Black History Month is a relatively novel addition to the British calendar. The first celebrations took place in London in 1987, a good 60 years after its first iteration in the United States. That separation in time is matched by understandable cultural particularities: racism in the UK is different in style and tone to its American equivalent; its contours are specific to Britain. Yet, given this ‘method’ of commemoration is clearly an American import, it begs the question—in what ways and to what degree does the UK’s Black History Month differ to that of the United States? What is the role and nature of historical memory in the respective countries’ celebrations?
I had these questions in mind whilst reading Miranda Kaufmann’s article, ‘Slavery Shouldn’t Distort the story of black people in Britain,’ (17 October 2012) in The Guardian. Kaufmann contends that the history of black Britons is incomplete and misunderstood. Her background in the history of African people in Renaissance Britain commends her as she recounts the lives of particular black people in the 16th and 17th centuries. She disproves the generally held assumption that blacks in Britain were slaves during this period—and makes the helpful, if woefully ignored observation that black people have lived on these islands for a long time. Her contribution to the collective memory here is admirable.
These strengths aside, I found certain elements in the piece inchoate when not problematic. We are told that it is ‘dangerous’ for erroneous assumptions about the status of blacks in pre-20th century Britain to go unchallenged, but we are not told exactly how or why this is so. Is it because these assumptions underpin nativist idylls of a pre-1950s Britain; a land unspoilt, mercifully devoid of darker faces? If so, how exactly would an intimate knowledge of this history overcome an irrational antipathy to black people—to say nothing of white privilege and institutionalised racism? Kaufmann admits the numbers involved are infinitesimal. Would the average EDL or BNP supporter (and/or racist middle class white Englishman) change his or her attitudes if they knew ‘hundreds of black people [were] present in these isles during’ the Tudor and Stuart periods, a period spanning over 200 years?
I am further perturbed by her co-option of ideologically tricky language, inadvertent though that might be. Witness her modern, liberal concern with integration–itself a far from neutral term: ‘Africans were far more integrated into the English community than we might expect.’ (My emphasis.) There’s no attempt (admittedly due to space constraints) to engage with the tricky question of ‘Englishness’ (the Africans ‘developed…intimate relationships with English people’) especially with reference to the children of mixed parentage. Finally, her use of the word ‘contribution’ feels ripped from the pages of modern newspaper debates on ‘deserving’ immigrants.
These are not minor quibbles. Kaufmann is by now talking about racism, slavery and memory, though in no meaningfully direct sense. Hers is a muffled tone: not once does she use the word racism in an article plainly discussing it. She spends a good amount of space discussing the historical evolution of slavery in English law (of interest mostly to legal historians) and is generally correct to note that there were no positive laws allowing slavery in England; but at the risk of sounding flippant—so what? At best, this demonstrates the hypocrisy at the heart of the British Empire—a system underpinned de jure by one (hazy) set of rules for the metropole, and another, more barbaric set for the periphery. (To her credit, Kaufmann does not contend otherwise.)
Consequently, it is difficult to swallow Kaufmann’s closing paragraph:
The lives of the free black men and women living in this country 500 years ago tell a far more positive story than is usually told…We must not allow the spectre of the transatlantic slave trade to warp our view of black British history.
The enslavement of black people by whites was staggering in scope and terrifying in deed. It validates Hegel’s passing remark, that history ‘is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages…’ To emphasise the decisive role of slavery in British history is not to invalidate or neglect those who did not live their whole lives directly under its shadow. On the contrary, it is to appreciate their lives in a historical (and systemic) context. That context—of empire, and slavery, and racism—must be constantly acknowledged if Black History Month is to be anything but an anodyne reminder of British diversity.
A full account of black British history must encompass so much more than the narrow (if fascinating and shamefully ignored) experiences of free black men in England. This is not a warped or distorted version of history: American slavery, after all, was also a British institution, and it deserves a central role in British history. Is it really a ‘far more positive story’ to note that the lives of an objectively small number of black people in England were pleasant relative to the degrading experience of millions of black people across the Atlantic? No—the history of slavery in the colonies is British, black and white. If these vignettes of contentment are to have any meaning it must be as part of a larger narrative of oppression. Kaufmann’s article, despite its merits, misses a good opportunity to weave the former into the latter.
By all means, let’s remember the long history of black people living in Britain. Let’s not, however, forget that most of that history is inextricably linked to a brutal system of oppression for millions. We over-emphasise the happiness of a few in an age defined by the immiseration of the many to our detriment.