Wednesday, 25 February 2015

All Aboard - Hold Tight! - The Black History Journey

Guest blog by Ray Costello

The following is the next of Ray's talk opening the Black History 2 Workshop in Liverpool on Thursday 19 February

Well, the Black History Month bus has long left the station to return next year - to repair a somewhat interrupted curriculum.

I’d like to share a few thoughts with you on that journey.

A few short decades ago even Black History Month did not exist. Previous notions of the recording and teaching of the history of black people of the Diaspora were conceived of in a very different way. In the United States after the Abolition of slavery in 1865, white researchers considering the implications of the dawn of a Post-bellum era adopted something nearer a detached anthropological study of black people. Even later sympathetic studies, like historian and sociologist Frank Tannenbaum's (1893-1969) image of the South in the 1930s and Walter White’s study of racial violence in the early twentieth century, still possessed an element of social distance.
Joel Augustus Rogers, born in 1880 and the grand-daddy of us all, is my hero, a very early example of an isolated individual black historian who laboured to alter this perception of a people largely consigned to the dustbin of history throughout previous centuries. This lonely pioneer could certainly be described as travelling on the Black History bus in more than any metaphorical sense.

A Jamaican-American author, Rogers worked as a Pullman porter, allowing him to travel and feed his appetite for knowledge by using libraries in the cities which he visited. Self-publishing the results of his research in several books, he used his light complexion to allow him entrance into places that, at the time, a darker-skinned black man would have found difficult. At one time, he also worked as a reporter for the Chicago Enterprise and for Marcus Garvey’s newspaper.

Those of us who have heard the youthful cry from the back of the car, ‘Are we there yet?’ may have resorted to occupying young fellow travellers by encouraging them to look for signposts to gauge the journey’s progress. But what if the markers aiding us to record our journey have been removed? Many of us have found building a narrative around the lives of people of African descent difficult enough without the coathangers on which we frame that narrative being actively interfered with, yet just that happened last year with plans to eliminate the few existing black figures in British history taught within schools in order to concentrate on Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell or Nelson.

Mary Seacole was obviously not an isolated anomaly to be revered as a black icon, rather was she a signpost for those engaged in repairing that very ‘grand sweep of British history’ called for - and was certainly not the only black participant in the Crimean War, my own great-grandfather, Bermudan-born seaman Edward James, being amongst them. Mary’s role is, we know, a rallying post for students, around which other black people can be grouped, heroic or commonplace, like Edward - encouraging, rather than side-tracking, valuable research into the social history of ordinary black folk.

Likening these historical markers to archaeology, a previously barren field might yield a few, often small, artefacts - the occasional shard of pottery or a piece of equipment - showing the existence of a long-forgotten people or society, leading to the discovery of a surprisingly large community on that site, challenging any previously-held view. We know that seemingly isolated black individuals serve as the posts in the ground of the building, the spaces to be filled in later in the course of newer discoveries.

There have long been complaints in conferences about an over-reliance upon African-American history and the neglect of British Black history dating back to at least the 1980s. Thankfully, the Black British community has thrown up its own pioneers of British Black history.

And there are others engaged in that struggle: The West Indian historian C. L. R. James was long ago cited in Peter Fryer’s Staying Power as saying – ‘The blacks will know as friends only those whites who are fighting in the ranks beside them – And whites will be there.’

Some white historians we know well are: Jeff Green, David Killingray, Marika Sherwood, Sean Creighton, Audrey Dewjee, Stephen Bourne, Kathy Chater and others working on a Black British approach.

The problem has been that a good deal of the material has to be from primary sources. This includes information to be found in the national archives – the official sources, so to speak - and another rich primary source, the half-forgotten memories of families to be found in their metaphorical and actual shoeboxes. Official sources should not be considered in any way superior to those found in the shoeboxes of ordinary folk. So-called primary sources found in archives are often transcriptions of a clerk writing his version of reports he believed to be true, whilst letters, photographs and diaries kept by descendants of black settlers offer us first-hand material, free from interpretation (John Franklin of the Smithsonian’s new African American Museum tells me that this was how his department started). The biggest problem is still a shortfall of anything in between primary sources and shoe boxes, normally to be found in secondary source books - ordinary library books.

