“They can put the chains on your body; never let them put the chains on your mind”
The best show on TV at the moment is hidden away on BBC Four.
Poignant, heart-wrenching and urgent: critically acclaimed mini-series Roots is airing on BBC Four on Wednesdays at 9pm, and the trailer shows just why you should (almost) immediately head over to BBC iPlayer to catch-up.
The original series of Roots, a history of American slavery told through the lineage of one family, was a phenomenon when it was aired in the United States in 1977. The ABC network, fearful of audience indifference, was overwhelmed by its success, with 85% of all houses with TVs tuned in. An estimated 100 million Americans watched the series finale, which remains the second-highest-rated episode for any US television drama.
The $50m remake, originally commissioned by the History Channel, was broadcast to great critical acclaim in the United States last May, just as a presidential candidate was revelling in the support of the Ku Klux Klan and encouraging the abuse of black protesters at his rallies. Now that he has somehow found himself in the White House and the vitriolic nationalists hold sway, Roots is arguably even more vital as a tool with which Americans might take stock of the racism that lies ingrained in their country’s psyche.
Picked up by BBC Four in the UK, the epic Emmy-nominated saga begins in eighteenth-century West Africa with a young and proud Kunta Kinte training to become a Mandinka warrior in Juffure, The Gambia. Captured and enslaved in his homeland by a rival tribe, Kunta is trafficked across the Atlantic in harrowing conditions, leading a failed rebellion against the English-speaking ship crew en route. Upon arrival in colonial America, he is sold to a Virginian tobacco magnate to be deployed on a plantation. Enslaved but not a slave, Kunta’s spirit is relentlessly challenged and his body brutally degraded. Yet, he resiliently clings to his identity, resisting at the whipping post the imposed slave name of Toby.
Roots has an epic scope as an ambitious tetralogy of two-hour dramas, spanning multiple generations, and tracing a historical portrait of the African American experience from slavery to reconstruction by recounting the journey of one family and their will to survive, endure and ultimately continue their legacy despite unbearable hardship and inhumanity. Throughout the series, the family is faced with colossal suffering, injustice and adversity while bearing witness and contributing to notable events in U.S. history, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, slave uprisings and eventual emancipation. The legacy of Kunta Kinte and his family is one that echoes through the history of millions of Americans of African descent, and it reveals powerful truths about the universal resilience of the human spirit.
The stellar casting mixes established stars of screens big and small including Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland, Arrival), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Mystic River), Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Vikings), with upcoming talents including Rege-Jean Page (Waterloo Road), and Malachi Kirby (Eastenders), who stars in the iconic role of Kunta Kinte. Kirby has a magnetic presence as the headstrong Mandinka warrior, brilliantly negotiating Kunta’s transition from naïve, zealous recruit to stern, indomitable rebel. When Kinte arrives in Virginia he is met by Fiddler, played by Oscar-winner Forest Whittaker. Fiddler’s transformation from hopeless and submissive plaything of his owner’s family to protector and confidant of Kinte is assured and spirited in the hands of Whittaker. Special mention must also go to Tony Curran (Gladiator, The Adventures of Tintin) for his unnerving performance as malignant plantation overseer, Connolly. There are in fact strong performances across the board, instilling confidence in every major character and complicity in their hope.
But it is the unwavering commitment to realism which makes the show so important. It moves with blistering pace, often regretfully. It is angry and beautiful, shameful and shaming, bloody and viciously vital to any of our histories. For the viewers, and for the actors involved, a knowledge of that history only heightens the gruelling visceral reaction to the inhumanity and injustice portrayed in this nuanced and poetic retelling of this most shameful history. Although the unrelenting tribulations of the family will provoke audible winces and groans, there is no sadism for its own sake, and the lush production values occasionally serve to dilute the horror that unfolds. Nevertheless, even the most stylised depictions of brandings, lashings and beatings never fail to have an impact, and scenes of hangings, forced amputations and rape prove immensely distressing to watch.
