Friday, April 06, 2007

A long wait for freedom

As a black woman in politics, I am used to receiving offensive mail. Sometimes it is racist, particularly when I have talked about identity and being black and British. Since the Prime Minister's statement in November last year, when he expressed "our deep sorrow that the slave trade ever happened", I have received a lot of mail.

Some ask: "Why should the British government apologise?" or "What gives you as an immigrant the right to comment on Britain?" Others have written: "Where do you think you would have been without slavery? You seem to be doing OK for yourself" and even: "Why don't the Romans apologise for invading us?"

At the end of last month, I attended the Westminster Abbey service commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. I wondered what my ancestors, slaves from West Africa, would have made of the event and the fact that a descendant of theirs was in the British cabinet.

Halfway through the ceremony, one man started protesting that the service was an inappropriate way to remember the suffering of the enslaved. I disagreed with his stance and would not have made such an intervention at a service of commemoration, but I also understood that his actions reflected the pain and anger that the transatlantic slave trade still has the power to evoke today.

This anniversary has raised a number of issues and questions which are fundamental to our modern British identity. We've spent years avoiding any discussion of these - slavery, oppression, the extent to which our ancestors might have participated in the trade and benefited from it.

We need a national conversation about the nature of that history and we are best able to do that if we and future generations understand our shared past. We can be proud that Britons were at the forefront of abolition, but at the same time we must accept that we owe some of our current prosperity to slavery.

Yet, when the government included the transatlantic slave trade in the history curriculum, one Tory MP reflected the opinions of many in his party when he described it as "a stark example of the politically correct lobby hijacking the citizenship agenda" and our so-called "island story". Political correctness? Is that really how he saw acknowledging the inhumanity, brutality and abuse of millions of people which characterised the period?

He failed to see that the fight for abolition, which included black and white, rich and poor, former slaves, church leaders, MPs and thousands of Africans who resisted and rebelled against their enslavement at every turn, is fundamental to who we are today.

The mindset that allowed people to kidnap fellow human beings, imprison them in rotting dungeons, abuse them and work them to death on plantations came out of a profound racism, a racism that led to some seeing Africans as subhuman cargo and chattels.

One slave captain murdered 133 slaves by throwing them overboard because they were worth more dead in insurance than alive at auction. We have moved on, but racism persists, as do discrimination and prejudice, which in turn lead to inequality. We see this in all areas of life, but my particular concern is for education.

Since 1997, our investment as a Labour government has done much to tackle inequality and low achievement rates for black children, but more needs to be done. Trevor Phillips and I are establishing a Legacy Fund that would seek to increase investment in the education of black children.

There are other contemporary issues. Countries on the African continent remain underdeveloped, which is why development policy is so important - debt relief, increasing aid, and pushing for fairer trade rules. This is not just about combating global poverty; it is also a recognition of the negative impact that slavery and the slave trade had on those countries.

Finally, modern-day slavery is different from the trade whose abolition we have just commemorated, but the misery it inflicts is as real.

Twenty million people, including children, remain trapped in bonded labour, domestic slavery and human trafficking. This government is committed to tackling contemporary forms of slavery whenever it occurs.

We have signed the UN convention and the Council of Europe convention and have given the police new resources to stop the modern trade.

Understanding our history, tackling racism, building cohesive communities working to eradicate poverty in Africa and stopping the modern trade are all essential if we are to create a society built on equality, social justice and respect. These are issues which all have resonance in modern Britain, whether you are black and white.

Link to New Statesman - A long wait for freedom