The only bad argument my family has had since Lockdown began has been about the #BlackLivesMatter protests: one person maintaining that it was all somehow ‘America’s problem’ and that there was no ‘serious racism’ in the UK, others taking very different viewpoints.
I believe all racism is serious and yet I wasn’t planning to blog about #BlackLivesMatter. Why? Good question. Probably, if I am honest, out of a fear of flack; that by saying anything at all, I might somehow ‘get it wrong’ and be vilified.
Then an incident happened to change my mind. The admin of a local Facebook noticeboard site I like – the one where people ask for help finding a plumber, thank the NHS, hunt for local property or post pretty pictures of local scenery etc – took down a photograph very like this one.
This may have happened for good but misguided reasons: the admin may have wished to avoid inciting riotous assembly during Lockdown, or may have perceived the posters as political statements. Both perceptions are wrong, as this is a Covid-appropriate protest unlikely to foment a desire to march along Fortrose High Street. The #BlackLivesMatter movement transcends politics. Yes, it may well be politically manipulated at times, but if that leads to the fall of any racist and corrupt political figure, I for one will not be shedding any tears.
What interested me in particular was the instinctive choice of the old mercat cross for this small act of corrugated-cardboard-and-sharpie protest. Please don’t be sanctimonious and say it is defacing an ancient monument. People have been taping or propping up notices on and against the mercat cross, myself included, quite literally for ever.
Once the mercat cross stood in the north-western corner of the cathedral grounds. It has not been moved: more extensive in the past, cathedral land stretched from the High Street to Rose Street, from Union Street to Academy Street. The main function of any mercat cross is to grant the right to free assembly, so market traders could come together and flog their wares. Whichever king granted one to a town made the calculation that its people were staunch good citizens unlikely to rise against him.
Mercat crosses became the Facebook noticeboards of their day. Here you would stand to seek employment, protest and share news. Perhaps, in 1833, Fortrose folk stood at the cross to be told that the beginning of righting an ancient wrong had come about with the Abolition of Slavery Act. We know the name of Wilberforce but that achievement was also in part brought about by a small, domestic act of protest: women in the main refusing to buy plantation sugar. People here in the Black Isle would have been among them.
There are echoes of slavery and the #ToxicColonialism which brought it about everywhere. Many of the great houses in the Black Isle and farmland were bought with or built on ‘black gold’, plantation wealth. Does it mean they should be torn down today? Of course not. They are happy 21st century family homes. Those who live there cannot and should not now be held responsible for the sins of our forefathers. But we do need to acknowledge those sins existed, talk about them, understand not just who and when but why, share the story with all local children. History lessons should include the shameful, the uncomfortable and the horrifying as well as the entertaining and the the progress and the military victories.
The toppled statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol should surely now be removed to a museum intact and interpreted there as a warning. Melting down his effigy in bronze does not right his wrongs or punish him, for he, like those he oppressed, became dust long ago. I would keep this statue horizontal. Why? So that he can be looked down on, a powerful metaphor, so that the act of toppling him can also become part of the story, to be interpreted to every generation hereafter as the moment, perhaps, when viewpoints really began to change.
Travel helps understanding. I am old enough to have visited South Africa under apartheid. I was taken to Soweto for a tour. We visited a school. Our group of all-white tourists was led straight into a classroom without knocking. The teacher stopped mid-lesson. The children stood, their eyes on the floor. How many times a day did this happen? My mother, a teacher herself, was outraged and tried to apologise but our white guide prevented it and moved us on. I was 14 but have never forgotten it. I also visited Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia, less oppressive than South Africa at the time but still a culture shock. The fact that both countries have suffered terribly in the aftermath of the overthrow of white rule does not make that white rule any more justified. One led to the other, both of them outcomes of #ToxicColonialism.
As a linguist and genealogist I know that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ race. Indo-European tribes journeyed north, settling as they went, creating fledgling languages and nations. My own bloodlines come from many places, including a ‘quadroon’ (mixed race) heiress from a plantation family in Kingston, Jamaica. Unusually there is a family portrait of her. A beautiful, dark haired and dark-skinned woman. Perhaps my own skin and hair owes a tiny debt to her. My DNA testing also shows me to be a real mixed bag, more European than British, more Scandinavian than Scots. Am I still white, and privileged? Of course I am. But I have thought about all this, and thought hard, and quietly tried to become the best iteration of myself that I can. I met my best friend in France and her children are half French, half Congolese. My own children have grown up seeing them as part of the extended family.
Without my Sikh publishers Kashi House, Major Tom’s War would probably never have seen the light of day. Through them I was able to travel to India, to overcome many preconceptions and prejudices and, yes, fears, and to make friends for life. In India, I was often the only white person among Indians in a land scarred and severed by #ToxicColonialism. I was treated with immense curiosity at times but also with unfailing courtesy and such kindness I felt humbled. Strangers helped me, chatted, shared their food, just as I have often helped strangers myself, here in the Highlands.
As the way forward I believe in a world of small countries which interconnect, not in superpowers, who are still forcing #ToxicColonialism on us dressed up, for example, as vile trade agreements for importing chlorinated chicken.
It is heartening to see that some of the youngsters where I live are still capable of independent thought rather than living through the chillingly manipulative culture of Instagram and TikTok. So if you pass the merkat cross and see their notices, stop for a moment. Read them. Think. Pray if you are of a mind to. Don’t just tut-tut or accelerate past them or worst of all, take them down. Our beleaguered democracy may be on the ropes at present but we do, still, just, have the right to freedom of speech.
Long may it last.