Roots brings the dark truth of America’s eighteenth-century rise into the light far more powerfully than any textbook, yet far fewer viewers will spend eight hours of their lives immersed in this saga than did almost 40 years ago. Diminishing television audiences aside, the potential spectatorship of such powerful and moving drama has been dearly depleted by its curious consignment to the relative obscurity of BBC Four.
While there’s not a hope in hell that this would be considered essential viewing in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rest of the world should sit up and take notice of such raw and unflinching drama. This is a powerful retelling of a harrowing story that is as resonant today as it undoubtedly was when the original series first aired nearly 40 years ago. Its sheer force and urgency mean it deserves to impact upon a new generation of viewers.
The reaction of the mainstream media to the defeat of the Labour Party in the Copeland by-election was wholly predictable. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn is not entirely blameless when it comes to the result, but the narrative that the blame is solely his has been uniformly set, and the mass of mindless political commentators is out in force regurgitating this simplistic trope. The reality, however, is that the decline in support for Labour in Copeland is not a new phenomenon, and is in fact an ongoing process that stretches back long before Corbyn was even elected to lead the party.
Simply put, Copeland was not a “safe” Labour seat in this by-election. It is true that Copeland had been Labour Party territory for decades, but it has become a marginal constituency, with a Labour majority of just 2,000 votes in 2015. The Labour peak in Copeland came in 1997 when Jack Cunningham won the seat with 58% of the vote. Ever since then the Labour Party has been on a downwards trajectory in Copeland -and Jamie Reed knew it when he resigned. Labour had lost 6.4% of the vote in 2001, another 1.3% in 2005, another 4.5% of the vote in 2010 and yet another 3.7% in 2015.
The 2017 by-election saw yet another decline in the Labour vote share of 4.9%. That means that Labour has lost support in Copeland in five successive elections over the course of the last 20 years. Corbyn clearly cannot be blamed for that long-term decline in the Labour vote, but he has evidently failed to reverse the trend. Yet, even if Labour had been able to arrest the decline in its vote share, it would still have lost the Copeland by-election. In 2015, 42.3% of the vote was enough for Jamie Reed to win the seat, but the Tory candidate this week bagged 44.3% of the vote.
The question, then, is how did the Tories manage to leapfrog Labour to such an extent that Labour would still have lost even if their vote share had remained intact? The answer lies in the collapse of the UKIP vote, which fell from 15.5% in 2015 to just 6.5% in 2017. This 9% fall in their vote share is almost exactly mirrored by the 8.5% increase in the Tory vote.
The real story from Copeland is that voters across the country are abandoning UKIP in their droves to throw their support behind Theresa May’s right-wing authoritarian agenda. In the run up to the 2016 EU referendum, UKIP consistently polled above 15%. Less than a year later, they’re averaging less than 12% and gradually slipping further. As the single issue party now bereft of that single issue, it is inevitably to a Tory government mimicking UKIP’s anti-European posturing and anti-immigration rhetoric that UKIP is shipping its votes, rather than to the europhile Liberal Democrats or a Labour Party too focused on internal factional conflict to define a coherent position for the party on Brexit.
Whether Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, or by some as-yet-unnamed alternative figure more popular and talented than any of the numerous already defeated contenders, the leeching of the UKIP vote threatens to entrench Tory rule for decades to come. The Tories already have a considerable electoral advantage, and if they pick up further percentage points from UKIP and succeed in the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, England will end up as a de facto one-party state.
Even a unified Labour Party promoting consistent political alternatives would be facing an uphill challenge given this inevitable leeching of UKIP sympathisers, but in its current state, Labour faces electoral oblivion. Among its priorities ought to be a renewal of its appeal to Scottish voters. In the last election, the Scottish National Party won 40 seats from Labour, which, under Blairite leadership, had taken left-leaning Scotland for granted for far too long. Yet, Labour Party politicians the stature of Sadiq Khan seem determined to consign Scottish Labour to irreversible ostracisation with insulting rhetoric that labels the majority of working age Scots as racists for daring to seek independence from Westminster rule.
