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A light on black London

The city's long-hidden African and Caribbean heritage begins to emerge. Climb on a minibus and appreciate the sacrifice, the music, the past.

December 30, 2007|Sandra Jackson-Opoku | Special to The Times

LONDON — "Iam an invisible man," says the nameless protagonist of the Ralph Ellison novel of that title, lamenting an American bias that minimizes blackness.

"I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Although the black presence in London may also seem invisible, it whispers like an ageless wind beneath the streets and monuments of this ancient city.

All that kindles is not coal, and therein lies the irony of black London.

Black Boy Lane is named for a horse, not a human being. If you happen upon the "Black Plaque Guide to London" you'll find it's about crime and scandal, not community.

However black the cabs may be, the famous Black Taxi Tours don't really see the black side of the city. In fact, you won't find black London on any of the conventional tourist maps. Though Africans have lived in the city since Roman times, monuments that mark their presence are relatively few.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
London tours: An article in the Dec. 30 Travel section about tours that focus on black London said the Bank of England is in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It is in the borough of the City of London.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 13, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
London tours: An article in the Dec. 30 section about tours that focus on black London said the Bank of England is in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It is in the borough of the City of London.

I began visiting the British capital while a college student in the mid-1970s and was surprised to discover a robust black community that guidebooks virtually ignored. Friends from the city's African, Caribbean and African American communities introduced me to reggae shows and "blue dances," the Caribbean cafes and nightclubs of Brixton, and the cuisine and cultural programs of the Africa Centre in Covent Garden.

What changes have occurred in the last 30 years?

Reggae act Steel Pulse became popular in the '70s; Jazzie B and Sade in the '80s; and supermodel Naomi Campbell and heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis in the '90s. Now 21st century artists Floetry and Corinne Bailey Rae have won their musical place in the sun.

Discovering black London still takes a bit of traveler's initiative (and at times a magnifying glass), but it now registers on the world's radar screen, and the rewards are worth the effort.

A plaque marks the Brook Street residence where Jimi Hendrix lived from 1968 to '69, another is at the north London home where Bob Marley lived during his 1970s exile from Jamaica. Both are English Heritage blue plaques, which commemorate famous people and events connected with a public place. People of color are represented by a mere handful of the more than 20,000 plaques awarded since the project was inaugurated 140 years ago.

But there are a few others: One commemorates 19th century Zulu King Cetshwayo, another marks performer Paul Robeson's home, and another, writer C.L.R. James' home. The house where Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Assn., lived, worked and died on Talgarth Road is also marked.

Honorees are chosen by the governmental agency English Heritage based on nominations by the public. The building must still exist and the honorees must have passed the 20th anniversary of their death or centenary of birth to be considered, though they need not necessarily be British.

Thanks to the lobbying of local interest groups, recent nominees include actor Ira Aldridge, Mayor John Archer, writer and ex-slave Mary Prince, barrister Ladipo Solanke, army officer Walter Tull and poet Phillis Wheatley.

The borough of Southwark has established a blue plaque program to honor its own, among them actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste (starring in the "Without a Trace" TV drama), midcentury poet and broadcaster Una Marson and American vaudeville star Connie Smith.

Impatient with English Heritage's lack of diversity, community members have recommended that a Black Plaque program be instituted to honor neglected figures of African and Asian descent.

None of the plaques mention the honoree's race, and the inscribed wording is generally cryptic: "CETSHWAYO (c1832-1884), King of the Zulus, stayed here, in 1882." Though it may outline person, place and time, a plaque of any color can't tell the whole story.

But a map of the London Tube transportation system and "The London Blue Plaque Guide" are indispensable in organizing a self-guided tour. Visitors may well discover that a themed tour will fill in the contours of London's black heritage.


Until recently, tours of black London did not exist. The city's tourism authority, Visit London, and local businesses and community leaders have begun to develop community-based tours; they are not on the major tourist circuit, but they're available and have been designed to help visitors uncover some of London's untold stories.

Among those leading such tours is British-born writer-researcher S.I. Martin, a lay historian and author of "Britain's Slave Trade" and the novel "Incomparable World."

Martin organizes black heritage walking tours of central London, searching out the black presence in areas such as Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.

"I'm looking at the history beneath history," he said about the tour, called 500 Years of Black History in Central London Walking Tour.

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