The speech below was delivered by Iso Bassey on 28th, October, 2022 at an event to mark Black History Month at the UK House of Parliament

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

I’m delighted to be here today to celebrate Black History Month in this great edifice of the UK House of Parliament. I am not a historian so I suspect that I was not invited with the expectation that I would give an exposition on black history. I would be woefully inadequate if such a demand were placed upon me. Thankfully, the theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Sharing journeys”. Now journeys create stories, and since everyone has been on a journey, everyone should have a story or two to tell. So I’ll tell a story.

Sometime around 1777 a baby girl was born somewhere in Western Africa. Her true name remains unknown so for the purpose of this story I shall call her Miss. X. Miss. X grew up in a family where she was loved and nurtured. She had a home, a culture, a language.

Records indicate that sometime in the early 1800s Miss. X arrived the Island of Jamaica on a ship. Now, in 1800s we know that Africans did not take transatlantic holidays. Transatlantic movement of Africans was forced on them for the economic benefit of rich white countries. We call this the transatlantic slave trade. We also know that only the toughest of the tough survived these transatlantic journeys, so we can safely assume that Miss. X was a fighter, a young lady with an indomitable spirit. I wish I could tell you more about Miss. X’s life after she arrived Jamaica, but sadly I can’t. The book, “ROOTS” by Alex Haley and other similar books should help fill in gaps in terms of what her experience would have been.

I do know however that Miss. X found herself in what is known today as the parish of Hanover in Jamaica where she was given the name FELITIA THELWELL. In 1805 she had a son born into slavery named Thomas Nugent. In 1854 Thomas Nugent had a daughter who was named Sarah Ann Nugent. In 1893 Sarah Ann Nugent gave birth to a son named Martin Luther Dickson. In 1935 Martin Luther Dickson had a daughter named Clara Lorina Dickson. Clara Lorina Dickson gave birth to yours truly, she was my mother and Miss. X (or Felitia Thelwell as she came to be known) my great-great-great grandmother.

My parents met in Hull here in England while my father was studying to become a lawyer and my mother was training to become a nurse. They married in 1958 and both returned to Nigeria where they begun a family.

I suspect that my story will not be too different from those of my brothers and sisters who have either one or both parents from the Caribbean. I’m sure you will all agree with me that history over the last 500 years has been characterized by grave acts of inhumanity against black people. And even today black people continue to be marginalized and treated like second class citizens in most places around the world.

Whilst it is important for us to reflect on black history (and that is what today is about), it is arguably more important to plan for and figure out ways of shaping black future. If we don’t do this, we stand the risk of being trapped in an endless cycle of resentment and other negative emotions.

If we are to shape a bright black future, it may be wise to start by asking ourselves some pertinent questions.

Why for example would the UAE jail a black African woman for tweeting a video exposing the horrendous treatment she and other Africans were forced to endure at the Dubai International Airport? Why for example were African students fleeing Ukraine at the start of the war turned back at the Polish borders while white people arriving at the same time were allowed to cross the border? Peter Okweche the BBC journalist who visited Ukraine and Poland to investigate the treatment of African students said “I don’t want this part of the story to overshadow what’s happening in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are being bullied. But if in turn the Ukrainians are bullying a small group of people, I think that story should be told as well. Everybody’s suffering counts.”

Peter is right. Everybody’s suffering should count. But does it? The answer is NO. The sad reality of the world in which we live is that we as black people have the burden of having to earn the right to have our suffering count, the right to be treated with respect and dignity. 

And this leads me to another question. Why are we saddled with this burden? Could it be because despite our huge resources, Africa is by far the poorest continent on the planet? Could it be because half the population of Africa live on less than $2 a day and lacks basic needs like nutrition, sanitation, and clean water. Could it be because the GDP of the whole of Africa is less than the GDP of the state of California. Could it have something to do with the fact that large sections of our landscapes have become conflict zones. Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on and on.

I do not for one moment excuse it when black people are treated any differently from other people. That’s racial discrimination and it is wrong, but could it be that a brighter future for black people may lie in channeling the emotions of mistreatment into a force for positive good in our families, communities and our home countries. The truth is that no matter how successful we are as individuals, when push comes to shove, like it did in Ukraine earlier this year, you are an ordinary black person and will be treated no differently than the world believes an ordinary black person deserves to be treated. So for me, the solution likes in the lifting of all black people around the world especially in Africa. In a book titled Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson summed up what I feel is a major problem in Africa “Developed countries have political and economic systems that are inclusive and offer opportunities for most people to create wealth, however most developing economies have political and economic systems that are extractive. Those in the ruling class have a strong hold on political power, and use it to channel economic resources to benefit themselves and those close to them.” Sadly that’s the story of Nigeria. That’s the story of my home state, Cross River State.

How do we break these cycles? How can we improve the quality of leadership and governance especially in our African countries. I am part of an organization called The Cross River Movement which has a focus on improving governance in my home state, Cross River State in Nigeria. We provide a platform for citizens to interact with politicians and ask them questions. It is a lot of hard work. Do we expect to see results overnight? Certainly not. I’m reminded of the forest man of India (Jadav Molai Payeng) who was told by an agricultural scientist “Plant trees and they will take care of us”. He went on to plant a tree a day and by so doing turned 550 acres of baren land into a lush green forest with a variety of birds and animals. If one man can make such a difference, imagine what will happen if we all embraced a single vision to improve leadership and governance in our communities and home countries. We can start the ripples of change that create the waves that shift the tides.

In closing let me remind you of the words of the agricultural scientist who said “Plant trees and they will take care of us”. To us here, I say “Plant good leadership and governance in Africa and they will take care of us”. Personally, this is something I feel I owe my children and future generations. But also something I feel I equally owe to my great-great-great grandmother and the millions of others like her who were so brutally taken away from their homes. We must bequeath not only to the future generations, but also to the legacy of those who’ve gone before us, a place where they would all be proud to call home.

Thank you very much

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