History: Whose history is it anyway?

History: Whose history is it anyway?

1. Working on ‘History: Whose history is it anyway?’ in the hot and humid summer in Taiwan – my heart sank at a chance piece of news – reporting the grotesque celebration by a section of the British public, following the tragic death of a young Sudanese asylum seeker in the English Channel on 19th August 2020. The George Santayana’s dictum, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ instantly came to mind, arresting me with such force and in the process sending chills down my spine.

Be careful what you wish for…

2. The never-ending aftermath of the infamous Brexit referendum of 2016, has seen the United Kingdom of Great Britain precipitously hurtling down a slippery slope, into a twilight world not too dissimilar to that experienced by Germany in the 1930s. Yes, yes, I do concede that the comparison is perhaps unfortunate, and that German history cannot in any way be compared to British history; and yet, we should never forget that Germany was until the 1930s, one of the leading global powers of the day. For Germany, much like the Britain of today, got herself so hopelessly entangled up in a storm of unprecedented global events of the day, which proved too calamitous to her democracy; it resulted in the collapse in her democratic institutions, giving rise to a feverish and popular clamour for oversimplified solutions, any pseudo-scientific solution, some magic pill or other; to answer seemingly insurmountable and complex problems. The clamour included among other things, a desperate plea for strong principled leadership, but, alas, the German people ended up with a demagogue for a leader, a vector of something a lot nastier, Nazism. The German experience teaches us that those who deliberately undermine democratic institutions; they’re often found wanting, leaving them totally powerless to control what comes next. Oh how I hope and pray that I am genuinely mistaken about this prognosis, but as the United Kingdom of Great Britain teeters on the brink, I cannot help but feel a terrible foreboding that the continuing crisis of both Covid-19 and Brexit, will not end well for us all.

3. In this blog-post, I will endeavour to show that history is not only messy in real life, but that it is also both a pendulum and a gift – in a weird sort of way. And zooming in on the specific aspect that history is a gift, I will show that this gift chimes with our common proverb, which regards it as ingratitude to look a gift horse in the mouth; it is not for us to cavil at it, but to accept the gift warts and all, in hopes of learning from it as best as we can. History is indeed a free gift which is totally unmerited by any of us, but which contains within it the tools that have the potential for making a realistic appraisal of where we are and where we’re headed; positioning us as it were, in an advantageous place to help us see patterns that might otherwise not be visible to us in the heat of the moment. In other words, history equips us with a critical perspective with which to understand our current state of affairs, including future problems as well. This appreciation of our history is what helps us develop a discerning eye with which to see further into the future upon a level ground, than we may be able to do when blind to it; even if standing on top of the highest mountain. So then what is history?

What is history?

4. History is variously defined as the study of stories. These stories may concern individuals, places or situations in the past. The primary object of studying history is to privilege us with the opportunity to test our own collective moral sense; with a view of using it as an actual prism, through which we may the better grapple with real life complexities which assail every one of us from every corner. You and I – we each of us – daily face difficult and constantly changing set of circumstances. We all need a rock-solid foundation from which to key-off, especially in dark times. These stories, it is argued by some, are sometimes about individual people who have confronted astonishing challenges and have weathered adversity in real, historical events, which in turn become a source of inspiration to us.

5. My preferred definition by far, however, is the one given by a British historian, one E. H. Carr. In his book, ‘What is History?’ – he writes as follows: “The line of demarcation between prehistoric and historic times is crossed when people cease to live only in the present, and become consciously interested both in their past and in their future. History begins with handing down of a tradition; and tradition means the carrying of the habits and lessons of the past into the future. Records of the past begin to be kept for the benefit of future generations.” In other words, we may safely conclude that history is a body of knowledge about our collective past, which is put together by what you and I may call a professional historian(s), with everything that is involved in the production thereof, the communication and the teaching of the said body of knowledge. And this body of knowledge may be presented to us in a form of an academic text book, a biographical work, a fictional work, or any other medium by which the said body of knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. But why is it so important to have this body of knowledge available to us? What’s so special about history?

Why is history so necessary?

6. To answer this question, kindly imagine yourself travelling on an aeroplane from, since I am based in Taiwan, let’s say the City of Taipei; to your favourite tourist destination which may be anywhere in the world. Imagine also, that while your plane is happily cruising along at some 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, on its charted flight plan; suddenly, and out of the blue, your plane is struck by a surface to air missile fired by one of the warring parties below, hurling it and all its occupants crash-landing into the Ocean in flames. Many are killed, but you alone happen to be the only survivor, and by some miracle, crash-landing on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, whose people no one in the civilized world has ever heard of. Your relief at surviving the dastardly atrocity is soon overtaken by a terrible foreboding that you will never be rescued due to the island’s extreme isolation. Indeed, after many weeks of fruitless searches for possible survivors at sea, the search party is ultimately called off, declaring you lost presumed dead.

