In the postcolonial world where the history is presented from a white point of view, it is easy to forget that cultures mixing is not a recent history. This white-washing of history leads us to overlook major accomplishments and historical context of all cultures. While watching the BBC documentary Black and British I found myself saying “wow, really?” time and time again. As an American, I tend to overlook racial inequality in Britain specifically not because I don’t think it happens, but because I always assumed it was so much worse in the states. What the documentary showed me is that many of racist ideals in America stem from issues also seen in Britain.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary to me was discussing Francis Barber and his decedents. He was born into slavery and was sent to live with Samuel Johnson at the age of 10 after the passing of Johnson’s wife. The two became such close friends that upon Johnson’s death, Barber received a lion’s share of Johnson’s interhearence. Not only is this a heartwarming story, but David Olusoga interviews a decedent of Barber. Cedric Barber, Francis Barber’s great-great-grandson is permanently white passing British man had no clue he was related to Francis until his 40s. Cedric is proud of his heritage of carrying on some of Britain’s earliest black citizens saying:
“We are going around in disguise… in camouflage… we’re walking about the place and many people don’t know. But I’m glad that I know. I’m proud of that because they’re mine — and its my history and I feel bad for those who don’t know”
What makes Cedric story so interesting to me was the fact that the way he viewed history completely changed once he knew his own ancestor’s stories. No longer was slavery and segregation someone else’s story; it was his family’s story.
Muddling the lines between “race” and “nationality” lead to many terrible movements such as the alt-right and the white nationalism. When we equate whiteness to British-ness or American-ness there is a large lapse in history ignored and new traditions forming. In There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Paul Gilroy summarizes this by saying:
“The absolutist view of black and white cultures, as fixed, mutually impermeable expressions of racial and national identity, is a ubiquitous theme in racial ‘common sense’, but is is far from secure. It is constantly under challenge from the activities of blacks who pass through the culture and ideological net which is suppose to screen Englishness from them, and from the complex organic process which renders Britons partially soluble in the national culture which their presence helps transforms.” (61)
To presume Britain as a white race is what leads to exclusion and bigotry. If we assume there are no other people of color within the history, we will not make room for people of color in the future.
“First Encounters.” Black and British. BBC. 2016.
Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Hutchinson, 1987. Print.