And the Spectacularised Black British Past
If we can talk about ‘Black Excellence’ without also discussing Black okayness, there is something wrong – worsened by a culture of Black British historical remembrance that places ‘remember-worthiness’ only as far as our labour contributions. Whilst in cases this may be due to violent erasure in the archives, it may also reflect a state ideology that positions Black people human value dependent on labour.
Through documentaries, statues, plaques and other cultural texts, these discourses to Black British remembrance revisit a monument culture that positions many Black people past and present only as valuable in proximity to our contributions in labour. The means through which Black British history is remembered is subject to the biases of (past) official record keepers and what they saw / see fit to record. As today, we are told the stories that manage to slip through the cracks of white supremacy.
Discourses to Black British history that spotlight ‘exceptional’ individuals, positioned ahead of everyday folks, speak about Black people like gods among us. Black people who do not aspire to ‘excellence’ are then positioned as ‘lazy’ – an ableist capitalist myth that treats human worth, let alone Black humans, as only valuable when on the production lines – through fieldwork, factories, and other forms of labour.
In this article, I will discuss how public monument cultures of Black British remembrance and excellence do not end with statues but pervades into abstractions including Black assimilation onto the colonial honours list (i.e knighthoods, MBEs). Human beings should not need to be ‘super’ to be valued, and we need to be able to imagine a world where Black people can exist without labour-contingent functioning labels – like role models, inspirational and trailblazers.
The Wretched of Infinite Earths
Whilst debates around public monuments have centered in the form of critiques of colonial statues (Facing History, 2020) it is also worth noting other worlds, as fantasy and science fiction have long facilitated these discussions. For example, DC’s Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) showed how humans viewed Superman: “He will be a God to them” laments Jor-El. By the sequel, humans had built a statue of him, as a thank you for saving Earth from General Zod at The Battle of Metropolis (Snyder, 2016).
General Zod regurgitates colonialist language calling humans ‘primitive’. Comparatively, so-called ‘classic’ works of English literature used colonial language to dehumanise. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness used such language to describe Black people. This is in congruence with a literary establishment that created a ‘canon’ with texts that promote whiteness while discriminating against Black and Brown people. Whilst the authors may be lacking in physical statues, Heart of Darkness, for example, was a taught text on my degree. This is one way that shows how monuments are made through dominant knowledge-making. Here then, no less than on degrees, universities monumentalise racism through culture, at the emotional toll of Black and Brown students.
Statues punctuate spaces across the UK. What differentiates those of white people from statues of Black people, is the former are not seen as representative of their racial group.
Or as Richard Dyer writes:
“There is no more powerful position than that of being “just” human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that – they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of a race” (Dyer, 1997: 3).
In a society where Black people are pressured to perform and achieve (Byng, 2017; Fapuro, 2020; Asare, 2021), a problematic Black Excellence discourse is evident (Kryemateng, 2019; Underwood, 2020; Moore, 2021; Ford, 2022; Yousof, 2022). As we do not have the privilege to just be okay (Gomez, 2021), Black Excellence enforces an ableist culture of overwork to be seen as human.
The Black or Brown person that refuses to ‘perform’ threatens white constructions of ownership and property (Harris, 1993). If we refuse to perform (i.e through gifted and excellent programmes), racially minoritised people imperially constructed as the ‘white possessive’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2015) fails to function. This performativity of excellence sits in proximity to whiteness because the performance is not for, we ‘The People’, but the white establishment. It exposes how acceptance of colonial honourifics (i.e MBEs, OBEs), for example, allows recipients access to more work opportunities and thus greater access to the market. This is further evidenced by numbers of high profile ‘activists’, ‘anti-imperialists’ and ‘anti-racists’ as some of the biggest voices in ‘equality work’ (Ventour, 2021). So, these historians, artists, sports personalities and so on – though racialised not white – speak through whiteness ordained by greater access to social and economic capital that comes with state validation.
