It’s by telling stories that we can make sense of
Joe Williams was born in Leeds and is passionate about telling the untold stories of black people in the city. He runs regular Black History Walks and is the founder of Heritage Corner, which celebrates African culture and the role of black people in Leeds. As a young man, Joe trained as an actor and spent time educating children and young people with theatre.
Since 2009, Leeds Black History Walk has shared African narratives in local and world history with members of the public. The two-hour walk starts at the University of Leeds and explores African narratives and positive contributions to British history. For example, Joe tells tales about the connections Ethiopian royalty have with Queen Victoria. The Heritage Corner project hosts educational workshops about the historic African presence in Yorkshire, using dance and poetry to share important historical narratives. Joe has worked with top artists and cultural experts to lead inclusive workshops at the British Library and the University of Leeds.
Joe met up with storyteller Ruth Steinberg to share more of his story and to talk about the projects he’s involved with.
As I get older
and things start happening
then I think of how
would I explain this to
my younger self,
in a way that makes sense?
We both understand the power of story, so my first question is: where does your story start?
St James's Hospital, 1962. I was born in Leeds and spent a bit of time in America. I trained at a drama
college in London. I shared a flat with Ross Kemp as a student. Then I went into theatre-in-education,
which I loved. I loved the work of engaging young people using creative expression around difficult issues. It was actually in an education setting in Liverpool (of all places) where I made a suggestion for our next issue. I asked, “What about doing some work around the subject of slavery?” This was in 1985. The Maritime Museum, where we were housed, didn't like the idea of doing anything on the slave trade because they said it had nothing to do with Liverpool. And if it did, all the money went to Manchester anyway. So, what's the point? We were doing stories on the Irish potato famine, on migration to Australia and America. So, I thought, “Yeah, let's do the slave trade next.” But the response was: “Nope.”
It was that that started me off on my journey recognising that this is a problem. It's a huge problem, but we can start talking about it. I was reading a history book at the time, by a Leeds writer called Peter Fryer.
In 1981 he wrote a book called Staying Power and it was about the history of black people in Britain. It’s a precursor to Black and British by David Olusoga. Peter Fryer was a Leeds writer who worked for the
Yorkshire Evening Post. He gave so many of us a gift; knowledge of ‘something that was missing’-
information about black people in Britain. I'm very proud that Peter Fryer was from Leeds. I thought, if he can do it, the least I can do is tell the stories in that book. So that's how I started being a storyteller. It's by telling the stories, looking back, that we can make sense of the world. But the “something that is missing” is that we only have the colonial version of history. Sadly, for black people, this has left a toxic narrative. Black people have been consumed with this toxicity imposed on them. The colonial narrative is just another way just to prolong that toxicity - which literally makes you ill, both physically and mentally. It seems to me that we all need a narrative that allows us to breathe, thatis healthier, a healing narrative to replace the toxic one.
In 2006, a professor from the University of Leeds proudly proclaimed that Africans are not as intelligent
as Europeans. That meant that the status of being of African heritage on a university campus had a sense
of degradation. I got my MA at the University of Leeds out of spite! The intimidation that I as an actual person
of African heritage felt; that I didn’t belong there; that the resources didn’t belong to me. The references to
resources in the libraries didn’t have much to do with me in a positive context. A lot of the courses relating to Africa are about Africa’s suffering and not about Africa's contribution to civilization for over 6000 years.
And certainly not about the contribution of Africans to European, Western and British Civilization, economically and socially - which deserves respect. But you know that the legacy of colonialism is perpetual
degradation and misrepresentation.
So, in 2009, we responded directly to that professor and without making a song and dance about it, we just
said, “We are here, and we are representing black history in a way that it should be represented on this campus.” It was about self-representation, and it was very fortuitous that the geographic location of the walk
all takes place on the campus of the University of Leeds. Did you know that the University of Leeds got their first Black British history course only in 2021? It was following George Floyd’s murder in USA in 2020 and
the worldwide response that Black Lives Matter that highlighted and condemned endemic racism. In Leeds
they didn’t employ someone from an African heritage background as their first Black British professor but
instead somebody from a Sikh background. This is not about that person, but the passions for research to
address a lot of the key issues related to the Black British experience will inevitably be impacted.
How come you managed to step out of the toxicity that people of African heritage experience every day?
It was a poster of Paul Robeson, the celebrated American singer, actor, and black activist. I saw it in Nottingham while I was working in Theatre-in- Education there, in the 1980s. It said, “The artist must make their choice between tyranny and freedom.” That was when I realised that I didn't have a choice: either I was a creative entity on behalf of freedom or I could carry on auditioning for whatever was available, try to be a star, maybe go to America to make a name for myself. That route was open; I've got relatives in America who would have welcomed me. I decided that if I don't master my own story, in my own home, I don't see the point in going anywhere else. So yeah, Paul Robeson was a huge influence. Then, of course, so many others: activists, historians, artists. You realise you're not alone and that it's a path that has been well trodden and ignored. That was when I decided that, as an artist, I would find a framework for those missing stories in a way which didn't alienate people. I took what I had learnt in theatre-in-education and devised Leeds Black History Walks. We are now in our 13th year.
