We Are Tearfund hosts a diverse range of opinions and conversations which are so important for topics such as racial justice. Although not all sentiments are shared by Tearfund, the importance to drive the conversation forward is one we are committed to. Peter wrote this article after taking part in the Emerging Influencers programme after graduating earlier this year. Inspired by what he learnt, as well as the worldwide protests against police brutality, he responds to the cultural discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black lives continue to matter. You shouldn’t require me or anyone else to tell you this. Nonetheless, the point is needed. In Britain, as across the world, forces of racism, fascism and nativism continue to oppose a movement seeking little more than equality and recognition of historic wrongdoing by White people against Black people. So why, given these simple demands, do we see such sustained and vehement opposition?
On the one hand, the title of this article is pertinent. It speaks to the pushback seen against the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement from people who say ALL lives matter. All lives do matter, and the BLM movement is not at all in opposition to this. The point is that all lives can’t really matter until Black lives finally do. This title is a reminder that despite the pushback, and despite less BLM resources being shared on social media now, Black lives continue to matter.
On the other hand, how can it be that in 2020, a statement that Black Lives Still Matter is newsworthy? Would we ever see an article proclaiming that ‘White Lives Still Matter’? Perhaps in White supremacist publications and fora, but most serious news outlets won’t feel the need to assert what has for centuries been held as a default – that White lives matter. The operative point is whether Black Lives Matter. An article title such as this couldn’t emerge without the sustained harm brought to Black people worldwide. Harm that ultimately stems from a belief in the inferiority of Black people, and refusing to engage with the fact that racism continues to rear its ugly head.
The wrong side of history
It’s worth considering the racist incidents that have recently hit our media as Britain grapples with the BLM movement. For example, when interviewed by Nick Ferarri, author Afua Hirsch’s critique of Britain’s historic role in slavery and colonialism was met with a response of ‘why do you stay in this country?’ The idea that Black people lack the right to criticize Britain’s past on pain of deportation is a racist trope. One often wheeled out by those seeking to discredit legitimate criticisms.
The BBC Proms is an eight week series of annual summer concerts showcasing a brilliant cohort of classical music, renowned as an eclectic gathering of classical musicians from all over the globe. A historic institution of British culture, one that has lasted over a century and through two world wars, the Proms ought to be a cause for celebration. However, in recent weeks, we have seen a ridiculous Anglo-obsessed ‘culture-war’ argument break out over whether the BBC Proms should continue to have the colonial-hymn ‘Rule, Britannia’ at the end.
When ‘Rule, Britannia’ plays, it’s customary for audience members to bellow along while waving the union jack. For many, this is a highlight of the Proms. It’s a chance to be patriotic, to recall with pride Britain’s Empire and her domination of the waves. Of course, such patriotism necessitates an uncritical examination of the lyrics. Lyrics that extoll Britain’s apparently God-given ability to avoid slavery, while other ‘nations not so blessed as thee’ fall to tyranny.
My own perspective is that ancient anthems such as Rule, Britannia only remain in the British cultural sphere because we haven’t been through a proper period of repentance for our historic role in slavery and colonialism. – akin to Germany’s rightfully rigorous repentance for the holocaust. This anthem is a false reading of history. It praises Britain’s virtue in Empire, while conveniently omitting any mention of the depravity and suffering we inflicted on millions. It’s the result of Britain refusing to acknowledge past sin as the slave-making, coloniser-in-chief. This has bred a widespread cultural blind spot for artistic overhangs from this period, leaving people confused at why the BBC would even consider dumping the tune.
A greater Britain
The idea that romanticising Britain’s horrific colonial past as a culture worth celebrating is something I find deeply depressing. However the BBC, as it happens, has relented. Rule, Britannia will still play at the Proms, just without lyrics (Covid-19 cited as the reason for this omission). The cultural spasm that took place in this Proms debacle smacks of a nation unsettled by critiques of its past. It seems that for many, to be patriotic has to mean taking pride in Britain’s Empire. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I don’t want you to imagine that I’m anti-Britain – that couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite the horrors Britain afflicted on so many in the past, it was also the nation that for much time stood alone in opposition to Nazism. Moreover, Britain’s technological, musical and literary innovation have had immeasurable impacts on world culture – something that should rightly be cherished. My point is that Britain doesn’t need to hold on to colonial overhangs such as Rule, Britannia.
We don’t need to bury our heads in the sand about Britain’s past atrocities. It’s possible to acknowledge past wrongdoing and still be patriotic. For Britain to ever become somewhere human rights are championed, she must first say sorry for her horrific past crimes. This means engaging with the BLM movement and listening to Black voices’ perceptions of what a ruling Britannia actually looked like. So much more remains to be done until Black lives can start to actually matter.
As the push for Black lives to matter intensifies, we will continue to see incidents of racism and defensiveness from a White majority that’s unused to having its versions of history challenged. Such challenges are much-needed, and long overdue. The ally community needs to stand steadfast in its support of Black voices and continue to challenge racist narratives. If you’re looking for resources to help you do so, Tearfund’s ‘How to be a good ally’ toolkit is excellent for those looking to stand up and be counted in the fight to end racial injustice.