When the enslaved African was put on a ship to be transported across the Atlantic, “that moment he became a revolutionary”, wrote the historian, campaigner and later prime minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams. He was complicating the familiar British story of abolition, in which black people who had somehow managed to get themselves enslaved were freed by the ‘Saints’ – educated white men of conscience.
In reality, both slaves and other colonial subjects in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean fought for their rights and freedom in very difficult circumstances. Those rebellions and liberation movements, along with the work of white abolitionists and critics of empire, put pressure on Britain to ultimately concede emancipation and independence. If the official history is of Britannic rule, a still-hidden history tells of black (and Asian) resistance to that rule.
So, when speaking of black history, which is also British history, we need to ditch prejudicial and misleading phrases like “victim narratives”, recently used in the Department for Education’s statutory guidance to English schools. The present government deems accounts of oppression and exploitation “divisive” and “harmful”, along with discussions of alternatives to capitalism. Using phrases like “victimhood mentality” when describing ethnic minorities stokes an unhelpful culture war and delegitimises necessary accounts of racist and colonial dispossession.
It is convenient for the powerful, of course, to demand that the spotlight be turned away from the harm they foster, whether through bigotry or predatory capitalism. Historical amnesia works in their favour.
In fact, black history contains few victim narratives, even if it tells us a great deal about victimisation and the infliction of suffering. The documents of colonial and racist barbarism are also documents of the power of protest. Black history is not just about slavery or colonialism, but in the context of Black Lives Matter and the contemporary struggle for racial and social justice, the history of black struggle teaches us something valuable about the relationship between resistance and change.
One familiar defensive response to discussions of racism today is to insist that Britain is one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Missing from that grand claim is the story of how all progress on race has been won through persistent protest and campaigning, by ethnic minorities and their allies.
Black people, both in Britain and in the colonial world, have not waited meekly for changes to take place. From the abolition of slavery to the removal of the colour bar, and from the moderate inclusion campaigns of the League of Coloured Peoples in the 1930s to more militant organising against police brutality in the 1970s, black people in Britain have defended their communities, mobilised and contributed to vital social and institutional change. As the historian Peter Fryer noted, across Britain and the British Empire black people