Beyond the American Revolution and the Pilgrims voyage to America, British History is wildly untaught in the United States. Nevertheless, England and her history have always conjured lily-white images of rivalries, monarchs, and colonization. Therefore, learning the story of Francis Barber was an interesting spin on my previous notions. Formerly enslaved in Jamaica, Barber was the manservant of Samuel Johnson the author of the Dictionary of the English Language. He lived with him from the age of seventeen until his marriage to an Englishwoman. Through generations of marriage, the diversity of the Barber family eventually faded into generic British whiteness. Due to this chameleon effect and the rejection of any non-white ancestry, Barber was all but forgotten outside of academic circles. However, a descendent of Barber, after discovering his relation, unveiled the plaque honoring his great, great, great…you get the point.
Despite current attempts at illuminating the black presence in England dating back to the Tudors, Black British influence and presence have been whitewashed. The narrator of ‘Black and British’ delved deeper into the “friendships” between Ghana and England. Expanding upon the already known history of “The Gold Coast,” and its importance to the continent of Europe. He regaled the audience with stories of John Blanke, black Georgians, and the attendant of Catherine of Aragon. However, he mentions early on the disconnect he felt being both black and British during his childhood since the erasure of black people from history. These individuals mentioned in history didn’t fight against race and nationalism, unlike or on being British enough. They married, shared the same customs, and were the same as any other Briton. This sentiment began to change, however, with enslavement and eventually xenophobia.
Soon enough racism slithered through the idea of nationality in England belonging to the white English exclusively. Paul Gilroy, author of “There ain’t No Black in the Union Jack” explains the dilemma of the black Brits when he wrote:
National culture is present in the young man’s clothing. Isolated and shorn of the mugger’s key icons – a tea-cozy the and dreadlocks of Rastafari – he is redeemed by his suit, the signifier of British civilization. The image of a black youth as a problem is thus contained and rendered assimilable. (59)
The only way to both not be received as a threat and hold a claim to British nationality is to abandoned your identity. Gilroy’s exposure of ignorance on behalf of a sad portion of British citizens represents the importance of public memory perfectly. Signs of strength community such as the building of Hadrian’s Wall occurred as a British people regardless of racial makeup. The public memories of these people are important because it refreshes the history currently taught, purposely allowing their importance to vanish. Public history reminds everyone that they were there, and validates the presence of every single black Briton whose ancestors weren’t visitors, but community members. They’re British and they’re Black, the memories of the ones before them, tarnishing any possibility that the two cannot coexist. Despite their contributions to society today, Black people in Britain aren’t welcomed as apart of English pride but are denied this and discriminated against due to their skin.
Gilroy, Paul. Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. University of Chicago Press, 1991
Photo Credit: New-Unity Organization