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Transcript of The Age of Slave Apologies: the case of Liverpool, England

In this free lecture Dr Mark Christian, associate professor of Sociology and Black World Studies at Miami University uses the case study of Liverpool’s apology for its role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade to explore the concept of slave apologies. He examines the substance of such an apology and what it has meant for Liverpool's Black communities in the contemporary sense.

Mark Christian: Before I start I'd like to thank Dr Richard Benjamin and his staff for all the support they've shown me in bringing me here tonight. It's a wonderful opportunity to come back home. It's a strange place Liverpool, it kind of draws you away and pulls you back. Well, we'll get into that.

The age of slave apologies. We're living in a very crucial time in a sense when it comes to reflection on the history of enslavement. So that's where I want to go with this tonight and to then bring in the slave apology that took place in Liverpool.

Now I don't like to just flick through things but this guy here is so sorry, yeah? He's part of the church actually. This is the triangular trade, here we have the Albert Dock all spruce and Liverpool 800 on the top there.

OK, some recent examples of this apology. What is this slave apology? Why do they seem to be ubiquitous at the moment? Liverpool's in 1999, London's in 2007, the Church of England 2006/7 began to apologise and one of their members said "We the Church of England were at the heart of it". So out of this remembrance and apology era many things are coming to light about the actual extent of this experience.

To put this into some kind of context I wrote what's called 'A slavery apology from Western European nations and the legacy of racialised discrimination'. I did this in order to put some meat on the apology for you. It's done in hopefully a creative way for you to understand where I'm coming from and what I understand of these apologies and what they are actually apologising for, which is a very sensitive issue as you all know.

Historical context, I'm going to run through until the 19th century.

  • We collectively apologise for the era of European enslavement and its legacy that developed in the 15th century and did not cease formally until the mid 19th century, depending on the region.
  • We apologise for the disruption, plunder and rape of the African continent and to the indigenous peoples decimated by our arrival to the region known euphemistically and erroneously as the new world.
  • We apologise to the millions of African sons and daughters kidnapped directly from the continent who suffered profound physical and mental abuse. This is at the heart of our apology.
  • We apologise moreover to their intercultural offspring born in the new world plantation system as chattel, whom continue to suffer under the heavy burden of toiling unpaid from dawn to dusk or from can't see in the morning to can't see at night.
  • We apologise for the laws put in place to prevent anyone with any degree of African heritage the opportunity to educate oneself. Although these severe laws did not totally deny the intellectual development of all enslaved peoples they did curtail the vast majority from cultural advancement. We apologise for this wholeheartedly.
  • We apologise for branding the enslaved with hot irons, for raping the enslaved women at will, for breaking up enslaved families by selling of their children, siblings or partners to other plantations and for crippling or dismembering those defiant enough to want to escape enslavement.
  • We apologise for stifling the normal growth of a people due to the enforcement of enslavement in the historical sense. That is from the 15th century to the 19th centuries.
  • We hope that our apology will help heal the wounds of the past and make the future more equitable.

That puts some meat and bones on the apology in historical context. But I'm interested in the here and now as well as history and I write now about the contemporary context with a focus not on France or any other European nation but the British slave trade legacy. And I argue the latter part of the 19th century though to the 20th century saw the aftermath of enslavement replaced by colonialism for peoples of African heritage and for those nations that would gain independence there would be the spectre of neo-colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean.

Peter Fryer's powerful book, I was speaking to some colleagues back there about Peter Fryer's 'Staying Power'. Powerful book from 1984. I heard the man died last year and I'm very sorry to hear that. But he wrote that powerful book 'Staying Power', it was one of the first books I read. He had a style, a clarity and a readability that is not often the case in many academic books I can tell you. Although he was known as a journalist maybe that's why. Peter Fryer chapter 7, if there are any young people in here please look up 'Staying Power' by Peter Fryer and go to chapter 7 because there's a powerful analysis of how in the 18th and 19th centuries pseudo-scientific racial theories were developed and disseminated by universities, popular culture and across generations to cement into the social consciousness the fallacious notion of white racial superiority over all peoples of colour. And some white groups were not white enough but we don't have time to go into that right now.

