Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Black or white

    Things have kept me away from the news of late. One or two depressing stories including a deplorable Daily Star piece, and a lot to do in the real world.
    One story you'd have to be on Mars to miss would be that of Rachel Dolezal. An American black civil rights activist who turned out to be a white woman with a deep tan and an Afro haircut who had reinvented herself as a black woman. So many ways to put a foot in it, where do I start?
    I look at this story from an odd position. I'm white. Pasty white, the way you get with several decades of British winters behind you.
    But my ancestry? In the 1790s a woman from Jamaica appears on a marriage record in London, she's one of my ancestors. You can't tell by looking at me, but maybe you never met my grandmother.

    Well, there goes the country, doesn't it.

    It's interesting, contrasting the Received Opinion view of Black British history with my own family history. Mass immigration since the 1940s has now largely erased the pre-existing Black British communities, but there have been Black Britons since the Middle Ages and before. Received Opinion has appropriated the American story of slavery and a welter of racism, but the unexpected truth on this side of the Atlantic is that while there was institutional slavery in British colonies in the 18th century it was not legal on the British mainland. We have the case of Somerset v. Stewart to thank for that in 1772.
    So small Black British communities existed in cities across the country. Port cities, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, and London, my ancestor's city. These people lived normal lives, some were poor and some were prosperous, and some of them became part of the emerging Victorian middle classes. Their experience was not necessarily the same as the greater numbers of Black Britons who came to the country in the later half of the twentieth century.
   This isn't a romnaticised view of the past, it's my family history. I have little idea what life was like for my ancestors beyond those that were known to people alive in my lifetime, but I do know where they lived and who they married so I can tell they did all right in life.
    So it's odd for me, looking at Rachel Dolezal. A white person with black ancestry, looking at a white person with no black ancestry who pretended she had some. My life experience has as little in common with my 18th century Black British ancestor as it does with their counterpart today, but despite sharing that with Dolezal I have the ancestry she evidently craved.

    It doesn't tell me why she appropriated something as little hers as it is mine, but it does tell me that ancestry alone does not give you life experience.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard her story being compared to ours, in that if she felt herself t be black then that is as valid as our feeling ourselves to be women. I struggle with this, but wonder if we do not understand simply because it is outside our sphere of experience.