Publication Date

May 1, 1997

A few years ago I was in a major London bookstore trying to find the new-to-print paperback history of black people in Britain, an indispensable and exhaustive study for those like me who work in the field of racial representation across disciplines. Frustrated at not finding it, I finally made my way to a saleswoman to see if she could locate it. "Madam," she informed me sternly, "there were no black people in England before 1945."

I've often told this story as a way of discussing the English denial or ignorance of an important aspect of their own history. Never mind that the black population of 18th-century London may have been as high as 1 in 30; that the black presence there began with the Roman generals who found themselves in what seemed like a godforsaken outpost of civilization; and that there most certainly was slavery in Britain itself, let alone in all of its colonies. A myth has developed that historically English soil was "too free" to support slavery, and that the English air was "too free" for slavery's corruption to survive-therefore the first time people of African descent arrived there in any numbers must have been in the years immediately following World War II, when their labor was necessary and desirable.

The implications of this belief for teaching and curricular matters are enormous. As an undergraduate, master's, and doctoral student in English literature, I never imagined that English high and popular culture were anything but "white." The first notable exception was, of course, Othello, whose stage representations over the years have ranged from Arab to Moor to Sub-Saharan African, with most of the actors being white men. The other notable exception was the problematic character of Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but her presentation was so caricatured it was hard to believe that Thackeray or any of his contemporaries had ever laid eyes on a “black” person. The fact that she was biracial in the novel, but presented in Thackeray’s own illustrations as a very dark woman of exaggeratedly Negroid features, seemed further proof of his racial inexperience.

As a biracial woman myself, I was completely baffled about how to situate myself vis-a-vis the literature I loved so much and intended to make the basis of my career. This may seem to some an irrelevant issue, but it is hard to ignore the fact that when standing in front of a class and discussing such a racially charged character, the professor herself may be a physical embodiment of that character. The students looking at her are most certainly aware of it. The same is true for professors who teach problematic texts like The Merchant of Venice, Huckleberry Finn, or A Passage to India. I had chosen to ignore Miss Swartz entirely in a graduate seminar in which the novel was being taught, but nevertheless found myself called upon by the professor to explain how I felt about her. My internal decision had nothing to do with my exterior appearance.

We are now at a point at which white as well as nonwhite professors have to make conscious decisions, not only about how and whether to address issues of race, gender, and ethnicity when they appear in traditional and canonical works, but also about how and whether to seek them out when they appear to be absent. For students and faculty alike, the painting of black people into the British and European cultural picture is at best an unfamiliar project, and at worst an impossible or questionable one. The effort is dismissed as politically correct (and therefore to be rejected) or cruelly daunting (and also rejected). Even those who for years have explicated the drawings and paintings of the satirist William Hogarth often find themselves at a loss to explain the black people who so frequently and pointedly march through them.

Furthermore, there is the reductive belief that race, particularly the odd division into discreet and exclusive categories of "white" and "black," is a peculiarly American problem with a peculiarly American history. Pedagogically, that is where it has stuck in institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, but dislodging it can take much less effort, and be far more rewarding, than many imagine.

I recall once overhearing a colleague ask a student what courses she was taking that semester. When she answered that she particularly enjoyed her class called "Black Women Novelists," the professor told her sadly that he could never teach this subject because he had never studied it in graduate school. This was probably a rather disingenuous answer that extricated him from a politically charged discussion. His field was English, not American literature, and I am convinced that he was comfortably sure that the subjects of black women and English history and literature were unrelated. Like the woman in the bookstore, he likely believed that blacks only entered Britain within the last 50 years and were therefore irrelevant to his teaching.

The most commonly given date for the arrival of black people in Britain is 1555, when five Africans were carried there by British traders to learn English and facilitate trade with Africa. We know, however, that the continual black presence in Britain goes back some 2,000 years. William Dunbar, a Scot, wrote a poem about a black woman, "Ane Blak Moir," in the early 16th century, and by late that same century the inclusion of young black servants in the portraits of aristocrats had become de rigueur. They served some of the same purposes that horses and dogs did in similar pictures; they looked loyal and grateful, they indicated their masters' wealth and benevolence. The darker they were, the more they were prized, because the contrast between black and white skin lent an aristocratic pallor to the men, women, and children they accompanied.

By the 18th century, blacks had become fashion accessories not only for the noble and wealthy but for those who wished to emulate them. Women walked through parks, attended the theaters, and shopped with young, elaborately attired black pages, who carried the women's small dogs and purchases on pillows. The plumed turbans of these boys were surpassed by the high wigs of their mistress- es. The masters too were often attended in public by such pages, and even more frequently in the privacy of their homes. The boys' lives were a contrast of privilege and misery. Brought to Britain, particularly to England through the slaving ports of Bristol, Liverpool, and London, by masters who generally owned plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, their use as pages in England lasted only as long .as they remained quite young. They were torn from their parents in early childhood, lived often extremely pampered lives in England, and found themselves punished for entering the sexually dangerous period of young manhood by being sent back to the plantations where life was short, painful, and extremely dangerous. Not surprisingly, many young black men chose to run off and take their chances in England rather than to be condemned to plantation slavery. Many found work as household servants and, because few black women entered the country, married white servants. A few of the more fortunate ones were taken in by rich families who enabled them to have unexpectedly prosperous lives. The three most famous examples of these were Ignatius Sancho, Soubise, and Francis Barber.

