A Black History of Britain?

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It is impossible to explore the history of Britain without encountering black people; men and women of African descent. Their faces can be found staring back at us from thousands of British paintings and archive photographs, their voices arise from the pages of official documents as well as private memoirs and diaries. Black people can be found in high art and low culture, in literature and theatre and in peace and in conflict. There were black soldiers at Waterloo and black sailors at Trafalgar; black pilots crewed bombers in World War Two and men from Africa and the Caribbean fought across the globe in World War One.

African peoples have lived in Britain constantly since the 17th Century but first arrived here during Roman times. Without understanding the presence of people of African descent in Britain, and within the areas of the world into which the British spread, from the 16th Century onwards, it is impossible to make sense of our collective history. Yet what we have come to understand as Black History is not a collective history but a marginal and separate one. I think there is a big prize to be reached for; a new black British history. One that is truly global, social as well as economic, focused on slavery where appropriate but also attuned to the wider story of empire.

What I want to talk about is how we might reimagine black history. The simple, undeniable, inexorable reality of the new demographics of early 21st Century Britain calls out for a new approach. We are moving to an age in which the 'black community' could end up being smaller than the mixed-race community. We might, in decades to come be a country in which black families in which all the faces are black will be rare, or they will be the families of recent immigrants.

The enormous increase in racial-mixing in the Britain of 2014 is not just a story of inter-racial couples and mixed-race children but of their families and extended families. Each mixed-race child has cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. There are now millions of white Britons who, when they flick through their family photos on tablets and smartphones, see the black and brown faces of children and grand-children sons and daughters in law.

While you yourself might not be mixed-race and you might not be in a mixed race relationship-but you might well still be a member of a mixed-race, extended family. That experience is becoming the new normal, for white and black people in this country. Black people in Britain today are doing what their Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian predecessors did – amalgamating and integrating. This has been one of the patterns of our history; a history that helps explains the present, sets modern trends within a deeper context and discredits the notion that the history of 'black Britain' can be understood as a separate or marginal one. We need a new black British history - a Black History of Britain.

Image credit: David Olusoga at St Michael’s Church, Burgh-by-Sands. Photograph: Des Willie/BBC/Des Willie