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Leeds black history activist calls for more black heroes to be portrayed on stage and screen

By Ella Bicknell 

The arts “need to go further” to tell the true history of African influence on British life, according to black history historian and activist, Joe Williams. 

The Leeds-based actor presented the opening lecture of Leeds Trinity University’s calendar of events to celebrate Black History Month.  

He said that the lack of representation of black historical figures in the arts and education are major reasons why racial prejudices exist. 

“Racial equality is not a political thing, it’s a humanity thing,” said Mr Williams.  

“If you’re not represented in the arts, then your humanity is not represented.”  

In 2007, Joe Williams founded Heritage Corner, a project which collaborates with local artists to educate people about the historic African presence in Yorkshire. 

He has written and performed theatre productions about historical black people he believes should be celebrated today.

These individuals include William Armistead and Frederick Douglas, leading figures in Britain’s abolishment of slavery.

Another is Mansa Musa, king of the Mali empire during the 14th century and documented as the wealthiest man in world history. 

Mr Williams called for the stories of these individuals as well as others to be made into Hollywood films. 

“When Black Panther came around, I felt like I could breathe.” he said. 

The 2018 film earned a record-breaking $1.34bn at the box office, the highest-grossing superhero film at the time.

It also received critical success and earned a score of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  

Variety called it “a cultural phenomenon” whilst Vox called the film a “groundbreaking celebration of black culture” that “opened up dialogues and personal reflections about black identity”.

“A black superhero has been well overdue but positive representation needs to go further,” said Mr Williams.

He compared it to the rejection he faced as a young actor due to there being “no roles for black people”.

Mr Williams called for more films to showcase positive narratives that could inspire black audiences.

He told the audience that films that depict violence against black people and women have contributed to hate crimes to those groups.  

He said: “George Floyd was killed because they – the police – did not see his humanity. 

“To talk about those issues is never easy but once you do, it becomes easier to talk about because it becomes part of our shared humanity.” 

George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020, sparking nationwide protests against racially aggravated violence.
Source: Wikipedia Commons

He compared it to the misogynist beliefs held by Met Police Officer, Wayne Couzens, which led to his kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021.  

Leeds Trinity University’s celebration of Black History Month continues until October 26. All events and information can be found here

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