Richard Price, whose son is 'mixed race', writes about the lived experience of racism on one side of his family and how it is a way of understanding what is at stake in heritage institutions and, especially, the power structures that have made them
Most of his grown-up life my son’s Grandfather on his mother’s side was stopped by the police. It was frequent. The first question he would be asked was about the car: “Is this yours?”
This happened again and again. Maybe, he would have thought, as a black man in Britain, with all its history of slavery, he was still not meant to have possessions: he was just meant to be one.
The next thing the police officer would do is tell him to get out of the car. There would be another question. Always the same: “What’s in the boot?”
What is in the boot?
Surely stolen goods? As the police officer walked with him to the back of the car, Grandfather would remember his ancestors and how they were stolen – actual people, stolen – from the west coast of Africa. How they were forced into the ‘boot’, the hold, of a ship and transported to Jamaica.
Or it’s drugs, that’s right, drugs could well be in the boot. ‘We all know about black men’ – that would be the underlying concept.
The officer might even say ‘there have been reports of drug use in this area,’ so he would know this was all ‘above board’ (which sounded like a seafaring phrase). Any reasonable person would understand.
Later in life Grandfather would see police helicopters overhead in the neighbourhood, though they never surveilled the rich districts or the white-flight suburbs where so much drug-taking took place.
Nevermind illegal drugs, my son’s grandfather would reflect on the white addiction to tobacco and to sugar. These addictions had fuelled the enslavement and murder of his ancestors and many others. Then he would recall the white addiction to cocaine which fuels the deaths of black people to this day. ‘Coke is a racist drug’ was a phrase he’d heard, which had made him chuckle it sounded so daft and so true. But now, with the police officer looking, wasn’t the time to be chuckling. You couldn’t even smile with your eyes.
But wait, if it’s not stolen goods or illegal drugs then it’s a weapon, yes, a weapon could be, must be, in the boot.
That’s what the police would be looking for. He could see that the police didn’t need to hide their weapon, the baton hung from their belt. They didn’t need to say how much of a threat they were, everyone knew about the deaths of black men in police jails, the beatings black teenagers took in the backs of police vans.
So the police officer must be trained to think, stolen goods?, drugs?, weapons?. A little mantra.
In this act of reconstruction I imagine my son’s grandfather letting his imagination have full reign, too. Sorry, "rein". He imagines Britain as a Person and Britain the Person would know an awful lot about stolen goods and drugs and weapons.
Britain the Person had had its fair share of the stealing trade, taking resources with threats and menaces – it could be oil from Nigeria in the boot, it could be furs from Canada, it could be silks and spices from India. It could be a soul from West Africa in the boot.
Drugs? Britain the Person knew about them. It had been a drug lord in the Opium Wars, using narcotics to force China to open its ports to Britain’s advantage, forcing China to give up a territory as significant as Hong Kong. Britain the Person liked a drink, so much so that alcohol, one of the most damaging and addictive narcotics on earth, wasn’t considered a drug. Pubs were regarded as more temple than trap, ‘wine o’clock’ was an aim not an admission of coming to an accommodation with addiction.
And Britain the Person had many times made and used weapons to kill for advantage. A bit of a weapons-obsessive, Britain the Person. There were jobs in death. It was funny peculiar and sourly funny ha-ha that so many of its ‘humanitarian’ military interventions – Iraq, Libya – were followed up with Jobs for Brits in lethal weapons. The interventions themselves seemed more like live trials for experimental armaments than good faith operations: the arms manufacturers could boast their kit had been tested in combat.
But, the ‘sensible approach’ said we mustn’t be overly historical. 'As if history was something that still had a bearing on personal lives today!' That was all a long time ago – and Britain wouldn’t be doing those things now, would it? Even if it was – at scale, in an organised and cleanly bureaucratic way, a middle-class way, approved by the Parliamentary process – that’s not the same as a person, with personal responsibility, doing those things, is it? (But Grandfather knew a death is a death, whether it’s the result of a vote or an argument on a street-corner.)