To pin the blame solely on Jeremy Corbyn, then, is demonstrably ludicrous. Corbyn cannot help being a limited public speaker. Neither can he help the fact that talent is so sparse in the Labour Party ranks that he has seen off all leadership challengers with consummate ease. The internal party critics, however, could have actually tried to contribute to a victory, rather than constantly plotting, backstabbing and briefing against him to the press before howling hysterically when a divided Labour then loses elections.
Current affairs cannot be understood without an appreciation of history. It goes without saying that history is an ongoing process, and that the status quo of politics and international relations in which we operate is the culmination of centuries of events. It is therefore insufficient to merely watch the news, absorb its narrative, and regurgitate its zeitgeist without a greater consideration of the wider historical context.
Just as the origins of the Second World War cannot be understood without an appreciation of the First World War, equally, the origins of the civil war in Syria lay far deeper in history than the events of the Arab Spring, and police brutality against the black community in the United States is but a more recent incarnation of historic institutional racism.
Take the issue of Brexit, for example. The decision to leave the European Union will likely be the most important political decision made in Britain for a generation. Admittedly, BBC Question Time is no longer – if ever it were – the epitome of informed and accessible debate on politics and current affairs. Nevertheless, what the participation of its audience betrays is the astonishing prevalence of historical illiteracy in this country, even among those who are comparatively engaged with current affairs. The rose-tinted jingoism of Question Time‘s Brexiteer audience members, who are sufficiently interested in the subject matter as to seek participation, represents a galling ignorance of crucial history and a disregard more generally of the importance of examining historical context.
Every Thursday night, David Dimbleby unwittingly invites the obligatory pompous Brexiteer in the audience to ignorantly eulogise about the glorious centuries of long since lost British grandeur. Last night was no different. One audience member, demanding that Labour’s Owen Smith stop “whinging” about Brexit, and denouncing the European Union as an obstacle to true democracy in Britain, declared that:
“For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way. We’ve been a light unto the world!”
It is difficult to know where to begin with that assessment. Some leapt to her defence, citing her right to an opinion. Frankly, however, the validity of amateur opinion on the subject of imperial rule pales against its demonstrable realities. Moreover, it is this propagation of ill-informed jingoism that betrays the shameful prevalence of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris in this country. Most disconcertingly, this is the expressed conviction of someone who, by participating in Question Time, is demonstrating an engagement with current affairs far greater than that of much of the public. If even those who claim an interest in current affairs fail to appreciate the importance of historical context, the likely ignorance of wider society to such themes ought to be alarming.
Firstly, the simple claim of “thousands of years” of British rule. I must be somewhat ignorant of the dominance of the British in the Neolithic era of three thousand plus years ago, during which time Britons began renouncing their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, instead adopting the newfangled practices of agriculture. Two thousand years ago, it was the Romans ruling Britannica. After them came the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, and – ignoring the fact that they were not at all British – they were still far from ruling the world. Even one thousand years ago, the Normans had not yet arrived, and it was China that ruled with the British irrelevant on the world stage. Indeed, during the thirteenth century, the Mongols decided against invading deeper into Europe because the potential spoils of war were far greater in China and the Middle East.
Secondly, the claim that Britain “ruled in a wonderful way”. I’ll go into a little more detail here, just in the hope of smashing a few astonishingly prevalent myths surrounding British history. Instead of “thousands of years” of British rule, then, this audience member was presumably referring to the period of several hundred years during which Britain arguably exercised global dominance. Herein lies the problem. There is little accounting for the motivations, methods and justification through which such dominance was achieved. The answer, of course, is that it was achieved through, and guaranteed by, empire. That empire was not given, earned or acquired fairly, but stolen through invasion, subjugation and murder, and maintained through devastation, exploitation and genocide. What seems disconcertingly to be required, is a sobering recognition of the brutalities of British imperialism, pursued solely for the rapid accumulation of wealth and power, with “scientific racism” embraced as a means by which to legitimise the depredation of the inferior Other.
1) Transatlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans
Before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain had been the foremost slave trading nation in Europe. In 245 years, British ships made 11,000 voyages to the New World, trafficking 3.4 million enslaved Africans and condemning them to a lifetime of brutal oppression on the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.