It would take a century to counter such pseudo-racialised theories and they still have life today. In relation to the Black British settlement in the 20th century both World Wars brought a major influx of Africans and African Caribbeans from the colonies to work in the armed services and later to kick start the British economy in the 40s and 50s.

During the 1960s and the 1970s those born of African heritage in Britain and particularly in Liverpool would suffer from the many forms of institutionalised racism, poor education, poor job prospects. Stifled opportunities all round meant difficult times for all Black communities.

The 1980s and the 1990s brought riots, the militant left council and regeneration not to mention, or not to forget to mention, Alan Bleasdale's acclaimed 'Boys from the Blackstuff'. A Liverpool drama that captured the pain and struggle of working class Liverpool under Thatcher's government. My first home away from the family home was in Kelvin Grove and that was the street where they filmed Yosser's home. So it is very poignant to understand that I was living in the same street at Yosser Hughes, it gives you an indication of my life past. "Gissa job" [laughter]. OK, we'll move on. [Yosser was a key character in the series, working class and out of work.]

Liverpool saw the development of the Albert Dock complex after the 1981 riots. I remember asking Tarzan, the then-Tarzan of the Thatcher government Michael Heseltine, in the Liver Buildings behind us as a Charles Wooton student. "Can you assure", I said, "Can you assure that there will be jobs for Black people at the Albert Dock complex?" He answered in the political affirmative, talking through both sides of his mouth. In hindsight we now know that few jobs at the Albert Dock complex went to Liverpool born Blacks.

On a positive note, because we have to keep positive, we have to keep hope alive, Jesse Jackson was here not long ago. Access to higher education has opened up for those willing to defer gratification and take the long road to academic success. Some Black Liverpudlians took up the opportunities to further themselves via education and/or training.

But even in the first decade of the 21st century the Liverpool economy has not fully opened up its opportunity doors to Liverpool Black people. The city centre remains today largely a white enclave of economic activity. In 2007 there are few Black faces still in the city centre places. Or let me be more poetic. There are few Black faces in city centre places.

So let me move on to this powerpoint. To summarise thus far, I've put some meat on this talk tonight and we've gone through history and we've moved up to the present times. I want to speak about an apology and if I hurt somebody or we hurt somebody there are 3 components to an apology. Firstly say we're sorry, or "I'm sorry I hurt you" and (second) then we admit to doing the wrong. Finally it's the third component: what can I do or what can we do to make it right? We must understand those three components to an apology. What can we do to make it right? Let that run around your head - what can we do to make it right? We know that something bad went wrong in the past and the legacy of that is quite profound. What can we do to make it right?

In terms of the Liverpool – and my focus on the Liverpool slave trade apology as a case study because I was inextricably interwoven into this apology as a historical agent. There's a hidden history to it. I don't know whether many of you know this but a very quiet young lady, young student, young woman, Myrna Juarez, from Belize I believe, she was a former student of Charles Wootton. Many students of Charles Wootton came through and got into professional activity via the Charles Wootton Centre and then College. She was a Liberal councillor, very green, a little bit nervous. She used to live in Parkfield Road, I knew her from the Charles Wootton and we used to touch base and talk in Parkfield Road at the time, September/October 99. She was a very new councillor, Liberal and was asking me because she knew I was interested in Black history and culture she'd say "Mark what do you think about a slave apology?" I'd say "I think it would be good as long as there is some substance behind an apology". This young lady went ahead with this proposal and it's strange how this diminutive quiet soul could shake up the city to create a slave apology. Maybe if myself or Dave Smith had went knocking on the Liverpool City Council door [chuckles] it would have been closed or the police would have arrived, you know how it is.

