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Who owns slavery?

DOUBT: Lupita Nyong’o starred in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave – but in making it Hollywood-friendly, did it lose its real message?

MY BLACK History Month question is this: Is slavery a black thing or British? And was it ever thus?

If it’s a black thing, is it a curse or a compliment (by that, I mean does it add to the narrative of our journey or does it distract from it)? And if it’s a British thing, if it’s a white thing, is it a curse or a compliment?
If I was to ask you whether or not slavery is black history or British history you probably would not be as incensed.

You see, it’s not always what you say that matters but the way you say it, and the way that you say it becomes you. I’m either insensitive or academic.

The very fact that I am asking suggests I don’t know myself. Or is it our shared history – a “British thing” and a black thing? Possibly. But then that would mean that we shared ownership of slavery with white folks and the consequences of that in terms of content and liability.

Content wise we would have to either accept both points of view (African/European) of enslavement or spend the rest of existence counteracting the fake news about enslavement that we have been fed a constant diet of in our schools and universities.

I confess to loving the hymn Amazing Grace. It’s our shared history encapsulated in an amazing piece of music and the lyricism is awesome, but it simply says “I once was lost but now i'm found", which means "I used to enslave my fellow human being but I'm done with it".

Even with poetic licence, how could you possibly leave out the detail of such devilish behaviour? Content wise, this is “shared history”.
As far as “liability” is concerned, “shared history” would surely find us liable for half of reparations. I suspect nobody wants to take ownership of enslavement of Africans from the 15th to the 19th century (400 years!) as there might be a penalty to pay.

Clearly there are no casual conversations about enslavement. It is too painful, too profound and it burns us. Or, if you prefer, we get burned by it. So why would any of us want to own it?

We’re happy to allow the academic and philosophical pontification about it but I don’t really see the man and man out ‘ere on road responding to Burning Spear’s call and response: “Do you remember the days of slavery?”

Especially our yutes who are more on a “Have you forgotten you promised to buy me a new pair of trainers” tip. Trust me, I gotta couple of dem gal dem at home (my daughters) and they haven’t mentioned “slave driver the table is turned” to me once.

But it’s not just the youngers. When was the last time you or I talked about slavery? I mean, really talked about it more than just using it as a metaphor to conclude an argument? You know, weaving the old. "It's all (gravy) slavery, innit. That's what this is really all about," into a discussion.

That’s what you call a conversation killer. Done. Dusted. Move on. See you later. I’ll go home to my hot water bottle because the nights are getting chilly. You go straight back to dem slavery days.

Now, in no way am I disrespecting our ancestors who were enslaved. On the contrary, I applaud them. As we all should. They did not die in vain. We are testament to that.


We have every reason to hold our heads up high because of what those ancestors did. We should be proud and not embarrassed and, until we are, our shame makes our enslaved forefathers and foremothers look like losers.

That’s fake news. They were winners. We are a testament to that. And yet, we are ambivalent as to whether to own this history or not. Ambivalence is the one noun we cannot afford. Not when it comes to whose history is it. Take 12 Years A Slave. An amazing film by an amazing director Steve McQueen, star- ring amazing actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.

And it was based on an even more amazing book, left us by Solomon Northup (another indication that our historic enslaved family lives for ever, while those who enslaved them have faded away into ignominy).

And while it tells our story, it was quickly appropriated by the mainstream as a work of art rather than history, perhaps because it wasn't history, I don't know. So it's no longer our story

We let it go. At least the film, anyway. And of course the book suffers from the gravitational pull of the movie and is regarded through the prism of Hollywood. That’s not Solo- mon narrating, it’s Chiwetel.

Our ambivalence is, I am in no doubt, largely borne out of fatigue from fighting the good fight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad being black. We’re the survivors. Only 10 generations away from slavery.

In another 10 generations (and, yes, thanks to Lieutenant Uhuru on the star-trekking Starship Enterprise we know that black people will be around in that future) most of us will be so mixed that we will be conflicted as to whether we are implicit or complicit.

Ten generations from now, considering the confusion, it might be better to accept a blame-free definition of enslavement, You know a ‘no hard feelings, better luck next time’-style of interpretation.

Like, ‘It could have happened to any race’ type, so let’s call it quits and let’s not revisit reparations.

Alternatively, we could always maintain the status quo where there is no question whether slavery is a black thing or a white/British thing.

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