The following debate first appeared in the Voice Newspaper. Each week, I chair a debate with members of the Writers of Colour collective.
Even before he won Best Picture at this week’s 86th Oscar’s ceremony, British director, Steve McQueen’s mantelpiece was straining under the weight of awards including a Golden Globe and a Bafta.
12 Years a Slave, his presentation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing memoir of brutality under slavery, has everyone talking about this horrific period of human history again.
But is remembering slavery a vital part of understanding the world we live in now or a damaging ball-and-chain which keeps us stuck in the past?
YES – Rohail Ahmad
When I argue in favour of forgetting about colonial slavery, I obviously do not mean it literally.
What I do mean is that we should not fixate on it. We should learn and remember the lessons of all periods of history, but avoid becoming too obsessed with one thing only.
Although colonial slavery was one of the most brutal periods in history, and is the basis of the current global imbalance, history is littered with brutality by all countries, races and religions.
The danger of becoming fixated on one period only, whether it be colonial slavery or the Nazi holocaust, is that we may use these as excuses for committing our own crimes and also forgetting current injustices. Fixating on past crimes like slavery cultivates a victim mentality.
We may use it as an excuse for failure, rather than tackling current problems.
It perpetuates the myth of the “evil white man” versus “the innocent black man”.
It perpetuates the notion of otherness, the very concept that enables such atrocities to occur in the first place.
No country or race is entirely without sin, whether it be direct or collusive; this is not surprising, since we are still struggling to become fully human.
Slavery has existed since the dawn of time, and is still with us in the form of cheap labour in poor countries or human trafficking for sex or manual labour.
These are the urgent problems that require our attention right now, and would also be the best homage to the unspeakable horror that was colonial slavery.
No – Shane Thomas
Things don’t exist in a vacuum.
Without realising this, it is difficult to comprehend why Britain should always acknowledge its past with the slave trade, and how it affects our country today.
A common response to discussions about slavery is something along the lines of, “It was years ago. Move on. If we spend all our time living in the past, how can we progress?”
Well, since slavery was abolished in Britain, what exactly have its black people “progressed” to?
From the criminal justice system, to career progression, to housing, to education, blacks consistently have more hurdles to clamber over than whites to prosper in life.
Education is a key point. It’s only by normalising the narrative around how black people were forcibly extracted from their homes, to be treated as animals for generations, can the entirety of Britain truly progress to a more equitable and just country for all.
It’s telling the director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen said that he was angry at himself that he had never heard of the original memoir, before realising that nobody in his social circle had heard of it either. It was once a bestseller, before falling out of the common consciousness. This is a tangible example of what can happen when slavery is forgotten.
In a recent column, journalist, Matthew Syed wrote, “History is not an irrelevant relic; it anchors the here and now.”
Forget slavery? We need to remember never to forget.
What do you think?
Join the debate on Twitter #forgetslavery
Slavery is a toxin that poisons the culture that has enslaved and that was enslaved. This is so obvious that it hardly needs elucidation.
If you are of a culture that enslaved, when will the legacy of mindset that allowed it cease to affect your the sub-consious of your world-view? If yours was enslaved, when will the wound of injustice be erased?
Whatever the cure is, it cannot and will never lie in forgetting.