So this young lady she gets things moving and I think in hindsight that that could be a good thing. She put forward this proposal and there was a guy there, the Lord Mayor at the time, Joe Devaney - am I pronouncing his name right? – a very positive guy, he was all for it. So basically through the minutes I found them - and the Liverpool City Council have been very gracious because I asked for these minutes and they did send them through via email. I found a note here, again inextricably interwoven into this history that the Liverpool City Council meeting of November 4th 99 would produce a report with appropriate members, the Lord Mayor and Dr Mark Christian. We never did write that report by the way but at least we were moving in the right direction. But we did meet with Liverpool Black organisations at the Liverpool 8 Law Centre and we drafted. They sent the apology, we tweaked it and we came to an agreement on what should be written in an apology.

So let me read you the formal apology. This is a Liverpool slave trade apology December of 99, this is how it looks [indicates slide in powerpoint presentation and reads it out].

"As its formal act of the second millennium the City Council acknowledges Liverpool's responsibility for its involvement in three centuries of the slave trade, a trade which influenced every aspect of the city's commerce and culture and affected the lives of all its citizens.

Whilst bequeathing the city with a rich diversity of people and cultures, learning, architecture and financial wealth it also obscured the human suffering upon which it was built. The untold misery which was caused has left a legacy which affects Black people in Liverpool today.

On behalf it the city, the City Council expresses its shame and remorse for the city's role in this trade in human misery. The City Council makes an unreserved apology for its involvement in the slave trade and the continual effects of slavery on Liverpool's Black community.

The first step towards reconciliation will be the basis upon which the city and all its people and institutions can grasp the challenges of the new millennium with a fresh and sustainable commitment to equality and justice in Liverpool. The City Council hereby commits itself to work closely with Liverpool communities and partners and with peoples of those countries which have carried the burden of the slave trade. The Council also commits itself to programmes of action with full participation of Liverpool's Black communities which will seek to combat all forms of racism and discrimination and will recognise and respond to the city's multiracial inheritance and celebrate the skills and talent of all its people."

All its people. So that's a very profound apology. That's very powerful. The problem is now, what do we do? How do we make things right? And here we are eight years, almost a decade later.

Lets look at Liverpool itself in terms of race and racism. I understand this is a sensitive issue but we have to bear with it and cross to the valley of optimism, yeah? From Charles Wootton in 1919, for those of you who don't know, he was a sailor who was murdered in Liverpool and a subsequent riot took place. Apparently Charles Wootton was actually chased to the docks here and he tried to swim away but he was ripped and pelted by both police, athough the police were in pursuit, as well as a mob. 1919.

And then Anthony Walker July 2007 [sic - 2005]. We've never really analysed the death of Anthony Walker, a horrible horrible death, waste. Let me say that 2005 for me, that people I don't think have written about, I think the swell of discontent towards people of colour, particularly anybody who looked Arab actually at that time because of 7/7 in London. I think there was the media, there was an upsurge again of hate and Anthony Walker may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time during that swell of retribution towards people of colour from the ignorant section of our community. And I think when time settles people will analyse Anthony Walker in the context of the broader national situation of 7/7 rather just a parochial Liverpool incident. But that's for future analysis.

But we can say that Liverpool's Black experience has been one of a constant battle against structural and individual acts of racism. If you look at some of the disturbances that have taken place throughout Liverpool there's a systematic issue, what I would consider race and class. Some say 1919 had something to do with sexual jealousy of the white community against Black people who consorted with white women, that's when I read the documents, but I think we're dealing with race and class essentially in all of these issues.

