For some time, Zeshan Akhter had wanted to find out more about early pioneers from other lands who had travelled to Scotland and made their homes there. So when she heard about a Black History Month talk that was taking place at Edinburgh University Chaplaincy, she dropped everything to attend because it seemed like a perfect opportunity to fill in some of the blanks
The air that October evening seemed undeterred by clothing and the cold sent pangs of pain into my bones. So, it was with relief that I stepped into the warmth of the Chaplaincy building.
Through the open doors I could see a semi-circle of people seated around a middle aged man of African looks and dappled greying hair. He was standing at the front of the room, a flip chart beside him. A young East Asian looking woman, clearly the event’s Chair, was sitting beside him. There was an air of hushed absorption in the room that made me rush to take a seat, all the while tuning into what the speaker was saying. I was anxious to not miss another word.
The speaker was Emeritus Professor Geoff Palmer of Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh. His research specialism is cereals and grains. He was wearing a dark coloured suit with a shirt open at the collar and no tie which gave him a relaxed look. My immediate overriding impression was that he was a man of kindness and gentleness. His humour became evident as his talk progressed.
There was no animosity in the Professor’s demeanour whilst recounting to us the abuses that he and others had suffered
He pointed to the flip chart and explained that he wasn’t going to use it much except to put up three dates on it.
The first was 1940. This was the date of his birth. The second was 1955 when he left Jamaica, where he was born, in order to travel to the United Kingdom to join his mother for the chance of a better life. He explained that his mother had left Jamaica when he was a very young child and that when he was fourteen she had sent for him. Up until then, he said that he had not travelled further than five miles from his home in Jamaica. The entire trip from Jamaica to England in those days had cost his mother eighty six pounds. First he took a plane to New York from where boarded a ship to England. He was travelling in February/ March time, he said, and he hadn’t realized how cold it would be in England. Thankfully, he had an aunt in New York who had met him and arranged for him to have a coat.
He recalled embarking on the ship and seeing a white man with a gun enforcing segregation … black people could not board side by side with white people. He said that segregation was also enforced on the ship for the duration of the journey to England.
There was no animosity in the Professor’s demeanour whilst relating this story. In fact, he smiled often during his talk, whilst recounting to us even the abuses that he and others had suffered in their early days in Britain and in their careers.
He told us without a hint of self-consciousness that when he first arrived in Britain he could not read or write. I remember feeling shocked and also inspired by the journey the Professor had been on. The Professor caught our – the audience’s reaction – and explained that he worked and also went to night school and gradually gained more and more education. He said, “I didn’t kill myself but I worked.”
The third date the Professor wrote on the flip chart was 1976. This was the date that the first piece of race relations legislation came into force in Britain. He said that he was disappointed when this happened.
“What?!” I could hear the unspoken question in the audience members’ minds explode in the room! “Why?” we all wondered. Bewildered looks were exchanged amongst us … our confusion uniting us across the divide of not necessarily knowing each other.
The Professor looked us keenly…. Of course, he knew his statement would elicit the reaction that it had. And suddenly not smiling, but seriously and earnestly, he asked us:
The Professor had my deepest attention.
There was a shuffling in the room whilst brains were engaged…. Then the Professor explained that laws are made when a society is not automatically and naturally behaving in the right way. When a society’s attitude is not naturally correct, then the government or leadership will step in to rectify the situation and put laws into place. So effectively, the people are being told, do this and if you do not, then you will suffer the consequences under law.
So when a law is put into place it’s actually an occasion for sadness because something fundamental has gone wrong in society.
The Professor explained that the reason the race relations act was created in 1976 was that in the years leading up to that time, a great deal of unrest had taken place in Britain. There had been racist incidents, attacks, and claims that ethnic immigrants were taking British jobs and preventing natural born white British people from being able to work.
In the Professor’s opinion, racism is more hidden in Britain compared to in the States where it has been blatant. A person of colour could encounter racism in Britain without ever knowing it.
O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah , witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do.
The Qur’an, Surah Al-Ma’idah (Chapter of the table spread) 5:8
Zeshan has a degree in Zoology from Cardiff University and works with a government agency on national nature conservation policy in Scotland. Outside of her official work, Zeshan’s interests include a wide range of humanitarian issues that are challenging the world today. Zeshan is a woman of faith and believes that our purpose in life is to use our hands and feet to do the work that our soul would have us to since this is the part that is our true essence: eternal and from the Divine.