Interview with Vron Ware and Paul Gilroy (1/2)

Whose history?: Conversation about heritage, the abolition of slavery and national sentiment

, by Melanine Choir

On Livio Sansonne’s [1] invitation, a panel of European and South American scholars gathered in Paris in June 2007 to discuss the ideas exposed more than ten years ago by Paul Gilroy in his Black Atlantic, and their reception in French academia [2]. We took advantage of the occasion to interview Paul Gilroy and Vron Ware, the author of Out of Whiteness and more recently Who Cares About Britishness?: A Global View of the National Identity Debate.

Remembrance, history, heritage: these are the topics in this first part of a conversation around the research interests of two British sociologists whose works explore relations between notions of race, culture and nationalism. If their studies tend to focus on Great Britain and the USA, their methods offer a model that begs to be adapted to French circumstances and specificities, in order to start to think an alternative to Sarkozy and his ghost writer Guaino’s vision of “civilization” [3].

These themes have become hobby horses for the negative, nationalist and particularist perspectives of conservative parties around the world. They have long been ignored by a left wing blinded by its own contradictions and deaf to its critics, out of “antiracist and egalitarian principles” or because these topics are seen as straying away from the mythical “social question.” In the second part of this interview we will discuss political involvement on the left, feminism, the circulation of ideas and the remnants of internationalism.

An interview conducted by Laurence Rassel, Soopa Seb, Peggy P.- Translated and edited by Alfred J. Prufrock aka G.P. Many thanks to Livio Sansone, Vron Ware and Paul Gilroy for their patience and utter kindness.

« Mais l’enseignement, c’est l’Etat, c’est l’Histoire, c’est l’Etat mais quelle histoire? »
- Assassin, A qui l’histoire ? (Le Système Scolaire), 1993.
"But education is the State, it is History, but whose history?"
- Assassin, Whose History? (The Educational System), 1993.

Melanine: The UK is celebrating the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. In a chapter of Out of Whiteness, you wrote about moments in which the lieux de mémoire and official commemoration can serve people rather than serve authorities. On May 10 2007, France celebrated the Second Official day for the Remembrance of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery. Newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy was present, even though during his campaign he had complained about the “tyranny of repentance” in relation to recognizing France’s colonial wrongs [4]. But how do we let authorities take a part in those celebrations without letting them take over?

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Vron Ware: The argument I was making was about telling different kinds of stories, disrupting the idea of the nation. This particular story [5] was about the sea, it was actually about an Atlantic story, but it was also European, about the war between France and England. If you try to write about whiteness, if you’re trying to damage that idea, you’ll be effectively silenced in the UK. No one wants you to talk about that subject unless it’s in an academic setting, because it’s something people are not ready to hear, they don’t understand.

So in this round of celebrating the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, of course the central figure is the white man, William Wilberforce. But we’ve advanced in the things we’ve both been involved in something different, in bringing people together for discussion. The sense of letting people in to actually learn about slavery, how to think about slavery, all kinds of people, people who can trace their heritage back to slavery itself I think is very difficult. People have been very excluded from that.

For example there’s a big house in a park [6] where the Lord Chief Justice made an important decision about slavery in England in the 1770s [7]. We’ve been there many many times over the years, and there was nothing about this event. It was just a stately home with paintings. You’d ask and they’d say “I don’t know anything about it.” Now they’ve taken the opportunity to have a special exhibition. There’s a very beautiful oil painting showing Lord Mansfield’s adopted daughter-he had adopted a young woman in his household whose mother was black, was thought to be a former slave, who grew up with one of his granddaughters-. It’s a very famous, beautiful painting of these two girls completely equal, playing in the grounds of this same park. And now they have the painting in the house and they have the whole story and books you can read. When we were there last weekend, there were many people who’d come to the house, tourists, visitors and local people looking at the exhibition, reading it and that was quite moving. But not before time.

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Paul Gilroy: In Britain every institution has been put under pressure to contribute something to this national conversation...The British Museum has an installation about what’s his name... La Bouche du Roi... [8] I can’t remember his name because I’m tired, I’m afraid... An installation by a contemporary African artist who’s reconstructed a slaveship from the tops of oilcans which function as masks, the top of the oilcans look like faces, the opening is their open mouth... You know, some of this has been good. I think there’s a very strong desire popularly for people to speak on these subjects. I went to one meeting which was not academic, it was a political meeting. 400 people came in the old Quaker building, you could come in for nothing, there were old Caribbean people, young, every conceivable shade and kind and ideology and they stood up and spoke and said how they felt about it.