OK the longevity of institutional racism. We have the Swan report from 1985 and that actually gave a special reference to Liverpool-born Blacks because those of us of Black heritage in Liverpool, my heritage is Jamaican and my mother was Spanish and British, so a lot of people forget the Spanish Moors, so there's Black on both sides of my family but a lot of Spanish people don't know that or wont acknowledge it. But anyway, the Jamaican side is very prominent but we speak with the same accent as the average Liverpudlian. We understand the nuances of what it is to be in the city of Liverpool. But we have this historical experience of being socially marginalised and the Swan report actually gave a chapter on that because the issue was back then 'Well if these immigrants learn the English language then everything will be OK'. But that didn't suit the Liverpool Black experience because we did speak a Liverpool, British language. English language, with a twist of course [laughter].

So we have that historical record which clearly situates Liverpool-born Blacks as having a problem with social inclusion. 'Loosen the Shackles' comes by and that has a profound impact on Liverpool in terms of our understanding of institutionalised racism. The authors of that book, Lord Gifford, Ruth Bundey and Wally Brown, they said that they'd work in different cities and out of all of that experience their experience in Liverpool was uniquely horrific in terms of racism.

Ten years later we have the Stephen Lawrence MacPherson report. We have a definition that mainstream organisations all began to use - this is the definition of institutionalised racism. It is the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. That's what MacPherson called institutionalised racism.

But what was profound about this report is that the tragedy of Stephen is one side of it but the broader tragedy is the millions of young Blacks who are suffering in the institutional sense of British society. Not coming through the education system. Tapering off. Being excluded more than their white counterparts and so on and so forth. We are conspicuous by our absence in most key echelons of power. This is what was powerful about this Stephen Lawrence/MacPherson report. It acknowledged that not only the Police have institutionalised racism but other institutions in society.

So I'm giving you a context here of problems. We're coming to the 2000s and equality continues on a broad scale to evade Liverpool-born Blacks and others. My focus here is on the Liverpool slave trade in relation to the people of African heritage in all of their social and cultural complexity. But I'm not not mindful of the other inequalities that exist - sexism against Asian and people of Arab heritage. I'm aware of all of that but my focus tonight is on Liverpool Blacks specifically.

The Liverpool City Council came up with a report in 2000. It took place between May 99 and January 2000. Made up of seven councillors and seven residents. This is some of their key findings. Liverpool City Council's practices are discriminatory. Liverpool City Council continues to exclude many people in its work force. Individuals and communities do not receive a fair equal service. Liverpool City Council has an appalling record on equal opportunities with its image, its ethos and its culture.

That's a very damning report, very depressing. 2000, a year after the apology to put it in context.

This is what I came across because I had to prepare for this and I knew somebody would ask me about up to date references. Here we have something from 2007, it's a report I found by the Merseyside Black Police Association. Their annual report, on page 12 so you can take a record of this if you like. In a section entitled 'Liverpool Apartheid' which is a very powerful phrase to use in 2007, they say (and this is the Merseyside Black Police Association, this is not Charles Wootton or the Liverpool 8 Law Centre);

"Very few indigenous black people could be seen in employment in Liverpool city centre. Where black people were employed it tended to be in low-paid positions where little training or skills are required."

What do we do with that quote? What is happening in Liverpool for this to continue decade after decade, this exclusion?

So Liverpool-born Black exclusion, let's try and understand it. I was speaking with Gloria Hyatt, who's very famous now, she has an MBE. An MBE. I've said that twice. I'm very happy for her, I would not be happy for myself to accept an MBE, but that's another story. Me and Gloria, we speak on this topic all the time and we will continue tonight after the lecture.

She's done very, very well as an educational activist in this city. There's no doubt about that.

She says, if I'm citing her right, that there continues to be exclusionary tactics regarding the monitoring of indigenous Liverpool-born Blacks who she says are still the largest racialised minority group in the city. And this is by the Liverpool Education Authority.

My argument is more focused on those cultural groups who have English as a second language seems to be the strategy. That there's more focus still on groups that need to learn English, but what about the Liverpool-born Blacks? It seems that those in power have forgotten the Swan report - indigenous Liverpool-born Blacks have a specific history of being racially stigmatised and that's been well documented.

