Launch of Black History Month in Wales

Est. read time: 9 min
Credits: Black History Month - Wales

Credits: Black History Month – Wales

On September 26th, Prof Gus John delivered the following speech – entitled ‘The Past in the Present: Working Together to Make the Future We Face the Future We Want for Wales‘ – at the Riverfront Theatre and Arts Centre, Newport. It marked the launch of Black History Month in Wales.

Dear land of my fathers, whose glories were told
By bard and by minstrel who loved thee of old
Dear country whose sires, that their sons might be free
Have suffered and perished for thee!

Wales! Wales! Land of mist and wild
Where e’er I roam
Though far from my home
The mother is calling her child

The Lords of great Snowdon in brave days of yore
For thee fought for freedom by Mona’s green shore
Their courage undaunted inspires all our leys
Our harps e’er resound to their praise.

Wales! Wales! Land of mist and wild
Where e’er I roam
Though far from my home
The mother is calling her child

Good evening everyone.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you as you launch Black History Month, Wales, 2014.

As the Chair’s kind introduction indicated, I am a ‘Voice of the Caribbean’ that has had cause to comment on Welsh affairs in the past, not least through the research undertaken some 7 years ago for the Higher Education Council for Wales on the performance of your 14 universities in implementing equality legislation.

There is much that I would like to share with you this evening, but we have limited time. I therefore want to commend to you, most emphatically, this excellent book by Alan Llwyd: ‘Black Wales – a history‘. This book should be the history textbook for all of Wales and a manual not just for Black History Month but for understanding the history of Wales, how that history has helped to shape the present and why it is imperative that Wales understands itself so that the people of Wales, racialised as ‘white’ and as ‘black’ could work together to make the future you face the future you actually want for this proud, beautiful country, a country with an abundance of hope.

Not long after arriving in this country as a theological student who had had a life experience with Britain as a colonial subject since birth, I noted publicly that perhaps the most important function we, the African Diaspora in Britain, performed was to interpret the society to itself, through the prism of our experience of it. A note taker at a later event at which I said just that, recorded me as saying: ‘…through the prison of our experience’. I thought that was the most apt unintended misprint I had ever seen.

I agree wholeheartedly, therefore, with Dr Glenn Jordan of the Black History Association – Wales when he says in his foreword to this book that we all owe Alan Llwyda debt of gratitude’, because in this book Alan boldly and with meticulous care interprets Wales to itself.

In the time I am allowed, I want to do two things:

  • Say something about the state we’re in and relate that to the importance of Black History Month and
  • Float some ideas about the relevance of that to the task of making the future we face the future we want for Wales.

The first thing I want to say is that we are definitely in a state. We are in a nation state that is ill at ease with itself and is struggling with big issues such as: national sovereignty, identity, globalisation, neo-liberalism, social exclusion and community cohesion.

There are many reasons for that, both historical and contemporary. I will mention but two.

One is that Britain as a whole and its constituent nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have never come to terms with the legacy of Empire, and with racism as a corrosive and seemingly permanent element of that legacy. Nor have they embraced the implications of the historical fact that all empires have been characterised by barbarism.

That is true of the Roman Empire, as of the Ottoman Empire, as of the British Empire. In fact, in the case of the British Empire and the centuries of enslavement of Africans, there was a process of anthropomorphism in reverse. They turned humans into beasts of burden, into chattels; they argued that our brain power was less than that of dumb animals and elevated the latter to a status above that of the enslaved Africans.

Barbarism and bestiality went hand in hand and gave rise to theories of racial superiority/inferiority that populated the field of eugenics, led by Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) and extended by biological racists such as Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, Charles Murray and others.

Such theories relating to race and intelligence were to have a profound impact upon teacher education and training and commensurately upon schooling provision and schooling outcomes for African heritage children in post-war Britain. In London alone, by 1969, 28% of all Caribbean children of school age were receiving some sort of education in schools for the educationally subnormal.

