Learning the lessons of history
It is because the past has such a powerful influence on us – whether we realise it or not – that how we tell the story of the past is so important. We know of the achievements, voices, experiences and opinions of those who have been most powerless are those least represented by history. Over the centuries, choices are made about whose creations and records are preserved and whose are discarded, destroyed, or looted; whose experiences are recorded and published and whose are ignored.
This year, during the long months of lockdown, I’ve been enjoying David Olusoga’s important book ‘Black and British’. I’ve been listening to the unabridged audiobook version, read brilliantly by Ghanaian-born British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. This gripping, entertaining book wears its scholarship lightly, and zips by, shedding new light on every period of British history while challenging much of what we think we know. You can also find the programme based on the book on iPlayer.
It made me realise that the stories of the past that all of us who were born and grew up in Britain carry in our heads, create a picture shaped both by the absence and presence of Black people in that history. David Olusoga starts his book much earlier than we might expect, exploding the idea that the presence of Black people in these islands is a relatively recent phenomenon, and showing us that modern science reveals people of African heritage not only lived on these islands but also occupied positions of privilege and power in Roman Britain.
Olusoga also up-ends our myths about the role of the British in the Atlantic Slave trade, highlighting the contribution of Black slaves and former slaves to the struggle for abolition, while reminding us that before any White Britons expressed opposition to the trade, we played a central role in creating, perpetuating and profiting from it. He shows us, too, how many people of African heritage fought in Britain’s armies and navies from at least Tudor times and demonstrates by taking us to Nelson’s column how easily this history is visible to us if we only choose to see it.