Ignorance, thoughtlessness and apathy are only three of the terms that come to mind when I think about the implementation of the Black postboxes, four across the country: in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively. However, in the past few years, particularly, the last few months since the pandemic, I think many of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds have had enough symbolic gestures to last a lifetime – from ‘clap for our carers’ (albeit enjoyed by some but really of no real substance) to those female traffic lights. In this epilogue of George Floyd, with a resurgence to decolonise the curriculum, some brightspark thought four Black postboxes would be a good idea to commemorate Black History Month this year.
Postboxes aside, those that they are commemorating have a right to be remembered, though “a bit of copout” in my opinion, and a very easy escape from using these postboxes to discuss any of the less ‘acceptable’ histories… i.e the Cardiff Race Riots (1919) or the Bechuanaland Chiefs (1895)
Black Lives Matter has left many of us in our communities nationwide in deep reflection and introspection, that we really do not know the legacy of Black contributions to the world, particularly to Britain. Walter Tull and Mary Seacole are known, particularly the latter. (Sir) Lenny Henry (CBE) is very safe and indicative of the “good Black British history” that is easy (not too political, not too angry). What these three have in common is their seemingly “non-threateningness”, which fits patrial British depictions of Black people, as if it was pulled from the reels of one of those Old Hollywood films – versions of Black ‘tolerated’ by the ‘great and the good.’
In the thick of the biggest anti-Black racism movement in history, rallied behind the message of “stop killing Black people”, we are subject to more nonsensical symbolic gestures, virtue signalling and performative allyship.
Embedded in the recommendations made in the Wendy Williams Windrush Lessons Learned review (2020) into the Windrush Scandal, included a critique on the lack of institutional memory pertaining to the British Empire, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of Black Britons. She further talks about an unwillingness to learn from the past, utilise experts, or engage communities. These postboxes are indicative of institutions that think they know it all, and is reminiscent of the Home Office’s blunder with the chicken boxes raising awareness of knife crime.
In Alt History, Professor David Olusoga says “Black people have been living in this country for centuries and the story of the Black presence in the United Kingdom goes all the way back to Roman times.” There are over 100,000 postboxes in the UK and the use of just four is really a tokenistic handout at best. Imagine commemorating the entirity of Black British history like that when this history goes back to Roman times – from Ivory Bangle Lady (middle-class Black woman living in 4th century York) to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, Governor of Britain in 139-142 CE suprervising the construction of the Antonine Wall in Scotland (Adi, 2019: 4).
In four postboxes, the ominous “they” are telling us that Black lives still don’t matter and they are happy with that. The Black nurses that saved the NHS post-WW2; Black soldiers that fought in WW1/WW2 and at Trafalgar; the Black enslaved that died on plantations to give Britain the British Museum and many national trust homes; the lawyers, doctors and civil servants during the interwar years; the Black people that resisted and rebelled against colonial power at every chance; the Black Tudors in the time of Henry VIII; and the Afro-Romans in Beachy Head and South Shields, and those that stood vigil atop Hadrian’s Wall for the best part of 350 years.
In a country where Black people have been present and contributed to some of the most significant parts in British history… let’s give them four postboxes and pat ourselves on the back… I guess you can say I am fuming and I am bitter.
Adi, H. (2019) In: Adi, H (ed.) Black British History: New Perspectives. London: ZED Books, pp. 1-14.
Home Office. (2020). Windrush Lessons Learned. (Chair: Wendy Williams). London: TSO.