Speech Delivered By Iso Bassey At Black History Month Celebration At UK House Of Parliament

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

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 the 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 began 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 that
prevent us from moving forward.

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 zones of endless conflicts. 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