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Tuesday 10 December 2019
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A forgotten history

“GROUNDBREAKING” is how the UK’s Observer newspaper described David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, published last year, winner of the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize and now a BBC TV programme.

Sadly, race and ethnicity are nearly always on the political agenda here in the UK, where I find myself at present, and this was quickened by the gloomily impending Brexit guillotine that will sever integration links with Europe that were developed over the last 30 plus years.

It was the perceived threat of streams of Eastern European and other nationalities coming into Britain that helped win the vote to leave the European Union.

Ideas of racial purity, as absurd as it is almost everywhere, remain potent.

Britain has been home to waves of peoples from Europe and elsewhere, including Africa, going back centuries and the mixing has been a huge success, so much so that the history has been forgotten.

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in England that brought the first big wave of West Indians to Britain. There will be a lot of celebration as the ship’s arrival is considered one of the defining moments of British history, as was seen in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

A mock-up of the ship’s metal frame appeared alongside representations of the Industrial Revolution, WWI, the suffragettes movement, the 1936 Jarrow March, and the creation of the National Health Service.

The cultural impact of Caribbean and, later on, sub-continental Indian peoples has been greater than their actual number. Few of the approximately two million “black” people in the UK now identify themselves as Caribbean. Most of them, around three percent of the national population, are Africans arriving in the last 20 years.

The paradox of the Windrush celebrations, as historian Olusago underlines, is that it misleads the uninformed to believe that black people have only been in British life since 1948.

It came into relief when a Twitter war began three weeks ago when someone, eager to weed out political correctness, criticised a BBC cartoon featuring a dark-skinned father to a normal English family.

When a world-renowned Cambridge academic, expert on the Roman Empire, waded into the Twitter fracas to add that Africans were at all levels of even Roman life in Britain and Europe, she and scholarship were vilified by the ignorant.

There have been other cases of films and television programmes where historical research that correctly allowed for the casting of black and brown characters have been accused of wilfully distorting British history. And the doubters will not be convinced.

The truth is that with new isotope and DNA testing techniques, more irrefutable evidence is constantly appearing. In Olusago’s book he mentions the mixed race Roman Britons, including the famed Ivory Bangle Lady and many others through the centuries.

The moment of forgetting must be dated back to the Atlantic slave trade when the very humanity of African peoples was destroyed and the black presence in “island” Britain excised except where it existed in several archives and works of art that accurately record their historical period.

From them we know that black sailors were part of Sir Francis Drake’s crew and several black soldiers fought alongside Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, for instance.

It is curious that Britons know little about their part in the slave trade, which is still poorly taught in schools, yet are moved by telling of stories of slavery in the USA. The teaching of a whitewashed history is the reason Britons are ignorant of their past and why black Britons remain disadvantaged — less employed, lower paid, more criminalised.Notwithstanding, next week’s Notting Hill Carnival will show, again, how through art, music, sport and fashion West Indians and others have become “standard bearers of a new cultural and national identity,” making indelible contributions to British life.

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