The lid of the car boot was carefully opened.
All the police ever found were bits and bobs of shopping.
If there were wrapped Christmas presents they would have to be unwrapped
Once, a tool-kit was queried. Could they be weapons? “What are these for?”
“They’re in case I have a breakdown.”
As if this wasn’t a breakdown. As if this distrust – often leading to violence against black men – wasn’t a national emergency (one kind of breakdown) and a white sociopathic episode (another kind of breakdown) rolled into one.
The waste of the country’s resources used to keep black men under hyper-surveillance, the waste of black men’s energy to survive as if this was normal.
And then a secret compartment is discovered in the car boot.
The secret compartment is opened: just the spare wheel.
“No harm done, sir,” the police officer would say, allowing the man to close the boot. He would say it as if any person, white or black or any colour, would find this incident entirely rational and its frequency without malice or prejudice.
(Just as the police, in the wake of IRA bombings in London, found it entirely reasonable to stop a disproportionate number of black men coming into the City of London as part of their crackdown on suspects from that black enclave Northern Ireland).
“No harm done, sir.” The police officer would say it as if the whole practice of hyper-surveillance was proportionate and untargeted.. It was certainly not designed to keep black people wary, afraid, was not designed to make sure the energy of their life-force was consumed in the heartbeats of fear, of untrustedness, and the continous mastery of justified anger.
“You understand we have to check.”
It wasn’t just the police. Family remember it was all kinds of authority. Once, Nan and Grandad went on a special holiday to Jamaica. My son’s mother, the writer Hannah Lowe, then a teenager, went, too. It was the first time all the family had gone to Grandad’s homeland. They took their time to see relatives and when it came time to return they splashed out a bit on some souvenirs to remember how special it had been. These were not last-minute low-grade efforts bought hastily at the airport. They were two sculptures, carved delicately by artists: two heads, one male, one female. Both of the heads wore dreadlocks – the style of course of those who worship in the Rastafarian religion. They were beautiful, proud. They were carved from one of the hardest forms of wood known to humankind, lignum vitae (‘’the tree of life’’).
When the family landed at Heathrow the family were quickly stopped by officials. That Grandfather was black and Grandmother was white seemed to make the authorities suspicious. It was as if this could not be the natural way of things, as if there had to be another reason, a serious reason, a criminal reason, for a black man travelling with a white woman and family. “What’s in the bag, sir?”
When the authorities found the wooden heads, they immediately saw the quality of them. “Lovely loot, sir!’ the man said, with a little smile.
“These must have cost a pretty penny.”
“They’re beautiful aren’t they,” Nan replied, ignoring the insinuation that a black man could not possibly have afforded them. She had decided it was best she were the spokesperson, white to white. Grandfather quietly accepted this, he had the experience to suggest this was best.
The officer picked one of the heads up, sniffed it. He picked the other one up, sniffed that one too. “I have reason to believe there may be drugs in these objects,” he said.
“I am going to saw one of these heads in half.”
(Yesterday I was walking back from a friend’s in my north London borough, Haringey. There was an argument across the street happening between a black traffic warden and a white man. It was heated on the side of the white guy and maybe it was the shock of his vehemence that made me ‘hear’ his words without actually understanding them until I’d walked further down the street. Maybe I was in anger-avoidance mode in any case: I am not a brave person.
“I’m coming back and I’m going to find you,” the white man had been saying, I realised. “I’m going to get some milk, four pints of milk, the biggest container I can find, and I’m gonna drench you in it, you -- ” He called the traffic warden the c- word.
I stopped as I realised what I had heard. The white man was already walking away, and now he was standing beside his van some distance away, still shouting, a South-East English accent. The traffic warden was shaking his head, holding his ground, and then turning to walk away from all this. I went up to him to see if he was OK, to say it was disgusting, that he was just doing his job. He said, “It’s OK, I’m OK, I get this a lot.”)
