“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.” – Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode five of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And the episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in the biggest cotton mill in America (second biggest in the world), only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. We recently had an episode surrounding slavery (Naomi Harris), and it does add context. So, why wasn’t their any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865). To dedicate five minutes to context would have been good.
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that you don’t learn at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local plantation owners said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print. Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.