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In Armistice, do Black lives matter?

In our popular memory of Winston Churchill, we honour a White supremacist

Over a century ago in Sarajevo (Serbia), an Austrian archduke was shot. And next, millions more non-archdukes were shot, faffing about at The Front. And for what? And to me, learning about this war at school, it seemed more of a class war than anything else. Kaiser Wilhelm II being the grandson of Queen Victoria and his cousins being the monarchs of Britain and its vast empire, from India, to the Caribbean and bits of Africa.

And I never saw anyone that looked like me; I thought this war was for White people. And, I know now over four million non-Whites contributed, giving their lives, but that’s not the narrative I was sold at school. And at eleven o’clock on the 11th November 1918, screams sang into silence.

Ulric Cross was a WW2 Trinidadian RAF pilot
who went onto to be lawyer and instrumental
in Ghanaian independence in 1957

Knowing what I know now about history, even if it is just a basic knowledge (I’m no historian) Armistice Day does not mark peacetime. The fallout of the war to end all wars was a Pandora’s Box no signed treaty could contain. And in all conflicts it’s always the working-class who suffer most.

And it would be the archdukes of that world who would be having a jolly old time as if nothing had happened. But 1919 ushered in a wind of change: mass unemployment and uncertainty followed working-class communities from France and Belgium onto the streets of London, Cardiff and Liverpool.

When I think Armistice, I’m scratching my head as to when peacetime really does begin. 1919 brought in the Liverpool Race Riots where a one Charles Wotten was lynched at Albert Dock. Films like Doctor Zhivago depicting the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922) remind me of the violence that occurred outside of the main narrative of the war (during and after). What of those calls for independence, Easter Risings on streets of Dublin?

HBO’s Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore comic – a vivid depiction of Tulsa, a section of American history most people haven’t heard of, including Black people. Why would people have heard of it? Vital parts of our own history have been erased, (I think) because it makes “the victors” look bad.

Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921:

Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot), this was when a White mob attacked the residents, livelihoods, homes and businesses of the majorly Black Greenwood area of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma. This was what we’d now call a White supremacist attack and an act of domestic terrorism, or even genocide. Hundreds killed and thousands displaced.

 

In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released and has often been blamed for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. After The War, there was a spike in racial tension in America, and Tulsa was basically Black Wall Street. The U. S Army was racially segregated in itself too. 1921 Greenwood was booming, a success story for Black business owners, despite high crime rates and racial segregation. However, history is a hotbed for Black excellence, but when Black people gain momentum, the establishment shoots them down, literally – from Fred Hampton to Medgar Evers.

At school, I was not taught, not once, about the four million non-Whites non-European that fought and laboured in those four years. I think if I was able to see myself in this history from when I was a child, I would have more time for Armistice. The great stage of the First and Second World War is tied up in Britain’s popular memory / national identity, and British identity is in crisis. Still, today, I’ve found to be British, is to be White.

“Black men who wanted to serve for Canada in the First World War were able to form their own battalion, but segregation and a non-combat construction role were conditions they agreed to after being prevented from enlisting at all originally.” – Globe and Mail
(The Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia)

The yearly cycle of remembrance; from the procession in Northampton to interviews on BBC with veterans of the Second World War, I’ve always found it’s the voices of White British people. But there was racism at the front. The imperial mindset of European colonialism ran rampant in the British and German armies, tools of institutional racism, and by extension an instrument to whip up hate and institutional violence against colonial servicemen from places that included Senegal, China and the West Indies.

“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”

1914 Manual of Military Law

AND:

“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”

1914 Manual of Military Law

Where are those stories of race at war? To be a soldier of colour, British-born or otherwise would not be the same as being a White (European) soldier, soldiers that toiled in France but also in the skirmishes of the African continent, Asia and the Middle East – erased out of our nationhood.

Over a million soldiers from what was then British India (pre-1947) fought for the allies, along with over two million from French Indo-China, as well as 100,000 Chinese labourers. But I did not have this on my history curriculum, when we looked at the stories between 1914 – 1918. But I was bludgeoned with images of White European soldiers having a great time.

Piece from German satire magazine condemning French use of Black soldiers

To me, Armistice Day is in remembrance of a White Man’s war. And to (begrudgingly) mimic poet, colonialist and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, it feels like a “White man’s burden,” even if people of colour fought too. In seeing how Britain portrays those wars in schools but also how they are represented in popular memory, can you blame activists and academics looking at the stories of race and racism on the front lines under a microscope?

Race / racial identity are massive factors in these conflicts, as historian David Olusoga talks about in his article. We would not need to keep talking about race if race wasn’t treated like a minor inconvenience and those often treating it like an that are White people, refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness and White Privilege.

However, if we really are serious about Armistice, we have to acknowledge that working-class people yet again were at the whim of the titled and the entitled. We remember the soldiers but never their victims, portraying death (murder) as honorable, as said in Wilfred Owen’s (from Horace) Dulce et Decorum Est “pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). What is sweet about sending good men to the slaughterhouse?

Both wars are riddled with nationalism, and portray patriotism with grandeur. Great Britain raised at half-mast, celebrating Britain’s militarism –from Churchill to the Dreadnought (but no love for Bengal or Dresden). In how the wars are taught (popular nationalism), we encourage the living to join the dead, an ode to the Union Jack, even today in a postcolonial world.

“The colour bar on non-regular officers in the armed forces, designed and imposed by the political and military, is explicitly in the Short Guide to Observing a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1912.” – Phil Vasili

The world wars are full of people that are products of empire, in the ruins of class but also race. An archduke gets shot and millions of non-archdukes pay the price. Millions dead. After the war – widespread unemployment, uncertainty, race riots, class divides, The Depression, a grim state of affairs.

When you add the layer of race into that, it makes it more complex. Colonial soldiers coming to Britain after the First World War who were left out of the victory parades. Charles Wotten’s lynching in Liverpool. Men from British colonies who came here after the Second World War – to fill in labour shortages – White Supremacist fever and contested Britishness.

Charles Wotten survived the war only to be killed by racism, the racial thinking he would have seen at war, and ideologies that were born out of colonial values

The narrative of Black soldiers goes all the way back to Roman Britain. Olusoga stated “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgotten” and I agree. In erasing Black and brown soldiers from the narrative, it’s a declaration of White lives being worth more than Black / brown lives.

And yes, we have the red poppy which is supposed to include everyone but it feels very exclusionary; and Britain’s popular memory is selective and needs to explore its colonial legacy – how imperial racial thinking played a role in both wars, otherwise we are continuing to tell stories that only include the experiences and memories of a White European majority.

“Black subjects had their actions during the war written out of history.” – Emma Dabiri

Works Mentioned

1914 Manual of Military Law

BBC Stories. “Alt History: White-washing black soldiers from WW1- BBC Stories.” YouTube. 27/06/19. Online. 10/11/19.

BBC Stories. “Alt History: A British lynching – BBC Stories.” YouTube. 13/07/19. Online. 10/11/19/

Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1915, Epoch Producing Company. YouTube.

Channel 4 Documentary. “Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Read by Christopher Eccleston | Remembering World War 1 | C4”. Youtube. 07/11/13. Online. 08/09/19.

Doctor Zhivago. Dir. David Lean. 1965, MGM. DVD

History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com. 2019. Web. Accessed: 10/11/19.

Lindeloff, Damien, creator. Watchmen. White Rabbit, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 2019.

Olusoga, David. “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” theguardian.com. 2018. Web. Accessed: 09/11/19

Vasili, Phil. Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918 Officer, Footballer […] Surrey: Raw Pres, 2010. Print.

A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

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