7. After many months of agonizing adaptation to your new surroundings and thus becoming acquainted with the natives, who have been exceedingly kind to you, a mysterious stranger in their midst; you console yourself with finally coming to grips with the local dialect, albeit speaking it as a foreigner would. But you discover, much to your utter amazement, that your new family (they have now become your family since you have nowhere to go), have absolutely no knowledge of their past. Try hard as you might in your inquiries, you get absolutely nothing from them about who their ancestors were, how they came to inhabit the particular island they are on, not even having information about any people they might have come in contact with in the past – you are the first stranger they’ve ever seen. I bet your mind would boggle at the thought. Mine would.

8. The truth is, knowledge about the past is absolutely essential to the well-being of any given society; for what happens to us in the present, and happens in the future, is very much interconnected by what happened to our people in the past. While it is accepted that knowledge of what happened in the past may not necessarily offer us answers to contend with present challenges; and yet, we cannot even begin to imagine how we could possibly attempt to grapple with today’s challenges, without some basic knowledge of past events and circumstances. Indeed, without a grasp of our collective past, however basic that maybe, we would be a people without an identity; and much worse than that, we would be all at sea as it were, lost in the mists of time. Such is the necessity of history. But how may we put together this all-important body of knowledge?

The process of compiling history and curating it for the common good

9. If history is to be of value to any given society, it must be accurate, evidence based, and logically thought out; it must not be subject to any specious theory, not even subject to political theory. There must be a certain discipline to the process of putting it together – whether by a scholar at a university or by an amateur historian writing historical novels or biographies. Writing as a biographer, like with other historians I possess a passionate interest in all things past; I am always playing at being something of Detective Clouseau, albeit a more competent one, trying to find out what really happened in such and such period in the lives of my subjects. My current subject of interest is Lord Denning – probably ‘The’ most extraordinary English judge and lawyer of the 20th century. It is for a historian, and in my case, a biographer, to contextualize knowledge about our past, which works itself into text books or biographies that end up acting as our collective guides, in the nebulous business of making sense of our ever-changing world.

10. The work of a historian is not merely utilitarian in of itself, it is also art, a thing of beauty, thus enhancing the collective enjoyment of all who come in contact with it. This is a weighty responsibility. Which is why for a particular piece of historical work to be of reasonable merit, it is essential for its author to have acquired, in the course of their educational career; special training in the science of critical thinking, that is, analysing, evaluating, and interpreting sources – be they primary or secondary. Training is important because it helps the author develop an understanding that everything written which appertains to history, primary or secondary, must be approached with a certain measure of scepticism and caution. It is essential for the author to develop the ability to distinguish between written material(s) that are well-substantiated, logical and clearly thought-out on the one hand; and, on the other hand, written material(s) that are theoretic, hypothetical and opinion. This discipline is particularly essential in the 21st century, where our world is now dominated by a myriad of information and communication technologies, especially in the realm of social media – each vying for dominance in the market place. A historian must, above all, have a mindset capable of assessing and filtering an avalanche of information that is constantly assaulting us 24 hours, seven days a week. And finally, the historian must be a great communicator – writing in a structured, precise and explicit language. But, what about the small matter of ‘subjectivity’ of the author in writing history?

The small matter of ‘subjectivity’ in the mind of a historian author

11. It is an open secret that we all are, without exception, subjective in our handling of data. Indeed, some historians, do use historical data as a vehicle for putting across views, which by common agreement, are their own personal political views. I myself confess to doing it – a small indulgence I beg of my readers. But good history must have something about it that is scholarly; for the study of history is not a political activity, however desirable that may be in certain circumstances. While it is accepted that as writers, we are entitled to hold and act upon our own political views; we do, nevertheless, owe our readers an absolute obligation to exclude them. For history, rather like science, is a discipline. And, just as a scientist does, a historian’s first duty is to find out what actually happened. However, the awful reality is that all historians are human beings just like the next man. We are fallible. We are also subject to pressures of modern life that are common to all fallible human beings, including laziness and incompetence. Moreover, historians, again, just like all fallible human beings, disagree with each others’ interpretation of historical data, in the same way scientists often do in their scientific endeavours.

12. However, the study of history, unlike the study of science proper, deals with human circumstances and values; providing scope for critical evaluations despite differences between one historian or other. And, writing as a biographer, I do confess to finding that most historical data is often fragmented, intractable, and incomplete. It’s therefore quite common, that during my searches for example, to discover that various books and articles clash with each other; there will always be areas of uncertainty, but an impression upon which many can agree does eventually emerge, thus resulting in a quality piece of work. History is accordingly, a community project; a community project in which one historian builds upon the work of another. Yes, yes, it is true that in this day in age, there are historians who see themselves more like literary and media celebrities. And without prejudice, Dr Starkey comes to mind (more about him below). For until very recently, Dr Starkey took particular pride in his own peculiar subjectivity in terms of his intellectualism, thus appearing to give leadership to a certain class of his admirers; and yet, the primary purpose of history is markedly very different from literature. For history educates, whereas literature entertains. But what are the pitfalls of a celebrity historian who blurs the lines between educating on the one hand, and entertaining on the other.

