Marooned: the Abolition of… what exactly?
By Kevin Le Gendre
The past has never been so present. Open a newspaper, switch on the radio, turn on the television or go to the cinema and you’ll find the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the British slave trade upon you.
Attend the Walk To Witness marches in the street and you’ll see contrite white people in chains and bemused black people with cameras. History is remixing itself. And history is first and foremost about events, people, names. Wilberforce, Sharp and Equiano are just a few of the actors involved in the great heart-rending drama that was the struggle to end a heinous human traffic that
literally changed the face of the western world as we know it.
If indeed we are talking about drama then we have to clarify exactly what the central story is and more to the point what roles the actors are playing. Since the beginning of this year, when the Abolition Bi-Centenary bandwagon started to roll, it has been fascinating to see how much tension has arisen over the commemoration of epoch-defining events that are worthy of a string of big budget movies.
Wilberforce is more than a real historic figure. He has become the empathetic and sympathetic character par excellence in the noble saga of Abolition, embodying our perception of the movement’s pillar of morality and attendant millstone of guilt. Wilberforce is a quintessentially humanizing agent, a warm counter to a cold institution such as parliament.
Does he deserve greater billing than others, though? Disputes over a “hierarchy of heroes” have already broken out. Should Wilberforce garner more accolades than Equiano, the only African name on the aforementioned Captain Courage list?
Did anybody ask jazz artist Soweto Kinch why he wrote Equiano’s Tears four years ago? No. He was four years too early. Ask yourself too whether a high-profile movie on Equiano’s life along the lines of Amazing Grace, the current Wilberforce biopic, should be at your local multiplex. A smart answer might be another question: do we need an historical hook to tell a story that has a direct relevance to general British culture and the Internet age?
Lest we forget Equiano was a pamphleteer who disseminated information in a guerilla like way, right behind enemy lines so to speak, in order to effect change. He mass e-mailed without a computer.
Kids born in the era of Macs, MTV and Puffy will have heard the expression “back in the day” more than they would have heard Mr Coombs say “Benjamins!” What they need to do is to bring the script and characters of the past, Equiano and Wilberforce’s past, onto the stage of the present so they can ponder what Abolition is still doing rather than what it did. They may conclude Abolition
is doing little to change the way we see those who are not as we are.
A golden opportunity for that very debate was recently missed. When, as part of the BBC’s Abolition series, black British vocalist Ms Dynamite visited Jamaica to make a documentary on the life of Nanny Maroon, the legendary leader of the resistance against British colonial forces, she met a descendant of a slave owner.
It was a classic, dramatic confrontation: son of oppressor face to face with daughter of oppressed. Dynamite was angling to squeeze the “I can’t live with the shame of the past!” confessional from her adversary but bossman, emphatically blond as befits the character, was having none of it. He didn’t carry a cross around.
As you can imagine, the whole thing was meltingly uncomfortable to watch but that wasn’t because of the unrepentant haughtiness of the villain of the piece who came complete with plum in mouth to match sugar cane in hair. It was meltingly uncomfortable because he wasn’t asked the question that really should be the crux of this whole Abolition Bi-Centenary shebang: what does a white man think of a black man today?
How does a white man talk to a black man? How does a white man view a black man’s history? And what is the real hierarchy of heroic roles in that history?
While watching the Nanny Maroon programme it occurred to me that instead of instigations of the guilt trip over slavery there should be more investigations of the deployment of the Maroon spirit today against the onslaught of globalization - if indeed that spirit exists.
How black people align their past with their present is crucial.
Maybe there should be a programme on Wilberforce presented by Wilberforce. William Wilberforce is the head of BBC Radio IXtra, home of “urban music.” William Wilberforce is a Londoner. William Wilberforce may be a black Briton. Or he may be just black.
Main Picture: Toyin Agbetu of Ligali protesting at the official 200th anniversary commemoration of the abolition of the British slave trade at St Paul's Cathedral, London. Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair were among the congregation.
Kevin Le Gendre is a freelance journalist and a contributor to The New Black Magazine.
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