Slavery: A British Denial


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I read an excellent Article/Interview with Film Director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the late Hollywood Screen Legend,) in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper. The Link can be found online at:-

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/04/steve-mcqueen-my-painful-childhood-shame

He has a new Film released in cinemas called  ’12 Years a Slave’, which revisits the subject of Slavery in a America. British Directors have always being good at exploring and exposing the dark side of American Life and History – Not that American Directors have not explored their own History but there is something about British Directors taking on Subjects about American Life – The darker recesses of it, that has always fascinated me. Whether it is Michael Winner (The Lawman, Chato’s Land, Death Wish), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) or Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty), British Directors have a knack of putting their finger right on the pulse of American Life – The dark side of it in particular.

wretched-bonds-of-slavery-sandra-pryerThe subject of Slavery is something America has never shied away from or attempted to ignore. One could well argue what could a British Director (a Black one at that,) bring to a subject that has been covered in both US Film and Television for decades (and continues to be covered,) that has not been discussed to date? This is a good question as the subject of Slavery is virtually non-existent in Britain, a Country that had an Empire and was a Major Player in the Slave Trade. The Question is even more relevant when one considers the UK Film and Television Industry has never produced anything akin to ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Roots’ or any drama based around the subject of Slavery and its History. One could be forgiven for thinking Britain played no part in the Slave Trade whatsoever. And this is probably one reason we find a Black-British Director like McQueen tackling the issue of Slavery from an American Perspective while at the same time bringing something new to the story and history of Slavery. Given Britain’s track record on the Subject, if McQueen had presented a script of ’12 Years a Slave’ told from a British Perspective, would it have even got made? I think not. It is worth noting that Britain has lost an entire generation of Black actors simply because they are continually overlooked and those that succeed, normally have to cross The Atlantic to gain recognition but I digress.

The title of the Newspaper Article is: “Steve McQueen: My Hidden Shame” – What shame is this I wonder? McQueen gives no indication of being ashamed of anything.  He mentions being “Hurt” as most black people would be about Slavery and how our ancestors were not even recognised as Human Beings. Who would not be hurt by that? As someone British Born of Jamaican (British) Parentage, I sympathise with Steve McQueen in his work and approach to it, not to mention what he has to say in the Guardian Article.

Like McQueen I grew up being aware of Slavery, reading about it during my childhood in my spare time as it was hardly mentioned at school except when the TV Series ‘Roots’ hit British screens in 1977 and suddenly I was not referred to by my name at school by the other (white) kids but suddenly overnight as either ‘Kunta Kinte’ or ‘Chicken George’, two of the leading characters who were slaves – one caught in Africa, the other the former’s Grandson, born into slavery as a result of rape by a white slave owner.

The above proves everything that is wrong where Slavery as a subject in Britain is concerned. It doesn’t exist and when it appears in the form of a powerful US TV Drama such as Roots, it is trivialised and treated in the same manner as the 70’s British TV Sitcom ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ about a white racist trade unionist (perish the thought,) who racially abused his black neighbour on a regular basis. This was considered (and was,) at the time, Prime Time British TV Comedy back in the 1970s.

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None of the above should be surprising as Slavery along with British History has never been taught properly in our schools. The teachers weren’t bad but the curriculum was. People walk around in Britain virtually unaware Our Country was a major player in the slave trade. In fact, in the 37 years since ‘Roots’ premiered on British Television, British Television has not produced a single TV Drama or Film about Slavery and the part Britain played in it. Steve McQueen’s Film while welcomed is an American Story and something that has always been discussed State-side during and after slavery was abolished. A Civil War was fought in America on The Issue.  The American Civil War divided a Nation and the fallout from that Conflict was felt for decades afterwards. Maybe even a hundred years afterwards.  An American President (Abraham Lincoln,) was even assassinated because of it.  Britain abolished Slavery in 1833, swept it under the rug and conveniently forgot about it. And the British Establishment has maintained the myth we had nothing to do with it ever since.

While Britain has moved on in so many ways, it has also failed to move on in so many other ways. The British Establishment, Our Institutions, Our Education System and Media, have so much to answer for. Is it any wonder religious and sectarian unrest and violence (while resolving itself in Northern Ireland,) is a growing problem in Mainland Britain? So much so a white British Soldier was murdered on the streets of South London in 2013, by two Black British Muslim converts for reasons I doubt even they could explain nor understand themselves, if the transcripts of the resulting Murder Trial was anything to go by. Ignorance begets violence and intolerance. A better knowledge of our History would have curtailed so much of what we are now seeing in terms of the scare tactics about Immigration and young British Muslims becoming evermore fundamentalist in their views.  Why is this such a surprise given all of the the above?  There are no surprises here.  Not on my part anyway.  I know my ‘Roots.  I also know my History.  Personal, National and Historical.  Even if those who should know theirs don’t.

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