Below are my answers to some questions a newspaper asked me for a feature it was running on Slavery and Britain’s ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade’ Act, 1807, and, below those, my contribution to a bunch of one-minute testimonials that I and various other writers/ public figures gave at the British Museum in March on the 200th annniversary of the Act.
DA, March ’07
Slavery Q and A
1. What is the point of remembering this moment from 200 years ago?
It’s a moment, but not as big as I suspect will be made out. We already know about the slave trade and liberal Wilberforce – it’s almost the only bit of ‘black history’ taught at school. I’m personally much more interested in the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian independence, and that this and the next few years mark the half-century since Africans and African-descended peoples have by and large ruled themselves, after the hiatus of colonialism. How we’re going to make the next fifty better than the first fifty strikes me as a more significant matter to engage conscious black folk’s energies right now, and this is largely non-slave-related.
Slavery is one of the few things, along with running, dancing and shooting each other, that black folk are famous for and, this being such a fame-minded age, it’s no surprise that one of our headline issues is going to get mucho attention. How much more it would add to the level of knowledge and respect for black folk if we could commemorate instead, or just take note to some degree, that this is, say, the 900th anniversary of the Kush empire, or 2000 years of African Christianity (those dates aren’t precise!).
If by ‘point’ you mean why is there gonna be a lot of noise about it, then that’s mainly to do with white feel-goodness. Most of the black issues that get bigged up by the mainstream – racism, stories of empire, interracial relationships, South Africa – always the big African story – have whites in them, in their narrative, and offer the scope for white redemption, or scope to play out white dreams or guilt , white whatever.
I have it on good authority that, when plans for a British commemorative slave trade stamp were first mooted, the original design was of a black man in chains. But when the powers-that-be saw the plans, they were horrified, and insisted that the design be changed to that of a black person breaking free from their shackles. That, I think, tells the story of what this is officially about pretty neatly.
When I was a wannabe writer, assessing what had gone before me, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thru’ to Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ to Caryl Phillips’ ‘Cambridge, I always thought the most surefire way for a black diasporic writer to win some big award was to write something slavery-related. A couple of books on slavery and one about some tragic Creole’s upbringing, and they’ll probably give you the Nobel Prize.
2. Was there anything gained from Blair’s expression of regret? Do expressions of regret equal an apology?
What Tony Blair and his ilk have to say on the matter is of less than zero interest to me. They’re politicians, for God’s sake – phony emollience is their business. Only a moron would take any emotion that they profess seriously.
3. What legacy would you like to see from the commemorative year?
Despite the years of blacktalk and agitation around black matters in this country, ‘Black-Britain’ is still to come of age as a politics, as a
useful coherent idea, certainly for this generation. Lacking the formative experiences of slavery, segregation and Civil Rights that helped to bond black-americans, we have no glue that binds. We come from different parts of the world, some of us were historically enslaved, some of us were ‘collaborators’, and some neither; some of us had ‘colour bars and shadism in our own ‘black countries’ (eg the Americas), some not etc etc. Some of us still have issues towards whites or other blacks resulting from some of this, some not. The legacy I’d most desire if for us to start building a viable black politics for future and present black Europeans that has more honesty and intellectual rigour than hitherto; that is based on ‘softer’ black allegiances and commonalities rather than the hard kind of simple ‘identity politics’ – we’re all black, we’ve all suffered oppression, so let’s stick together. Despite the high level of intermarriage, and different class positions, black is still true and will be for a while, and we have to start making it work better for us.
But this politic must have black people and not what ‘the man’ did to us, at its centre. For me, the disastrous consequence of slavery and its aftermath was that a lot of black folks, especially those from the Americas, internalised feelings of lesser worth, lower cultural self-esteem. This is the flipside to so much of the braggadacio that marks black diasporic popular culture. So many of us have to get beyond this, and I fear that another black year with the white-black encounter at its heart won’t help.
I never internalised any of that – easy for me, I guess, because, being of direct African descent whose family were not involved in the trade, either as victims or abettors, it was never a part of my story. I have for sometime felt that, because colonialism was shorter and not as savage as slavery and its aftermath, it has often been easier for direct Africans, despite the economic shambles of the continent, to maintain more of their cultural integrity and racial self-esteem. Any racial epithets directed at me as a child I never took on board – whites and Asians were just these other people doing worse than me at school. My father used to say to me, growing up, as a kind of inspirational pep-talk, ‘You are the child of chiefs. The people on your level in this country are Prince Charles and Prince Edward, and, if you get into Oxford, you will meet them.’ In those days when I saw, say, a black man- white girl couple on the street, I’d assume that this was most likely a temporary measure: that the (educated) black immigrant was probably struggling to find a homegirl of a similar level in this country. It was only when I began to hang out with more British-Caribbeans in my later teens, that I discovered that a common assumption was that such a black man was trying to raise his level by going out with white. I was dumbfounded. I’d thought, if anything, the brother was going, not quite ‘down’ in the world, but certainly not up. That he was probably making do…
4. Reparations – what is your position on this vexed subject?
I was involved in a ‘reparations for slavery’ campaign 16 years ago, at
‘the Voice’, instigated, inter alia, by soon-to-be Nigeria Presidential Candidate Chief Abiola. I backed it then, and certainly feel that there is justice in and precedent to such demands, not least because of the unfulfilled promises and economic disadvantages that continued for ex-slaves after slavery. However, I haven’t looked at this matter properly for a while and things like the African debt cancellation of recent years may well have muddied the picture.
Diran’s testimonial text – British Museum
Remember that, before all this, we had a great university, and empires and art.
Remember that this is a year that should not have whiteness at its centre. White redemption, white charity, or even the desire of black Britons to get big white people, big white institutions to acknowledge the evils of the past.
That ever since the Middle Passage, too many of us global Africans, perhaps understandably, have had white at or near our centres. You see it in shadism – the idea that the lighter we are the prettier – and in so much black-on-black talk – ‘”he talks like a white guy,” “Don’t say that in front of white people” etc. This has to change, or the insult continues. True psychic health needs to be restored for some of us.
Let us ask ourselves how many of us have true ease of being in these black Atlantic societies – the ease so valued in west African societies that my people, the Yoruba, call ‘Iwapele’, and ask yourselves what can you do, that isn’t dependent on others, to restore this and ensure that the next 50 global African years are better than the last 500.