The driver’s racism is not, of course, an exclusively white English trait. One of my best friends as a child was an Indian Scot and I remember the almost daily taunting and threats he got, too. There is an enraged astonishment among all white classes and nations in the UK that black and Asian British people should presume to have equality with them. When a black person is in any kind of authority, as a traffic warden briefly is, that anger is doubled.
Well, the family story relates that somehow Nan persuaded the officer at the airport that the heads really were ‘just’ special souvenirs. Without further challenge the whole family were allowed – allowed – to enter England, their home.
Decades have passed since then and nothing much changed in those years. Some things even got worse – if Grandfather had been alive today he may well have been one of those deported for not having the right paperwork. The capricious law as far as black British people are concerned means those who haven’t been deported still live under the threat of it. Grandfather wasn’t one for paperwork.
But now there has been a change, a change in one world at least, and a world I, as a librarian in a national library, have a passing familiarity with. This is the world of books and manuscripts and statues and beautiful objects, a million miles it seems from the life of Grandfather (though remember those beautiful objects which were almost destroyed when he and the family tried to bring their own ‘loot’ into the country).
Through Black Lives Matter, an international movement, a new authority, briefly, has arisen, a new kind of investigating force. It’s a moral authority, founded on, among many other things, outrage at the killing of black people by the old ‘authorities’ – the police and the society which has created and supported the police’s patterns of behaviour.
There have been protests against the murder of George Floyd in America which have come back across the historied Atlantic, back to one of the nation-originators of slavery in the Americas. The protestors, overwhelmingly black, have protested against the police and they have gone on to make the connection between the white murder of black people and those cultural artefacts which still celebrate white supremacy.
The toppling in Bristol of the slave-merchant Edward Colston sent an electrifying shock-wave through the administrators of galleries, libraries and archives of the UK. Although I wish it had gone higher up the beach – to the power that directs the ‘heritage’ institutions, the government and its slippery connections with Old and New Money alike, it was an exhilarating shock wave. I will remember forever the joyful ritual and dance of that effigy being taken down by collective action, being drowned in the Bristol Sea, as so many black Africans were actually drowned, whether as punishment or ‘collateral casualities’ in the Atlantic slave trade. It brought the awful lived experience of black British people right into the world of ‘culture’. Heritage culture is disproportionately paid for by working class people – and black people are disproportionately working class people – and culture is disproportionately managed by and made accessible for white middle class people (in fact, white middle class women are the majority consumers).
But now black people and others have taken a look at museums and galleries and libraries and the white people controlling them – including, as a manager of curators, myself – and they’ve asked them, just as Grandfather was asked so many times about his car, “Is this yours?”
White people all over the country are in shock and the custodians especially. (I’m one of them, though as a person with a mixed family I have a slightly different tale to tell). How could they be questioned on this? How could their absolute authority, their version of lived experience – a tightly circumscribed ‘expertise’ – be challenged? And there seems to be a presumption of guilt. Just like the police, the new authority is beginning to talk about ownership. Who possesses the possessions?
Among the initial responses from the white custodians has been this: There’s clearly been a misunderstanding, maybe you don’t understand these complicated things? It is only ‘theirs’, the culture managers are saying, in the sense that they have been kindly looking after it, all these things of International Significance, for a higher purpose, for All Humanity.
Looking after all these beautiful and interesting things for everyone, and though there are not many black faces in the buildings, either visitors or staff (‘not counting security and cleaners, of course – do they count?’), that’s just normal for culture, they say, you can’t blame us for that. And no, there aren’t too many books by black achievers on display, or paintings of them, or, or – but let’s not get ahistorical, they say.
But it turns out that they are not as expert as they said they were – there are many works of excellence by black writers and artists, scientific breakthroughs, musical innovation, there are many images of black achievers that could have been displayed but weren’t. It is not the concept of expertise that is under threat by Black Lives Matter: on the contrary it is the great gaps in the established expertise that have been revealed and have so exposed ‘expertise’.
But the custodians do not like that. They remember that ‘kindness’ and ‘generosity’ are among their favourite words. Oh, they love those words. Then perhaps they remember they are people of refined sensitivities after all, so the insinuation is preposterous, nasty, so full of ignorance, of unearned resentment.
