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“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans
(Max Ehrmann, 1927)
Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.
Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.
An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:
With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From a leper in his lair
(Oscar Wilde, 1898)
On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich
(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)
Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels
(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)
Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
(Maya Angelou, 1978)
Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!
Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
And most times immigrants bring more
(Hollie McNish, 2013).
To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it
Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)
Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple
Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)
[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).
[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours