The United States and England share a complex history that involves embracing the several cultures within them while simultaneously attempting to erase those same cultures when it is most convenient. Some feel that complete integration is needed while others think it is more important to embrace the large immigrant community. In the BBC series there is a clear attempt of trying to highlight specifically the origins of the earliest black immigrants in England while showing how they integrated and were essentially forgotten after a few generations.
One of the most surprising topics discussed in the BBC series was the several origins of black people across England. From North African Romans to the first black woman that originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, the series touched on several instances where black people made up a part of early English culture. As mentioned earlier, after a few generations, the black linages of several of them were forgotten because of how well they were able to integrate into their society. In the video, they spoke to a man who was descendant of Frances Barber, black man who had once been enslaved. He mentioned that he had not known his lineage until he was in his 50’s but as he spoke about the experiences of young enslaved people and black people in general, he emphasized his connection to his one black ancestor.
In fact, there were several other people in the documentary who were highlighted as descendants of black people to speak about erasure of black culture while themselves weren’t black. The history of their descendants are trying to be honored now in a way that was not previously done. They unveiled a plaque that honors Frances Barber and is used as a symbol of solidarity amongst the diverse community. In terms of the impacts this has on British history, it shows how easily cultures can be erased, or at least tried to be erased, in the name of integration. It’s important that British people know that their culture has been influenced by more than just white people.
The United States has a similar history of immigrant populations settling and becoming part of American culture. People are taught that the mix of cultures from immigrant communities have created “the melting pot,” of American culture. One could think that because of this melting pot narrative, our history and the way we embrace cultures contrasts drastically from the way England treats their history. Yet in both cases, the cultures come from forced integration. The way that the white English descendants spoke about their black ancestors is similar to how white American descendants speak about their Indigenous ancestors. In both cases, the respect they claim to have to them seems very performative because in both cases, both communities still exist. There are still black people in England and there are still Indigenous people in America, what are these white descendants doing, besides speaking over them, to help the community?
It is all about erasure and power. In Brian Ward’s book, the idea of integration for the sake of traditional British society was heavily prevalent. He discusses that during the American Civil Rights movement, there were fears of something similar happening in England involving their immigrant communities. British people came out on opposite sides of the spectrum where the more conservative group believed that “the eventual assimilation and acculturation of immigrants to ‘traditional British’ culture was the best possible outcome for both migrants and the host nation” (Ward 183). As Gilroy also mentions on page 47, the conservative group was so heavily focused on national culture and identity. Their identity has to be strictly British and embracing other cultures from places like the Caribbean, Africa, India, or any other place, would put at risk this prideful British nationalism.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, comes an ideology that people should embrace their cultures instead of masking it in the name of British identity. This is how cultures, traditions, and people are remembered in a time of suppression. Public history has the responsibility to not mask everything under a national identity. Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle was almost completely forgotten during one of the most pivotal eras in human rights history. I can’t help but imagine the social impact that MLK’s visit would have had on race relations if his visit was made out to be the big deal that it was. This continuous erasure of not only cultures, but also events like this ensures that the power remains out of the hands of people of color.
Ward, Brian. Martin Luther King in Newcastle upon Tyne: the African American Freedom Struggle and Race Relations in the North East of England. Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2017.
Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.” The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Black and British: A Forgotten History. Season 1 Episode 1 First Encounters. Online Video Clip. Youtube. 25 November 2016.
“Black and British Season.” BBC, BBC, 2016, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0499smp.