One of them said “we are Caribbean people, we were the people of the Empire, and now we have to get a visa to come to work in Europe. And the French and the Germans, who were our enemies five minutes ago, we fought wars against them, and they can walk in here and we have to go get a visa!” So it ranged from that kind of thing to people correcting the official story of Wilberforce, talking about the Haitian revolution, the history of the Left and its relations to feminism and abolitionism in the 18th century...
A lot of autodidacts you know, come out from the cracks in the city and desperate to talk about these things. There was a hunger for a different kind of conversation than the one that’s coming, which is “English people gave the world human rights and values,” etc...

Vron Ware: I was going to mention the question of heritage which is very big in England. It sort of developed in the 1980s in the time of the Tory regime, this idea that there’s this English landscape... But the politics of heritage have been investigated and critiqued quite thoroughly, so there’s also some space there to make particular places and objects and particular histories. Some of this obviously is online, there are archives of migrants, records of places where there are gravestones or cemeteries or buildings where things happened so there is very unevenly a thing of this kind happening. The director of the British Museum, I have to say, has been very very good and effective at using archeology and material objects to open out new ways of thinking about history, ancient history and connections with ancient history. Apparently there’s some piece of stone inscribed with Mesopotamian writing that was found in England, which connects us to the history of what’s now Irak.

I have a good feeling about those things, and since the war started he’s had an exhibition on Persepolis he negotiated with Iran to have historical material sent. Of course the regime in Iran since 1979 was denying Persian history and the empire, but they’ve taken that on again, trying to restore ancient buildings...

Paul Gilroy: He’s even tried to get the Elgin marbles back to Greece.

Vron Ware: Lend them back to Athens. And he had an exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy and a speaker series on the modern Middle East.

Paul Gilroy: So when I talk about postcolonial melancholia and the refusal to engage the past, and the pressure of the past over the present, there are people and institutions who are trying to open these things in ways that are more democratic, healthy and interesting. Not many do, but there are some. I take great courage and energy and happiness from the fact that people have been prepared to do things like that too.

Vron Ware: Another area of intervention has been education and changing the curriculum for teaching history. There have been wonderful people who designed modules for teaching about empire and slavery and using very imaginative ways of doings it, not being too didactic, but rather thinking about how we think about empire here, where we all come from in the classroom, and the communities where we live, to try and make it something quite concrete and meaningful in their lives today. How do we get to look like we look like today in the classroom, etc. It’s the Tudors and the Nazis usually. So there has been some movement and it makes me feel more optimistic when you see this happening.

- Melanine: Do you think it’s the case in France? We wanted to discuss the law about the teaching of the positive legacy of colonialism passed in 2005.

V.W.: Yes that seemed very strange, actually.

Melanine: This is something we found on the Le Pen [9] website campaign for the presidential elections. This is a picture of his visit to the cemetery of the Célestes [10].

Paul Gilroy: Wow...So he’s not a racist now, it makes it official.

Melanine: He’s using the vocabulary of an antiracist.

Vron Ware: Yes, it’s very skillful.

Paul Gilroy: They could never do this in England. If they did this, if they went there, half the people would leave the party.

Melanine: In fact I think one of the reasons why Le Pen’s score was so low this time was because of that kind of thing and because of Sarkozy’s not-so-subtle use of racist rhetoric. They are both playing with the idea of national identity.

Paul Gilroy: It’s always grey.

Vron Ware: I’ve done this comparative, grey, superficial study of the national identity among young people in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Kenya. What’s really obvious is it’s not necessarily this stamp of British colonial occupation that really drives people mad, it’s the most recent war and the violence of the partition and the war of separation in Bangladesh in 1971. The most recent war tends to be the place where the shape of the nation is decided, and that’s what being fought over as a way of arguing how the nation is being thought of now. This is also true, this has been part of the postcolonial melancholia in Britain, what happened in the second World War, fighting fascism. It still is now...

There’s a sort of sociological book that came out about the East End last year, called The New East End, a very in-depth ethnography of the area of the city that was very bombed during the war so there’s a very strong identity of “we survived bombing by the Nazis.” At the same time, it was the first place to have a fascist elected counselor. At that time, 1993-4, there was a very strong feeling of “how could you let this happen when you were the place that suffered most in the war?” But this sociological book made a certain way of affirming the sense that these people fought the war, and then Bangladeshi immigrants came to live there and they supposedly didn’t care about what happened in the war. There’s a denial of the role the colonial troops played in the war. Some of the antiracist work has been to put the faces of those colonial regiments back in the picture of the war and who fought it.