In order to be viewed within the construct of ‘human being’, Black people are thus pressured to perform, in proximity to the white state as part of the capitalist modes of production (Marx and Engels, 1848). Or as one YouTuber stated, “Black excellence is a scam” (Alicia Renece The Artist, 2021), situated as “the notion that black people who are educated, smart, articulate, poised, and basically every other positive adjective … are … rarities among the general black population” (Celluoid in Black and White, 2015). If we do not perform, Black people are discarded under a rubric of racial capitalism (Robinson, 1983; Leong, 2013). Within Black spaces in the global west, a ‘hustle culture’ exists as internalised capitalism that imposes guilt when resting, whilst having Black and other racially minoritised groups who have been formerly colonised, to continue to live in survival mode ravaged by the system. Our humanity is temporary, based on ability to ‘meaningfully’ contribute while anybody who cannot work, is viewed as less than – including Black children, the elderly, and disabled people.
Considering documentaries as another vessel for this discussion, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice (Russell, 2022) frames Una Marson as the first Black producer at the BBC. It situates her life as one of service, whilst showing how the BBC valued her labour, not her humanity – leading to Una experiencing mental health problems and being incarcerated on a psychiatric ward. She then died early at sixty years old. This story was one framed of excellence, not ableism, enforced through the capitalist modes of production with an onus on labour. These framings ‘superhumanise’ the lives of Black historical figures only valuable as labour-contingent outputs, their existence “spectacularised” (DeBord, 1967). The way Black pasts and presents are framed is focused on what we did / do, not who we are.
Historically constructed white supremacist barriers prevented Black people from ascending in the global west, so, many would suggest “… it is important to showcase those who have been able to advance despite the insurmountable odds created by global racism and anti-blackness” (Celluoid in Black and White, 2015). In my view, however, ‘Black firsts’ are not an achievement, but a recognition of white supremacy as a social discourse of violence (DuBois, 1920; Baldwin, 1965; Lorde, 1984; hooks, 1992; Seshadri-Crooks, 2000; Ahmed, 2004; Eddo-Lodge, 2017; Pérez, 2022).
White supremacy as a social and political structure (Mills, 2003) foregrounds a public monument culture that not only others Black and Brown people based on labour (Bhattacharyya, 2018), but also treats the Black people’s labour as the focal point through which Black life is accepted in Black British historical narratives. For example, the life of African Tudor John Blanke is told through his job as a trumpeter in the courts of Henry VIII (Habib, 2008: 40). So, in the British context, the state facilitates a set of rules for remembrance situated around Black high-achievers through labour. Therefore, us Black people who just want to live without the pressure of being excellent, are stigmatised.
Black people are not Gods, and these monument games are unhelpful, with Black excellence “centred as the kid to impress” (Kinouani, 2021: 162). In a blog post for London School of Economics, historian Pippa Catterall (2020) discusses the role of monuments in public spaces, arguing “… they represent what people in the past chose to celebrate and memorialise.” For example, in Northamptonshire there is a growing interest in Walter Tull, one of the first men of African descent to reach the rank of officer in the British Army and to play first class English football (Vasili, 2009; Costello, 2015; Ventour-Griffiths, 2021).
However, one could argue humans have a long history of following those with ‘great power’ manifesting cultural icons like Tull in our own image. What is interesting is the mainstream media’s disposition to criticise statues of ‘bad white people’ (Senior, 2020), ahead of any debates about hero worship or analysis of why we have statues whatsoever, even for figures we may admire or respect.
In 2022, my local newspaper Northampton Chronicle revived support for Tull to gain his own statue in London and to be posthumously awarded the Military Cross (Marr, 2022). Here, I question why the media monumentalise him rather than question the white supremacy of the British Army in 1914 – as “Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent” (H.M Stationary Office, 1914: 196).
Just like the Royal Navy was once tasked with protecting ships full of enslaved Africans as British property in the eighteenth century (Bellamy, 2018), Black soldiers fought in the Napoleonic Wars (Moss, 2016; Costello, 2022). They were doing imperial work as agents of white supremacy like the military does now (Miller, 2021). Meanwhile, Black soldiers in the present and in the world wars are celebrated for their service. Yet, racism in the British armed forces is endemic and continues to this day (Allen, 2020), as Black assimilation into violent systems like the military and Honours list is celebrated.