They also know, because they are not complete fools, that there is something in the accusation, something that gnaws at them, perhaps to do with their own sense of being a cog themselves in an apparatus they don’t fully understand or can control (or, perhaps, they hope, could have much responsibility for). A small few have even been asking the same questions of themselves and their institutions and they don’t like the assumption that they have been silent. They feel ashamed that it has taken more death and the toppling of a slave-trader’s statue into Bristol’s harbour to scare, and perhaps shame, the hierarchy to change. Yet, they also know that hierarchy are servants to Government, which is intractable on this, to the point of pushing the public impression that the laws governing cultural property are a matter for museums, galleries, and libraries, when they are in fact wholly in the power of Government itself. That Government knows that there are enough racists (the I-norbs, “I’m not racist but…”) in the key marginals to keep the Government and its pale opposition in power, one way or another.
Those higher up the beach – the government and its supporting Establishment – remain untouched by the tidal wave of outrage. Without their positions threatened and the nature of how those positions are forged, not least the finance and education networks which sustain them, what will happen in the culture institutions can at best be only be ‘heartfelt’; thorough-within-limits; redecoration.
As it happens Grandad worked in the railway goods yard my workplace, is built on, the goods-yard the new building in a sense obliterates. Working class people, often black like Grandfather, worked there at a yard which was part of a national network. Making sure goods travelled back and forth across the country, it was part of an international network, too, connected to the ports, bringing in the ingredients for the food cultures that have become part of the incredible range of ‘British’ food, bringing in those and other resources taken, often under duress, from colonised places.
He didn’t have the job for long, or any ‘proper job’ for long – if they were offered a regular job in the first place, many black people were laid off first when times got rough. In a version of that structural racism, fixed-term contracts today are still all too common for black British men and women. Even so the goods-yard would employ more black people than you see in the ‘cultured’ building that has replaced it. Like heritage place after heritage place, it’s an institution that struggles to bring black visitors and working class visitors into its white-dominated middle-class exhibition spaces, into its public spaces with its smart cafés, though it is in the heart of a multi-racial city (and staff would say, and are genuine when they do so, that this is not at all deliberate). Like all these places until now it has found it, with some notable exceptions (which prove it can be done), oh so difficult to present black history and its braidedness with British history in its permanent exhibition spaces, or give over exhibition real estate to contemporary black British culture.
Black British people, like white British people, don’t only want to see their lives reflected in heritage institutions (though that is the least they should expect). They are not a single group, for a start, and are in any case, just like anyone else, potentially interested in all manner of other historic artefacts and events and ways of understanding, without them being ‘just’ for black people. And yet the institutions, for decades unengaged and broadly unconcerned with working class and black cultures, struggle to reach working class and black audiences for the activities they maintain day in and day out.
Now this new investigating authority, which seems so angry for some reason – ‘why are people so angry these days!’ – asks a new question. The new authority asks the white people, the chief officers (ah ‘officer’ that word again!) and all who work for them and it asks their political masters, too (but they seem more hidden, more difficult to shame) to ‘get out of the car’, to step away from the building.
That feels menacing, frankly. It doesn’t feel like a request that can be refused. Where are the security guards to protect them? - they are looking uncomfortable. Then the next question comes, which Grandfather would know was coming, which perhaps every black man in Britain would know was coming, but few white persons seem to have expected.
“What is in the boot?”
What exactly do you have in those basements, in that off-site warehouse, in those back-room storage rooms?
Again, the hurt-looking faces, the confusion. Remember, Grandfather was asked this so many times and he was able to take it all his life. And here are the answers: There’s nothing taken without permission! There are no drugs there! There is no evidence of a violent crime!
But ‘the boot’ is opened, the store-rooms examined, and what precisely is in there? The equivalent of a blameless tool-kit? Some harmless shopping? Something innocent like Christmas presents for the family? Just a spare wheel?
