Racism is Distraction
'There were Africans in Britain before the English came here': how Staying Power shook British history
“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” Toni Morrison argued in a lecture in Portland, Oregon, in 1975:
It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
For the longest time the central distraction for black Britons was insisting on our existence. That we were black was unarguable. That we were in Britain was acknowledged if only to be contested. But the notion that we could be black and British, both from this place and in our bodies, confounded many, if not most.
Britain, we were told, was an essentially white place in which we had only just arrived. We had no history here. The colonial connections that explained our existence were at best opaque and at worst unknown to most, even as they were mythologised in the very statues and monuments that surrounded us. Our past did not come up in curricula or mediated conversation. To the uninformed, ill-informed and misinformed, which included those who charged themselves with curating the national narrative, we came from nowhere and for no good reason.
This had an impact on both our politics and our self-perception. “The belief that we have come from somewhere,” wrote historian EH Carr, “is closely linked with the belief that we are going somewhere … our view of history rejects our view of society.”
Effectively orphaned by the most accessible and partial national story available, many black Britons sought surrogate historical parents elsewhere and found them in America, whose story of racial disenfranchisement and resistance we adopted as our own.