Black History Month

MQT on 2009-11-18
Session date: 
November 18, 2009
Question By: 
Jennette Arnold OBE
Labour Group
Asked Of: 
The Mayor


At Young People's Question Time on the 17th September your arts and cultural advisor said 'sometimes, it can get a bit boring, doing slavery every year'. Am I to assume that you share her view as you neither intervened nor corrected her statement?


Answer for Black History Month

Answer for Black History Month

Answered By: 
The Mayor

Thank you very, very much, Jennette. This is a question about the Young People's Question Time which was a great event, actually. I thought it went very well. You are asking me whether I want to disassociate myself from what Munira [Munira Mirza, Mayoral Adviser on Arts and Culture] said about Black History Month.

I just want to read out, if I may, the question that was put to her on that occasion.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Chair, no. The issue is not about the question that was put. The statement was made and my question to you --

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): Sorry, may I read out the question?

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): -- is that you were there and you said nothing. It was not out of context. It is a statement that was made and I would just like, given our time on the clock, can you now - we have had an opportunity - make a statement about this comment.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): If you would allow me, dear Jennette --

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): So answer my question as quickly as you can.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I will answer your question.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): And I do not need the background. I have got the background.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): My answer is very simple. I think that the question of slavery is of huge and cardinal importance in the discussions of history of any community and it should, certainly, be raised and it is obviously of great importance, particularly to Black History Month.

Just so everybody understands what the questioner was driving at and why Munira said what she said, the questioner said,

'Yes. My name is Aaron Wallis. Anyway, there is so much young disillusioned people at the moment, I wanted to know Boris [Johnson], what do you think of my solutions? I think for the young black people out there that are disillusioned and getting involved in crime I think a lot of them need to know a lot who are about black history, and when I mean black history I do not mean we come from slavery, I think we should talk about what happened before slavery so that people know that we do have a culture and we have actually come from somewhere and we have something to be proud of. ...'

What Munira was saying --

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): What was your answer?

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): If I can just explain what I think Munira was saying when she said, and this is the quote that you object to, 'Sometimes it can get a bit boring doing slavery every year'. You object to that.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Every year meaning at Black History Month.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I think that slavery is of huge importance and cardinal importance, as I say, but I think that the young questioner, Aaron Wallis, was actually getting at something very important and interesting and that we should also, in Black History Month, be making sure that we do look at the fantastic periods and the exciting periods of history where civilisations in Africa have done things and achieved things that people simply do not know about; the Benin culture, what happened in Zimbabwe, the Songhai culture along the Niger. These are things that people do not know about. It seems to me that what Aaron Wallis was saying - and what Munira was agreeing with - is a very good point and it is something that we should be taking up.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Mr Mayor, can I put it to you that the comment was insensitive and that it was absolutely incorrect in the context of Black History Month. So what I think the people who have complained to me expected was some sort of response from you, given that you are a scholar, and the fact of the matter is, since its inception here in the UK in 1987, Black History Month has focused once on slavery and that was in 2007. What happened in 2007? Most cities of the world joined with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] to remember --

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): Of course.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): -- the awfulness of the transatlantic slave trade. I am saying to you, be informed and actually stand up for those communities that have contributed to London's life and not sit by while comments like this are made and cause great offence to the people who have worked --

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I have to say, with great respect to you, Jennette, I think you are being very unfair.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Can I just finish? The people who have worked and put Mary Seacole's [Jamaican-born Crimean War nurse] history on the curriculum. It was not you or Munira that put Mary Seacole's history on the curriculum. This is what Black History Month has achieved. It was not you or Munira who got the museums to take out of their archives the history of the black Romans.

So what I would ask you to do is just apologise for any offence that was taken - and some was - and to give an assurance that you will continue to acknowledge the positive contribution of black Londoners and also of their history. That is all I am asking you today to do.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I understand what you are saying. I think that you are being unfair to Munira because all she was trying to do was to agree --

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): I am asking you.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): Can I just? You are asking me to explain what Munira was trying to say --

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): And to put yourself in your leadership position and apologise and let us move on. That is all I am asking. Apologise for those people who felt offended at the statement, because it did offend a number of people.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): As I said right at the beginning, I certainly think that slavery is of huge importance and is of cardinal importance to Black History Month. What I think Munira was right in agreeing with Aaron Wallis is that it is also a good idea to talk about other subjects and about the fantastic achievements of African civilisations that we do not know enough about in this city. I am very, very proud --

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Chair, I have finished. I think I have shown that Black History Month has focused once on slavery and that you and your adviser are ill-advised about the programme of black history and we can only take it that you take her position because you feel unable to give an apology. Thank you, Chair.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I certainly cannot apologise for, I think, what is an earnest and committed attempt by us to do as much as we possibly can to reflect the triumphs of civilisations that people in London do not know enough about. I think to ask me to apologise is completely bonkers.

James Cleverly (AM): I was actually at Young People's Question Time so I think it is only fair to suggest the context is important. Whilst my friend and colleague, Ms Arnold, implies that somehow it is unfair or inappropriate for the comments that Munira made it is worth remembering that it was actually a young black man in the audience who highlighted the fact that he was fed up that Black History Month had so focused on the slave trade. This was not something that was initiated by yourself and it was not something that was initiated by Munira. Why do you think that he felt, if it is truly the case that slavery has only been touched on by Black History Month once, that it had been overdone in Black History Month, as a young black Londoner?

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I think probably the trouble is that Aaron Wallis was not focusing, himself, on Black History Month. My impression from his question is that he was thinking about a general focus on slavery as opposed to other issues. Munira's answer was about Black History Month. Looking at these two texts, that seems to be where the confusion may have arisen.

James Cleverly (AM): Mr Mayor, the simple truth of the matter is there was a very long and systematic attempt, and a cynical attempt, to paint you as a racist during the election campaign and I cannot help but feel that this is a blatant attempt to try to reheat that particular argument.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): Shame on you.

James Cleverly (AM): The simple truth of the matter is that anyone that has worked with you or knows you and anyone that has worked with Munira or knows Munira will know that there is absolutely not an ounce of racism in either of you.

I would strongly recommend that you continue the work that you have been doing, and the work that I know is being done by Richard Barnes in his capacity as Deputy Mayor with responsibility for community cohesion, not to allow yourself to be blown off course by people attempting to play ducks and drakes over what is a very important and sensitive issue and to continue working with the diverse communities of London and the diverse communities represented in your own administration, and not allow yourself to be distracted by these blatantly party political attempts to discredit you.

Jennette Arnold (Deputy Chair): If I want to call him a racist I will call him a racist outright. I did not call the Mayor a racist or infer, in any way, that the Mayor is a racist. So, James, just get back in your box.

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): That has cleared that up. Jennette, I am grateful for that faint endorsement there. I want to stress, because I want you to take away from this that I do think the issue --

Darren Johnson (Chair): We are off the clock now. If other Members want to come in then you have the opportunity to explain yourself? No? We will move on.