Bernie Grant: Legacy with a future

By Hannah Place, founder of PLACE A, local community artists’ network

In 1987 a man entered into parliament enveloped in striking African robes. 24 years after arriving in the UK from Georgetown, Guyana, Bernie Grant had become Tottenham’s Labour MP and made a name as a leftwing campaigner, fighting on issues affecting all members of society. His image as a parliamentarian was clear. It was an image of defiance and harmony.

Nearly 20 years on from his death, in April 2000, what does Bernie Grant’s image mean for people in Tottenham today?

Most visibly the Bernie Grant legacy is present though Tottenham’s art centre, opened in Bernie Grant’s name in 2007. The centre is the home of pieces like this week’s SESSION, on until 30 June. The piece features local youth dance group Steppaz alongside Empire Sounds. (You can read DT’s interview with the participants in our Music & Performance issue). To watch the performance is to witness Tottenham’s youth re-claim the night with a powerful outdoor experience rich in identity, culture, and pride. Performed right outside the Bernie Grant Art Centre it’s easy to see the presence of that same defiance and harmony seen in the image of Bernie Grant.

Today against the backdrop of ongoing outrage over the conservative government’s treatment of the Windrush generation there does seem to be something in Bernie Grant’s legacy which has become a strong identity pillar for many in Tottenham. Residents who remember him do so with a bittersweet fervency which seems to almost echo Bernie Grant’s record of die-hard dedication to his causes.

One shop owner on West Green Road tells me when she arrived in the UK in the 80s Bernie Grant was a constant and present ‘force’ in Tottenham. ‘Someone who brought the colours of Tottenham together, and you don’t see too many people like that today.’ Another long-time resident recalls what was special about the late politician to constituents was his open-door policy. ‘He was present in the community. Anyone could come up to him and speak their mind, and people did. He wasn’t just in the paper, he was in our local corner shops.’

For younger generations however Bernie Grant’s life and influence is less well known. I ask Marcus, a 17 year old on my street who has lived in Tottenham his whole life, what he knows about Grant. He tells me that his knowledge stops at the Bernie Grant Art Centre. The life which lead to its establishment however is a bit of a mystery to Marcus. I show him an iconic image of Grant stood at the Houses of parliament beside a sign reading ‘for members only’, and donning a traditional, intricately adorned, bold African Dashiki. Grant was known amongst parliamentarians and the press for his unwavering proud representation of his heritage through his clothing choices. Marcus’ eyes light up.

Bernie members only
Photo: Bernie Grant Archive

‘It’s like Wakanda’ he tells me, referencing the recent blockbuster Black Panther. And I know what he means. He’s getting at something with the potential to capture the imagination of a whole generation of young people who don’t see unapologetic images of cultural heritage in pop culture. People who were inspired by the clothing and culture of Marvel’s fictional African country of Wakanda.

Issy, a 26 year-old actor who grew up in Walthamstow shares that it wasn’t until he moved to Tottenham a few years ago and came across the art centre that he heard of Bernie Grant. ‘It’s a real shame. What youth in North London need now is a figure who stood up against bad odds like Bernie Grant, to help them realise the value in where they are, and who they are. To help them feel that there is real value in their local heritage.’

Wakanda caught the attention of young black people all over the world, and here in Tottenham. The idea of ‘Wakanda Forever’ is a slogan that I’ve heard a number of times in conversations with black teens particularly. There’s something about it that they’ve latched onto. However Bernie Grant stood for something even more potent to people of all backgrounds. His life was dedicated to helping all and focused on diversity without boundaries, and working together.

Photo: Bernie Grant Archive

In many ways it seems that the legacy of Bernie Grant has the hallmarks of a drive which could be used today to tackle so many of the issues which have increasingly had Tottenham in headlines over the past year and longer. Issues of crime, issues where people feel that national government has failed to recognise the strength and diversity of modern Britain.

To those who recall his presence in Tottenham, the name Bernie Grant is synonymous with prioritising all issues of inequality. He fought for women, for men, for the old and young, and for every nationality and creed within Tottenham and beyond.

All photos courtesy of Bernie Grant Archive.

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