Figures like Walter Tull and decorated Trinidadian RAF pilot Ulric Cross are celebrated as war heroes rather than critiqued within the military as an imperialistic construct part white supremacy. After all, it is far easier to campaign for the dead than to deal with the problems faced by the living.
Comic book media as cultural texts may act as allegorical for public admiration for monuments or superpowered beings. For example, Steve Rogers who became Captain America ‘to do his bit’ during a fictionalised Second World War (Johnston, 2011), was made a fugitive seventy years later when he was accused of ‘assassinating’ Nick Fury (Russo & Russo, 2014). The ‘war hero’ mythology of Captain America was compromised when he starts to investigate espionage agency SHIELD. He desired to be more than a symbol – a man – as monuments are not embodied by sentient traits, but human projections.
Public battles over statues, heritage, and culture, amid the conversations around ‘revere or remove’ are further mirrored in comics (Millar, McNiven et al, 2007; Bendis, Marquez et al, 2016). The film Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016) may act as a further allegory for what happens when humans are monumentalised and do not meet human expectations – as what also occurred with ‘Old Man Bat’ in DC’s The Dark Knight Returns (Millar, Janson et al, 1986; Oliva, Kane et al, 2013).
A decade after Batman’s retirement, he returns to a Gotham besieged by violent crime. Forced to act, now fifty-five years old, Batman is no bars holds – matching this new generation of violent criminals in kind. The state will no longer tolerate him: James Gordon has retired, and a less tolerant Ellen Yindel is commissioner. With Batman positioned by the state as unamerican, his all-American antithesis Superman is called by gun-ho President Ronald Reagan to confront him. Batman is a pragmatist, now viewed as ‘unrespectable’ and unable to meet the human expectation of absolute virtue.
The same rubric of monumentalism that permeates superhero mythology can be contrasted against monuments in our world. Public monuments at large project a ‘need’ for a saviour to pile all our hopes on. In Northampton, soldier and footballer Walter Tull is celebrated with a statue at The Guildhall (Newsroom, 2018), further to a pub as an honourific (Greene King, 2022), ironically owned by Greene King founded by enslaver Benjamin Greene who is named in compensation records (LBS, 2022). So, much alike Windrush Square in Brixton, the Mary Seacole statue at St Thomas’ Hospital, and streets named for colonisers, this shows the relationship politics has with power. As the “knowledge that exists at any given time, the facts that are deemed incontrovertible, and the discoveries that it is possible to make, are in fact heavily influenced by that same era’s power relations” (Tom Nicholas, 2019).
Neoliberal Tales to Astonish
Scholar-YouTuber Tom Nicholas (2019b) defines neoliberalism as a “political ideology which holds that the primary bond between humans is … purely economic. All of our interactions … with other humans are neoliberal posits, driven … on self-interest” (1:42-1:54). The ‘liberal’ part of the term ‘neoliberalism’ is something of “a corruption of the term” (Friedman, 2002: 6). It takes its meaning from the historic definition of the Georgian and Victorian eras promoting a person’s right to use their money how they see fit, especially if they have money in abundance (Tom Nicholas, 2019).
Neoliberal Britain has largely been criticised in the context of immigration (Vernon, 2021), education and healthcare (Maisuria and Cole, 2017; Radojevic, 2019), but these critiques can be equally levied at how the state, as well as publishing institutions, have decided to position Black British historical remembrance. The way Black British histories are framed then – for example in the case of the Windrush – is largely a history of overwork. In their case, this may appear as “good immigrants” (Shukla, 2016) including their value to public sector institutions (Chimara, 2016; Olusoga, 2019; Henry, 2021).
Yet, I care more about their lives outside of work and labour contributions. The fact dominant media narratives focus on labour while the hostile environment continues is incredibly revealing. Academic-social worker Sandra Simpson tweeted “The ability to imagine is such an underrated skill…” (@SandiLSimpson85). When storytellers fill those archival epistemic silences, they can be criticised for historical inaccuracies. So, we are left with a capitalistic labour-driven approach to Black British remembrance where we are made visible by our ability to labour – as social worker George Mearns (2014) states “neoliberalism is the individualist strand of liberal philosophy” that dismisses community-centric views of society focusing on how society is the result of “constituent individuals” (p218).
