Sunday, 5 March 2023

(Unanswered) Anonymous petition addressed to the ‘Lord arch Bishop of London’. 4 August 1723

 Part of the Enslavement: Voices from the Archives Exhibition....

Anonymous petition addressed to the Bishop of London  

4 August 1723  

FP XVII ff. 167-168.

To The Right Reverend father in God my Lord Bishop of London

This coms to satisfy your honour that there is in this Land of Virginia a sort of people that are called mulattoes which are Baptised and brought up in the way of the Christian faith and followers the ways and rules of the Church of England and some of them has white fathers and some white mothers and there is in this Land a Law or act which keeps and makes them and their seed slaves forever. 
And most honoured Sir amongst the rest of your charitable acts and deeds we your humble and poor parishioners do beg Sir your aid and assistance in this one thing which as I do understand in your Lordship's [gift?] which is that your honour will by the help of our suffering Lord, King George and the rest of the rulers, will release us out of this cruel bondage and this we beg for Jesus Christ's Sake who has commanded us to seek first the kingdom of God and all things shall be added on to us and here it is to be noted that one brother is a slave to another and one sister to another which is quite out of the way and as for me myself, 
I am my brothers slave but my name is secret and here it is to be noted again that we are commanded to keep Holy the Sabbath day and we do hardly know when it comes for our task masters are has hard with us as the Egyptians was with the Children of Israel.
God be merciful unto us.
here follows our Sevarity and Sorrowfull Sarvice we are hard used...
my Riting is vary bad I whope yr honour will take the will for the deede I am but a poore SLave that writt itt and has no other time butt Sunday and hardly that att Sumtimes
September the 8th 1723
To the Right Reverrand father in god my Lord arch bishup of London these with care
wee dare nott Subscribe any mans name to this for feare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the gallass tree

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Casta, Caste and Classification Event

De Espanol y Negra produce Mulato  (A Spaniard and a Black produce a Mule)
at the conservation studio

Last November I received an email out of the blue inviting me to be a guest speaker at The Origins of Caste event along with a few background links about the Casta project and paintings. I’d never heard of Casta paintings so wasn’t sure this would be for me however once I read Tara Munroe’s Casta story in the Guardian, how she first came across this 18th century Black presence in a “stack of discarded oil paintings” in Leicester Museum’s basement - I was in!


Casta paintings were painted in the 18th century Mexico by dual heritage artists to depict and name the progeny of different intermarriages between Whites, Indians and Blacks and their resultant off springs’ marriages. The series of sixteen paintings are rooted in the racist white supremacy beliefs of the white Spanish colonists.

Casta Paintings 

The subsequent invitation from Tara Munroe's  heritage and arts organisation Opal 22 turned into three memorable days in Leicester – looking at, talking about and debating on Casta painting then eventually presenting my views on Casta paintings and Tara’s remarkable discovery in Leicester Museum basement.  In addition to me, I was in the company of three academics with an interest in and passion for Casta paintings – Ilona Katzew , Department Head and  Curator, Latin American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dr Susan Deans-Smith, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Texas Austin, Professor Rebecca Earle, Department of History, Warwick University.

The first day - and for me the high point  - was spent in Annabelle Monaghan's wonderful conservation studio with the others looking at the works being carefully, meticulosulsy ...and have to say it, lovingly conserved. A great experience - honoured -  to see how the paintings are being painstakingly, literally being brought back to life.  The colour and detail revealed as the layers of old varnish and the paint from previous restorations is slowly, delicately removed, square millimetre by square millimetre, was astonishing. (here's a Facebook story from Opal 22 summarising the day)

There was much discussion on the quality of the original work now made manifest by the conservation. We also discussed the poor-quality retouching and additions the conservation revealed. For me the vase with cup and saucer in sitting on top in lower right of De Espanol y Negra produce Mulato  (A Spaniard and a Black produce a Mule) was an addition, as neither seem to fit into the composition both in terms of positioning and colour. While  on Indios otomies queue ban a la feria  Native Indians going to the market) what looks like one chicken being held by the young boy, on cleaning we can now clearly see he’s actually holding three chickens! 


