Ever wanted a right to reply? Here’s one… A few months ago I published a post called How to come back from being burned at the stake. One reader, Christine Kalume, felt so strongly about what I had written and what had been said in the comments that she wanted to respond at length. I agreed and here is her response.
First a reminder. The original story was pegged to the row that erupted after a newspaper feature asked whether the southern English town of Lewes was racist. The white journalist is in a marriage to a black woman and has mixed race children. He listed perceived slights and discrimination. Some people in Lewes were very offended at what they saw as a slur on their community. They even went so far as to burn an effigy of the journalist David James Smith at their annual bonfire – putting him in the company of the Pope and politicians.
So far, so inflammatory. But what appealed to me about the whole business, was what happened next. Rather than running, hiding, moving house or lashing out, David James Smith bravely took part in an open meeting with his critics, the better to discuss the issues he had raised. You’ll find details about all that in my original post.
It was great to have responses from David James Smith himself and some very long considered comments from others too. But I promised Lewes local Christine Kalume that she could write a guest post on it all, and here it is. So these are her views, not mine. I find them fascinating and enlightening – I hope you do too. But whether you like what she has to say or not, I hope you’ll leave a comment. (It’s quite long, so you’re allowed to leave a comment on just a wee bit of it, or the lovely pictures scattered throughout.)
Who are we? Partial Truths and organised forgetting – by Christine Kalume *
The Sunday Times feature article last year by David James Smith (DJS)2 on his family’s experiences of racism in the English market town of Lewes sparked some intense debates. Initial responses tended to focus on the pros and cons of the approach taken and points made in the article (like this one by local Lewesian David Bradford). However, the article also opened up a communication space to explore issues linked to racism – and diversity more broadly.
As a Lewesian and someone in a mixed race marriage for whom connections to other cultures and to Africa in particular have been important, I found myself thinking and thinking about some of the issues raised. So when Paul gave me this space on his blog to contribute, I was delighted. I have tried to provide evidence to support some of my points but this is not an academic article. I hope it encourages further discussion ‒ and even contributes in some small way to change.
People living in Lewes made instant use of the communication space created by organising a community debate, Lewes & Diversity: Have Your Say. ( See coverage on the website of one speaker, Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote.) The debate kicked off with presentations by David James Smith and two other speakers (Simon Woolley and Yaa Asare, an education specialist and lecturer at nearby Brighton University), and people disagreed as well as agreed with the top table speakers and with each other. Some of the points raised include:
- “We are not in a ‘post-racial’ world and we won’t be in one anytime soon.”
- We lack the vocabulary for discussing and challenging racism. (Simon Woolley said, “Innuit’s have 50 words for snow, but we have one word for racism, a word that doesn’t begin to articulate the nuances of racism”.)
- We are particularly concerned with issues of racism in our schools and education system and how to work to address these. (Yaa brought practical experience of working with students and teachers to explore difference and empower teachers and students.)
- The current dominant white/western culture presents a view of the world which excludes many other experiences and perspectives.
- The African slave trade is a particularly abhorrent part of human history associated with massive guilt, which makes it difficult for us as a society to discuss.
- It is important for Lewes people to explore other diversity issues as well as racism.
What stood out for me was what a different picture of our community started to emerge as people started to tell their personal stories – we weren’t the homogenous, white, English community we might appear in the article, and also how much people wanted to tell their personal stories. Many people left the room having wanted to speak, and I was one of those people.
I am British and my husband is Kenyan, we met in Kenya when we were young and I went back to live and work in Kenya and then Syria before returning to the UK. I have had quite a broad range of life experiences. I have lived in remote places with very little money, collected water and firewood, walked long distances and sat gossiping in smoky kitchens with friends; I’ve also lived in urban areas, worked in international research centres and enjoyed an expatriate lifestyle. My original training was as an anthropologist, archaeologist and African historian, this has also informed my world view.
As a family we have met with wonderful human warmth and kindness; I have also seen that various forms of discrimination, including racism, are common across human societies and can come from all directions. I’ve learnt that as human beings, we love to define ourselves in opposition to other groups; that we group and re-group ourselves, defining ourselves in different ways in different places and under different circumstances, and that each person’s experience is just that, their experience, whether I agree or disagree with it. Most importantly, I have also learnt that our histories as human groups are much more closely entwined and much more complex than we are led to believe and is commonly perceived.
