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Black History Month

It feels like there has been a genuine step-change in the approach to Black History Month this year, with a move away from the study of slavery and/or Martin Luther King that has dominated the concept for too long and to focus more effectively on the positive rather than the negative.  On Monday, we had a staff meeting to share ideas about how we can help to guide the discussions and keep moving this important effort forward, though it is abundantly clear that we all have a long way to go on this journey.

Appreciating, therefore, that a further focus on Sathnam Sanghera’s excellent analysis of the legacy of the British Empire runs the risk of looking back more than forward, I nevertheless wanted to follow up from my last blog a couple of weeks ago to highlight a few more of the areas where the author delivered a mixture of the curious and the all-important historical context for the sorts of conversations that will be taking place this month.  In the end, it will only be by admitting to what happened, accepting responsibility and making a genuine effort to pursue a different approach that lasting change will be possible.

Sanghera highlighted that the legacy of empire lives on in all sorts of ways.  For example,  the original Wembley Stadium, opened in 1923, had twin towers that were an art-deco approximation of Mughal architecture from the colonised sub-continent, and it was originally known as the Empire Stadium, having been established for the 1924 Empire Exhibition, itself described as ‘a stock-taking of the whole resources of empire’ and attended by some 17 million visitors in 1924 and some 10 million in 1925.

More broadly, free school meals can be seen as a consequence of global conquest, with some historians maintaining that many of the social reforms that led to the modern-day welfare state came about because politicians worried that the poor health of the newly urbanised working classes was endangering Britain’s ability to hold its own against growing competition from Germany, America and Japan.  These concerns peaked around the time of the Boer Wars, when a national scandal erupted over the poor physical and educational quality of the recruits, more than a third of whom had been dismissed as unfit.

We are told that the historian Piers Brendon has argued that the moustache became an ‘emblem of empire’ in the nineteenth century.  Apparently, clean-shaven British soldiers in imperial India found themselves being glanced at with amazement and contempt by their bearded Indian counterparts because of their ‘unmanly countenances emasculated by the razor’.  The moustache therefore became the sacred emblem of the imperialist.  Back in Britain, the Edwardians saw the moustache as the preserve of the upper echelons of society – servants who tried to grow one were given short shrift – and Brendon goes as far as asserting that there is a correlation between the prevalence of moustaches in public life and the vigour of empire.

There was a very well observed chapter on the British abroad, highlighting many of the stereotypes we have come to take for granted, such as living in isolated ex-pat communities, often obsessing about how much better everything is at home, patronising the locals at every turn and, despite the reluctance to take any risks when it comes to trying the local cuisine, succumbing to stomach and gastric illnesses in disproportionate numbers to tourists of other nationalities.

I was also interested to be reminded that many of our attitudes are far from being a new phenomenon.  Not only were there Africans in the royal courts during the reign of Henry VII – as well as in the households of notables such as Walter Raleigh, William Cecil and Francis Drake – but by 1596 Elizabeth I appeared to have had enough, writing to the Lord Mayor of London: ‘There are late divers black moores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already here too manie’ and adding that ‘those kinde of people should be sent forth of the land.’

Although it is much easier to say than to do, and much easier for some than others, it may in the long term prove more productive to look forward than back.  It is hard to disagree with West Indian historian Eric Williams, who said about slavery that: ‘A racial twist has been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon.  Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.’  But can we, suitably armed with this knowledge, learn to change our attitudes?  As the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel wrote: ‘If British people understood colonial history half as well as they understand the details of Henry VIII’s wives, Britain would be a different country.’

Sanghera is clear in what he sees as a simple and profound fact about Britain: it is a multicultural, racially diverse society because it once had a multicultural, racially diverse empire.  He quotes the Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanandan: ‘We are here because you were there.’  This sentiment was echoed by the historian David Olusoga, who, in response to a racist remark, tweeted: ‘If you don’t want Nigerians in the UK, all you need to do is go back to the nineteenth century and persuade the Victorians not to invade Nigeria.’

The author points out that there is a danger of the problem being simply too complicated for us to be able to make the effort to try to understand it, because the British Empire is a really difficult thing to comprehend.  It is far easier to think about the event of the Second World War, with its much clearer beginning and end, than it is to take in the empire, which was a five-centuries-long state of being and of mind.  Empire defies straightforward characterisation, and lasted for too long, spread over too large an expanse, for it to be easily encapsulated in a simple formula.  There was no single moment of public reckoning when the empire collapsed, compared to the easily digestible story of Britain defeating the evil, racist Nazis in 1945.

Despite some high profile cases, notably in Bristol, the reality is that there are many more monuments to notable men and women who owned slaves, and to William Wilberforce, the white man most strongly associated with abolition, than to the actual victims and survivors of enslavement.  The human victims of this crime against humanity have been forgotten in the vast majority of cases.

The historian William Dalrymple has described as a real problem the fact that ‘In Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum…Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.’

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so there seems little point in debating whether the concept of Black History Month is the best way to approach these systemic issues.  The point, as far as I can see it, is that it has created the space in which important debate and discussion can take place.  A problem that was five hundred years in the making is not going to be solved quickly and simply, but it is the children of today who will be the adults of tomorrow, so anything we can do as educators to shape their ideas and thinking in more open and less prejudiced ways than my generation was taught must surely be a positive development.

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