The abolition of the slave trade, however, was not the product of a moral awakening as to its inhumanity. On the contrary, it was a pragmatic response to shifting economic conditions and the threat of slave revolt, as witnessed in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804. The institution of slavery continued in British colonies until 1833, and in territories delegated to the East India Company until as late as 1847. When slavery was finally outlawed, it was the expropriated former slaveowners – not the former slaves – that received financial compensation from the government.
2) British Concentration Camps in the Boer War
During the Second Boer War, the British army established concentration camps in which it imprisoned around 115,000 civilians, mostly women and children, to prevent their support of enemy fighters. Black people were also forced into camps as labourers for the re-opened gold mines.
With insufficient food supplies, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical arrangements, around 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in these concentration camps.
3) The Partition of India
In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with doing something for which the British were already notorious – drawing ill-considered, often arbitrary, straight lines on a map to create volatile new states. The border between India and Pakistan was decided over the course of one single lunch.
The border was drawn along religious lines, dividing colonial India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Ten million Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the line were uprooted, and around 1 million people died in the ensuing violence.
4) The Suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising
In 1952, Mau Mau fighters from Kenya’s major ethnic group, the Kikuyu, rebelled against the colonial rule responsible for their economic marginalisation and the expropriation of their lands by white settlers.
Contrary to the assertion of that audience member, then, British rule was far from “a light unto the world”. Although such a brazen claim resonates as chillingly jingoistic to any reader of history, the reality is that she is far from alone in clinging to this absurd conviction. A recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of, and almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of their colonisation. Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise to “take our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”. Integral to this nostalgic yearning for a time when Britain “ruled the waves” as a great power are the silencing of the brutality of empire, the neglect of the hundreds of millions of people who died at the hands of its vicious regime, and an ignorance of the fact that it was eventually the rebellions of the oppressed that forced its rightful collapse.
Herein lies the crux of my argument. The persistence of such troubling public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Given the shameful atrocities detailed above, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that school children might skip from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that vital period in between in which Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known. Yet, it is in this void of inadequate education that foments a misplaced nostalgia for former glories, a subscription to the comforting myth of benign British rule, and a susceptibility to what Winston Churchill described as “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Simply, if the history of empire is not taught at school, it is too rarely learned later. In popular culture, the narrative of empire is artfully navigated. Allusions to such history concede merely superficial detail so as to avoid the disturbing reckoning with the brutality of colonialism that its accurate depiction would provoke. Thus, an unapologetic adulation of empire cajoles the uninformed into believing in a falsified version of benevolent imperialism in order to avoid confessing to the shameful realities of “scientific racism” and the systematic exploitation of a fifth of the world’s population.
It is therefore excruciating to hear this lauding of the value of the Commonwealth and the express wish to exploit its plentiful bounty, precisely because such a mentality ignores this relevant history. Brexiteers revel in citing the ambiguous “shared values” of the Commonwealth and in espousing fanciful dreams of favourable trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, their appeal to the Commonwealth is itself the result of this resurgent imperial nostalgia, and it belies a conceited albeit abstract longing for the reinstatement of the glorious British dominance of that relationship. Brexiteers decry the injustices of immigration laws that elevate the status of EU citizens above that of those from the Commonwealth. Yet, studies into the motivations of Leave voters suggest that they would object to the influx of immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria and Pakistan likely incurred as a result of the revival of trading relations with the Commonwealth.
The absurdity of the term “Commonwealth” is itself normalised. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, is intimately tied to the subjugation and exploitation of these countries through empire, colonialism and slavery. The stolen profits of this tyrannical hegemony fuelled the ascension of Britain to global power status, while fomenting the devastating poverty, instability and conflict that continue to wreak havoc on many parts of the Commonwealth. In truth, nothing could be further from the truth than this myth of the creation of, and sharing in, a “common wealth”.
Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy. Perhaps an education of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would provide a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this day. Perhaps it is only through the study of history that we may ever hope to arrest the slide of mankind towards further atrocities.