The pitfall of being a celebrity historian

13. I first encountered Dr Starkey in a literal sense in 1992, thanks to a BBC Radio 4 debate programme, the Moral Maze. I was a student at Buckingham University at the time. I think he will be shocked to learn that, despite his legendary rudeness and abrasiveness, I actually fell head over heels in love with him, in an intellectual sense, after a friend told me about his background. This was a time when, in addition to reading law, I seriously developed a taste for both literature and history, especially history from a biographical point of view. I am especially interested in learning about people’s personal histories. Thus, when I discovered that Dr Starkey was born into a modest family of Quakers in Kendal, Westmorland; and that he was well acquainted with suffering on the account of his family’s poverty and a physical disability, for he was born with two club feet and had polio at a young age, I immediately warmed to him. His subsequent career as a historian fascinated me: starting with winning a place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he was placed First in History, which in turn set him up for a glittering academic career; meant that I never missed his debates with Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Roger Scruton and Janet Daley.

14. But for all my initial admiration for the man, I too gradually found it impossible to continue holding him in esteem, especially as he begun to court controversy with his deliberate provocations, which tended towards showiness. For he was a celebrity historian, and he revelled in the fact; and, the more his fame he grew the more rude he became towards other people he adjudged to be inferior to him; my respect for him begun to wear thin. Here’s the thing: there’s proven evidence to show that, celebrity historians get into trouble the moment they desert their special field of expertise, and enter into the rough-and-tumble of febrile political debate of the day. The celebritization of history, which is largely driven by the media, inevitably leads to the trivialization of history, and its true value to society as a whole. And for all Dr Starkey’s legendary eccentricities, nothing prepared me for the comments he made on 30th June 2020, following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a pod-cast interview with Darren Grimes, he said that: “The only reason young black protesters are here…is because of slavery. Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there? An awful lot of them survived.” For his provocations Dr Starkey got far more than he bargained for; he was severely censured, and rightly so in my view. I am glad that the Metropolitan Police have dropped their investigation into his comments; I may deeply disagree with his obnoxious views, indeed I do, but I will defend his right to speak freely any day. For there is a world of difference between inciting racial hatred on the one hand, and on the other, playing to the gallery, which I think Dr Starkey was doing in his capacity as a celebrity historian. But why would ‘being black’ or ‘slavery’ be such a stumbling block for an eminent historian such as Dr Starkey?

A visceral fear of repayment in the same coin is a possible answer

15. To understand people like of Dr Starkey, and by ‘understanding,’ I am not in any way defending or legitimizing their conduct; one has to take a closer look at our bitter, and sometimes very shameful British history. By using the possessive form of the ‘we,’ that is, ‘our,’ I am in effect acknowledging a difficult reality in which we’re all, regardless of our race, colour or social status, united by this history, whether we like or not. In this shameful history, you will find a union between the slave merchant or slave owner, and the enslaved; the colonizer and the colonized; and, the exploiter and the exploited – to mention but a few. Writing as a professing Christian, and having pondered this issue over many years now, it is my considered opinion that, those whom ‘Providence’ has stripped bare of human dignity and honour, will always be treated with much contempt by the inconsiderate and the mean-spirited. This reality is by no means exclusive to the English, it’s universal. It is nothing new; for when one runs one’s eye along the broad canvas of human history over many millenniums, one cannot fail to notice a myriad of instances exhibiting man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. On this broad canvas, you will see the rise and fall of empires, lurid tales of conquests and subjugation, slavery, exile, pogroms, genocides; and yes, including the most infamous of them all, the holocaust in which an approximated 6 million European Jews were deliberately slaughtered.

16.  Because we, as members of the human race, have never been good at facing up to uncomfortable and inconvenient truths, we have often taken the easy expedient of sweeping these aspects of our brutal history under the carpet; hoping against all hope, that they will magically go away. But they never do. Hence the visceral fear which lurks in all of us, especially in the hearts of descendants of those whose acts were so injurious to others, thus to have a reasonable ground to expect that those atrocities will somehow be repaid in the same coin. And with the greater availability of historical data on the internet of things, some of the data documents events so horrific that they make the stomach turn, it’s no wonder that our modern culture is shot-through with a haunting nervousness; a nervousness which in realty is the manifestation of the above-mentioned fear. Thus numerous actors strive against each other to put forward their version of events which they consider to be a more acceptable narrative, but which in the end fails miserably. This failure is owing in large part to our collective dishonesty about the objective truth as chronicled by historical fact(s). But how does this reality play itself out in modern Britain?

