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Friday, 26 January 2018

This Land is Not Your Land: Black Men Walking, Peaky Blinders and Holocaust Day

I was reading this article by Afua Hirsch earlier this week, an article in which she writes about how she is repeatedly told that there is no racism in the UK.

“Life’s moved on from race,” one of my fellow panellists told me on The Pledge. “If it’s well intentioned, it’s not racism,” said another. All of this was, very ironically, good evidence of my point: that white fragility operates powerfully against progress; that there are those in our society, including high-profile and influential people, who prefer defensiveness to a cold, hard analysis of the patterns of prejudice.


The world is wrong,” wrote the American poet Claudia Rankine. “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” To be black, in a society that invented race for the specific purpose of dehumanising people who are black, and then invented an equally formidable system of denial, is to carry the burden of history that others would rather forget.


“I don’t see colour,” they say. And so I find James Baldwin echoing round my head: “I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in colour. But I do know what I see.”

In the same edition of the newspaper I was reading I also read about Black Men Walking, a play based on a Black Men Walking group based in the Pennines in Yorkshire.

There was a section when they were walking along an old Roman road and one of the men wondered that he was following the path of  the black Roman emperor Septimius Severus who had passed along the road on his way to try to conquer Caledonia.

He was writing a British history that didn't correspond to the generally accepted British history, one which extends to the visibility of black walkers and celebrates the idea that there were Black people in Britain 2,000 years before the Windrush landed. The walking group was founded simply because here were people who enjoyed walking, but a side effect of that is it makes apparent the lack of a historical visibility of black walkers in remote beauty spots such as the Pennines.

But history is not static and world view are not static. I remember going to the English seaside town of Weymouth with a class of migrant students. We landed up on the beach and it was a sea of black and brown skin, of hijabs and shalwar kameez amidst on a mostly white beach. And one of the girls, born in Pakistani, looked around and said "This place isn't like the rest of England. There are no black people here."

And she was right. It wasn't like Bristol, particularly Easton, where she came from. It was a place that was symptomatic of the urban-rural racial divide of Britain, the ways in which BME communities are concentrated in the cities. The irony of course, is that the most racist (and pro-Brexit) places in the UK are mostly those with the least diversity.

Perhaps one additional cause of this is the idea that the English countryside is not seen as black (the seaside is actually different in many regions) and it is not represented as black. You can look at advertisments by companies like Great Western Railway and you won't see a black face (you will actually - there's a guy in a hot air balloon you see for a second. He doesn't even get to tread on the land which makes it even worse) in there as their animated trains tootle through Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. This is not accidental. These are adverts that cater to an imagined, idealised white Britain and are based on the children's books of Enid Blyton. For one perspective of Enid Blyton, read this article by Hardeep Singh Kohli.

While I never regarded Blyton as high art, neither was I aware of her more questionable work, work that attracted criticisms of racism, xenophobia, elitism and sexism. In 1937 she published The Little Black Doll, a story about Sambo. Unsurprisngly, Sambo wasn’t like the other toys in the toy box; no. Sambo was black and so hated by all the other toys and his owner for having an “ugly black face”. He runs away, gets caught in the rain and finds that the downpour has washed his blackness away. He’s now pink of face and welcomed back to the body of the kirk. Seven years later Blyton released The Three Golliwogs featuring Golly, Woggie and Nigger.

The point of this article is that we mustn't rewrite our past, but we must remember it - with all its failures and disasters. And work to make the present better than the past.

I don't think we are quite there in the UK yet. As Afua Hirsch and the Black Men Walking Group show, we need to both address the denial of the present reality but also redefine the history of the country.

I am currently editing my German Family Album; it's an album of images of my German family from the 1920s to 1942. At the same time I am revisiting some histories of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. It is astonishing to see how fascism and nationalism inundate every aspect of life, and can be projected directly onto images.

There are images of people walking in my album, of trees and the forest. These are not neutral images. The forest was a fetishised symbol of the fetishised Volk of nationalist Germans, a place that was supposedly truly German in place and in spirit, a place at odds with the industrial expansion Germany was undergoing in the late 19th century and beyond. It was a place Jews did not go, or at least were not seen to go because anti-semitic lore regarded them as the antithesis to the four Fs - "Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei" ("Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free"). These four fs were the symbol of the German Gymnastics League and formed an early form of the German version of the swastika.

One passage in Laurence Rees' book The Holocaust talks of how German Jews had to form their own hiking groups to get into the German countryside. One member, Eugene Levine, remembers:

'"I remember in my hiking days being in a railway compartment going home to Berlin, with my rucksack and my brown shirt." Sharing the compartment with Eugene and his friends  was a farmer, who started swearing about the Jews, and so we said. "Well look, we are all Jews." And he roared with laughter, and he said, "You must think we country people are daft. You are obviously nice clean-living German boys. You're not going to tell me you're Jews." And he meant it. Because we weren't dirty, we didnt' wear side locks, we didn't have a caftan, we didn't have a beard. We looked like any other German boys to his eye."'

Levine writes that this farmer was part of a rural community that had probably never seen a Jew, the irony being that these communities were amongst the most anti-semitic in Germany, conflating anti-semitism with the threat that industrialisation and mechanisation posed to ways of farming  that were fast becoming economically impossible in a newly industrialised Germany.

Though they were formed with a much more fundamental life-affirming intent, the Black Men Walking Group are also operating against a pre-conceived idea of what English land is, and also what English is.

It's a struggle that you can link to the Allotment Act, Hunting Laws the Enclosures, the Right to Roam and much much more besides. It's also linked to how the land is portrayed, how history is portrayed, how race is portrayed, how land is portrayed. In the article on walking, Dawn Walton, says:

“Every time a black artist is in a costume drama,” says Walton, “people kick off. I don’t know why. Like many of us, I’m very aware of the history – the erasure, actually – of black British people. Researching the last 500 years, it’s a pretty rich scene. And guess what – no one’s told those stories. So that’s my playing field.”

Telling these stories is what changes history, but there are so few people telling these stories. But there are a few exceptions. Perhaps the best example is Peaky Blinders, the beautifully filmed and massively stylised  story of Birmingham gangsters, with beautiful Cillian Murphy in the main role. This is one of the few (the only off the top of my head) historical dramas that place power in the hands of a working class (and gypsy) community, that centres events in the city, that focusses on regional rivalries complete with cockney wankers, bible-thumping Ulstermen, and a roguish North London Jew, that has upper-class characters who are just as venal, self-serving and corrupt as the gangsters, and that also has made an effort to put black characters in major roles.

It sets out to redefine the  period drama and with that comes a little redefining of British social history and what it  urban and a rural Britain look like.

History is not static in other words.

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