Black people have lived in Britain for centuries, but Liverpool’s community is continuous, dating back to at least the 18th century. In my early study, I was able to find a variety of occupations and social classes including slaves and servants, freed black loyalists from America, the student sons of African rulers, courted for political reasons, and, more than any other group, seafarers.

Entries such as this in St. James Parish Registers 1783 (Sept 10th) are to be found–
“Peter Salisbury, Negro from Baltimore, Maryland, was baptised September.”
Black loyalists, black people who remained loyal to British rule were shipped out of America to Britain in the 1780s from the American port of Savannah after the British surrender to the American rebels.

But black children born in Liverpool, were not only those of black loyalists.

I mentioned African students: -

Some African students of royal descent have been shown to have either stayed or had their descendants return at a later date. In St. James Parish 1796, there is an intriguing entry:

“Samuel Baron, son of the African king Onramby, alias Johnson, was baptised January 21st.”

Was this prince born during a visit, to a king in exile, or to an older royal student settled in England? Whoever, it provides irrefutable evidence of early British-born Black.

I must say with some humour that I will not say too much about black seafarers on this occasion, as I have just written a new book to be published by Liverpool University Press, entitled Black Tommies: Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War – to be found in all good bookshops as they say!

The effects of lack of recognition of the existence of the history of British-born and domiciled black people can be quite far-reaching and damaging. Jeff Green will be talking later about George William Christian, the son of an Antiguan seaman who had left the West Indies to settle in Liverpool in the mid-nineteenth century. After serving as a clerk for Holt Shipping Line, George established his own merchant trading business in Nigeria and Cameroon, with European as well as black employees.

As a British ­born Black man, George was in an unusual position for his times. As a clerk, he occupied a role characteristic of colonial whites, yet he was not what was referred to back home as a ‘native’, a locally-born African. This often placed him in difficult situations. His oil­ exporting business in West Africa hit problems when he was arrested and fined on one occasion for not registering a title to land in German-held Cameroon, a prerequisite of native-born German African subjects. This required the intervention of the MP for Toxteth, as we will hear later.

And their troubles were not only as individuals. We know that at the conclusion of the Great War, black seamen and their settled families faced competition with poor whites. In May of 1919 severe riots broke out in which white rioters attacked individual blacks in the streets, their homes and lodgings. Returning black and white soldiers led to demobilised black servicemen being considered, along with other black settlers, as aliens, or at the very least late-comers, in spite of some being British-born Black or long-domiciled.

Another effect of the non-recognition of British-born Black is being considered a perpetual immigrant, never a citizen. Paradoxically, they were not eligible for any benefits relating to assignation to this group in terms of funding implications, such as Liverpool having a low rating as an EPA (educational priority area) in previous decades, as Section 11 funding of the 1966 Local Government Act or 1969 Urban Programme did not apply, as many British-born Black people were undifferentiated from the greater population in terms of language, religion or culture, which was provided for. Non-recognition is a serious setback to racial integration as it perpetuates two myths; one being that black immigration is a recent phenomenon, and the other that assimilation and acculturation can cure all of society’s problems of racism, a view supported in governmental circles of all persuasions, who seem to think that the key to integration lies solely in immigrants learning English and knowing about British culture, rather than taking any responsibility for external factors, such as racism.

Are we are anywhere nearer the ‘post-black’, or even post-racial, era talked about in the wake of the election of Barak Obama in the United States, suggesting the beginning of a period in which race was no longer a defining issue of daily life? This rather premature response to the euphoria of the election of an African American president was seen to be possibly harmful in that the very notion could have the effect of curtailing existing struggles to rectify inequalities. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth looking at the feasibility of the term ‘post-black’ and perhaps redefining it into something positive.