I’m curious to know how you managed to get your head out of the oppression, and why you also decided to go along a creative route using drama and performance. What in your early life do you think led up to that?
I'm the youngest of 10 children, I'm number 11. Growing up I had to look after my nephews and nieces. They would just be dropped off at the house and I was told, “Joe, look after the babies.”. I was number one entertainer. I loved it. I was looking after babies from about the age of 8. There were a lot of financial tensions in the house. I think me entertaining the babies was a way to keep them away from older adult tensions that were going on around us. I was aware of tensions, but I didn't understand. The young ones were a saving grace for me, as much as I hope I was a saving grace for them.
Did you know when you were young that you wanted to go into theatre?
My parents sent me for piano and guitar lessons before I got to high school. Then I was part of a drama club in
middle school. They suggested I go to a theatre art school, called Intake in Leeds. I became part of the 3rd
cohort (of the 3rd intake!) at Intake High School. The focus was mainly on drama, dance and music. We didn’t
do sciences or languages, but we did do history and geography. That started the ball rolling, and I knew I
wanted to go to drama school. I had had some successes in America when I was at high school. My parents
moved there when I was about 17. When I finished high school, I got a scholarship to go to college there,
but I chose to come back to England and go to drama school here, because I thought I'd get a better quality
of training. But I became very cynical about the profession in terms of representation. To be blunt, when
I got to my final year (which is when you can invite agents to come and see your work) the principal
actually said to me, “You may as well leave now because we can't find any parts for you to play in the final year”.
And so, with my head dragging on the floor, I left. I've spoken to other black actors who went through a
similar thing. You paid your fees for two years and then: “Thank you very much. Go now.” They should have
told you that when they accepted you.
Coming up to the present, what happened for you doing these past 2 years of the pandemic?
It impacted on my work, but not in the way that is presumed. First, there was the reaction to the murder
of George Floyd and the groundswell of Black Lives Matter. Secondly, people just wanted to get out. People
saw Black History Walks and they had time on their hands with lockdown. They wanted something to do,
so we did four times the number of walks in 2021 than we would normally do so. It made me extra busy. And then I caught Covid myself just last October. I was quite ill with brain-fog, respiratory issues, loss of sense
of smell. It is only recently that I feel that I'm coming out of it.
As an artist I like to isolate. It's comfortable for me to isolate. Covid gave me an excuse not to feel guilty. I used to isolate before and think perhaps I should be out. People who I know say, “Where’s Joe and why isn’t he out?” With Covid, I didn't need to put myself through that trauma. With George Floyd combined, there's been a heightened awareness of inclusion and representation. And so that's actually put me in a place where I'm feeling very proud of how people are reacting and of the city where I live. I've got an electric bike now which makes climbing hills easier, so I’m getting out much more. I look forward to travelling again. But I get so much pleasure out of my work, so I don't feel I need to make much effort to enjoy myself when I'm by myself.
You’ll be 60 in October. How is getting older for you?
Everybody's going to hear about it this year. And more than once I'm going to say, “I'm 60 this year!” So I'm
going to be torturing people between now and October. And this will go on for the whole year. I loved turning
50. I thought, “I’m a serious adult now, and I'm going to enjoy myself.” And I did. I absolutely loved my 50s.
I liked my 40s more than my 20s and 30s. My 20s and 30s were a lot of anguish, mental health issues. I feel more liberated now . You can let go of a lot of stuff. You just are what you are and can start enjoying yourself a bit more.
How do you think older people are viewed ?
As I get older and things start happening then I think of how would I explain this to my younger self, in a
way that makes sense? When you're young and feel indestructible you think, well, that's never going
happen to me, right? My respect for older people has grown, because I'm thinking it takes a lot to hold it all
together. You know, so I'm really appreciating that now, but I'm also giving serious thought to older
people because the work I do is around representation of the whole of humanity. If we knew a lot more about
the challenges of older people, then I think there would be more empathy, right? But if you are not in
the narrative, it's very easy for young people to dismiss and disrespect.
What would you like to say to our readers?
Respect! You have my full and utter respect for getting to the age you are. I would like to thank you for your contribution, whether you worked at Kay’s catalogue back in the day, or you delivered milk to my doorstep. It all counts. And I would just like to thank everybody reading for sticking around and making contributions.
Yes, it's all those invisible workers, that makes the world work.
Absolutely, that's part of the work I do. For 400 years, Africans in the West Indies made contributions to the British economy, but it's invisible. We need to make the invisible visible. My wish is that people have more opportunity to tell their stories.
For more information about Joe’s Black History walks please visit https://heritagecornerleeds.com