 De Espanol y Negra produce Mulato  (A Spaniard and a Black produce a Mule)

The following day was spent with each of us giving our views – to camera -  on the paintings and  their conservation. I discussed the white supremacy to found in them and how those ideas moved from the Spanish to the English colonists in the 18th century  and are still with us today in the evil that is colourism and the expression ‘mixed race’ implying there is a pure race.

The third and final day was a series of academic presentations – Casta , Caste and Classification - chaired by the facilitator Cheryl Garvey. Tara opened the meeting with a brief review of her journey and her vision for the Exhibition to be held later this year,  Ilona Katzew gave a review of the history and development of the genre- casta paintings, Dr Susan Deans-Smith considered the purpose and market for the paintings, Professor Rebecca Earle, presented us with the history and provenance of Leicester’s Casta paintings, finally I presented my ideas on the colonial and imperialist interpretations of the works. 

Casta, Caste & Classification - Friday 24th Feb 2023

The discussions in the conservation studio and the pieces to camera will be remixed and made into film which will be on show as part of the Casta Painting Exhibition later this year, where the narratives surrounding the Casta Paintings will be reframed informed by work done at the Casta , Caste and Classification  event presenting  the paintings to the public with a contemporary narrative, reflecting society today -  I look forward to it !






Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Mark Twain meets a Black tour guide in Mid 19th Century Venice

Mark Twain meets a Black tour guide in Mid 19th Century Venice who introduces him to the Renaissance.......

While reading Paul Kaplan's Contraband guides : Race, transatlantic culture, and the arts in the civil war era. I came across the following passage...

Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. In this best-selling 1869 account of a European five hundred published memoirs of European travel and trip taken in 1867, Twain devotes several pages to the guidebooks to an (unnamed) tour guide who introduced him both to the artistic splendors of Venice and to the term “Renaissance.”14 Twain describes this man as the son of South Carolina slaves and at the same time elegant, learned, and fully acculturated to his European environment. 


Page 5

Kaplan, P. H. D. (2020). Contraband guides : Race, transatlantic culture, and the arts in the civil war era.Pennsylvania State University Press.


Sunday, 11 December 2022

The Met's Prayer Bead Is About Prophesy

While researching The Met’s site for images of the Queen of Sheba I came across what they entitle: Prayer Bead with the Queen of Sheba Visiting King Solomon and the Adoration of the Magi a two inch, when closed, boxwood sphere. It is described as:


The stories paired here both concern rulers coming from exotic and faraway places to honor a greater king. To emphasize the similarity of the narratives, the carver has deliberately drawn visual parallels between them. Though the inscription ringing the outside of the carving mentions the train of camels that the Queen of Sheba brought, they are nowhere in sight when the bead is opened. Rather the action is indoors, with the queen and two other women offering gifts, just like the three Wise Men in the scene below. The small dog under the table in the lower bead is typical of the small details that the artist inserts to enrich the scene.


I would argue The Met has missed a trick here.


This extraordinary piece is not just about pairing images of rulers honouring a great king , it is not just about emphasizing similarities. It is about prophesy. Prophesy fulfilled in Jesus as king of the Jews.  The Old Testament king of the Jews – Solomon - being honoured prophesying the New Testament king of the Jews – Jesus. 


The Queen of Sheba visit in the Old Testament is seen as anticipating the Three Kings visit in New Testament. This prophesy is seen in 14th century Biblia pauperum so called Paupers’ Bibles such as the example below, from the British Library’s collection.

Miniature of Abner visiting King David; miniature of the Adoration of the Magi; 
the miniature of the Queen of Sheba presenting gifts to Solomon, Northern Netherlands 
(The Hague?), c 1395-1400, Kings MS 5, f. 3r

Old TestamentNew TestamentOld Testament
Abner visiting 
King David 
Adoration of 
the Magi/Three Kings
Queen of Sheba 
presenting gifts to Solomon

The Paupers' Bible were picture Bibles where Images, rather than text, they followed a fairly standard layout. At the centre of each sheet is usually a scene from the New Testament, flanked on either side by an Old Testament scene related to that central image  by typology. Typology being a brand of Biblical exegesis or study which was extremely popular in the medieval era, which centered on the belief that people and events in the Old Testament could be viewed as prefiguring or anticipating aspects of the life of Christ.