Gold, Silver & Slaves looks at how the business of slavery was a case of slave-trading by complicit Africans, fuelled by the greed of African kings. This is the untold story of the greatest slaving nation in history. Up till now, Britain’s place in the history of slavery has been as the country that abolished the international slave trade. Britain’s Slave Trade reveals the shameful truth behind this liberal facade….  For more details please visit, http://www.littledotstudios.com/

Cheltenham – a quintessentially English town

17. With the shameful scandal of the Windrush generation still ringing loud in our collective ears, let me tell you about a little controversy that rocked both the British Conservative Party and the country in the 1990s down to the very roots, in which I unwittingly found myself enjoying a ringside seat. I was not just your any-odd spectator, merely playing the role of an observer; for Providence had arranged things in such a way that I too had a small role to play in the drama as it unfolded, but one that would remain hidden from the public view until now. To those who are strangers to the politics of British social class attitudes, Cheltenham is a quintessentially English Regency spar-town, which has continued against all the odds to remain virtually all-white, even to this day. Cheltenham is my first English home. It’s where I removed to at the end of 1988, after my world fell apart while a student at Cliff College, reducing me to a status of a refugee in England. The town lies on the edge of the Cotswolds in the English county of Gloucestershire; it was made famous as a health and spar resort following the discovery of a mineral spring in 1716. Cheltenham town is now world famous for the steeplechase horse racing, with the Gold Cup as the main event in the Cheltenham Festival. It is also well-known for the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the Cheltenham Music Festival, the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, the Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival – to name but a few. It is really impossible to imagine a more quintessentially English town in England than Cheltenham.

18. In 1992, the British Prime Minister, Mr John Major’s (afterwards Sir John Major, KG, HC) governing party, the Tory party, did something which until then was utterly unthinkable. Under the prime minister’s auspices, the Conservative Party’s Central Office, pursuant to his ‘Classless Society’ initiative, which he had described as ‘a tapestry of talents in which everyone from child to adult respects achievement,’ selected a Black Caribbean man, as its candidate to fight the 1992 general election for the Cheltenham seat. The decision, which by all accounts appears to have been made over the heads of members of the local Conservative Party constituency association, went down extremely badly; precipitating a rebellion within the Cheltenham Conservative Party, splitting it down the middle. So bitter was the controversy that, the Conservative Central Office was compelled to expel many of its Cheltenham local members.

19. Now the selected candidate was not a complete stranger to the Conservative Party – a weirdo from another planet. No. He was a young 38-year-old lawyer, who went by the name of John Taylor. Mr Taylor (afterwards Lord John Taylor of Warwick), was born in 1952 to Jamaican parents, who no doubt had emigrated to and settled in England. His father, Mr Derief Taylor, had given up his taxi business to fight in the Second Great War, serving with the British Eighth Army in the North African campaign; he subsequently became a professional cricketer in the English county of Warwickshire. John was educated at Moseley Grammar School in Birmingham, where he distinguished himself by becoming Head-boy. He read law at Keele University and was called to the Bar of England and Wales by Gray’s Inn in 1978. He practised as a barrister on the Midland and Oxford Circuit; and, in 1997, was appointed a part-time district judge (Magistrates’ Court). John also had a solid track record in politics – having taken up politics in the 1980s. Starting at the grass roots in his native city of Birmingham, where he was active in his local council; he quickly rose through the ranks to contest the Birmingham Perry Barr seat for the Conservative Party in the 1987 general election, which, alas, he lost by 6,933 votes. Had all things being equal, I have no doubt John would have made an ideal Conservative member of parliament. But his race, colour, and social background were, I am sad to say, an insurmountable obstacle in the eyes of many true-blue Tories in Cheltenham and elsewhere.

But the man is: BLACK!!!

20.   One sunny winter’s morning in 1992, as it happened, my quiet breakfast was rudely interrupted by an extraordinarily urgent and violent knock on the front door of my honorary family, Mr and Mrs Cassin’s house in Cheltenham. There was a door bell and it was in good working order. It was not used. I was at the tail-end of my winter holidays before returning back to the University of Buckingham where I was an undergraduate student reading law. Bethinking myself that something terrible had happened – not sure what – the political atmosphere in the country was febrile with excitement, and my honorary family were in that year, the first citizens, Mayor and Mayoress of Cheltenham town; I ran to answer the front door not knowing what to expect, but fearing the worst. When I opened the door, I was greeted by something reminiscent of a very bad pantomime at a local village hall. For before me stood three white English men, all decked out in very colourful but out of place Jamaican costumes, complete with the most ghastly dreadlocks wig I’ve ever seen; one of whom, had even the audacity of blacking up! The sight of them was not funny. Not in the least bit. And, to compound matters, they all as one, shouted in a chorus, ‘But the man is: BLACK!!!’ – as I opened the door. Apparently, the deliberate chorus had been intended to register the vehemence of their feelings – a protest at the absurdity of Mr John Taylor standing for the Cheltenham seat. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement of the year – I was horrified at the spectacle.

