When Vladimir Putin’s spokesman dismissed Britain as “a small island no one listens to”, David Cameron defended our nation’s honour by mentioning among its triumphs “that Britain helped to abolish slavery”. He made this statement without any apparent irony, or awareness that Britain was also one of the originators of the institution of slavery, certainly in the Atlantic context.
As we have just ended Black History Month 2013 statements like this make it clear how much it is needed – and, at the same time, how little these annual 31 days have done to address the widespread ignorance about crucial aspects of our history.
The truth is that the trade in sugar and slaves helped build Britain’s greatness and create some of our most beloved cultural symbols. It was sugar, harvested by slaves, that generated those great fortunes jockeyed for in the novels of Jane Austen, and helped to finance the splendid houses which provide the model for Downtown Abbey.
Nor should we forget that even today, more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, Africans and their descendants remain markedly disadvantaged compared to the descendants of those who promoted the trade against them.
So why does this ignorance persist, 25 years after Black History Month was launched in Britain? This month we’ve seen events that range from the sublime, such as the award-winning American musical The Scottsboro Boys, to the tokenistic. At my children’s school, many heart-warming pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Doreen Lawrence have been produced, as well as innumerable portraits of black sportsmen from Usain Bolt to Theo Walcott. At a friend’s school, the pupils have been encouraged to turn up dressed as a black pop star. Most of our children have become familiar with the travails of Mary Seacole. But these stories of individual triumph, however uplifting, don’t do nearly enough to fill the knowledge gap. We need to integrate black history across the educational curriculum, and among adults, so that people like our prime minister will also comprehend it.
When Britain truly acknowledges its history, our society will realise that the brown and black faces in our midst are not interlopers or johnny-come-latelys, but the logical result of British participation in the world – and evidence of its long and intertwined involvement with its exploited colonies. Indeed, much of what we designate as black history is in fact simply English history – stories we should all remember and acknowledge. We minorities are here not as an act of charity but because we belong here, because we worked and starved and died over centuries to build this nation.
Slavery and colonialism is a ghost that still haunts modern Britain, because we have never fully exorcised it. Like any nation, Britain is what the academic Benedict Anderson described as an “imagined community”: its self-image is determined by what it decides to recall and what it decides to disregard. Thus abolition is warmly remembered and commemorated as the heroic action of a civilised society, and the hundreds of years of barbaric slavery that preceded it are conveniently forgotten.
It is the duty of a mature democracy to not just celebrate its triumphs but to acknowledge its miscarriages. Instead of the jingoistic version of history championed by the likes of education secretary Michael Gove, we should aim to create a narrative for our citizens that tells the whole story, warts and all. We will know Black History Month is successful only when it is redundant – when our history is understood by us all, and young people gain the pride and self-assurance that a genuine account of it would afford.