The description of the The Met’s prayer bead need to reflect the religious significance of the piece not just the physical and visual.

Saturday, 1 October 2022

Review: Chinonye Chukwu’s TILL : Released Oct 1 '22

Emmett Louis Till (Jalyn Hall) and Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler)

Till on IMDb

 When I first received the email invitation from Universal with the subject **First Look Screening Invite** - Chinonye Chukwu’s TILL I was not impressed. I knew the story of Emmett Till a 14-year-old African American boy who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman. I didn’t want to see what I believed would be its violence re-enacted – no matter how noble the intent. 

Having just read Paterson Joseph’s The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho I very much agreed with the point made in its introductory Author’s Note, which I paraphrase here along with my emphasis:


To the expectations of the [viewer] who awaits a [film] filled with whips and curses and rapes and murders of Black People by White People …… you will not find much to please you here. 


I never went to Django Unchained or 12 Years A Slave and I turned The Harder They Come off after a few minutes. I didn’t want see any of the racial violence, the blood, the gore, the pain. I don’t do, what to me, are exploitation movies packed with gratuitous bloody violence. I do not wish to see graphic ‘murders of Black People by White People’ no matter how just or significant the film maker’s cause. 


So, my immediate response was to decline but my partner liked the idea of a night back in London town at the movies, especially invited by Universal to a screening. So, very reluctantly I accepted the invitation.


I was so pleased I took her advice. TILL is a brilliant movie with deep emotional messages in almost every scene. 


From the opening we’re introduced to impish, playful Emmett Louis Till (Jalyn Hall) with his teenage world view and his loving mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) full of love and concern that he should do the right thing. Their relationship is at the heart of this movie – a mother for her only son – a son wanting to be a young man – and her need to protect him from all the deadly perils of 1950s America that lay in waiting for Black men. We see the joy, the love, the hurt the pain through his mother’s reactions and emotions. 


TILL shows how she maintains her dignity under pressure from the Whites who want to destroy her reputation and her story, just as they had physically destroyed her son, but she is emotionally strong, fighting for a greater cause than the Southern Whites will ever know or comprehend - justice for her son, born of her love for her only child. 


I was emotionally exhausted at the end of this movie. 


It’s the movie of a 1955 incident which resonates to this day. You can clearly see how Emmett’s death can be seen as a galvanizing moment that helped lead to the creation of the civil rights movement. Sadly, it contains civil rights messages that resonate today almost seventy years later – Black voter suppression, the rewriting of history in favour of Whites things which are happening even today. 


The central story of TILL, a White woman - Carolyn Bryant - lying about a Black man’s supposed inappropriate behaviour has an equivalent today but this time a much happier outcome for the Blackman. In 2021 the New York Times reported a White woman called the police in Central Park claiming she was being attacked by a Black man, he filmed the whole incident showing she was clearly lying he, unlike Emmitt survived to tell his story. 

TILL is a movie the world must see. Not just to make manifest the racial violence that continues to this day in America seen in the death of George Floyd but also to make real that force of nature that is the unconditional love of a mother for her son.


Sunday, 25 September 2022

Review: Keshia N. Abraham & John Woolf (2022) Black Victorians: Hidden in History

I had the pleasure of being sent an advance reading copy of Black Victorians: Hidden in History. The introductory email claimed “Black Victorians explores the intersections between Black history and British history in the nineteenth century, with a focus on human stories as a vehicle for illuminating Victorian attitudes to ‘race’. “ 

Most of the ‘human stories’ covered I was familiar with as I recognised many of the characters where names I knew from Peter Fryer’s seminal text Staying Power. What was different with Black Victorians were the connections identified and discussed between the individuals and Victorian society. This was to me a particular strength of the book as it wasn’t a series of unrelated biographies, not a series of stories about Black exceptionalism rather the individuals’ histories are given context in aspects of  Victorian society - Part 1 Struggle and Survival , Part 2 Church and State , Part 3 The Arts and Part  4 The Fight for Freedom – which made identifying and understanding the books intersections between Black history and British history easy to follow through ‘rooting lives within braoder networks, milieus and contexts’. 


