Black History is British History: It Belongs to All of Us
Black History Month is a time of year which shouldn’t have to exist since Black History is just history. But it still has a function since our stories in Britain are a study in erasure.
Black History is everyone’s history. It’s so important but it’s been systemically erased by those who write / wrote White history books. And by extension, subjects like colonialism aren’t taught much in British schools because — “reasons” (see my article “The Empire Shuts Its Mouth”). What’s more, Black British history is often overlooked in favour of the “whiter stories.” Below sits a list of a few of the interesting things I’ve found in Black British history, and I’m not even close to scraping surface. To try to talk about Black British history in eleven points is an impossible task and a moral crime.
Directed by Amma Asante, Belle is inspired by the true story of the Black Georgian Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain and a slave, in the West Indies. Raised by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) at Kenwood House, her lineage gives her privileges but her skin colour stops her from partaking in the traditions of her social standing. Wondering if she will ever find love, she falls for a vicar’s son, set on changing the world, via the law, in hope of altering the laws that keep people that look like her in chains.
Taking place in the backdrop of the infamous Zong Case, following the Zong Massacre (1781), this film is as much a love story as it is a drama and historical biopic.
The slave ship Zong left Africa with 470 slaves. Slaves were not seen as people. They were material objects to be touched, poked and prodded at any White person’s choosing. Often raped by the slave masters too, as shown with Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) in 12 Years a Slave and Hilde (Kerry Washington) in Django Unchained, they were commodity items stripped of their dignity.
As with the Zong, many captains took more than ships could handle to ensure maximum profits. The Zong was overloaded. Many got sick and died from disease and malnutrition. Captain Collingwood is reported to have jettisoned some of the cargo in order to save the ship (though, sources are conflicted) and provide the ship owners with some insurance money. In total one hundred and thirty-three slaves were thrown overboard for the seamen to try to claim back on the insurance, since “slaves weren’t people, but property.”
Though the film is depicted as fiction, the Zong Case is not. The massacre and the court trial happened. Dido Elizabeth was real. Belle’s love interest John Davinier (played by Sam Reid) was real. Lord Mansfield was real. Kenwood House still stands in London. The Zong was one of the many benchmark cases of the Slave Trade. Director Amma Asante puts these atrocities into a format that everyone can understand, not just people that understand legal jargon.
“Where are you from?” I am asked on a regular basis. “The UK” I say. “No, where are you really from?” I am then asked where my parents are from. What they want to know is how many generations back did my ancestors come to England. “Why are you brown? My Windrush grandparents came in the 1960s. That’s what they really want to know, how I got from here to there.
I’m British and so are my parents. I was raised in Britain and so were they. So why do people keep asking those with brown skin where they’re from? It’s this idea of indigenousness that has been tied directly to being White.
Brit(ish) is about the day-to-day acts of racism that impact British society. It’s about Britain’s troubled relationship with its history. It’s how some people think refusing to see race (being colour-blind) will inhibit its ability to exist. Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s investigation into her identity and Britain’s crisis of self. Britain is a nation in denial about its history and its contemporary issues. The Georgians were the people of abolition. In fact, after the British stopped trading in slaves, they went out of their way to stop other countries doing it (look up the West African Squadron). Ironically, this was their moral mission, to stop others doing something that they did for nearly three hundred years.
Brit(ish) is a compelling book, an insight into Britain’s soul and I certainly recommend it. We say that equality and justice are fundamental British values. But one look at our history, and the last year casts that into doubt. “Where are you really from?” Honestly, I don’t know where I am from but reading this book made me think it’s less to do with where you’re actually from and more to do with where you think you fit and what you believe. It’s truly riveting and worth every euro I spent at Waterstones Amsterdam!
#3 Babylon (1980)
With us still in the Windrush Scandal, this film is so relevant. Babylon is the story of the Windrush children. These characters came from Jamaica. Babylon revolves around the racial divides of 1980s London. In addition to poverty and lack of opportunities for Black people, it discusses racial profiling with the police, employment (or lack of), martial relations and racism from our neighbours. It’s as if history is repeating itself (or little’s changed).
The 1980s was the era of Margaret Thatcher, spam and white Nationalism. The guns of Brixton sounded in 1981 in the wake of The Battle of Lewisham (1977) and Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” (1968). The 2010s is the decade of race riots, white Nationalism (still) and the hostile environment. And as the Windrush crisis endures with its victims still not given justice, neither compensation nor dignity as human beings Babylon is still relevant in 2020.
#4 Guerrilla (2017)
“We are the children of the colonies who built this Empire on the backs of their labour” says the narrator, in Guerrilla.
The Sky Atlantic miniseries is a snapshot on what it means to be both, to be Black and British. In relation to the African American, W. E. B. Du Bois called this “Double Consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk. But this can be applied to Black Britain too. To be Black and British is to have multiple identities and there was no time where this was more prevalent than the 1970s.
These were the children of the Windrush Generation trying to find themselves in a society that despises them, a country that plastered No Irish — No Blacks — No Dogs onto shop fronts and establishments — a nation that even today celebrates its colonial past. Places like Bristol and Central London prove that — patronage, the British Museum, colonial statues and street names.