The legacy of empire in these islands is such that race, and the imperative to right racial wrongs, should have been high on the agenda of each government in this country before and since the First World War. Instead, race is seen as an irritant in politics and policy. Racism is seen as something the society and its governments would have had no need to deal with, but for the unwelcome presence of black people, however monumental our contribution to funding the industrial revolution, supporting the British war effort, twice, and rebuilding Britain after two devastating World Wars might have been.

Those wars were considered necessary in order to guarantee freedom in Europe and across the so-called free world, a freedom this nation was told it enjoyed because Britannia ruled the waves. The nation felt able to sing, totally without irony:

‘Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves

Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves’.

And here in Wales, despite the significant part Wales played in the process of enslavement, imperialism and colonialism, we are still able to sing, again without irony:

‘Dear country whose sires, that their sons might be free

Have suffered and perished for thee!

Wales! Wales! Land of mist and wild

Where e’er I roam

Though far from my home

The mother is calling her child.

The Lords of great Snowdon in brave days of yore

For thee fought for freedom by Mona’s green shore….

Yet, when enslaved Africans and colonised peoples across the globe dared to follow that fundamental instinct for freedom that we as human beings all share, their resistance to physical and economic and gender bondage was met with barbarism and sadism on an epic scale.

Mother Africa is still calling her children and bearing the pain of their kidnap and enslavement. Mother Africa is still longing for the day when her sons and daughters in the Global African Diaspora might be free and might be facilitated to contribute to the development of their Motherland.

I want to suggest to you, my dear friends, that if we want to understand the race riots of 1919, the marginalisation of Caribbean and other African heritage people in Wales and the need for their struggle for human liberation, for space for cultural expression, the persistence of structural patterns of exclusion and the seemingly unstoppable manifestations of structural, institutional, cultural and personal manifestations of racism and discrimination, we need to be focusing much more on the legacy of Empire and the roots of racism, and what we need to do about them, and much less on a cosy, touchy-feely view of cultural diversity.

What is more, we need to see Black History as having relevance to our present condition and how we understand and relate to it, and not just as past events. We need to beware of the sort of cultural diversity and ‘othering’ narrative that enables us to talk about ethnic minorities without ever talking about the ethnic majority.

White people are not assumed to be ethnic anything…, they just are. They need not be labelled, qualified or hyphenated in any way. The sort of cultural diversity that enables us to celebrate cuisine from different cultures, ethnic food, and have a spread of kebabs and samosas, curry goat and rice and peas and ackee and salt fish, while the humble ‘fish and chips’ and ‘sausage and mash’ and ‘toad in the hole’ never get a look in. The latter are not considered to qualify as ‘ethnic’ food.

If we are to work together to make the future we face the future we want for multi-ethnic Wales, we have an urgent imperative to re-examine who we are and what we are about.

The second main point I wish to make is that we need to problematise and attend to the concept of ‘whiteness’ and the taken-for-granted privileges that flow from it. That privilege is differentiated, of course. The intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, etc., and the layers of chauvinism and hegemony that can be detected at the intersection of those identifiers is something that is still poorly understood and something which makes a nonsense of the notion of ‘commonly shared British values’.

As I have experienced and commented upon repeatedly over the years, society validates white people automatically, while at the same time harbouring notions of deficiency or incapacity in relation to black people and expecting them to disprove those notions before they could be accepted as competent, capable, belonging, entitled to be included, and all the rest of it.

Finally, let me express my personal disappointment at the result of the referendum in Scotland last week. You see, the reason is this. I had already gone to great lengths to secure my cork hat and plumes in an audacious bid to become the Governor, the Queen’s representative, in an independent Scotland, just like we have back home in countries that secured their independence from Britain but did not, like Trinidad and Tobago, elect to become republics. I was so looking forward to my new Governor’s residence on the Balmoral Estate. I was, of course, banking on Alex Salmond to let some time pass before he stages yet another referendum to make independent Scotland a republic and eject both the Queen and her Governor. That alas, is an aspiration which I never expected to realise and one which, hopefully, none of my six British-born children, racialised as ‘ethnic minority’ will harbour.

Peace and Love!

Photo (home): “African Diaspora” by beautifulcataya (Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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