Sancho was born on a slave ship and arrived in England as a toddler. He spent a miserable childhood working for three unmarried sisters who treated him terribly. Finally, as a young man, he threw himself upon the mercy of the Duke and Duchess of Montague, who had admired his quickness and intelligence as a child. They at first resisted but at last relented, bringing him into their household. After a short period of youthful profligacy he settled down, married a black woman named Anne whom he adored, and set up a grocer's shop in London. There, due to the connections he had made in the Montague household, he became something of a celebrity and was visited by some of the leading figures of the day and corresponded with the novelist Laurence Sterne. His letters were published posthumously and are still available in libraries today.

It was to Sancho that the Duchess of Queensberry turned when her pampered servant Soubise seemed out of control. Teased publicly for her obvious affection for Soubise, the Duchess apprenticed him to a riding and fencing master, sports at which Soubise excelled. He quickly became known in London as a real fop, indulging in clothes, flowers, perfume, and women-with the Duchess and Duke quietly paying his bills. Sancho stepped in to speak sense to him, but after a particularly unsavory affair Soubise was packed off to India, where he died after being thrown from a horse. The third well-known figure was Frances Barber, best known not only for being Samuel Johnson's servant but also his heir.

These three men demonstrate that, especially during the 18th century, it was possible for black men to achieve a level of equality (such as it was) and prosperity almost unheard of for black people in America. The story was not so good for the majority of black people in England, however, even though it was nothing like the horrors regularly perpetrated under the West Indian and North and South American systems of slavery. Even so; a free black person in England ran the daily risk of being captured and sold back into slavery by unscrupulous ruffians, a system of trepanning borrowed both from the methods of obtaining unwilling sailors in Britain and slaves in Africa. Black women, too, often had a hard lot in English life, even though it was possible for some, like Dido, the mulatto grand-niece of the judge Lord Mansfield, to achieve a high level of prosperity.

Writers found they could call upon this recognized and common black presence in England to make moral and political points in their work. Especially by the end of the 18th century, when the abolitionist movement was heating up, writers of all sorts began placing black characters into their popular novels. For the most part these novels are not enduring examples of great talent, but they demonstrate an awareness of the black presence at home and abroad on the part of novelists and readers. And some works—most notably Aphra Behn's 1688 novel Oroonoko William Blake’s 1789 poem “The Black Boy”—endure as important parts of today’s college curricula.

Visual artists, too, found they could rely upon the public's familiarity with a black presence in England, not only for the elegant portraits mentioned earlier, but even more pointedly in the satirical paintings and cartoons that were so popular. Hogarth used them to comment on the morality and duplicity of whites (perhaps the most famous example is the black child playing in the corner with a horned doll, a symbol of cuckoldry, as his married mistress flirts with another man, in Marriage a la Mode). As David Dabydeen writes in Hogarth's Blacks (1987), London, “if not actually ‘swamped’ … by flesh-and-blood blacks, was ‘swamped’ by images of blacks. London in the eighteenth century was visually black in this respect” (p. 18). From people on the street, to servants in houses and shops, to advertisements and signboards, black people were in constant view in early modern English life.

Information like this can easily be worked into traditional courses, and it can also be the basis for new courses. I have done it successfully both ways. Any course on 18th-century literature or history, for example, can include photocopied excerpts from Sancho's letters, or even better, the readily available Equiano's Travels (1989) or his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1989). Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, not only traveled the world and (after he bought his own freedom) became a noted British abolitionist speaker, but was probably the first black man appointed as an official by the British government: liaison to the newly developing Sierra Leone colony. His autobiography went into seven editions in his lifetime and remains in print today.

Or, one can take the approach that is gaining enormous scholarly credence today of analyzing how race is used by white authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (1992) explores the use of black and other nonwhite characters in canonical American fiction. I teach two courses, “Race and Its Metaphors” and “Race and Class in English and American Literature,” which examine the books of both white and nonwhite authors in this way. The central .lions are generally, “Why would an or use this particular kind of character here? Does the use of race provide a short- cut which the author can employ?” I have found it far less useful to let class discussion get bogged down at the level of whether a particular book or author or history is racist. This is a dead-end, and often unprovable, argument.

In the teaching of history, incorporating this material is even easier. Contrary to what many believe, there is a growing cache of materials available both to faculty and students in the form of books, documents, and visual aids. Even when this material is more difficult for students to obtain, faculty members can build it into their lectures. Such books include Peter Fryer's Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984) and Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction (1988); Eldred Jones’s Othello's Countrymen: The African in Renaissance Drama (1965); Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968); Folarin Shyllon’s Black Slaves in Britain (1974) and Black People in Britain, 1555–1833 (1977); Wylie Sypher’s Guinea's Captive Kings (1942); and James Walvin’s The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555–1860 (1971), Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1555–1945 (1973), and A Short History of Slavery and the Slave Trade (1982). Harvard University Press is adding volumes to its series The Image of the Black in Western Art, begun in 1976. David Dabydeen, mentioned earlier, has produced a videotape, The Art of Darkness (1987), on the portrayal of blacks in art.

Perhaps most important, our undergraduate and graduate students need to be made aware of the. black presence outside America and Africa, so that they will never have to offer the excuses offered by my colleague or the London bookstore clerk that because they never heard of it or studied it, it either must not have existed or be available to them as teachers.

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