Public Re-memory, Black & British

In all honesty, up until now I never really thought much about what a person of color’s experience might be in Britain. Yes, I, of course, knew that people of color did, in fact, exist in Britain, but I never really acknowledged the fact that just like people of color in America, they too have their own conception of black history.

I may be biased because I’m  American, but I thought America did a good job of featuring black history. Although others may not exactly see it that way. But after watching the BBC special Black & British, I think that Britain does more so of “whitewashing” or paving over black history than America has done. Not meaning to compare the two places, but I can’t help that it’s something I noticed. This brings me to question what citizens of color feel right now about their history in Britain. That is what’s shocking to me is that Britain really did whitewash black history. 

What really got to me was that when most of us think of people of color in Britain we think the reason they’re in that country is due to slavery. However, this is only PART of the story. The video shows clearly that some of the first peoples in Britain were black. They were people of the subsahaharan. I almost didn’t believe it. That’s how long my brain has been taught these things in history books. It makes clearly true things like this almost unbelievable: the reason being is because again we have never heard of such things — a black woman living her life 1700 years ago in Britain.

The reason I find this so shocking is that they freed enslaved people before America, and to my knowledge, they didn’t have laws such as Jim Crow. In school, I had always grown up learning that a lot of people of color were looking to go to England in search of a better life for a person with their skin color.

Now after seeing this video and doing some more reading, I am starting to piece this together. Perhaps a larger portion of the things I was taught in grade school was even whitewashed itself. 

This video was very eye opening; history is different depending on who you ask to tell it. Most of us have only heard history from those that won it. By that I mean, the people that tell us and decide what makes history now are the ones that won the great wars. The people that conquered the most lands. The people that took languages and rewrote them themselves. These are the people that decide.

Well, what about the people that lost . . . the people that did not come out on top? Or the people that simply took longer to achieve their goals?

When comparing Paul Gilroy’s work to this video, you can see this same theme when his writing talks about Nationalism. Nationalism is seen only in the countries that “won” history. 

This is quote is from Gilroy’s chapter in “Ain’t No Black in Union Jack.” In this chapter, Gilroy discusses culture and identity in nations and families:

“Englishness was felt to be so far beyond dispute that when young blacks demonstrated against her reluctance to denounce apartheid [. . .] reports of their protest branded them as alien traitors and unBritish racists. They were deprived of their right to a national community…There is no place for them in Britain”  (62-63).

This is almost a prime example of who gets to write history. In this passage of Gilroy they’re denying these people of color as British. Even though they have the same rights, it’s simply the color of their skin that doesn’t allow them. If they had a different skin color then they would have received a different reaction about the events before this. They would’ve been welcomed and seen as citizens. They simply didn’t fit the picture Britain wanted to paint of their country. Britain is too prideful to have something like this “stain” their record.

Works Cited: 

Gilroy, Paul. Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. University of Chicago Press, 1991

The picture above is from the African-Caribbean Education Resource Project

I chose it because it’s simple, it reminds me of an American painting. The setting could be anywhere. It shows that even in two different worlds these people are all in the same and going through similar struggles. 

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