Historical blindness hurts

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Frida Pinto and Babou Ceesay in Guerrilla

Three recent arguments over cultural representations of anti-racist struggle expose a willingness to distort or ignore real historical events in order to fit with current ideas, writes Ken Olende.

The Metropolitan Police brutally attack a peaceful anti-racist demonstration in a key early scene from the new TV drama Guerrilla. It is 1971 and the police violence recalls two real incidents — the demonstration against police harassment that led to the arrest of the Mangrove Nine, and the later death of anti-racist activist Blair Peach.

Guerrilla takes us back to a time when activists were looking for a way to rip the head off the system. Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto) says of a Tory government that is pushing through a new, racist immigration act, “They’re changing the laws on us. People are going to ask what we did. I’m not going to tell them I sat on the fence.”

This is welcome. But a row surrounding Guerrilla, and two other recent arguments, are examples of how past struggles can end up being rewritten to fit with current ideas.

First, Guerrilla has has been criticised because the black characters are not all African-Caribbean. Jas is from an Asian background. Protesters at the programme’s London premiere called this “black erasure”. However, radicals at that time in Britain regarded themselves as “politically black”, united by the experience of colonisation. Several leading members of the British Black Panthers, such as Mala Sen, were from Asian backgrounds.

Second is the response to the painting “Open Casket” by white artist Dana Schutz, currently displayed in a major New York exhibition. It shows the murdered Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, his face battered beyond recognition.

His mother Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open casket at his funeral, to show the reality of racism. Outrage at the crime as photos of the funeral were published was one of the triggers for the Civil Rights Movement. Schutz’s painting is based on the news photos. African-American artist Parker Bright protested by the painting under the slogan “Black Death Spectacle”.

The protest dismisses the possibility of a white person being part of an anti-racist movement. But it also draws attention away from other paintings in the exhibition, such as black artist Henry Taylor’s “The Times Thay Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!” which depicts the police killing of Philando Castile in 2016.

Frustration at white liberals saying “Go slow” led many black activists to organise separately in the 1960s. But this was not the same as rejecting white involvement. Malcolm X recalled that once when a white student asked what she could do to fight racism, he answered, “Nothing”. He later commented, “I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument.”

In the third argument, radical Kenyan writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o spoke at the beginning of March in Cape Town, South Africa, on “Decolonising the Mind”. Several students demanded that all white people be removed from the hall. Ngugi did not do this. Two protesters, Sisipho Fongoqa and Lindsay Maasdorp, wrote, “What good is Ngugi, revered as a literary great, if he is unable or unwilling to respond to the most basic of decolonial questions: Can the oppressor leave so that the oppressed can engage? The time for grandstanding and sloganeering about decolonisation has come to an end.”

Yet Ngugi took part in practical politics. He has actively challenged imperialism. He had to write one novel on toilet paper, while detained by the Kenyan government. As the meeting’s title suggests, he was key to getting Africans into a position where they could be heard. Excluding whites from lectures is not part of that struggle.

In each case attacking potential allies draws attention away from the people really promoting racism and weakens the fight. But each also loses track of the real contradictions that anti-racists have grappled with. One of the strengths of Guerrilla is the way it reflects some of those contradictions. The series catches some of the differences between Britain and the US, such as how much more mixed it is. British black activist Darcus Howe once contrasted Britain with the US, where “white and black are two completely different worlds”.

But there are areas where Guerrilla is historically weaker. We are shown black militants follow the path of the armed, underground Black Liberation Army, which split from the US Black Panthers. But this didn’t happen in Britain.

The massive upturn in strikes that really terrified Britain’s rulers only appears as background mood music in Guerrilla. Yet it was this aspect of Britain and the working class orientation of the British far-left that distinguished it from the US. Radicals could see a more powerful source of strength than small, armed cells.

This equation of revolutionary politics with guns has appeared before in cultural representations of the 1970s. In the classic 1990s drama about the British left, Our Friends in the North, the most radicalised character, Nicky, joined a Red Army Faction style armed group rather than a somewhat more plausible Trotskyist one.

This blindness to the reality of struggles in the past is important because it shapes how we will fight in the future.