For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:
In this post, I’m thinking about my reading of chapter 7 which considers moves by abolitionists to tackle slavery in the United States, following their successes in doing so first within Britain, and then British territories overseas. if the need for a better understanding of history needed emphasising, current events couldn’t make the point better. The media on Saturday was full of stories of protest. While hundreds of thousands of people took part in peaceful Black Lives Matters protests in UK cities, towns and villages, a few hundred fascists (I think that’s what an ‘anti-anti fascist’ is) ‘defended’ monuments in London by giving Nazi salutes, chanting ‘we’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ and attacking the police.
While the abolitionists threw themselves into this new challenge, American plantation owners were not going to relinquish their lucrative businesses without a fight. At the same time that former slaves, and enslaved Americans toured Britain relating tales of the violence and brutality of those plantations (to considerable effect), other lobbyists were portraying them as inferior.
These twin messages inter played in the already ambiguous attitudes among the white British public, even among some of the abolutionists, some of whom viewed slavery as morally reprehensible, but also preferred to see former slaves as passive beneficiaries of their goodwill, rather than active agents in their own emancipation. Prof. Olusoga cites Charles Dickens as an example: a passionate advocate of abolition but finding people of colour so distasteful that he actually tore out a portrait of Frederick Douglass from the autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, that he was sending to a friend in support of that cause.
Other ambiguities existed, and persisted into the twentieth century, in forms such as minstrelsy, which became hugely popular among the Victorians, and the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Minstrels introduced Victorian England to songs and music derived from the plantations of the southern US states, but also grossly parodied the supposed voices, mannerisms and behaviour of black Americans and served to denigrate them. The best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved a powerfully persuasive in conveying the brutal reality of the lives of slaves, but portrayed the central character as passive in the face of them.
While slave owners were unsuccessful in convincing the public of their incredible claim that Africans were actually better off enslaved the underlying message of inferiority in many ways aligned with the abolitionists portrayal of a people needing to be ‘rescued’ by white philanthropy. This was despite the many examples of equality of intellect and ability, provided by those former slaves campaigning for their cause.
I wonder if there is a parallel here with modern charitable giving? Victorian abolutionists sometimes raised money to free individual slaves (and the government had compensated British slave owners in 1833) delivering undoubted immediate benefit to those individuals, but risking the reinforcement of the very system they sought to end. Modern charitable campaigns often present Africans as passive victims of famine or disease, in need of the benevolence of ‘white saviours’. When we give to such campaigns we too undoubtedly provide immediate respite, but do we also reinforce damaging stereotypes? How often do we tackle the underlying causes, which lie in long-standing global iniquity?
You can read the day 7 update here.