I want you to see the Charles Wootton College. I took this picture two months ago. If you take a drive up Parliament Street you will see it on your right. A dilapidated English Heritage building I believe. It's going to be turned into a block of flat and offices.

But once this disappears a generation will come and go and will not even know where the Charles Wootton was. It will be a folklore history like many other buildings in the city. But this building has so much. That building there produced the majority of Liverpool Black organisations in the late seventies, early eighties. The Liverpool 8 Defence Committee met with Heseltine there in the basement. While they were meeting, I was doing algebra. I used to look out of this window, dreaming about life and the future. I see this now, this dilapidated building and I think of the slave apology and I think of the Liverpool City Council and I think of its promise to work with the Black community.

Is this dilapidation all the fault of the Liverpool City Council. I would say here no. We too must take responsibility, those Black people who have power and the last Director of the Charles Wootton College and I spent a lot of time as a student supporting his work, he did not do the right thing in the end to pass on to the next generation. I'll leave it there because it gets a little bit tricky. But what we can say is that we can't blame everything on the Liverpool City Council. Although they don't have a great record, we were given this opportunity and we could have built that into something really special.

So many individuals have come out of that dilapidated building, myself included. I had no qualifications when I left school so I went back to the Charles Wootton like many other Liverpool Blacks because that's how we filtered through the system. The ones who have got a little bit of talent, it doesn't emerge until their late teens and early twenties. I came through that route. Without that, I wouldn't be here. You see? That's 25 years ago. I remember meeting Heseltine. I remember coming out of this door here and Heseltine comes walking forward with all the press behind him and I'm going for a Kitkat. And I'm on the 5.45 news shaking Heseltine's hand on the steps of the Charles Wootton and I was going for a Kitkat (chocolate bar). It was break time!

Then I met him. We were a group because when anything Black happened in Liverpool they came to the Charles Wootton. When anything happened they would call the Charles Wootton. There was a press release once a month. It had a profound effect on my consciousness. That's why I have this passion for maintaining a historical record.

I was very disappointed to see the outcome of the Charles Wootton, because I think it's still needed today.

This, let me move on, is going to be flats and offices, I don't know who owns it or what will happen. Will they have a Black perspective involved in that, I'm not sure, I would say no. It's a symbol of regeneration but it's also for me a symbol of reneging on promise because we had an institution there that had a powerful record of developing young black individuals and giving them a chance. Not only that, many Black teachers who were being shunned in mainstream would congregate at the Charles Wootton and teach courses.

I remember a visitor to the Charles Wootton said "You guys have got more qualifications than I've got across my university department". There was a lot of talent at the Charles Wootton. It was a place for educational discourse from a Black perspective. That's a very powerful story for you to think about.

Then let's focus on Toxteth or Liverpool 8, the media's baby. Selected Toxteth statistics. Granby Street, still largely dilapidated. This is what we have in the area. High unemployment, low education. High deprivation, low housing expectation. High on drug use, low on book use. High on gentrification [in writing], low on egalitarianism. A high percentage of Liverpool-born Blacks without work, a low percentage of anyone who cares it seems.

So, in conclusion, I'm coming up with some recommendations. They're not etched in stone, it's just something for us to think about. As we consider the Liverpool slave trade apology as a sincere apology, I've read those words and they're very powerful words to hold the City Council to its word, we must also consider the third component of an apology, what can we do to make things right. Without concrete measurement of progress, the slave trade apology has no substance. You cannot apologise in 1999 and then close down the Charles Wootton in 2000.

It would be no more than a hollow statement. There should be more done to eradicate structural inequality and racism in Liverpool. It goes beyond rhetoric. Don't set up another task force. Don't set up another committee to come up with a report that's going to tell us the same depressing statistics. Just do something.

This is what I've come up with that's tangible and this relates to reparations. I know it's a tricky term this, reparations, there's a lot of cynical people out there you know, for eample, those that state 'My grandfather had nothing to do with slavery'. If you understand white privelige and race and ethnicity, if you have a white skin and you look white, then you've got a better life chance than people of colour. That's the social reality of our world, I'm sorry but that's the way it goes.

