Review: Panel Discussion – “Did black people exist before slavery?”

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On the 14th October, UBEM (University of Bristol Ethnic Minorities) hosted a panel on the whitewashing of Black History titled, “Did black people exist before slavery? – Decolonizing education and rewriting black narratives”. This was part of a variety of events that they held in the Students’ Union in order to celebrate Black History Month.

Among the panelists were Louisa Adjoa Parker, a renowned poet and historian. She started off the proceedings with some breathtaking poetry that covered topics ranging from race in Britain to police brutality. After which, the panel divulged into the first discussion:

In what way do you feel Black History is whitewashed? What is the effect of this in relation to power dynamics?

The panel: Louisa Adjoa Parker, Dr Edson Burton, Nayah Yetunde and Kevin Minors;  all acknowledged that there was a gaping void in the British curriculum. This void often means that people do not recognise the consequences and legacy of imperialism. When black history is taught, it is done with a jingoistic tendency that still glorifies the British Empire instead of focusing on the narratives of black people themselves. Louisa emphasised how the black narrative was also falling short in popular culture in films, literature and TV depictions. The rest of the panel discussed how a shortage of black narratives can lead to a damaged sense of identity and a lack of self-awareness for black youths. In contrast, we have an overrepresentation of black people in institutions such as the criminal justice system which fabricates a false and negative representation for the Afro-Caribbean community.

The panel also acknowledged that there has been a limited progression in contemporary media through documentaries such as the BBC’s ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ and fictional works that employ the politics of absence by portraying black people in positions of power and not focusing on race, such as ‘Luther’.  

Then, Neyah discussed the problem of Black History Month as a concept. It potentially reduces and condenses all black history into one month. Furthermore, it often begins with Harriet Tubman and ends with Martin Luther King, not telling us the full story. Kevin invited the audience to reflect on the notion of how we teach history. History in any respect is inherently subjective. It consists of narratives, which are bound up with power and often told through the lens of the conquering faction. Therefore, history will never be able to accurately represent anything, leaving the audience to consider the idea that all history told from a Western perspective is whitewashed.  

What are your personal experiences with white Washing?

The panelists all agreed that they had very little comprehension of black history before independently exploring African and Caribbean history during their higher education. Louisa spoke of growing up in Yorkshire, not having any knowledge of what it meant to be black and not having any black influences. She described how this led to an internalised racism and a lack of self-worth. Nayah found that during university, African historical sources such as folktales and oral history were viewed as being unreliable. Conversely, she acknowledged that discussions, such as these panel events are often attended by those from a middle class, academic background and therefore were not working as means to help young people decolonise and unravel their histories. Edson summed up the question in discussion by suggesting that the British education system deals with only a minute episode and sombre period of black British history which is often conveyed as the whole.

Prepositions to move forward:

Edson proposed that we should not focus on statistics and data when approaching black history,  as there needs to be a more empathetic dimension to our historiography. He also argued that British and International history were synonymous, as you cannot discuss “Bristol without looking at Kingston, Jamaica” or “Bath without acknowledging the links to Barbados”.

Louisa discussed the idea of ‘Moving Beyond Race’, as race as a construct has become complicated and conflated. Race was once an economically beneficial concept that dignified the inferiority of the black race. She also proposed that white racism could be eradicated as it is not an innate concept but an issue conceived out of ignorance. Kevin flagged that we should be wary of having colour blindness as our end goal. Our goal must simply be ‘decoloniz(ing) our education’.
To conclude, Nayah discussed widening the relationship between academia and the community. She recognised that too often academia is a great platform for the exchange of cultural discussions.  However, it often begins and ends at university. We all must take it upon ourselves to bring our knowledge into local communities. Black people did exist before slavery, and we should work together to deconstruct our colonised curriculum.

This article was co-authored by Leanne Zara Gayle.

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