Some countries are better than others at confronting their dark histories

June 8, 2021 7:00 am

The toppled statue of Edward Colston lies on display in a museum on June 7, 2021, in Bristol, England. The bronze statue of the 17th Century slave merchant was graffitied and pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest one year earlier. Credit: Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

LONDON — The United States is not alone in struggling with the endemic racism of its past — and present. The United Kingdom is also trying to reckon with the way much of its empire was built on slavery.

Britain has its own Black Lives Matter movement and, even during the coronavirus pandemic, this diverse society expended a lot of energy on how people of color — who made up most of that empire — can claim their place in a culture that still largely defines itself as white.

Take “the Windrush Generation,” named for one of the ships that brought thousands from the Caribbean to Britain, invited by the British government to help with the post-World War II labor shortage. Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, and people from other colonies had been raised to think of Britain as their Motherland. They were British subjects, as much as anyone born in the land of Shakespeare.

In 2012, however, the Conservative government implemented what it called a “Hostile Environment” policy, forcing employers, landlords, hospitals, and banks to demand proof that those they housed, employed, or served were in the country legally.

The target of the crackdown was ostensibly undocumented migrants illicitly crossing the English Channel. But too many black British citizens, people who had traveled on their parents’ passports in the late 1940s and into the early 1960s and so had none of their own, got caught up in this state-sanctioned race hatred.

Labour Party MP David Lammy said it was “appalling to see individuals who helped rebuild this shattered nation in the post-war period be rejected, caged, turned into prisoners by their own country, and disqualified as British.”

Thousands were caught up in the government’s crack-down. Around 100 were deported to countries they last saw as small children.

It was as though Washington demanded that every Puerto Rican along the I-4 corridor be kicked out of the country on the grounds that they aren’t “real Americans.”

Don’t laugh: Donald Trump never quite understood that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, accusing them of taking our money, calling the island — an American colonial possession — “dirty,” and musing about selling or swapping it to the Danish for Greenland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has promised thousands of pounds in reparations to Windrush survivors who lost jobs, benefits, and sometimes homes in this cack-handed scheme, perpetrated, it should be pointed out, by his party. Yet very little money has actually been paid, and at least nine have died while waiting for a resolution to their status.

Last year, the British government commissioned a study of racism in the U.K. Great idea, except, when the report appeared this April, it declared to a nation that knows better, there’s no “institutional racism” in Britain.

And, in even better news, there was an upside to the enslavement of millions: “There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain [sic].”

So that’s all right, then: The descendants of African enslaved people learned to appreciate Shakespeare, and the descendants of their enslavers learned to dance to Two-Tone.

The hopeful part is that the British, like the Americans, haven’t been waiting for their elected leaders to confront the legacy of slavery. Liverpool dominated the Atlantic trade in human beings during the 18th Century. In 2007, the city opened its International Slavery Museum, exploring the African diaspora as well as plantation life, British abolitionism, and the continuing horror of modern slavery across the world.

Bristol, on the western edge of England, has long struggled with its history. Edward Colston, born in Bristol in 1636, became a big-time merchant importing and exporting silk, Newfoundland cod, and wine. He was a philanthropist, founding schools, endowing churches, and building houses for the poor. In gratitude, the city named institutions after him and erected a statue in the middle of town.

But Colston was also a slave trader. His company was responsible for the export and sale of 85,000 Africans to the plantations of the “New World.” There would have been more, but around 19,000 died during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.

As port cities often are, Bristol has been diverse for centuries. But that didn’t mean there was equal opportunity. In 1963, black and Asian citizens organized a Montgomery-style boycott in response to the Bristol Omnibus Co.’s refusal to hire people of color.

In 2020, demonstrators protesting George Floyd’s murder pulled down the statue of Colston and dumped it in Bristol Harbor.

They chose the place carefully, near a place called Pero’s Bridge, named for Pero Jones, an enslaved man who lived in the city during the 18th century.

The statue, put up in 1895 at the height of the British Empire, is now on display in a museum — damaged, lying horizontally, not standing triumphantly, and daubed with grafitti.

The Empire finally struck back.

Across the pond, we’ve also knocked statues of white men off their lofty perches: Students tore down the University of North Carolina’s Confederate soldier “Silent Sam” in 2018; Robert E. Lee no longer presides over Lee Circle in New Orleans; in Selma, somebody stole an ornate limestone chair dedicated to Confederate president Jefferson Davis and threatened to turn it into a toilet.

In London, the statue of Robert Milligan, owner of plantations in Jamaica, was quietly taken away from outside the Docklands Museum. The Church of England is in the process of removing monuments to promoters of slavery. The Guardian newspaper estimates at least 70 statues and memorials have been removed all across the United Kingdom.

Many on the right object: This is “cancel culture” at its worst — the same “wokeness” now inspiring the renaming of schools, streets, and even birds! (Did you know John James Audubon owned slaves?).

But it’s not canceling history; it’s inviting people to contemplate history’s complexities. In Bristol, at least, people have the opportunity to look at Edward Colston’s statue, no longer standing tall, and weigh the paradox of a man who was both a slave trader and a benefactor to the (white) poor.

We need to practice this in the United States. George Washington led the 13 colonies to independence, and also not only owned slaves but sent vicious slave hunters after any of them who dared run away to freedom.

In the United States, the contradictions of history terrify us. We can’t bear the thought that our heroes might have often been less than heroic. We can’t stand to think that we could be heirs to flawed people who set up a flawed country.

Terrified that power may soon slip from white hands, states are scrambling to pass restrictions on voting, lest the long-disenfranchised vote in candidates responsive to their needs and cognizant of their dignity.

In Florida, we’re taking racist egotism to extremes. The governor wants schools to ignore or even deny that racism is baked into our legal system and economic structure. He wants to make sure white people don’t get upset.

Truth is less important than white fragility.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.