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In the autumn of 2004, my schoolteacher said: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” She made this man seem so likeable. If we played a little word association game with him, words like genocide, thief and coloniser come to mind. Murderer. Evil. Within a little rhyme, she had dressed him in innocence. By no fault of her own. I’m sure there are numerous schoolteachers up and down this island nation who really don’t have a clue about colonial history, and in sermonising this “explorer,” she was dismissing the individual who opened the doors to European colonisation of the Americas (what became the New World) and the Caribbean.
Whilst the rest of the United States of America breaks bread on their annual day of thanks, Natives see this day as a day of mourning. Like an armistice, in remembrance of their ancestors, and a people that were erased through genocide committed by White Europeans in the prologue of colonialism. It is often noted that the first Thanksgiving was in 1621, but really it could be argued that day belongs in 1637 when puritan Governor Winthrop decided he would give thanks for the safe return of those who went to Mystic, Connecticut and participated in the Massacre of the Peqout.
Like a lot of the history I thought I knew, it seems more of a taking than anything else. Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, but the story behind it feels more like a thanks-taking. Do they teach this in American schools? Something tells me, no.
The late great Malcolm X said “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” And in Britain, the voyage that led the British into slavery was by an ambitious man from Plymouth (UK) called (Sir) John Hawkins, as in 1562/1563 he hijacked a Portuguese vessel, sailed to the new world and sold his cargo into slavery, making a small fortune. Not to be confused with Plymouth in the US, often labelled as America’s hometown.
However, growing up in Britain, as I did, the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering America” is one that’s been told so many times that it’s now begun to feel like folklore. Not once, as a child, did I hear anything about the native peoples living in America and the West Indies before he came.
What they mean when Columbus discovered America, is he was the first White man to discover it. Because achievements (historically) like this are only valid in western society when a White person does it. From Cook to Columbus, White explorers who went to “new places” to “find” peoples and cultures different from their own only to react with savagery and violence.
Not once in my school classes did I get stories from the perspectives of the oppressed. Whether we’re talking about slaves during the 200+ years of British colonial ambition, or the world wars, as at war the ones that suffered most were the working classes. What happened after? If I was to go by what I was taught at school, I’d live life believing everything was rosy.
At school, the sermons my teachers had for Columbus now make my skin crawl. Lorded as one of the great European heroes, turning up in Hispaniola in 1492, native to Amerindians prior to colonisation. The majority of the people there did die of European diseases but nothing could prepare them for the monumental onslaught that came from Columbus’ soldiers. And when any country invades another, rape is always a feature.
“His soldiers snatched babies from the breasts of their mothers and dashed their heads against the rocks. Children were fed alive to his dogs. Women’s breasts were cut off. He decided to hang thirteen of the Native Americans in Hispaniola to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, plus the apostles.”
George Monbiot (writer, journalist, activist)
What Columbus’ soldiers did in Hispaniola set the precedent for what happened next, the eventual genocide that erased almost all of the Native peoples of America from existence. However, when I think about Native people, as much as screen representation is concerned, I think to Old Hollywood. John Wayne in The Searchers being one of the most horrific films I’ve ever watched and this is what Said means by orientalism. Though, I believe his theory can be applied to any non-White oppressed group.
And when we think about colonial statues, we really need to think about the character of the people we are building monuments to. From Barcelona to New York, Columbus is known all over the world. And I think due to how we teach history in schools, we blindly celebrate people we really know nothing about. From Churchill in India to Columbus and Captain Cook.
And both George Washington (first US President) and Thomas Jefferson (third US President) endorsed Columbus’ actions, and what’s more, both these men owned slaves. Who really are we celebrating? Who are we honouring with statues, plaques and awards? Who are we putting on our money? Great leaders aren’t always great people, and how did they treat others? What about their morality, equity, and values as public figures?
In Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, the US establishment does not recognise its history of genocide. The fact that we have Natives with us today is nothing short of a miracle. That their ancestors managed to survive: disease, Catholicism, and settler colonialism; telling their stories to preserve their culture and identity is activism. Their existence is resistance.
Columbus is a symbol of conquest and privilege. How can we condemn Hitler and Stalin but not Columbus? Simple. When non-White history is told from the perspective of the oppressor, the lack of White empathy is obvious. In colonialists Cecil Rhodes and former-PM Winston Churchill the British establishment honours White supremacists and mass murderers, united in their pursuits for either one, two or all of the three: gold, glory or God.
And in Christopher Columbus, the American establishment honours a White supremacist, a mass murderer and a slave trader; and under the administration of President Trump, I believe it’s safe to say it ain’t changing any time soon.
When we look at Selma through the lens of class, we are looking at a tale as old as time, Black criminality in the face of institutional violence. Black people wanting to vote and being told no. To be Black is to be criminal – savage – beast. From slavery to Selma, DuVernay’s film lays it all out for us.
Last month, as part of Freshers’ fortnight, the Students’ Union screened Ava DuVernay’s Selma – based on the true story of that three-month period in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement before the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was a part of history when Black people were not afforded their basic human rights. Like the vote, being systematically stopped from reaching the polls. And the same sort of voting fraud still happens today.
Following Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and this all-star cast (including Common (The Hate U Give) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) in support) we are taken on a journey showing what institutional discrimination does to communities, including the covert racism that made voting harder for a Black person than a White person – the systematic use of legal innovations to strip Black people of their rights, (and dignity).