Some may believe that monumentalism stops at statues, but I believe it is an idea and ideas can manifest beyond the street. For example, how the British Crown as a monument was also rooted in street parties which formed part of a cultural narrative during the Jubilee (Ventour, 2022; 2022b).
As discussed earlier, this includes the Black people that accept imperialist medals such as those who have made careers out of anti-oppression work (Maheshwari-Aplin, 2021). The spotlight of state validation revisits how ‘remember-worthiness’ for Black people is constructed in relation to labour contributions. Those who accept knighthoods, MBEs and other honourifics to empire are then enshrined forever as ‘prominent’ (Henry and Ryder, 2021), where “you’ve got to be in it to change it” (BBC Stories, 2020) acts as a dog whistle against those pushing for radical change from the outside.
Focuses on capacities to labour and Black proximity to the white establishment come conjoined. E.g., Angelina Osbourne and Patrick Vernon, (2021) show many Black figures are highlighted for labour contributions. In their book, they list numerous examples highlighting Black people in relation to functioning labels – such as Sharon White for business and Marvin Rees in politics – further to Bernadine Evaristo and Steve McQueen and for contributions to the literature and film.
Another example of praising Black labour in a capitalist system includes the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. This continues the precedent that Black achievement is exclusive to labour value within a capitalist system (Nwanji, 2021). Conversations about Black ‘okayness’ appear beyond the interest of dominant narratives. Or as sociologist Corey Miles tweeted, “Y’all be praising black excellence but I support black aight-ness. We don’t need to be excellent to be loved, celebrated, and valued …” (@CoreyMiles).
State mythmaking compounded by public investment in ‘hustle culture’ has created an environment that prevents Black people, now and in the past, from being (just) human. Irrespective of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ monuments, they are united in state acceptance: state monuments accredited to ‘good Black people’ – including Walter Tull, Mary Seacole, and the Windrush – are underpinned by ‘exceptional’ Black individuals platformed for their work. Walter Tull is spotlighted through contribution to sport and military (Vasili, 2009), Mary Seacole is remembered for her work in healthcare (Seacole, 1857; Gunning, 2001) and the Windrush are praised for labouring for the British state following the end of the Second World War (Wambu, 1998; Levy, 2004; Connell, 2019; El-Enany, 2020; Gentleman, 2021).
Whilst discourses to ‘achievement while Black’ have been viewed as positive (Olusoga, 2016; Vernon and Osborne, 2021; Black Excellence, 2021), this may place us into a conversation that struggles to see Black British history beyond a Black person’s labour – our right to exist without obligations tied to work are largely ignored. Black Britons are then positioned as trailblazing ‘role models’ and ‘inspirations’ monumentalised through the ‘magic’ of institutional and state myths. Under scrutiny, monumentalism attached to Black Excellence narratives sets us up to fail, constructing Black people as superhumans.
At some point, we are met with the (un)ethical dilemma of aligning ourselves with such goings-on even when these organisations hinder our development. For some, the allure of association with the establishment is akin to a magic of being ‘touched by divinity’ in hope of ‘fitting in’. In Caribbean Britain, Lenny Henry begins to explore assimilation and respectability politics. Imitating his Jamaican mother, he talks about the pressure to integrate:
“You have to h’integrate; you must go out amongst the people in Dudley and talk like them, talk to them, mingle with them, eat their food. Try not to box them down. H’ntergrate! Otherwise, you won’t fit in” (Henry, 2022 – 0:29-0:42).
Through the pressure of integration and assimilation, many people my parents’ age (born 1969-1971) and earlier generations were told to be ‘the first’ to survive. They then became monuments, embodied through ‘the white possessive’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2015) of empire medals and other forms of state validation. In my life, institutions have tried to position me as a ‘role model’ for young people to follow, thus attempted to include me in the hero trope. Monumentalism further appears in my ‘unrespectable’ critiques of the establishment often rendering me as an ‘angry’ serial complainer, including my challenges to the monarchy and the honours system (Ventour-Griffiths, 2022). Or as academic Dr Ruby Zelzer tweeted, “Non white people who accept these tings look very hmm to the rest of us. They always have to justify them too, but every single one of? you, still look hmm” (@PaperWhispers).
