This week we thought we’d bring the conversation to British shores, and to a more current figure seeking to establish a fuller and more coherent picture of black British history. David Olusoga (OBE) is a black British-Nigerian historian, award-winning writer, broadcaster, presenter and filmmaker. In 2019, the University of Manchester welcomed him as a Professor of Public History.
During Black History Month, partners in TSB were treated to the opportunity to attend a live video event with David on the theme of black Britain’s forgotten stories. During this, he spoke as much of the present day as of history, noting the sudden progress into consciousness of structural racism: the toppling of the Colston statue, Black Lives Matter protests bringing injustices and structural racism into the forefront of national debate.
Through the talk, and his other works, David asks the key question: how can we undo structural racism if the knowledge about black British history is absent or obscured? How can we confront deep-seated racist structures in British society if we assume that race and slavery were and are primarily American problems?
As a society, we’ve been taught a great deal about the colonial might of the British Empire, its role in dismantling slavery, and the strength and heritage of the British brand in our rise as the leading power of the Industrial Revolution. But unquestionably hidden in plain sight are the unpalatable elements we’d rather forget: an invisible legacy of transatlantic slavery, and the enslaved workers of the cotton plantations that catapulted the British textile industries of Northern England into industrial powerhouses. Likewise, when we consider the Scottish confectionery industry — founded upon a cheap supply of sugar — we rarely consider that the sugar originated from the forced labour of slaves in plantations across the Caribbean.
David offers examples of black history hidden right in front of us. Take a closer look at the emblem of Manchester United, and you’ll see the icon of a cotton ship that brought Manchester its wealth. Examine the south-facing relief at the base of Nelson’s column entitled ‘the death of Nelson’ and you’ll find an African sailor of whom there were many among his crews.
This, David argues, is not simply a collective amnesia — we’ve not simply forgotten what happened — but that history was actively rewritten to exclude and to gain distance from the slavery, as it fell out of favour, despite it generating the country’s wealth. For these reasons, figures such as Edward Colston are remembered for philanthropy without acknowledgement of their own role in slavery and the wealth they obtained from it. It’s created a myopic view of British history and consigns black British history to a cloak of invisibility. Without an accurate collective understanding of history, black Britain appears to start with the arrival of Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948.
This rewriting of the past was a deliberate act, championed by Enoch Powell — remembered for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech — with a call to disavow the nation of its colonial past in order to return to what he saw as ‘Englishness’. The ideology of ‘Powellism’ was in no small part behind the racially motivated violence and prejudice that defined Britain of the 70s and 80s. We can only truly dismantle racism by remembering and acknowledging our history — some attitudes are so well engrained that we need to know where they came from.
In UK schools, very few history modules teach children about black history — and those that do tend to focus on US history and not that of black Britain. It’s problematic, and gives a false sense that racism is largely an American problem. Some of the problems that exist in the UK today are different to those of the US, but it’s important not to detract from the severity of the issues faced by black and other ethnic groups in Britain today.
Perhaps part of the reason for this disparity is that outside of the slave markets in Bristol and Liverpool, slavery in Britain appeared obscured and as it were, at ‘arm's length’, happening in other countries within the empire, but its effects and wealth affected everyone in Britain.
What David ably does, whether through his writing, his presenting or in speeches such as the TSB one, is to engage you as a natural storyteller. He weaves a tapestry that enables his audience to understand and to question by connecting the historical dots for you — why is it that we remember the Industrial Revolution and the wealth and strength that this brought us on the global stage, but not the slaves upon which the entire imperial endeavour was built?
In his 2016 award-winning book ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’, David helps us to break down the barriers between “so-called black history and so-called mainstream British history”.
The premise is that black British history is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation, tracing a collective story from Roman Britain onwards. He exposes the hidden histories that belong to the nation and relates in detail how we’re stronger for it.
“Britain’s interactions with Africa, the role of black people within British history and the history of the empire are too significant to be marginalized, brushed under the carpet or corralled into some historical annexe.” - David Olusoga
What are the important lessons for us in 2020?
To bring us back to the current situation, David points out how this silencing of black British history down the ages, and the contributions black people have made throughout British life, have left important legacies in the way society unconsciously thinks of black people, and how these legacies continue today to limit their potential.
To demonstrate this, David poses a thought experiment: name ten black British athletes, performers, actors, or musicians. Then try to name ten black British thinkers — this is much more difficult. This apparent lack of black intellectuals is an artifact of the continued racial caricatures that, by nature, black people were physically strong, or creative and soulful, but couldn’t lead a life of the mind. How much black British intellectual potential has been lost because of such unconscious biases!
What he finds encouraging is that the youngest generations are acutely intolerant of the persisting structural injustices based on race, sexuality, gender and poverty. On an intuitive level they see the eradication of racism as a fundamental part of their generation’s mission. David proposes that we should be guided by the young in this initiative, as they are leading the way into the future.