21.  But if you think I was the one most shocked, you had better think again; for they were absolutely taken aback at the sight of a black young man, dressed in an old pair of corduroy trousers and a worn-out Harris Tweed jacket standing before them. They were momentarily stunned speechless, thinking perhaps they had come to the wrong address. “Surely, this must be the Mayor of Cheltenham’s house?” stuttered one of them, the one of two whose faces were not blacked up, but by now had all turned beetroot red, including the one who had blacked up as some parts of his face were still visible. To which I responded in the affirmative. I told them not to be afraid, that they were at the right house and that I was a guest at the address. Despite being discombobulated, and realizing the awkward situation we were all in; and not wishing to draw too much attention to the ghastly spectacle, I quickly ushered them into the house, offering to make them a cup of tea. I am in no doubt that had any of my honorary family been at home, they would have sent them parking, very likely with a flea in their collective ear. I suspect the situation might have easily escalated; probably would have made the local news, and perhaps the national news as well. The thought of slamming the door in their faces had crossed my mind, but I thought better of it. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to try to clarify a few misconceptions about what it is to be a black human being. It proved fruitful.

22. Without going into sundry details, we spoke for two solid hours discussing matters ranging from philosophy, economics, black migration, politics, and of course, the European Union. The terrifying thing for me was how well educated they all were, and looking back on that specific event today, I am glad I asked them in. In the end, we agreed to disagree on many things and they sheepishly left, remarking (rather flatteringly) at how much of an English gentleman they found me to be. I was not impressed. I have not seen hide or hair of any of them since that fateful day. Needless to say, however, that despite Mr John Major campaigning for Mr Taylor in Cheltenham, he lost the seat to Mr Nigel Jones (afterwards Lord Jones of Cheltenham) of the Liberal Democrats by 1,668 votes – the first time since 1950 Cheltenham had not voted for a Conservative candidate, and the first since December 1910 the town had voted for a Liberal aligned candidate. I spared my honorary family the fine details of the event, when I was asked afterwards how my day had gone. Moreover, their plates were very full with public functions in Cheltenham because of the election. I saw no point of adding to their already hectic schedule, I did not want them to take the matter up with the police. The astonishing rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months had brought this particular experience, including many other racist encounters I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing, into sharp relief. But what is it about being black that provokes so much hostility and resistance?

The more we know the more we see our own ignorance

23. But if the Black Lives Matter movement has opened our eyes to see the mote in the eye of every racist in our midst, let us not be blind to the beam in our own eye. I recently stumbled upon an interesting piece written by a Sri-Lankan writer, Indi Samarajiva, which alerted me to this possibility. In his ‘Brown People Are Racists Too,’ Mr Samarajiva wrote thus: “We don’t encounter Africans or African-Americans much, but if we do, we stare and react with offensive curiosity or worse…” Ever since I relocated to Taiwan in 2013, apart from the occasional sublime experience(s) some of which I have documented in my blog-posts, such as ‘To my little Taiwanese friend: A letter to the future,’ it is with much sadness that I must agree with Mr Indi Samarajiva. For sojourning in these parts of East Asia has exposed me to a reality that race is a much more complex subject than meets the eye. I now have a better understanding of the continuing crisis in Myanmar with a special reference to the Rohingya people. For a start, meeting my wife for the first time, a native of Taiwan, all those years ago, brought to the fore feelings which I never knew I had. Growing up as I did in Uganda in the 1970s, I was lucky enough to meet and socialize with people (including watching black and white WW2 films) who had fought the Second Great War in Asia; thus my perceptions of people, especially those from East Asia, were largely coloured by the war stories I heard as a boy. And, until I met my wife in England, I had never encountered an East Asian person in the flesh; indeed, I had never seen in real life an ethnic Chinese, an ethnic Korean or an ethnic Japanese. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell them apart if you had put me to the test. And to be brutally honest: I too held some rather racists views about East Asian people – views I am particularly ashamed of – based on what I now know.

24. So when I visited Taiwan for the first time at the end of the 1990s, during our courtship, I was astonished to discover that I was the subject of much staring by local Taiwanese; it was very clear from the outset that many locals had actually never encountered a black African man, and I found their curiosity about me a little disturbing. The reason for their intense inquisitiveness was very clear to see – there are not many black African people in this part of the world. In some remote parts of East Asia, black people are as rare as hen’s teeth. Moreover, as much as the whole experience was somewhat unsettling, it became vividly clear to me, that a great deal of it was owing to ignorance. But there were, and still are, instances which are without a doubt racist; that is, if we are to agree with a settled view that racism is a belief that one group of people is inherently superior to another group of people. And in societies which until recently were largely closed to the outside world, as some East Asian countries clearly were, displays of ignorance and racists views are, if we be charitable, quite understandable; however offensive they may be. This is not to say that they are acceptable, far from it, but it is important to understand how others see us. It’s also important to be cognisant of the local realities, namely, the environment, education and other circumstances; and thus to be slow to interpret everything we see or experience through the lenses of race.