No. These heritage institutions are stuffed with stolen objects. They are stuffed with the drug of gold. They are seeping with the blood of the conquered and the enslaved whose work produced these clever, exquisite things.
The lid is open and in daylight everyone can see the golden objects taken by a state addicted to seized ornament. There were no officials trying to stop them coming into the country, no-one questioning this real plunder. On the contrary, the British Army has been an active force of looting, as the Magdala objects distributed across the UK’s heritage collections testify. They were taken by force by a British punitive expedition in 1868, where many in present-day Ethiopia were killed (the Army received bonuses for the success of the mission, essentially for their deaths). Perhaps the act of force, the brute assertion of authority, is even part of loot’s beauty to ‘the Brits’.
All the constituent nations were involved in these multiple acts of white supremacy. Scotland, too. (How I loathe the holier-than-thou attitude of some of my compatriots, as if Scotland occupied a permanent moral high ground). Scotland’s Henry Dundas persuaded the UK Government to delay the abolition of slavery for decades. The poet Robert Burns – whose words and songs we rightly celebrate with a special evening each year – had a ticket to Jamaica and was all set to go. If his poetry hadn’t suddenly been an extraordinary success, making him think he could have a life in Scotland, make no mistake he would have boarded that ship and become a slave-master. Why do you think so many Caribbean and Afro-American people have Scottish surnames? Their ancestors took the names of those who owned or ‘managed them’. At best, the slave-masters had relationships and raised families with women who were still their possessions (or the possessions of their bosses), which is surely a kind of rape; at worst the slave-masters raped them without the niceties of a ‘relationship’– black women and black men. (In a tragic twist, the widespread homophobia in Jamaica can partly be traced back to the punitive rape of recaptured male slaves). As in war, rape was used systematically in slavery.
The lid is open. Across the country, museums, galleries and libraries are exposed. The store-rooms are crammed with the stolen prayers of cultures more pious than ours. And it is a wonder that the locks haven’t seized up with the coagulated blood.
I hope the new authority is looking further, higher. This is really not about museums, as such, and museums are the messengers, emitting sick law, sub-stations in certain respects of Government (which rules with the consent of a deeply racist society and the manipulation of consent to foster it). Maybe this new authority is something like Grandfather’s ghost. Because this is not about material things alone, or even mainly. The new authority should, as well as pressing to utterly re-shape the heritage institutions, be taking a hard look at the ‘decent’ businesses which so ‘kindly’ give jobs to white British people but keep black people at the bottom of the ladder, those ‘decent’ businesses who give white British people jobs to make weapons that kill people of colour across the world, to the ‘civilized’ universities who are not civilised enough to let black people of talent in without a struggle, whose well-heeled white alumni so disproportionately populate our privately-owned media and our state broadcaster, our approved culture and arts, our senior police cohorts, our senior military, our senior civil service, our justiciary, our management consultant firms, our parliament (all deluded they are there because ‘we live in a meritocracy’ – “I can’t breathe” is both an existential cry of pain in the face of police violence and an analysis of the whole suffocating establishment).
We know that it’s not just about things. Most especially, it’s about how those who weigh down black lives, must be changed – their roles and positions and the formation process of their power must be changed – and, because in changing them, all will be changed, the whole power relation transformed.
What we don’t know, yet, is how the injustice can be so comprehensively righted or even if there is truly the possibility now to make that change. Already some have called this a mere ‘moment’, as if it is something that will be given its head and subside soon. If so, the new authority born of Black Lives Matter will have to find further means of changing control, of bringing the shock-wave higher, up, up to well-known but well-protected places of power currently for all practical purposes beyond scrutiny. As the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” That urgent question Grandfather knew so well, for the sake of my son’s generation if not for our own, must be directed further up, all the way, to the layers of the canopy at the top, and, finally, with pin-point accuracy, the question again: What is in the boot?
This essay was written in the summer of 2020, responding to the Black LIves Matter uprisings in the US and UK. It's a personal piece and represents only the opinion of its author. A version of it is in Painted, spoken, issue 32.