Black London: History, Art & Culture in Over 120 Places
by Avril Nanton & Jody Burton
Reviewed by Francoise Campbell
At the launch for this year’s Biennale Architecture, Ghanaian-Scottish Architect, Academic and Activist, Lesley Lokko opened the proceedings by announcing that “the story of architecture is incomplete - not wrong, but incomplete”. With concepts and narratives of architecture long being dominated by Western European voices, Lokko’s words highlight the need to expand perspectives in order to work towards a more complete view of our built environment and the cultural diversity of the spaces and places around us.
Avril Nanton and Jody Burton’s Black London makes a contribution to this expanded view, by offering a compendium of stories about the black Londoners behind the familiar and unfamiliar sites of England’s capital. From Tudor times to the present, it gives a historical guide to the global black history of the city’s spaces, from Cleopatra’s Needle, on the banks of the Thames between Embankment and Waterloo bridge, to the Black Lives Matter mural painted in Woolwich in 2020. The stories in this book are accounts of empire, struggle, rebellion and celebration, spanning the harrowing legacy of slavery to Windrush and London’s multicultural present.
The book is structured as both a guide book and a calendar of significant dates, making the reader aware of not only places but dates and times when they are animated by cultural events, from the Notting Hill Carnival, celebrating Afro-Caribbean culture every August, to the Tottenham Literary Festival, recognising the work of black writers in November. This encourages the reader to keep coming back to the book to learn more throughout the year.
The places described are split into 5 geographical areas: Central and East, West, North, South, and South East, with maps provided for each. These include buildings and landmarks, as well as the location of artefacts, often following the historical plaques across London as it navigates between Westminster’s Buxton Memorial Fountain and Camberwell’s Dark and Light Theatre. In doing so, it compiles a juxtaposing mix of stories of the people associated with each place, with 18th century heiress Dido Belle appearing a page away from footballer Thierry Henri.
Part of the this is London series by publisher Inkspire, Black London addresses a broad readership. Although some readers may seek out more sustained accounts of certain places and periods, its strength comes from its ability to bring together the diverse range of narratives that capture the wide-ranging influence of black history on London’s built environment. In this sense, Nanton and Burton’s book does an admiral job in offering its readers a fuller picture of architecture and culture across the city.