“Yes, I am an untouchable” Martin Luther King

25. Years ago, soon after the then Senator Barack Obama had thrown his hat in the ring for the presidency of the United States of America; I was invited to speak at a Quaker meeting at Cheltenham, where I was asked whether his possible election to the White House would be good for America, democracy, and the world. I responded that the election of a black man to lead the greatest democracy in the world, would be a great milestone in race relations in the USA, but I feared there would be a backlash which would probably tip the country into chaos – either during his presidency or soon after he departed the White House. For I was far from convinced that the USA was ready for a black president, however desirable that was. But just as it is the case with a nursing mother, whose breasts were gorged so long to have them drawn, the same may be said of imminent and unstoppable change in the political circumstances of a given nation; we are utterly powerless when it comes to the march of major historical events; if it is ordained by Providence that the USA should have a black president, then there is absolutely nothing those opposed to Mr Barack Obama can do to stop his eventual elevation to the presidency. But, I continued, if, however, Mr Obama, having been successfully installed as the 44th president of the USA, and he turns out to be a rather successful president, you may depend on it that a backlash will come, and it will shake the USA to her very roots. For his success in the presidency will demonstrate that the centre of the natural order of things, which has underpinned the American democracy since her foundation simply cannot hold any longer; all the settled assumptions about black people will have been turned upon the head, to the particular dismay of many white supremacists.

26. Now, I would be a damn liar if I said to you that I foresaw the chaos we have witnessed in the last four years, including the just concluded presidential election in the USA. I did not. But I knew deep down in my bones, that the existential fear many white Caucasians feel towards black people, especially black immigrants, went far deeper than mere everyday racism and ignorance we see on the surface. Alas, I had no vocabulary at the time to put into words what I knew to be true, that is, until I read a wonderful piece entitled, “America’s ‘untouchables’: the silent power of the caste system,” written by Isabel Wilkerson, which was published in the Guardian, on 28th July 2020. I highly recommend it. It confirmed my hunch which I shared at the Quaker meeting at Cheltenham all those years ago, and the piece went further by putting flesh on the bones through Dr Martin Luther King’s personal experience when he visited India for the first time. Here is a short excerpt as told by Ms Wilkerson: “The principal made the introduction. “Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, and had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them. “For a moment,” he later recalled, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.” Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for – 20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in the US for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country. And he said to himself: “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”

The African people are perceived as the ‘untouchables’ the world over

27.  A second personal incident may now be mentioned in light of the above. In the days when I worked briefly in the Magistrate’s Court, based at Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire, I accidentally stumbled upon my colleagues after my motoring court had risen early; giggling and poring over an old stained black and white postcard. The postcard, clearly taken during the British empire, in the British colony of Sudan, on the African continent; it depicted a very black man who was standing stark naked, complete with tribal markings, and a member of the Dinka people of the modern-day Republic of South Sudan. My arrival sparked a sudden scurrying about of my colleagues to their offices, but one colleague remained, who as it happened was not the best cookie in the jar; she proceeded to ask me solemnly whether the man in the postcard was a member of my family back in Uganda. Picking up the postcard, I likewise responded very solemnly, but with tongue-in-cheek thus: “Ah, yes, he is possibly one of my long-lost relatives whose name, for the life of me, I cannot remember. You know how it is (hinting at the apparent difficulties white witnesses have in ascertaining identities of black people in criminal proceedings), we black Africans have a nasty habit of looking all alike. It’s impossible to tear us apart.” Perhaps picking up that I was toying with her rather cheekily, my colleague abruptly left the room and made her way to her office. The incident filled me with much sadness; for it made clear to me how deeply entrenched negative perceptions about black Africans really are.

28. These negative perceptions are the result of centuries-old narrative, which is clearly intended to portray an African as the mysterious ‘Other’ – a creature to be patronized and subjugated. The postcard exhibited a staged image of a Dinka man giving zero reference to his tribal culture or circumstances by way of explanation, but sent a simple message loud and clear, which is, the black man in the image is by definition the ‘Other.’ A quick trip up to London to visit the National Archive’s Africa section, you will see exhibits setting out this ‘Otherness’ narrative whose seeming objective is to educate, but in reality, is a maligning portrayal of what it is to be a black African, and in the process visiting much violence to the dignity of the Negroid. I am using the word, ‘Negroid,’ advisedly in this blog-post. We must not be shy or fear hurting people, neither must we be anxious about popular applause; for to do so may prevent us from searching out this ancient wound to the very bottom; we must lay it bare to the bone. We must not deal in mere sentimentalism or emotionalism. But rather, we must speak as St Paul did in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, Verse 14, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish” – to speak truth as it is – however difficult. Let us therefore not suppress the truth, but pay our debts with grace accordingly.