Some believe its origin to lie in the  book The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson, written in 1995 and, already, the term post-black has been used in the art world as a category of contemporary African American art in which the black experience is used rather perversely to dispel the notion that race matters. In the late 1990s, the artist Thelma Golden was attributed along with her fellow artist Glenn Ligon with coining the term ‘post-black art’, which she defined, rather paradoxically, as an insistence by certain artists who are “adamant about not being labelled ‘black’ artists, even though their work is deeply involved with redefining complex notions of blackness”. Golden gave a detailed explanation of the term ‘post-black’ art in 2001 in the catalogue for the Freestyle exhibition in the Studio Museum in Harlem showing the work of twenty-eight emerging African American artists. Some people felt that the notion of ‘post-black’ was, however, a strange avoidance of the unfortunate history of African Americans, particularly as it appeared to be contradictory in that it found its sustenance by delving into that very rich heritage. Golden even admitted that ‘post-black’ is “both a hollow social construction and a reality, with an indispensable history”, while others feel that the very use of the term defines it as an ethnic marker, in spite of a professed avoidance of identity labels. In the face of such a confused, enigmatic, and certainly arty presentation, we have yet to convincingly test this notion against other areas of the curriculum.

How, then, does the present state of Black British history stand up to the notion of us entering a ‘post-black’ phase? Eventually, there might seem to be some mileage in this idea, as to the ‘post-black historian’  the study of the history of people of African descent in British society should be merely filling the gaps in history left by previous scholars, rather than black history being considered a discrete subject, separate from the mainstream of British history. One of the problems of the designation Black History, is that it provides academic institutions with a concrete entity distinct from other topics within the history syllabus, thus providing a tangible target allowing administrators and decision-makers in schools and university departments to make judgements according to their own political, moral and emotional, leanings and, if their decisions are unfavourable, can have the effect of cutting out the history of a whole section of British society at the stroke of a pen. Thus, the very isolating of Black History (often, ironically, a self-elected title by proponents such as us) can provide an all too observable target, leading to a species of academic apartheid still practiced in some otherwise very credit-worthy educational institutions. In a post-black era, with the study of black historical figures and institutions becoming mainstream, any efforts to surgically incise it from the curriculum would obviously be far more difficult to implement. And it should be said that the section of British society likely to be deprived of having their history documented is larger than those walking the cloisters of hallowed halls might think, as the last census figures show.

Still, the Black History Month bus trundles on, regardless of obstacles and ignorance. Times can change after decades of hardship, as South Africans and African Americans, with their seemingly abrupt changes of leadership, know. The wheels of the carriage may rattle occasionally, but the momentum gathers and we may have to change to another vehicle in the course of the journey. The compartmentalisation and segregation of history cannot endure and must give way.

At a local level, there is now a very good exhibition put on by Karen O’Rourke, the Curator of the Liverpool Kings Regiment Gallery at the Museum of Liverpool, aiming at a more conscious integration. Using previously unseen images, it tells the untold stories of the First World War, complementing the Museum’s items on display in the City Soldiers Gallery and the ‘From the Waterfront to Western Front’ Exhibition. The stories of black families are shown alongside those of white, and other participants.

The nirvana of historical research of any sort is never attained, but the excitement of the struggle and the joy of new discovery in this virgin and fertile area of research is so much worth the struggle. I personally believe in an approach which works towards filling the gaps in history, rather than providing cynics (or racists) with an all too separate and isolated target. Nor am I an eventualist – this should be happening now in all educational institutions, but, unfortunately we still need the markers – much more work of discovery to be done.

These are just a few of my own thoughts on the journey, of course. So much work is yet to be done around the building of any narrative of Black British people, but history has taught us that talking about goals and labouring towards destinations can often bring them about, as our own abolitionist spiritual ancestors, black and white, would agree. Although perhaps struggling on the fringes of academia, hopefully we can make a contribution to that goal today.

Ray Costello

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