Black History

Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

17 October 1961 – We Drown Algerians Here

17 October 1961

In Black History month it is worthwhile underscoring how minority histories have often tended to be overlooked, covered up, or subsumed under majority narratives and ‘official’ memory. At the time of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, for instance, the press and media all lamented what they claimed was the biggest loss of life on French territory since the Second World War. This was false. What had been overlooked was the murder of hundreds of Algerians in central Paris on the night of 17 October 1961.

It was the height of the war between France and Algeria. The many Algerians living and working in mainland France were increasingly distrusted by the French government, who feared that they were acting as a ‘fifth column, supporting and collecting funds for the FLN (National Liberation Front), the insurgents leading the war for independence from French colonial rule in Algeria. Harsh domestic policing tactics were employed against Algerians living and working legitimately in France, including surveillance, stop and search, and a curfew which saw Algerians homebound between 7pm-6am.

It was a protest against this curfew which sparked the events of 17 October 1961. The Algerian community groups organising the march had emphasised that the protest would be entirely peaceful, and protesters were searched for weapons before they boarded the trains and buses which transported them from the ghettoised peripheries and shantytowns to central Paris.

1961 bus

1961

In 1961, Maurice Papon was the Police Chief in charge of Paris. Papon, who had served as a senior police official for the wartime Vichy regime, and oversaw the deportation of c.1600 French jews to Nazi concentration camps. In 1956 he had also served in Constantine, in Algeria, participating in the repression and torture of Algerian nationalists. Papon’s past clearly did not dispose him to take a lenient approach with colonial subjects protesting on French national territory. However, it is still difficult for historians to establish exactly what precipitated the massacre and on whose orders, for many of the archives related to this incident, and to France’s role and actions in the Algerian war more broadly, are still under wraps.

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Around 30,000 marched. By the end of the week 14,000 had been arrested. This fate was far better than many suffered. Police bludgeoned innumerable participants as they exited metro stations. Others were rounded up and taken to the police HQ at St Michel, where, according to eye-witness accounts, Papon ordered their extermination. The bodies of many Algerians were thrown in the Seine.

Evidence of these atrocities was immediately covered up by the Paris police force. Journalists and photojournalists present during these events attest to the fact that they were silenced; that they were threatened; that their copy/photographs/films were confiscated. On the night itself, televised news showed only reassuring images, and the whole incident disappeared from the media by 24 October.

The exact number of deaths is difficult to establish. Some documents and archives have been destroyed, others remain classified. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who has researched the event extensively, and who also challenged Papon in a court case, has suggested that at least 200 were killed on 17 October. British historians House and MacMaster claim that 550 were reported as missing from the shantytowns. At the time, the French government, headed by de Gaulle, with Roger Frey as Interior Minister, admitted only two of the dead. A government inquiry in 1999 concluded 48 drownings on the one night and 142 similar deaths of Algerians in the weeks before and after, 110 of whom were found in the Seine. It also concluded the real toll was almost certainly higher.

The massacre has often been cited by community activists as an example of ‘confiscated memory’:  an event whose existence was denied, the memory of which has been suppressed, and which had long been eliminated from the ‘official’ history of the Franco-Algerian conflict. Activists have sought to reinsert this history into French national memory – some erecting makeshift banners along the banks of the Seine which read: ‘We drown Algerians here’.  It was in response to this sort of call for the suppressed memory to take it rightful place in the history of France and Algeria that prompted Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë to unveil a plaque on the Saint-Michel bridge of the Seine near to the Police HQ, to those who were ‘victims of the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October 1961’. It was not until 51 years after the massacre, in 2012, that then President, François Hollande, made official comment on the matter, recognising that ‘Algerians legitimately demonstrating for their right to independence were killed during a bloody repression’. The passive voice employed in both the plaque and the statement bear witness to the fact that the French state is still far from being able to acknowledge fully its own part in both the massacre and its subsequent erasure from history.

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Plaque