29. This ‘Otherness’ narrative has done incalculable damage to race relations, and has created a certain mindset which has made possible the erecting of scaffolding(s), upon which the institutional and structural racism we see today have been built – especially in the USA. The Negroid is by no means the only victim of the ‘Otherness’ narrative; for as the recent report into the British Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) clearly shows, the Jew is as much a victim as the Negroid. The Jewish case is very well documented to be rehearsed here. The racism I am speaking of here, tends to manifest itself in the spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility towards the Negroid, including the Jew – quite publicly. It is little wonder therefore, that in both the USA and the UK, openly racist men were considered worthy to be elected and entrusted with the highest office in the land – president and prime minister respectively. And speaking of the just concluded 2020 presidential election in the USA, it is significant that nearly 74 million Americans were comfortable about voting for an avowedly racist man, Mr Trump. It is telling, too, that of the said 74 million Americans, a considerable number answer to an evangelical Christian church. This suggests that racism is a deeply rooted problem in both countries; and, considering that these two countries have been and still are, at the vanguard of what is acceptable in fashionable society, where they lead the rest of world follows. In the case of Taiwan for instance, the American culture is a force to be reckon with – for good or ill. Truly, this crime against the Negroid in general, and most specifically, the crime of the black African slave trade; is on the level with the crime of the 1800-year-old Christian antisemitism against the Jew, which at its worst, culminated in the infamous European holocaust under the Nazis dispensation. How then may we challenge this poisonous narrative – with a view of bringing about racial reconciliation?

Reparations is a good starting point for racial reconciliation

30. Limiting myself strictly to the vexing issue of centuries-old enslavement of the Negroid, better qualified people than me have argued rather eloquently, that reparations is a good starting point for racial reconciliation. They argue that a case for reparation is much more than quibbling about money; that is, it cannot be reduced to a monitory number in terms of pounds, shillings or pennies. But rather, they pray in aid of a post-war the Jewish Reparatory Justice Memorandum by way of guidance. The memorandum clearly stated that the claim for restitution was about: “Mass murder, the human suffering, the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces, which are without parallel in the history of humankind.” I agree. And, I would elevate the claim a notch higher, by proposing that the proper starting point before any meaningful form of reparation takes place, should be the redemption of the dignity of the Negroid, with a view of restoring and receiving his progeny as a full member of the human race. I propose this with much feeling as a Christian, because the ostensible justification and legitimization of the relentless abuse of the Negroid, apparently owes its origin in a blasphemous interpretation of a text(s) in the greatest history book of all time, the Bible.

31. Some fallacies are perpetuated from generation to generation, until the deep hue of antiquity tinges them over, making them look venerable and speciously invites a reverence and regard to which they never had any legitimate claim. The supposed Biblical curse upon the Negroid is one such fallacy. I first came across it in a little book I happened to chance upon at a second-hand bookshop at Cheltenham, back in the 1990s. The bookshop is long defunct. I don’t even remember the title of the book, but its thesis left a powerful impression on me. I lost the book a long time ago, after a friend who borrowed it inadvertently forgot to return it. The book’s outrageous thesis is predicated on a text in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 9, Verses 20 to 25, which gives an account of events soon after the great flood; in which Noah, a man of the soil, established a vineyard. The story has it that, following a bumper crop, Noah turned a portion of it into wine, which he drank, causing him to be exceedingly drunk. So drunk was he that he stripped off all his clothing, leaving him stark naked in his tent. Now one of his sons, Ham, by chance visited him in his tent and found Noah naked. Ham went and told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who to their great credit, “…took a garment and placed it across their shoulders, and walked backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away so they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

This cruel lie about a ‘Curse’ has no basis whatsoever

32.  When Noah woke up from his drunken stupor, he discovered what had happened to him and said the following: “Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” Now Canaan was the youngest son of Ham, and according to the curse, descendants of Shem and Japheth would eventually overpower the Canaanites. In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, Verse 6, we discover who Ham’s sons were, namely, “Cush,  Mizriam (Egypt), Put and Canaan.” It is generally agreed by scholars that, Cush was probably the father of Ethiopia; Mizriam, the father of the Egyptians; and, Put, the father of the North Africans. But none of the African people is descended from Canaan directly. For in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, Verses 15 to 18, we learn of the names of all the sons of Canaan; and they were, “Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.” It is significant that they were all inhabitants of Canaan and the surrounding area; and, as far as historical documents show, not a single one of them ever lived in the land we now know to be Africa. And for the purposes of completeness: the curse mentioned above did came to pass, as is recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 9, Verses 4 and 5, where we learn that all the Canaanite nations were driven out by the children of Israel because of their wickedness. I am very happy to be corrected on this point, but as far as I can tell, nowhere in the Bible, does it say that the curse fell upon the black African people(s).

33. However, I do hang my head in shame because I too fell for this outrageous and blasphemous lie, albeit for a limited season. It is with regret that there are many who do believe this lie; and some of whom, alas, include leading African thinkers. I have seen this lie repeated by some very well-respected thought leaders on the subject of race, and some have even developed scholarly theories in their legitimate effort to push back at the pernicious influences of this lie; giving rise to what is now known as, Critical Race Theory.  For the simple fact is, and I hate to say this, the lie of a curse is very persuasive. The lie appears to give a Biblical rationale, an explanation if you like, for the seemingly never-ending wretchedness of the Negroid – in respect of the historical slavery, colonialism, inequality and systematic racism – especially as experienced by the descendants of the Negroid in the modern world. Furthermore, the lie appears to give a plausible account for the inexplicable African tragedy that never seems to have a solution; which is, the continuing suffering of the black African people(s) on the continent of African. Even as I write today, events which are playing out in Ethiopia appear to lend credence to this argument; for the irony of an Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, presiding over a futile war, is truly astonishing. The great suffering of the black African people in the 21st century, is all the more puzzling today considering some of their countries became independent over 60 years ago. These countries appear to have swapped one oppressor for another; that is, a black oppressor taking over from the white oppressor. One can easily see why a Biblical explanation like this is so seductive; for it gives an air of credibility to the lie, by making it appear that it is indeed the Will of God for the Negroid to suffer thus.

