One of the details from the documentary that I found the most interesting was the origin of the medieval depictions of the three wise men, that still persists in some Christian iconography today, with one of the Wise men being pictured as African. It was interesting to hear how the medievalist explained that medieval Brits recognized Africa as a space of wealth and depicted one of the Wise men as African because they wanted Africa, Asia and Europe to all be included in Christendom. It also reminded me of a project I did a few years ago for an Old English class. Part of the project included researching the multicultural and multi-geographic artistic influences and resources that went into creating medieval books in Britain. These points are really interesting and important because they show that art, people, books, resources, and ideas don’t exist in a vacuum and that ideas of national borders are largely imaginary. Through the Roman Empire, through travel and trade, things and people spread. This challenges the idea of a “pure” or singular heritage or culture.
At the end of the documentary, David Olusoga invites the viewer to go to the BBC website to find guides if “you’d like to find out how to research Black history in your area.” This reminded me of an interview I read for another class about migration and diversity in Germany. The interview was of two Afro-German scholars and creators, Karina Griffith and Peggy Piesche. Within this interview, Griffith says, “When I was thinking about sustainability, I was thinking about archives, and this was something that became very important to Republik Repair. Archives can be a type of reparations, and access to archives, the creation of our own archives, can be reparatory” (4). Who has power over narratives is important. Whose narratives are preserved, whose narratives dominate discourse, is important. And it is interesting seeing promotion of local preservation of history, specifically histories and narratives that have been marginalized. This is a type of activism, and again, it’s a challenge to the dominant narratives used to marginalize people.
One such narrative is that “The process of national decline is presented as coinciding with the dilution of once homogeneous and continuous national stock by alien strains.” In ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack,’ Paul Gilroy continues, “Alien cultures come to embody a threat which, in turn, invites the conclusion that national decline and weakness have been precipitated by the arrival of blacks. The operation of banishing blacks, repatriating them to the places which are congruent with their ethnicity and culture, becomes doubly desirable. It assists in the process of making Britain great again and restores an ethnic symmetry to a world distorted by imperial adventure and migration” (46). This wording sounds scarily familiar: make _____ great again- the idea that a nation was once great, but no longer is, attributing this imagined decline to the presence of diverse identities.
Through viewing and understanding history through diverse lenses, rather than lenses centered on white nationalism and imperialism, the dominant narratives are challenged and open up space for a better, more nuanced understanding of identity, the past, the present, and the future.
Black and British: Episode One. BBC
Gilroy, Paul. “‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack:’ The cultural politics of race and nation.” Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Kathöfer, Gabi and Beverly Weber. “Heimat, Sustainability, Community: A Conversation with Karina Griffith and Peggy Piesche.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, vol. 54 no. 4, 2018, p. 418-427.
David Olusoga, BBC Website: Black and British