Paul Gilroy: There’s also of course a mythology about what actually happened in the war that’s being challenged. My father wouldn’t fight, so he had to take a job where he would go into the houses when bombs were coming down, to see if gas bombs had been dropped. So he used to talk a little bit about that to me when I was a child. Now the revisionist histories of the bombing, which is the great moment of the nation... survival, to be a victim is great, to be a victim and a survivor is the perfect mixture for the moment. You know, of course, it turns out that everybody was having sex and stealing.. This mythology of the community in the dark with a cup of tea... It’s all bullshit. So now we have a real history of what was happening, and you know people were very close to death, and we find out about the way people usually behave in those circumstances.

I’ve been looking at a book of photographs showing the history of black presence in Britain from the Victorian period to the present [11], and one thing I’ve really tried to do is show the military connections all the way through, from the earliest colonial troops to the Kenyans and the African rifles who were fighting the Japanese in Burma.

Looking at the fighter pilots and bomber pilots who were coming here...My uncle was a bomber pilot dropping bombs in Germany and he could speak German, so he could understand... I mean my black uncle, he didn’t have any white relatives, but he could speak German, so he was promoted high in the Air Force. They had a rule after World War I that they didn’t want blacks in the army, because the blacks had mutinied at Taranto in Italy [12], a lot of them had been shot, and they had been accused of being Bolsheviks because they were complaining about the way the war had been conducted. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi, in his biography, talks about the fact that these people would put Negroes on bombers to go and bomb beautiful Germany as a proof of how uncivilized they really were... So there is a whole set of stories about the war that needs to be engaged, I think, and I’ve been trying to find some of the photographic archive that would at least disrupt the sense that this is the pinnacle of a kind of white and undiluted national culture, and that before the immigrants arrived everything was fine...

Vron Ware: This was interesting, something that Poland did: the Polish tourist board after July 7th, produced a picture of a Spitfire pilot and it said “Londoners, we are with you again.” There’s a tension between the generation of Polish settlers who came during the war-and one in five of the fighter pilots during the war in the Battle of Britain was actually Polish-so they have a claim to being part of that and rescuing Britain, so many people stayed after the war.

They kind of kept the flame of Polish nationalism alive. And then there come these Polish economic migrants, who seem greedy and grasping and individualist, according to the other Poles... The tourist board published pictures of young Poles cleaning the war graves in London, to show that they too cared about the spirit of Polish nationalism and that there was a continuity between them. But there are countless opportunities coming up, and they’re not always what you think they’re going to be, and they can be used in different ways. For example, there’s a German gunboat or submarine that sunk off the coast of Northern Ireland, and there’s a pan-European attempt to bring it to the surface. The Polish community in Derry is trying to be part of that, to prove that they can be part of the multicultural Northern Ireland. It’s interesting.

Melanine: That’s interesting too because now Sarkozy is using the memory of the war, and the letter of a young communist resistant [13] to come back to the idea that in the past we were all one united nation, that even Africans were fighting for France. They do this because they don’t want to solve problems in the present...

Paul Gilroy: In order to mystify. But that’s why we talk about WWII, we don’t talk about the war in Algeria, the war in India and in Northern Ireland, in Kenya...

Vron Ware: In Malaysia...

Melanine:... Or the 1947 massacres in Madagascar by French colonial troops [14]...

Paul Gilroy: Of course, only one war can be spoken about!

to be continued


[2Interventions by the Portuguese-speaking scholars, among the most brilliant that day, opened the focus some

[3Sarkozy’s speech writer, Henri Guaino is responsible, among feats, for Sarkozy’s already infamous July 2007 Dakar speech(here in English), in which he asserted that "the African has not fully entered history" and never had the idea "to invent his own destiny." Hm. Classy.

[4See our article.

[5Ware tells the story of the discovery of bones buried on the southwestern coast of England. Research showed that they belonged to inhabitants of the Caribbean island of St Lucia drowned in the sinking of the ship on which they were prisoners (the slaves of St Lucia were freed by the revolutionary French Republic in 1793). Ware uses the circumstances of this discovery and the commemorations that followed to ponder on new ways to reconsider and revise past history and its relevance in the present.

[7The 1772 Somersett Decision.

[8An installation by Romuald Hazoumé, see here.

[9Le Pen is the leader of the National Front, a French fascist party.

[10The Chinese Labour Corps, nicknamed the Celestials, were Chinese auxiliaries sent to work for French and British troops during the First World War and do the hardest menial jobs. See an article here.

[11This new book Black Britain just came out. See a review of his related exhibition here.

[12See here.

[13Read all about it here.

[14See here.