Since Selma was released in 2014, Ava DuVernay has since made the documentary 13th showing the history behind mass incarceration in American prisons, including slavery and convict leasing. Additionally, she has made the miniseries When They See Us – looking at the story behind the Central Park Five and how the small print (in the US legal system) described in 13th was used to incarcerate these young Black and Hispanic boys.
What got to me in rewatching Selma is how important the racial thinking that (mostly) came out colonialism / slavery is in how we think about race today. The fact discrimination only became a crime in the UK in 1965 (with the Race Relations Act), and the idea we still endorsed blackface minstrelsy until the late 1970s. BBC television still had blackface as entertainment until 1978. However, slavery was outlawed in the USA in 1865 but the slave-owning class won the war on race, as Blacks continued to be treated like slaves even though they weren’t – from convict leasing to Jim Crow Laws.
One hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, like-racism (from slave days) continued. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 and Jim Crow Laws were abolished as well, but those ideologies are what built America from the days of slavery, in both the North and the South. Seldom is it acknowledged that slavery existed in some northern states too.
We don’t talk about slave codes in places like Virginia, where it was stated within the law that if an altercation occurred between slave and master, and the slave died, it would not be a felony. In the slave codes for Virginia of the 1660s, it states within the laws that it was legal to kill a Black person. This was systematic use of the law to deny Black people their rights. Whether this was Virginia 1660 or Virginia 1960, not a lot had changed.
When Rosa Parkes sat down, she stood up to the establishment and unjust laws. And before Rosa Parkes, we had Collette Colvin. Moreover, when Black people boycotted the buses, they almost bankrupted the bus companies. They were seen as a nuisance. People thought they should stay in line. This old tale of Black resistance against White authority can be traced back to master, mistress, stately homes, cotton, cane and king sugar.
From the get-go, Ava DuVernay is at your throat, with her depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. This film was not made to score political points but it’s a film that tells it how it is, with vivid imagery of attack dogs, tear gas and police on horseback. Very much like the Klu Klux Klan killing defenseless people on the basis of race. Brutal. From Sandra Bland to Treyvon Martin, those stories of police brutality still ring true today. The history of disdain from Black communities to the police in Britain and America is one we’ve all heard, and it’s one that I think is in-part at least responsible for the lack people of colour joining up.
Why would Black, Asian and ethnic minority members of our society want to join an institution that has a historic pattern of discrimination? Why would they want to join an institution that talks about recruiting more BAME people, but still treats the ones they have already abominably?
Despite being a British viewer, there are many things I took away from this film, especially the subjectivity of the law. How White people in authority expect people of colour to be objective in the face of racism. The recent Naga Munchetty debacle with the BBC comes to mind. “You’ve got one big issue,” states LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to King (Oyelowo). “I’ve got one hundred and one.” For most of the film, he does not appear to be taking the Black vote seriously, until it directly impacts him and what he’s trying to do.
Tim Roth as Governor Wallace (Alabama) is brilliant – spewing hate, hate and more hate with such venom. You hate him from the second his face appears on screen, and his scenes with Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are brilliant. There is no love for Wallace. He is a White supremacist and director Ava DuVernay makes sure we know that. However, it got me asking questions about how we depict White supremacists in Britain. Mainly, with statues dotted around the country, including Parliament Square!
Is Selma a controversial film or is it simply no-nonsense and very American? It talks about things people feel uncomfortable talking about. In Britain, that includes anything remotely sounding like race, racism, colonialism or its role in Slavery. But critique Churchill or Nelson in anyway and you’re the enemy? But it does a great job recreating moments like Bloody Sunday, as state troops and local police let rip on the marchers.
“The whole nation was sickened by the pictures of that wild melee.”Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
From tear gas to men on horses with whips, it was riddled with symbolism, as well as truly fantastic cinematography, sound mixing and musical score. Oprah (one of the producers) was great in her role, and David Oyelowo is one of the most underrated actors working today, and a testament to an alternative image of Black men on screen. Whilst my grandparents’ generation had Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) and Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), this current generation of Black people have David Oyelowo.
This film is rough when it needs to be but delicate when it needs to be. It’s engaging, emotional, and leaves a lump in your throat right up to and through the credits. It’s also very funny – “that White boy can hit” says Dr King after being decked by a racist local. All the speeches, all the symbols, all the nods to America’s history of slavery and oppression – it’s intertwined with how the US is today – Trump’s Twitter tantrums and all that jazz.
“We must march! We must stand up! […] it is unacceptable that they use their power and keep us voiceless.”Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo)
Ava lingers on faces (especially eyes) in scenarios of extreme violence longer than what is humanly comfortable, much alike to Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit and what Steve McQueen did with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave. From cinematography to acting, music, and sound, I have no complaints. And at moments, it was like documentary.
And nearly everyday, I’m hearing people say the system is broken; is it broken, or was it built this way, fit for purpose – for the use and upliftment of a White, male, patriarchal, able-bodied, hetero-normative society?
Dorsey, Bruce. “Virginian Slave Laws, 1660s”. History 41. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
Fryer, Peter and Gary Young et al. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Print.
“Moral Mission.” Black and British: A Forgotten History, written by David Olusoga, directed by Naomi Austin, BBC, 2016.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Pathé, Paramount. 2014, Netflix.
n.d. “Slavery and the Law in Virginia”. history.org. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
n.d. “Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline”. shsu.edu. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.