Human beings appear to have been moving, trading, and fighting since the beginning of our collective history. The distances that many of our ancestors travelled, particularly in the previous millennia, look phenomenal now, and we are constantly uncovering evidence of our shared histories. Through this human movement, associated relationships, inter-marriage, rapes and settlement, have grown close cultural and other relationships, new people, new languages and cultures. (For instance, the Swahili people who live along the east coast of Africa developed from interaction between Arab traders and indigenous African people.)
There is plenty of evidence that Britain and Ireland were not immune to this human movement and interaction. Unexpected linguistic links between European Celtic and Basque languages and the Hamitic languages of North Africa suggest a forgotten historical connection. ( For a non-academic account see North Africans may have beaten Celts to Ireland, The Sunday Times, 28th May 2000.) And there is evidence that people from North and Sub-Saharan Africa have been in Britain since at least the time of the Roman Empire, and some almost certainly married and settled here. (See The Moving People, Changing Places website.) An excavation of skeletons buried in 4th century Roman York suggests that up to 20 per cent were long-distance migrants, mostly from North Africa; the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled England from 193 to 211 AD, was himself a Libyan.
In the 9th century, Viking raiders raided North Africa and Spain capturing people and taking them back to Britain and Ireland. (Northvegr the History of the Vikings, chapter 7 – In the mid ninth century, the Arab Emir of Spain sent an ambassador to the court of the viking chief.) As the Portuguese and Spanish empires reached further into Africa in the late 15th and early 16th century the number of people of African descent in Britain also began to grow. King James IV of Scotland included many ‘blak moors’ in his court, including musicians and women. (Court records refer to gifts paid for by the king, e.g, in 1512 ‘Blak Elene’ or ‘Elen More’ was given five French crowns, and in 1527 two ‘blak ladies’ staying at the Scottish Court were presented with 10 French crowns as a New Year gift at a cost of £7. Source: UK national Archives.) The number of black people in Britain increased significantly with the rise of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade into the 18th century; it is estimated that by the mid 18th century between one and three percent of people in London were black and there were black pubs, clubs, balls, and churches. (See – Gerzina, Gretchen (1995). Black London: Life before Emancipation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Page 5.)
Racism is not a new phenomenon; but other forms of discrimination, for instance based on differences in religion, occupation, and social status, class and caste, have been as or more significant at different times and places in history. (For instance, when, in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I made attempts to have ‘blak moors’ repatriated, historians suggest that this discrimination may have been largely on the basis of religion rather than race. Open letter 1596 from Queen Elizabeth I to the Lord Mayor of London. See Bartels, Emily C. (2006). Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I. Studies in English Literature 46 (2): 305–322. ) I would argue that slavery, and ideas of race associated with slavery and empire, have fuelled racism and continue to cloud how people of African descent are viewed in Britain (and even how some people view themselves) as well as how we deal with the continuing issue of racism.
Different forms of slavery have also been common in human societies; however, the scale, form, and impact of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade make it particularly abhorrent. The trade grew to focus entirely on African people, Africans were collectively de-humanised in western eyes both by the process of slavery itself and by the increasing use of pseudo ‘science’ to support it. As people and cultures were labelled and classified, ‘people of colour’ particularly black African and ‘aboriginal’ or ‘tribal’ people found themselves at the bottom of a supposed racial and cultural hierarchy in which ‘western’ society was seen as ‘naturally’ dominant. The rise of the nation state fed into this sense of discreet, separate racial and ethnic identities. Cultures were seen to stand alone, as clearly defined and separated from neighbouring cultures as the national boundaries drawn on British colonial maps.
The legacy of this thinking still permeates British society and institutions – and societies that were colonised. Discrimination on the grounds of race (epitomised in the signs ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’) was rampant in post-War Britain. Many responses to white racism, while understandable, have also been racist.
