This essay, on Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove and “black history”, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the public being more liberal than the government on immigration.) It was published on 11 October 2020, under the headline “Mangrove isn’t simply a ‘black story’, but central to our country’s history”.
“It’s quintessentially a piece of British history. It is about British citizens who dealt with injustice and triumph.” So says director Steve McQueen about his new film, Mangrove, which opened the London Film Festival last week and will be broadcast on the BBC next month.
The film tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists who challenged police bigotry, were put on trial for incitement to riot – and won. It was a seminal moment in the development of black communities in this country – the story of racist persecution and of the resistance to it. But McQueen is clear that this is not simply “black history” but one with wider historical significance.
The question of our history and how we should relate to it has been a major thread in British politics over the past year, from debates about statues to controversies over school curriculums. The launch this month of Black History Month has become the latest focus for this debate, drawing criticism that ranges from those who think it discriminatory to talk of “black history” to those who insist that black history is simply British history and should be treated as such.
Few would deny that black people are an integral part of British society. One of the reasons Black History Month was born, however, was the failure of mainstream histories to recognize that.
The telling of history requires selection and curation. There are an almost infinite number of stories that can be told about the past. Only a few constitute “history”. What those few are, and which historical facts are deemed relevant, is inevitably contested and often shaped by the needs and requirements of certain elites.
In his pathbreaking book The Making of the English Working Class, the historian EP Thompson wrote of his desire to “rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver and the utopian artisan from the enormous condescension of history”. That is, to tell the stories of working-class people and the dispossessed, not just of people with power and privilege, and, in so doing, to recast the way we view both the past and the present.
One of the earliest such “histories from below” remains one of my favourites: CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, which told the story of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804. The first successful slave revolt in history, Haitian revolutionaries, unlike those in France or America, abolished slavery, giving for the first time concrete expression to the principle that “all humans are born equal”, a principle that supposedly also underpinned the two earlier revolutions. Yet, while the American and French revolutions remain celebrated, the Haitian revolution has been largely forgotten, not fitting into the conventional narrative of how the modern world was born.
To reclaim the historical significance of the Haitian revolutionaries, James placed the events in Haiti within a wider revolutionary ferment. The ideas and desires animating the slaves in Haiti, he insisted, were the same as those stirring the dispossessed in France. His was a global story given a local form, the tale of a particular set of events that possessed universal significance.
“Black history” – or “women’s history” or “gay history” – can be seen as today’s versions of history from below, restoring voices previously excluded. Too often, though, such histories are less about opening up our understanding of the past than about narrowing it down, about claiming possession of a slice of the past and ignoring broader perspectives. The story of Paul Stephenson, who in 1963 led the Bristol bus boycott in protest at its refusal to employ non-white staff, is seen as part of black history but rarely of working-class history. The Grunwick strike, a bitter dispute over unionisation in the 1970s led by Asian women, is often ignored in discussions of black history. In an age of identity politics, it is almost inevitable that history, too, comes to be seen through the lens of identity and the wider resonances lost.
This is why McQueen’s view of Mangrove as a story not of identity but of injustice is so important. His is an insistence that the venomous racism in British history must be confronted and the stories of black communities, and their resistance to that racism, be rescued from the condescension of history. But his is also an insistence that this is not simply “black history” but part of the thread of British history that weaves back to Peterloo and the Chartists in the 19th century and would continue through to the miners’ strike and the struggles against the poll tax in the decades following the Mangrove trial.
CLR James and EP Thompson would have approved.