It was the names under Part 1: Struggle and Survival that introduced a new context to me, Broadmoor: the criminal lunatic asylum, clearly demonstrating the book’s ability to tell a Black history beyond the conventions of Black exceptionalism. I recognised none of the names I was taken out of my Black British history comfort zone in which to varying degrees I knew most of the characters in the other Parts, in Part 1 I knew none.


Part 1 gives an account of the disabled: Edward Albert from his own brief memoire and his appearance in London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65) where he is described as ‘The Negro Crossing-Sweeper, Who Had Lost Both His Legs’. And the lives of three Black inmates of Broadmoor, England’s first lunatic asylum for the criminally insane from its records:  John Flinn spent forty seven years inside Victorian institutions, dying in Broadmoor, William Brown an ex-seaman who murdered his wife by cutting her throat, tried to kill his stepson, set fire to the house then tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat – he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, he died in Broadmoor and Joseph Peters who seems to be have driven insane thru isolation following the death of his only relative his mother was sent to Broadmoor after being declared insane following an attack on a shipmate. Each was given the opportunity to tell their story in their own words, stories once lost in the archives have resurfaced. The Black Victorians considered in Part 1 demonstrate how their stories endure in the archives, stories of the fight for survival from the margins of society contrasting with those discussed in the other parts who were not at the edge but moved within the establishment or protested against its structures.   


I was particularly interested in the analysis of responses to Victorian racism. The celebrated actor Ira Aldridge was hounded by the British press having to continually fight for equality both on and off the stage ‘forever confronting the racist depictions of African Americans in the form of the minstrel.’ While Aldridge accepted that racist criticism, the escaped slave and abolitionist William Wells Brown would not accept criticism. When a newspaper ‘described his exhibition in contemptuous terms, and thereby materially curtailed the receipts’. He successfully sued for libel and awarded £100. The probable racism within the criticism was ignored by the national press who focused on ‘benign British justice.’ 


The highlight of the book for me could have been the chapter – Land of Hope and Glory – which went some way to setting the scene for the Victorian attitude to race. I was minded of Fryer’s seminal Chapter 7 The Rise of English Racism in Staying Power which covers similar ground. I would have hoped for deeper analysis in Black Victorians of the impact of development and growth of the British Empire following abolition of the slave trade. The 3Cs – Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation – that drove Victorian expansion of Empire in Africa leading to the destruction then looting the treasures of the Benin Empire in Nigeria, Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and Maqdala in Ethiopia. I would have welcomed some analysis of Victorians in Africa and growth of its Empire. What impact if any did it have on the attitudes of Black and white Victorians?


I enjoyed the chapter on the Pan-African Movement in which we can see how the eighteenth-century British abolitionist organisation the Sons of Africa could be linked a century later to Pan Africanism.  Pan-Africanisms is shown as a global movement with the delegates to its 1900 conference in London coming from around the world to discuss, slavery, colonialism, racism and ways to fight these global scourges. One delegate celebrated the ‘common cause’ among people of the African Diaspora, another prophesised “America would never be at peace with herself until the negro problem was settled outright” showing how the ideas of Black Victorians still resonate today.


Setting aside the need for perhaps more on Africa and Empire Black Victorians gives insights into the intersection of between Black history and British history through some very human stories in a very readable, accessible format, free of the conventional exceptionalism approach to Black history. Black Victorians gives wider more holistic understanding of the Black presence in Victorian Britain, which I very much enjoyed reading.


I've yet to see a copy of the final version ...they may have corrected the omission on the Victorians in Africa addressing "What impact if any did it have on the attitudes of Black and white Victorians?"

Footnote to Footnote

I received my final copy as promised and yes they did address Victorians in Africa in the context of chapter Land of Hope and Glory:

Treasures were looted (and kept to this day), including from the Mandala in Ethiopia, The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and the Benin Empire in present-day Nigeria. Uprisings were viciously suppressed and natural resources exploited, while people starved (page 33)

and thanks to the authors for the mention in Acknowledgements



Wednesday, 8 June 2022

Where'd Me Dad's Love of Country Music Come From ?

