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Black British history does not just mean England

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In July 2020 I was fortunate enough to be part of a project with The Guardian newspaper on fifty varied young, Black, British perspectives on Black Lives Matter – fifty Black Britons from across the country – from the Shetland Islands to Sunderland; from Northampton to Norfolk; from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The inclusion of Scotland in particularly, fascinates me, because I know if you ever call the Scots, English (or British), many will have your head. That whilst Scotland is part of Britain, it has its own culture and history, including a Black history. Though, to this day I have not been to Scotland and all the Scots I have met have been white. I know the first time I meet and hear a Black person with a Scottish accent will be a special day indeed.  

When people talk about Scottish history, it is often one of fighting off English invaders. I think of films such as Outlaw King or even the not-so-historically-accurate Braveheart. Moreover, depictions of highland culture in Outlander, including the Jacobite cause being quashed at Culloden in 1745. However, whilst Scotland was oppressed by the English (British), they were also, like the English, complicit in slavery. Today, Glasgow is called the Merchant City, for the tobacco merchants. If you had a tobacco addiction in the 1700s (puffing away), your smoking habit was made in Glasgow and it was tainted with the violence of slave plantations across the Atlantic.  

And yet, whilst Scotland was complicit in the Slave Trade, Black Scottish history goes back to Roman times. The Afro-Romans in Scotland “defending Hadrian’s wall in the third century AD was a ‘division of Moors’ (numerous Maurorum Aurelianorum) named after Marcus Aurelius or a later emperor known officially by the same name” (Fryer, 1984: 1). Today there is a small but thriving population of Black people in Scotland, one of Glasgow’s most famous being Ugandan-born poet Tawona Sithole. His poem ‘Good English’ resonates with me as a Black Briton of Caribbean heritage. And I expect it would resonate with many Black Scottish youth coming through now too, also at the mercy of micro-aggressive behaviours from the white population including the constant where are you froms?  

In Ireland, additionally, there are communities of Irish people of African and Caribbean heritage. At University, a white Irish friend spoke to me about the number of Black African clergy in the Irish Catholic church. However, screen depictions of the Irish have often perpetuated stereotypes of alcoholism and violence. In screen media, both Northern Ireland and the Republic, are represented as white countries, with their own histories of conflict with English colonisers, including the famines, the Easter Risings (1916) and the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.  

‘Good English’ – Tawona Sithole

Furthermore, like the Scottish, the Irish have their own connections with slavery, especially as overseers on the plantations. Whilst the myth of Irish slaves has been debunked many times, there is a history of indentured labour on islands like Jamaica and Barbados. Black and Irish are often seen as juxtaposed but they needn’t be. Historian Peter Fryer talks about an African presence in the British isles “some 400 or 500 years after the Romans left” (Fryer, 1984: 2) and “an ancient Irish chronicle records that ‘blue men’ (fir gorma) were seized by Vikings in Morocco in the ninth century and carried off to Ireland, where they stayed for a long time” (ibis).

Whilst both Northern Ireland and the Republic are incredibly white nations now, especially in the rural areas, there is still a Black Irish history worthy of scholarship.  

Black Irish history is something I hope to see more of in academia. SOAS academic Emma Dabiri growing up in 1980s inner-city Dublin is a start with her text Don’t Touch My Hair and quite an act to follow in the mainstream. Yet, there has not been a significant Black population in Ireland for long. Following the previous comment about African immigrant clergy in Ireland, however, many of the mixed-race children Dabiri came into contact with as a mixed-race Irish girl, in the 1980s were institutionalised: 

“They were often the ‘illegitimate offspring of Irish women and African students. Not to put too fine a point on it, unmarried mothers were generally, in Ireland, treated like scum. Add the disgrace of a black child and, sure, you couldn’t really sink much lower.”

DABiri, 2018: 5

The arrival of mixed-race Black-racialised children in Ireland that grew up with single white mothers holds a similar sentiment to one case study in Wales. There were more Black people in Britain in 1944 than in 1948 (before the arrival of the Empire Windrush) – simply because of the influx of African-American soldiers, as “on the eve of D-Day, in June 1944, there was a hundred and thirty thousand African-American GIs, both army and air force, stationed in Britain” (Olusoga, 2017: 467).  

In 1942, the segregated United States sent a racially-segreated force to Britain. During the war years, Black American soldiers were also deployed to Wales. In the last episode of Black and British, ‘Homecoming’, Prof. David Olusoga meets with members of a Welsh village called Abersychan, including the descendants that came out of the unions between the Black men and white women – unknowingly participating in a social experiment.

African American troops somewhere in England, April 12, 1943 (AP Photo)

What the experiences of Black and mixed-race Black-racialised communities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales show us, is that Britain is not post-racial and that race matters, both in 2020 and during the war years.

And more importantly, to forget the history we think we know, as seemingly white villages like Abersychan, have diverse histories worth talking and shouting about.  


References 

Dabiri, E (2018). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane 

Fryer, P (1984/2018). Staying Power. London: Pluto 

Olusoga, D (2017). Black and British. London: Pan Books. 


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