Public Re-Memory

Honestly, I think the most surprising thing to me was also the most surprising to the historian David Olusoga as he began this research. To think that black history in Britain goes back 1800 years is pretty astonishing. To be honest, I haven’t ever really thought about the existence of black people in other countries. It’s probably naive to say, but I’m not very well traveled so I don’t know any better, but I think of black people as living primarily in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. I don’t know anything about a major African slave trade happening in Europe or Asia, nor do I know anything about the propensity of African people to emigrate.

1800 years is a long enough period of time to really be incomprehensible in a practical sense. Yes, I know that 1800 years is longer than 1500 years is longer than 1000 years, but any bit of history that is further back than say two or three hundred years is so far removed from me that 1800 years might as well be a million. That being said, I can conceptualize that 1800 years is a long damn time and the fact black people have been in Britain since then without much reported about them since them is a little ridiculous. Fortunately it seems like that is starting to shift. With prominent historians like Olusoga digging up new stuff, and the BBC putting commemorative plaques all over the place, people are sure to start acknowledging the historical significance of black people in Britain.

It’s hard to say what implications this sort of research may have in the United States. Obviously, our situation is different. We are very aware of the role that black people have played in our history. Our past has some ugly spots, but we would do well not to ignore them. Some people argue that monetary reparations need to be made to the descendants of slaves. Personally, I think that’s a tall order. It’s a nice idea, but not realistic.

The Gilroy reading is an interesting one. I highlighted a few passages as I was going through it, but there was one small, somewhat unremarkable sentence that caught my attention. On page 46, Gilroy mentions that “the word ‘immigrant’ became synonymous with the word ‘black’ in the 1970s”. This brought to mind our current state of immigration here in the United States. Immigrant has become synonymous with Mexican, which is then almost made synonymous with criminal. Knowing what I know now after watch the BBC episode, it’s asinine that black could ever be synonymous with immigrant in Britain. Their history stretches back just as far as anyone else’s.

Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

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