 I met the musician and educator professor Nate Holder at the Black British Book Festival we had a good old chat black music and history exchanging ideas and views. It was my chance to share how I’d just solved the one of the great mysteries of my childhood:

My Dad, Michael N. Ohajuru (1926-1995) (left) Jim Reeves (Right)

Why did my Dad – a seaman from West Africa - have a fondness for the music of American country and western singers like Hank Williams and Jim Reeves ? Every time I hear Jim Reeves I Love You Because, I’m back in our front room in Liverpool.

Dad passed away in 1995 so he’s no longer here to ask. The mystery was cofounded by Dr Michael McMillan and his seminal Front Room project, as I recall discussing with Michael the huge radiogram the centre of his painstakingly wonderfully reconstruction of an African Caribbean front room from the late 1960s and 1970s. The radiogram I knew was a huge piece of brown mahogany furniture which served as a radio, a record player and album storage unit, we had in the front room of our terraced house in Liverpool.

Michael McMillan - A front room in 1970 - The Museum of The Home
Photograph by Em Fitzgerald

Amongst Dad’s album collection which was mostly West African high life music whose album covers featured black African faces, many with titles in African languages. Incongruously there were several albums whose covers had smiling white male faces most times with cowboy hats and titles like The Very Best of … or The Greatest Hits of … As I type I can hear Jim Reeves classic, I Love You Because being played on the radiogram in our front room. Discussing this with Michael Macmillan I learnt that other Black parents had a penchant for playing country & western music on their front-rooms’ radiograms. Why country music was as mystery to me.

Having listened to BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ I now know why.

Soul Music celebrates music from many different genres from classical to pop that touched folks’ souls with their powerful emotional impact. It was listening the episode featuring  John Denver’s Take me Home, Country Roads I learnt how Black folk of my Dad’s generation connected with country & western. The author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital Lloyd Bradley explained how at first the reggae version by Toots and Maytals seemed enigmatic to him - a Black Jamaican band playing white, red-neck American music – an enigma I shared with Lloyd,  trying to understand my Dad’s country and western music tastes.

The show explained that Caribbean government run radio stations of 60s were staffed by those trained at the BBC.  The motherland’s BBC was the model to be followed, as country and western had no part of the BBC’s musical canon at that time it didn’t feature. But it did feature on the many American radio stations whose signals could be picked up in Jamaica. That coupled with how country and western song lyrics spoke to things familiar to country folk, it became popular throughout the Caribbean.

Country Roads is ‘about the longing for home and the desire to be back with the people you love’ Toots substituted ‘West Jamaica’ for ‘West Virginia’ as he sings of country roads taking him home to the place he belonged.

Liverpool or more specifically Liverpool 8 today known as Toxteth, in the 1960s it was a bustling multicultural, multiracial inner city suburb. My Dad had Caribbean friends, they went to each other’s night clubs and shebeens so exchanged ideas and music freely - no surprise my Dad found country and western music.

So, there you have it, mystery solved! .....

My Dad – a seaman from Nigeria - love of the country and western music he played on the radiogram in our front room in Liverpool can be traced back to American radio stations of the 60’s broadcasting country and western ‘Soul Music’ across the Caribbean. 

By coincidence I came across another BBC programme - Black Roots -which charted the rise and fall and rise of the Black American influence on country & western music- how Black folk shaped the genre. Rhiannon Giddens the programme's presenter discusses her life and the challenges she's had as a Black, award winning, female banjo player while discussing with guests how the banjo, originally an African instrument became a mainstay of country & western music, while many of the early celebrated fiddle players were Black and the one earliest and most beloved harmonica players was a Black man.

Rhiannon Giddens 

Black Roots: Grammy-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens explores the history of African American roots music through the story of forgotten black pioneers.   

Black Roots showing in music, what comes around goes around from the Black Americans in to White Americans in the nineteenth century  to the Black folk in the Caribbean to a West African seaman in Liverpool in the 1960s.

With big thanks to Nate Holden, Michael McMillan, Lloyd Bradley and the BBC.