I may have missed it somewhere, but surely others have been wondering if Derek Chauvin is related in some way to Nicholas Chauvin whose legendary bigotry gave rise to the word chauvinism? I mean, it does seem a bit of a coincidence doesn’t it?
I have been reading James Walvin’s book The Zong, about the massacre that took place on a slaving ship in 1781. I knew quite a bit about it, but this book filled in gaps and joined dots. It is very well written and readable. Maybe it helped already having some knowledge because many of the names were familiar to me: Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano, Lord Mansfield, Peter Peckard, Thomas Clarkson. It inspired me to start another book Black England, Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina, which I am also finding fascinating.
I was talking with a friend about these books and she assumed they had come out recently. I can’t remember her exact words, but they were on the lines of there have been lots of books published about black history in the last year. I told her the Walvin book came out in 2011 and the Gerzina one in 1996. The most recent book I have on black history is Black and British, a Forgotten History by David Olusoga (another book I highly recommend) and that was published in 2016.
I think my friend was suggesting that since the murder of George Floyd publishers have responded to the increased interest in black history by pushing out new books. That it was a trend. The newness is the wider interest. It’s not as though black history has suddenly been invented. It has been carefully erased from the history we learn at school; the occasional walk on part and that’s all. Like women’s history, LGBT history, it’s been pigeon-holed as niche, as though it could only be of interest to a small number of people. The practice of shelving books under black interest doesn’t help, any more than it does when books are shelved as women’s interest or LGBT interest. The implication is that the histories written about, and largely by, white men is real history, the rest just frills and furbelows. But white men manned the slave ships. White men ran sugar plantations worked by slaves. White men in offices far from those plantations and ships made money from the labour of the enslaved. Even those who on the surface had no links with the transatlantic slave trade lived lives affected by slavery. Their stories are inextricably entwined with with the lives of the enslaved Africans. Just as my history as a white woman is inextricably entwined with the histories of everyone around me, black and white, gay and straight, male and female, whatever the language they speak, the country they live in, their stories are as much part of twenty-first century history as mine is. If the histories of what came before are so narrow as to exclude almost everyone who is not a white male they are histories redacted.
We are living at a time when racism and the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade are being discussed as never before in my lifetime. If we are to understand how we arrived at a place where so many people fervently believe in white supremacy and its corollary, black inferiority, we need to learn this collective history, face up to the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the past and try to make reparation. The people who want to dismiss it by saying things along the lines of it was long ago are basically in denial. There are lots of things that happened long ago which have repercussions today. In some cases you can argue they were different times and it’s not possible to understand them from a distance in time. However, the transportation and enslavement of some 12 million Africans, the barbaric treatment, the total lack of respect for or recognition of their humanity does not fall into that category.
In the UK people who made fortunes from slavery invested their money in the industrial revolution, in railways, in libraries, museums, art collections they bequeathed to the nation. All of us live with the legacy of the benefits we have from the exploitation of others. There are names we have learned to regard as great philanthropists, but where was their philanthropy when they were exploiting enslaved Africans? To tell this side of the story is not ‘cancel culture’ as the deniers would have us believe. It is restoring histories which have been systematically erased, you might say cancelled, which we all need to hear and understand.
Stay safe. Keep well. Wear a mask. Don’t mask the past.