These are the recommendations for an action plan. A ten point slavery legacy plan for Liverpool-born Blacks. And it should be supported by the Liverpool City Council.

  • I believe the wealth of our universities can come up with education scholarships that can help that specific target group. Those young people who come to get a scholarship must have at least showed the energy for wanting to be successful. I think we could come up with, these universities of ours, with scholarships that meet this discussion. It's not much to ask for.
  • I think there should be a housing council tax deduction on those that can deem themselves Liverpool-born Blacks. Why should people pay higher taxes when they have low services. This is a very controversial question/point and it probably will hit a brick wall but I'm going to say it anyway.
  • Employment, internships in local politics, media. I met a young man today who writes a column for the Liverpool Echo. That is like breaking through a rock, a boulder, to get a young Black individual, he's not online yet which means he's not being read but it's a step in the right direction. This is what I mean by if the Liverpool Echo opens its doors to a young Black writer then we hear a different voice. That's diversity, then we need women, you know the story. But it has to be tangible.
  • I believe the bank sector, particularly Barclays, if you study Barclays it goes right back to the Heywood Bank which was developed out of the profits of enslavement. You know all this - the Bank of Liverpool and then we lead Martins Bank through to Barclays Bank. Surely Barclays Bank can come up with some internship for Liverpool-born Blacks who want to take up banking for a career. I don't think this is too much to ask.
  • Christian scholarships. I mention Christian because I hear the Church is very sorry and you know the Church branded people in - they called it the Society in something I read, I'm recalling the article - the Society, Christian Church, branding. Brand some scholarships in the memory of enslaved Africans.
  • Police and law training scholarships. We need police. We need the police. People are critical of the Police and I've been very critical of the Police but in relation to the Anthony Walker affair I was very impressed that they apprehended the ones who did it, they called it a racially motivated crime and they put the guys behind bars. They did a very good job. They didn't do that with Stephen Lawrence. So, let's give something but there's still a long way to go for the Police to get the whole thing right in Liverpool. Young Black people can be still criminalised unfortunately.
  • There should be apprenticeships in construction trades. I've gone through Liverpool today, I visited in September and took a few photos and I'm seeing massive reconstruction taking place. How many young Blacks or young Whites from Liverpool are working in these building sites.
  • Affordable housing in prime city centre regions. We have something taking place in Liverpool that is profoundly beneficial economically, but will young Liverpool people be able to draw into that. I'm not sure. Particularly Liverpool Black people. There should be some way and I don't know how but if they can create the slave trade they can create some housing for Blacks. And I don't mean segregated housing, I just mean affordable space.
  • There should be a childcare voucher for Liverpool Blacks. Considering this historical discrimination which has stifled Black development in this city, let's give some childcare vouchers to get women, young children, young men who look after their children a chance to get into education. They'll probably be in their mid-twenties if they do, in Liverpool.
  • I think there should be a retirement home that the City Council can set up, particularly for Liverpool Blacks. It could be open to the relatives of Liverpool Blacks, whom many are white. I'm not talking about segregated housing here, I'm talking about a home specifically for Liverpool-born Blacks and their families. This is something structural that could be there and we could all celebrate.

This is small. This is a small-scale and do-able action plan.

I also believe there should be a Liverpool-born Black institute for social economic and cultural research by the Liverpool City Council. I think I've just relayed to you some of the historical paths we're taking in terms of reports and you know and I know that the same findings keep emerging - a lack of Black empowerment is a constant theme.

As we open up for questions, I want all of you to think about what is this longevity of institutionalised racism? How do you think as white people in this audience? Does race matter? Maybe it doesn't matter to you. How does it manifest itself? How does it manifest itself when people go for jobs?

We have ageism, sexism and racism in jobs still. How do we get across this in future?