Produced by Idris Elba and written by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Guerrilla is as simple as us and them. Truly, it’s a brilliant watch. Educational.
#5 Black and British: A Forgotten History
Popular historian David Olusoga explores the Black History of this country in the long relationship between Britain and the African continent. Using genetic and genealogical research, original historical documents and testimony from the best in the game, Black and British is a four-part documentary series that goes way back to Romans, the Georgians and through to the present day.
We are taken on a journey; from Britain’s global slave-trading empire to Queen Victoria’s African protégé Sarah Forbes to the Black Britons who fought at Trafalgar, as well as the Industrial Revolution built on American Slavery. The documentary series, and the book of the same name, confronts the uncomfortable, what British people would rather sweep under the carpet — slavery, empire and conquest. It shows that Britain’s story isn’t as White as people think it is. It shows that we didn’t only come here as slaves and immigrants. It tells a story woven into the landscape — stately homes, street names, memorials. Stories and tales etched into the very terrain of Britain.
Black History is not only for Black people. Black History is everyone’s history and is part of our national story
#6 Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post about her anger in the way discussions about race and racism were being led in Britain, by those unaffected by it. It went viral. People longed for open and honest discussion.
In 2018, the now renowned book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was published. From erased Black History to politics of White dominance to whitewashed feminism, this is a timely look in how we should analyse and counter racism. And above all, it’s a look at what it’s like and what it means to be a person of colour living in Britain during the 21st century.
Why I’m is a roar of protest against a racism that has gone on for centuries (overt and structural). It condemns those acts and the enforcers. From whitewashed history to the links between class and race to police brutality and white privilege, it’s a guide on race relations in Britain, now and then.
It’s a must-read and should be on every keen reader’s bookshelf.
#7 The British Museum
Cultural imperialism is dead? The British Museum is the blackface of British history. It’s an evidence room of items stolen from the colonies centuries ago. When Erik Killmonger is introduced in Marvel’s Black Panther he gives the expert a stern word. “Did your ancestors pay a fair price or did they steal it like they stole everything else?” He is the antagonist of this film, but is he wrong? Hanging onto cultural goods is deeply offensive.
It tells me that Britain thinks it’s more capable of looking after African heads and plaques (for example) than any African country ever could. This is arrogance of the highest degree.Is the British Empire dead? Yes, but Britain still clings on in attempt to recreate some sort of misplaced nostalgia.
Go to the British Museum. It’s free. See for yourselves.
#8 Small Island
This is a novel about post-WW2 immigrants from Jamaica. It’s worshipped by my mother and that generation of British-Caribbean women that grew up under Windrush parents, my grandparents. It’s a relatable novel for those that grew up in families built on migration within one three or four generations.
None of my ancestor fought but my family story is one of racism. Grandma came to this country with her parents on their passports as a nine-year old girl. Like Hortense and Gilbert, my family left home to find home. They left those sunlit islands for Britain, where the trains were dysfunctional, where the NHS was in bits, where the streets were not paved with gold.
Here, the late Andrea Levy critiques themes like empire, war and love. It’s seamless and even more meaningful considering the Windrush Scandal that broke in 2017 and the sheer prejudice that fuelled it.
#9 Checking Out Me History
John Agard is one of the first poets I read. His poem “Checking Out Me History” dissects Black History, talking about peoples like the Maroons (derived from the Ashanti in Ghana), runaway slaves that built communities giving British colonisers hell, led by the famous Nanny of the Maroon.
This is one of my favourite poems because it’s written in dialect and it’s a history lesson without bogging the reader in facts. It’s musical and when John Agard reads, it’s like being transported back to Africa and the Caribbean.
Additionally, it shows the history we learn in school is so one-sided. Why do we learn that Christopher Columbus discovered America when there were already Native American tribes living there? Why are we taught he discovered the West Indies? What about the Caribs who inhabited my places like Grenada? What about the Amerindian tribes, the Arawaks, the Maroons?
What this says to me is that nothing exists until the White Man finds it. Nothing exists until the European arrives. It’s arrogance of monumental proportions
“Checking Out Me History” is a wonderful poem that everyone should read.
#10 Fire in Babylon
Fire In Babylon is the groundbreaking story of how the West Indies cricket team rose above their colonial masters becoming one of the greatest sporting teams in the history of team sports. In the unsettling era of apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England and the Caribbean, these sportsmen led by captain, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards dealt a critical blow at the White world.
This is the story of how the West Indies ruled the world. For anyone looking to understand more about Black History as well as the sociocultural subtext of the game during the 1970s and 1980s, this is a necessary watch.
Cricket gets labelled as a gentleman’s game, an old man’s game even, but this documentary shows that if you don’t get out of way, you could be dead.
#11 The Black Tudors
A trumpeter plays in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. A Moroccan woman is baptised in a London church. A diver plunges into excrement to attain lost items from the Mary Rose. These Black Tudors were in the thick of it, in some of the most iconic moments of British history. They were paid wages out of the royal coffers and are part of our national story.
Black History Month is every month, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. It’s a celebration of everything Black people are — race, culture and identity. But above all, passionate kind and beautiful.