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 were never just passive victims but active resisters.
Well-meaning talk of tolerance and inclusion can obscure the fact that minority ethnic communities, including those of African and Caribbean heritage, have long helped shape Britain for the better, insisting on taking their place and staking their claims. They were, of course, demonised as extremists for doing so, just as Black Lives Matter is being vilified by politicians today.
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The predominant abolition story puts the undoubtedly important initiative of elite white men such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson at the centre. Yet many white British opponents of slavery – including James Stephens, Wilberforce’s brother-in-law and the architect of the 1807 Abolition Act – were aware of the frequency of “widespread and long-continued insurrections” and the “enormous effusion of human blood” it took to suppress slave rebellions.
The fiery women’s rights campaigner Elizabeth Heyrick – who advocated the boycott of slave-produced sugar and called for immediate emancipation – noted of the 1823 rebellion in Guyana that the slave was bent on “breaking his own chains and asserting his own freedom”. There were also abolitionist black preachers like the Jamaican-Scottish Robert Wedderburn, who was jailed for calling on the British working classes to fight for freedom as slaves did. The black Chartist William Cuffay, who was eventually transported to Tasmania, also connected his love of freedom to his West Indian slave origins.
In the 20th century, black communities undertook collective organising for rights and freedom. From 1900, Pan-African conferences held in Britain brought together campaigners from across the colonies. Britain had a vibrant black press which produced many bold campaigning magazines throughout the century. The African Times and Orient Review, launched in 1912 by Dusé Mohamed Ali, was supported by the outspoken black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an ally of the Pan-African movement.
When black and Asian workers were attacked, robbed and lynched in 1919 after unemployment caused riots in British seaports, organisations like the African Progress Union, the Negro Welfare Association and Society of Peoples of African Origin sprang up to defend them.
In the interwar period, the International African Service Bureau and other groups took up multiple causes, from workers’ rights and antiracism to freedom for British colonies, merging later with other black-run organisations to form the Pan-African Federation. One leading light was Amy Ashwood Garvey, who also ran a legendary social space in London known as the Florence Mills Social Parlour, where many key black figures came together. Several black campaigners in Britain, including Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, went on to become national leaders in post-independence African nations.
In the postwar period, the colour bar in hotels and other public spaces was challenged by people like the famous cricketer Learie Constantine, who won a landmark judgment. Police harassment and brutality against black and Asian people, often lethal, was also challenged by self-defence groups, with resistance also coalescing in campaigns such as the Mangrove Nine and the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign. The fight against apartheid in South Africa also galvanised antiracist campaigns in Britain as one struggle, one fight.
Unsurprisingly, black campaigners in Britain like CLR James, George Padmore and ITA Wallace-Johnson also had sharp critiques of both capitalism and empire, or racial capitalism. Far from peddling a victim narrative, these critiques made necessary connections between what was happening in the colonies and working-class conditions in Britain – and between racism and labour rights.
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Since colonialism was inseparable from capitalism, many anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and Africa cohered around labour rights, taking the form of strikes and boycotts. All of this history would be deemed extremist and even banned under the Department for Education’s current guidelines.
Rather than dismiss it as a victim narrative, we should honour black history for what it tells us about the experience of persecution – as well as the manifold ways in which people coped, resisted, and even produced music, art and literature while doing so.
Histories of victimisation hold power accountable. Accounts of resistance teach us that power is forced to concede when challenged. Black history teaches us that, in the face of great suffering, people have the power to change things. We have never needed that inspiration more.