In 1950 a UNESCO statement, on ‘The Race Question’, while accepting that human races do exist said, “The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.” I support the sentiment behind this statement. In Kenya many people call my children white, whereas in Britain many people call them black. And some people treat them differently because of their perceived identity. I look forward to a day when, in the words of Emperor Haile Selassie, “the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned” and “ there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation”.
( The original speech by Emperor Haile Selassie at the United Nations Conference in New York City, 4 October, 1963 published in English in Important Utterances of H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I 1963-1972, The Imperial Ethiopian Ministry of Information, Addis Ababa, 1972 and immortalised in the song War by Bob Marley: That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.)
As someone stated during the Lewes debate, we can’t blame schools or society for this preoccupation with race, we have to teach and guide our children. But education can play a massive role in how children and young adults are socialised and how we grow to view the world.
As well as other work in our schools to address different forms of discrimination, I think it is important to challenge and supplement the history syllabus. As it has been noted, “Too little attention is given to the black and multi-ethnic aspects of British history. The teaching of black history is often confined to topics about slavery and post-war immigration or to Black History Month”. (As noted by the then UK Qualification and Curriculum Authority in its Annual Report on Curriculum and Assessment in History 2004/5.) As well as government initiatives, a number of groups, schools and individuals are looking at ways to integrate black history into our education curricula addressing the gaps above. (See for instance, Integrating Black British History into the National Curriculum – Dan Lyndon, AST, Head of History, Henry Compton School, Fulham and visit Black History for Schools.)
However, I agree with the general sentiment behind a statement by a London school boy who, in a criticism of approaches to Black History Month, wrote, “This isn’t just about black history. I think that all world history should be incorporated into the school system.” (Awate Suleiman, then a Year 12 student studying in Camden, London wrote this.) And I would like to balance the current emphasis on events and people with an introduction to the broad strokes of human movement, migration and interaction across the globe and anecdotes that bring these movements to life. We don’t have to teach these subjects in detail but we do need to raise awareness of historical reality – much along the lines of the Horrible Histories series.
For instance – How many of us are aware that the Portuguese not the British Empire was the longest-lived modern European colonial empire (c.1415 to 1999) or that as late as 1625, corsairs or privateers from the North African (‘Barbary’) coast were raiding people from settlements along England’s South West Coast for the slave markets of Morocco (see Giles Milton, White Gold, Hodder & Stoughton 2004). And while we know about the Egyptians, how many of our young people know about the Kingdom of the Kush, the Kush or Nubian Pharaohs and the pyramids of the Sudan? Or that at the time Europeans were fighting the crusades in the Middle East, the Swahili were trading with Asia (e.g. India and China), Arabia, and within Africa (the Great Kingdom of Zimbabwe) for silk, cotton, porcelain, glass, jade, rice and spices, ivory and gold?
Another powerful player in influencing and responding to public perceptions of race is the Media. According to a recent commentator, “Although there is strong evidence to suggest that some degree of progress has taken place, immigrant history has remained largely absent from the ultimate form of mass media, the television screen, despite the increasing popularity of history in general. Even away from the forum of television, public histories have not managed to counteract the sense that immigrant history is a separate history. . . ” (An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800, Panikos Panayi, School of Arts and Humanities.)
To return to our debate in Lewes, it was disappointing that while several members of the media attended the debate, informal feedback suggests that they had been more interested in the potential for a fracas than in the debate itself and the only resulting article we were aware of was Hugh Muir’s article in The Guardian: Hideously diverse Britain: A Showdown in East Sussex which focused on David James Smith’s experiences and not the debate itself.
In Lewes we are moving on. Diversity Lewes, the group which grew out of the debate, is planning a number of activities designed to strengthen community cohesion, and celebrate diversity. (You can join the group on Facebook.) It will be linking with Brighton and Hove Black History (here and here), which already runs a wide range of events through the year, and with other local community groups. It also hope to work closely with local schools and school groups. And it will be creating opportunities for local people to share their personal stories.
* By the way, the post title – Partial Truths & Organised Forgetting is adapted from a phrase in Sue Benson and T C McCaskie Asen Prason in History and Memory. Ghana Studies v.7, 2004, pp 93-113)