I imagine if you came across the Asian Youth Movements in Manchester, Bradford and other towns and cities during the 1970s and 80s they would have made quite an impression on you. I knew very little about this fascinating bit of recent history until earlier this month when we welcomed author Anandi Ramamurthy to launch her new book Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements.
In a nutshell, during the 70s and 80s young Asians joined together to protest against the racism and inequality they experienced in their communities and from the government. These grassroots organisations held rallies and marches, protested against deportations and produced leaflets, newspapers and posters to spread their message.
They were the children of migrants, and although their parents still identified with their home countries, these young Asians felt entirely British and believed they had the right to live as equal citizens, not on the fringes of society.
Anandi was prompted to document this history initially because of her interest in secular Asian identities. Since 9/11 and the war on terror South Asians in the west have tended to be identified through their religion – and whether portrayed positively or negatively this is an incredibly reductive way of looking at a whole population. Many South Asians in Britain today have a radical, political identity – AYM activists came from many religions – Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, agnostic, atheist – but all were united by their political beliefs.
My ears really pricked up when she talked about her research and the AYM archive she has built, which includes extensive oral histories. We’re always talking about the importance of oral histories in preserving the voices of real people, but as we watched footage of Anandi’s video interviews it struck me just how powerful film is as an archive medium. It’s all the non-verbal stuff – the raising of eyebrows, the thoughtful silences, the tone of voice… When Anwar Dittar, a young mother whose campaign to be reunited with her children was supported by the AYMs, cried during her interview the empathy in the room was palpable.
As is often the case, the discussion Anandi led after her talk was the most insightful part of the evening. We covered everything from the idea of political blackness and the reluctance of young Asians today to engage with activism, to the current profile of far right movements. It was great to have a mix of academic and community folk talking together about how to tackle inequalities of the state and the street. Anandi’s work demonstrates exactly what history research should be – relevant, thought-provoking and providing platforms for cross-cultural, inter-generational conversations.
Black Star is available in our library.