice you have to approach each piece of work, whether a novel or otherwise, with an understanding of the potential legacy it will leave. The research for Blackamoores began well before the trilogy of novels was published, and this research as I discuss, has included many personal and professional hurdles.

I felt that the titles of the previous works were quite dramatic – the latter two novels conjuring images of bygone days – What made you choose the Tudor period? Was it the earliest era with reliable records of black citizens or an affinity for the period itself, which then just happened to have reliable records?

There is evidence which proves Africans were present in England thousands of years ago. However, the Tudor period is an important era in English history, and often misunderstood. The stories about Tudor England which are promulgated, are about the intrigue of Tudor monarchs, the ‘glory’ of Elizabethan successes, and the problems of making a modern society. Indeed, this was a time of important social, economic and political developments. But the focus of my research is to investigate the presence and status of African people at this time, since the prevailing misconception is that these people could not possibly have lived in such a society, or if they did, they were all slaves.

Onyeka, in all of his guises, is renowned not just for teaching self-determination, cultural identity and resistance to oppression, but he also advocates overcoming the odds and a belief in justice. He has also brought discussions such as the rise of the far right in Europe and the UK and ethnic self-hatred to the fore.
Did you find that your research of the period fit easily into that educational ethic? Your background is in law and history, yet your previous work has dealt more with the recent history of the Diaspora – Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and 1980s British blacks…

My years of studying law and history helped me to know where and how to look for information. It also provided me with the skills to investigate and analyse this topic from a legal standpoint and elucidate its historical significance.  Personally, I want to have an affinity with all history which tells the narrative of the world. It is important to apply yourself to a variety of historical settings.

Is ‘Blackamoores’ the book you really wanted to write, or was it a natural progression for you through the creatively influenced first 2 novels and the plays? 

They all needed to be written. The intention for each work is to unblock the rigid concepts we have of history and ourselves. The novels, plays and Blackamoores each tackle a part of our sub-conscious conditioning related to the African Diaspora: what Africans have accomplished, and our contribution to England as a nation.
Blackamoores represents only a portion of the research I carried out, but it was necessary for it to come out now to start a dialogue about the true history of African people in England.

The first anniversary of Blackamoores publication is approaching – a month after the NDAs and just short of the Scottish Independence vote, in fact. The feedback I have seen has been universally positive, praising the successful attempt at altering the perceptions ingrained by social conditioning…

” Thank you to the author of Blackamoores for proving that African’s were indeed present in this country before the Windrush and not just as slaves. This is very powerful and makes for an overwhelmingly empowering read. It provides a clear perspective with regards to the African presence within Tudor society. Something that doesn’t quite seem to have translated in Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors”!… Very well done Onyeka! I salute you.” Knowledge is Movement, Dec 2013.
[Courtesy of Amazon’s Customer Reviews*]

Does that give you a sense of completion? Of achieving what you set out to achieve, or is there something you feel you would like to revisit in the book?

As mentioned, there is much further to go and as more discussion is generated on the book, it will be interesting to see how the press and social media networks take it up. What is certain, having a better of understanding of England’s past can provide us with tools to understand and survive in a modern society.

Personally, I am a great advocate of all under-represented groups, being a member of three, so I had to ask…Do you feel you were able to strengthen the black female narrative as well as the male, or vice versa?

The story of people of African descent, be they men or women, has a shared reality but also differences. Some of these I explore in this work. Others will be explored in later work. But what is certain is that in Tudor England African women had lives, hopes and aspirations and that some had children and families.

Hmmm, that sounded like a ‘no’. On the other hand, this author was being protective of the book’s content… So, I switch to the impending NDAs. I had watched the YouTube video posted by his publisher, Narrative Eye () as a promotional film to encourage his nomination as a Positive Role Model. I was particularly struck by those of his past students who chose to add their voice and support. Many had obviously been deeply inspired by the Onyeka philosophy and educational ethic, as they explained how he had touched their lives and altered their internal and external world view.
Would you like to see ‘Blackamoores’ added to a course curriculum?

It is imperative that the African experience in Tudor England is taught in schools, so that students are given a more accurate picture of history and all people can have a sense of identity. It is for this reason that Narrative Eye  launched a petition to the education secretary for the African Tudors to be included in the National Curriculum. At present, the petition has reached its target of signatures and the next stage will be to place the petition before Parliament.

Others have certainly expressed such a wish. But, surely, this is a book pitched at the adult educational level…

Blackamoores is accessible to students from Key Stage 3, however, the aim of the book, the petition and the other work Narrative Eye is doing on this topic, is so that students, teachers and academics can establish a framework by which the African Tudors can be taught at all levels and with all abilities.

I took the opportunity to express a thought that had been bothering me since April.  Is it not as important, if not more so, to begin cultural education at an earlier age, before social conditioning is deeply ingrained?

Education is important at all levels and all ages. But how you teach, the method will change. So the information in Blackamoores is important for all, although of course the way you relay that information will vary according to your reading ability, age etc.

I had recently been talking with a French mother (married to an Englishman), whose children go to 2 hours of French school on Saturday mornings. She told me of Polish friends whose children attend Saturday morning Polish school for 4 hours, and I grew up with Greek Cypriot kids who went to Greek school every week. They not only learn the language, but they learn about all aspects of the culture – food, dance, etc. So I push on with my nagging thoughts…
Is this not the next step for the AfriCarib community? To bring together the increasing numbers of teachers and academics and create a network of Saturday or holiday classes to educate our own about our history and promote books such as yours?

Other organisations such as National Association of Black Supplementary Schools (NABSS) already has the goal of bringing all the Saturday/supplementary schools together with academics. There are other organisations too with aims of widening educational attainment. Many of these groups are already aware of Blackamoores.
In the African and Caribbean community there has been a tradition of Saturday schools since the 1950’s. However, it is important that every African household should have books that reflect their history. In British schools the specific and unique history of Africans in England is either not taught or not taught well. It is important that we understand an African presence in this country did not start with the Empire Windrush which arrived in 1948. We have been part of the fabric of this country for a long time. Books like Blackamoores will educate parents, children and teachers about this rich heritage.

I had to admit, I did not know that. I certainly never attended anything like cultural schooling in my youth. As an adult, things have been different. For example, I went to the SOAS screening of Toyin Agbetu’s Beauty Is… [read TBB’s interview with the director here and the film review here] and there were a huge number of teachers wanting to know how they could bring the film to their students. I just see it as a different aspect of the same question.

Could you see yourself contributing to such a project? It would ensure the value of your work would not be lost on an unappreciative audience or forgotten…

Whenever discussion of world history and our experiences can contribute to our understanding of the modern world, it is a positive things.

Is there a particular message you wish our readers to receive about you and this book?

To keep going, and never give up no matter what the odds… Thank you.

interview for the british blacklist by  @DescantDeb


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