There are growing numbers of us who do not want to be superheroes or included (Ahmed, 2012). Not everyone needs to be an activist when we are simply trying to live. Most people are impacted by violence differently, and Black Excellence narratives distract us from challenging the legitimacy of the cage (Davis, 2003; Elliot-Cooper, 2021; Simpson, 2021). In our ‘complaint’ (Ahmed, 2021) of gifted and excellence frameworks we may be rendered problematic by other Black people – as Sara Ahmed (2020) writes for Feminist Killjoys, “If you have to shout because you are not heard, you are heard as shouting.”
Black Excellence is an ideology that plots Black success in proximity to capacities to labour and the establishment. This overarches another debate that has often reduced our history (at least in the global west) down to individual achievement in place of our right to life. These internalised narratives of ‘superheroes’ appear as the heads of movements, further superhumanised as inventors, activists, and other functioning labels. We are then monumentalised through cultural texts like statues (BBC, 2016), plaques (English Heritage, n.p), and campaigns for our faces to be on currency notes (Gabbatiss, 2018).
With each individualised narrative, I am reminded that I do not want the responsibility of saving other people. Nonetheless, humans have a long history of following those with power manifesting cultural icons in our own image and projecting our own values onto them. From Jesus to Obama and the late Queen Elizabeth II, there have been saviour figures across a swathe of political spectrums. Criticising colonial statues is easy; what’s uncomfortable is challenging monuments of ‘good people’ because it makes us look within ourselves. Or as author Chinua Achebe said, “You must criticise yourself … you do not accept anything except the best from your people” (in: Africa Turns the Page, 11:03-11:16).
The fact we expect ‘our heroes’ to be all-good and ‘our villains’ to be all-evil is part of the problem. Are we destined to walk this path of absolutes forever, or will we evolve? I will not make excuses for colonial statues; however, monuments to ‘evil white people’ and ‘good Black people’ both sprout from the same ideology of control, where “… the ruling ideas, i.e the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is … its ruling intellectual force. The class which has means of material productions … has control … over the means of mental production” (Marx and Engels, 1845).
Statues to all public figures are a result of the same ruling ideology. The fact we gained statues of Mary Seacole, Walter Tull and the Windrush in the last few years may be indicative of what the state accepts as ‘good Black British history’ – in juxtaposition to the statue of Jen Reid, the protester that replaced Edward Colston. It stood for less than a day before being removed (Dwyer, 2020). If we are to advocate for the removal of colonial statues, this passion must be for all state statues, even for figures we like.
As far as Black Excellence, public monumentalism shows us Black icons are (and were) not people of absolute virtue. The invocation of exclusively positive human qualities onto sentient life is a disservice to the experience of life itself. For Black people, this reflects how the ‘official’ Black British history is remembered. We are not messiahs. Yet, it looks like aspiring to Black alrightness is treated as a thoughtcrime – and in such a provocation, we must confess our sins or risk a lightning bolt.
Tre Ventour: Bio
Tré Ventour-Griffiths is a poet, journalist, creative (writer), and public historian-sociologist whose work can be broadly contained within Black British histories, neurodiversity, racialisation and intersectionality. An interdisciplinary thinker, his work has been used in disciplines that include English literature, screen studies, neuroscience, and criminology. Tré is also a PhD student at Kingston University and his research is centred around Northamptonshire’s Caribbean Windrush story. His further research includes whiteness in British television and disablement while Black. His work on period drama in particular, has also been used in educational contexts, no less than his writing on Jane Austen, racism and Regency whiteness. Outside of his studies, he is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology at a university – and further delivers freelance education sessions to organisations on Black British history, race, and disability. His work is available online and in-print and is always looking to connect with others. To enquire further, please Email: firstname.lastname@example.org