34. But a careful reading of the Bible with a fresh pair of eyes, it is always a good thing to discover truth for oneself, it became apparent to me that the importance we place on our ethnic differences thanks to this lie, is not only exaggerated, but it also does very little to ameliorate the differences which have so poisoned relations between the races. I discovered that the more emphasis we place on our differences the more we tend to exacerbate them. Indeed, in the Book of Acts, Chapter 17, Verse 26, we read that God “…made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation.” This verse makes it crystal clear that we are all – whether we be numbered among the Negroid, Caucasoid, or Mongoloid; we are, all of us, cut from the same cloth. We have the same original father. Moreover, as I have shown elsewhere in my blog-post concerning an objective truth outside of ourselves, the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, Verse 27, also teaches us that we are all of us, and without exception, made in the image of God. Therefore, this means that if you and I are made in the image of God, then our significance is surely not in the ethnicity we so cherish. Thus the curse Noah spoke over the descendants of Ham in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 9, Verse 25, has very little to do with how a member of the Negroid branch of the human family should be viewed or be treated. Accordingly, it is my considered opinion that, it will be impossible to engage or establish meaningful reparation(s), without first taking steps to redeem and restore the dignity of the Negroid as a full member of the human family. But what then has this got to do with Britain or the United States of America? Whose history is it anyway?

Whose history is it anyway?

35. The burden of the legacy of the British empire, and the burden of the world’s only major super power vis-a-vis the USA, weighs disproportionately heavy upon the shoulders of the peoples of these two great nations. It is a difficult burden to bear at the best of times and almost impossible at the worst of times. Therefore, the answer to the question: whose history is it anyway? The rule of thumb is: History belongs to all of us, one and all – which means, you and me. For history is the mirror through which we get to see the image of ourselves; it is by this mirror we get to know who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. History is the looking glass through which we are better able to test our moral compass – against a back-drop of true real-life challenges – similar to those we’re currently experiencing as a direct consequence of the 2016 UK Brexit referendum, for example. The advent of the coronavirus pandemic at the turn of 2020, is forcing many of us to discover that a history stripped clean of the living God, is at best superficial, and at worst, a cruel lie. For God is the real ‘explanation’ and ‘meaning’ of everything that happens. He is the past, present, and the future. This God may be sought after and discovered in the greatest history book ever published, the Bible. For in the Bible, we discover rock-solid, durable, old truths. Truths we can confidently and securely base our lives. These old truths have the power to save us from the so-called ‘Post-truth’ age, which is all the rage at the moment. It is an age which is characterized by fast-living, 24 hours, 7 days a week; chasing after one pragmatic new idea after another, in the hopes perhaps that we too may get lucky. Lucky about what, few seem to know!

36. The just concluded 2020 American presidential election is a parable of our time. It is a powerful reminder of the unshakable validity and usefulness of knowing these old truths. If anything, the presidential election has for example, opened a window into the soul of the United States of American as never before. For many citizens of the USA, including Mr Trump himself, are frantically searching for significance. Many are searching for security, wealth, and fame – both in politics and society. They are, in other words, looking for the much vaunted but elusive American dream. It is therefore clear to all who have eyes to see, how an absence of the living God in the public sphere, with special reference to leadership institutions, can destroy a country from within. Indeed, if the truth be told: a life, institution(s) or an electoral process that does not acknowledge the living God is nothing but a dangerous fantasy.

37. It is a dangerous fantasy because it leads to both blindness and brutishness; which, ultimately, is contrary to the purpose for which God created man. This was the fantasy, which at its fullest manifestation of Nazism, sunk Germany. It will sink us too. It is no trifle for man to be created in the image of God. And, since God is love, the overarching purpose for which God created man in His own image is therefore love. We are created in God’s image that we may in turn be creative for the good of all, and not to be malignant or destructive. Love is the ultimate creative purpose of man on this earth; that is, love is the only medium by which we are to advance reconciliation between man and man, nation and nation, ethnicity and ethnicity, tribe and tribe; and yes, between neighbour and neighbour. That is why you and I are created in the image of God. Only by acknowledging this profoundly old truth, shall we be the better able to garner the kind of hope, which is so powerful, as to help us overcome ancient grievances that continue to rankle and disturb our peace. These ancient grievances include the black African slave trade, the Jewish holocaust, tribal genocides, structural and institutional racism, and much, much more besides. The Black Lives Matter is a haunting cry for justice. This is why history is indispensable to solutions with respect to justice; it belongs to all of us – you and me.

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