Black lives matter and have done so before slavery, during slavery and after slavery. This post is dedicated to Mr Walters, my old history teacher back in secondary school. I would love it if you could read this to the end as despite its length (and personal childhood history interwoven with my seeds of ideas for change) I do still feel it’s quite important for the world.
THE OCEAN AND THE TEACHER
I had to wait to find an appropriate photo in my collection for this post. This photo was taken in Denmark on the shores of the Atlantic. The Atlantic is significant, as it was the ocean carrying the infamous triangular slave trade route and as a result I’ve always preferred the Pacific, on the shores of which I grew up (also Pacific means peace – Cathay Pacific). The Atlantic has always felt a bit colder. Plus, the Titanic sank there. So, not a good start, to my childish mind. Worth bearing in mind, too, that as we stood on the shores of the Atlantic my sister and I were free women with plane tickets. It’s triply significant to me as I used this photo for an earlier post about Brexit and immigration, in relation to our trip to Ellis Island (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) – another special trip in my life – as a free person. At the very least, it’s better than the photo of the Evian bottle I was originally going to post in honour of my teacher, although that may have been more accurate:
My teacher’s real name was Mr Walters, not Mr Waters, but because he always carried around a massive 2 litre bottle of water, naturally he got the affectionate nickname of Mr Waters, as teenagers are wont to do. I think he may have been slightly nervous, as this was his first ‘real’ teaching job having just got his PGCE, and perhaps the copious water helped. By the way, he was a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, pink-cheeked, freshly-qualified (water-drinking, forward-thinking) white man.
A POTTED HISTORY OF MY HISTORY OF HISTORY
He taught me about slavery.
This is highly unusual for a UK kid – I am the only one of my generation that I know – and I’ve asked around a bit – to be taught about slavery formally during my UK secondary school education following the National Curriculum. It’s still not part of the official curriculum. (And languages are also getting dropped – don’t get me started!)
I was asked a couple of good questions – what did he do that was significant? In what ways did he change my life?
He taught me the history of slavery, factually, in the usual ways – through textbooks, lectures, and the occasional video (how we looked forward to those ‘easy’ multimedia lessons!). But he also taught me the history emotionally. One assignment he gave that I’ll never forget was to write as if we were slaves on board a ship bound for who-knows-where, chained, ill and with no food. And then to be branded on arrival in the foreign, cold land like cattle. That really hit home hard. I imagined I was a slave.
I actually did not go on to take History GCSE. This was because the Slavery topic was so hard-hitting, so fascinating and so important to me – I even felt it as a child, I really sat up and listened and learned in his lessons – and it was the last real “history” topic in my childish eyes before History as prescribed by the National Curriculum got a bit dull, in my opinion. After that, it was the World Wars. Massively important, but I felt that I could still meet people who had a living memory of it, therefore it wasn’t real “history”. (I also felt lots was left out… they were called World Wars but why was the rest of the world left out of our textbooks?? Russia, China, India…) I also came to this country too late to do the Egyptians and Aztecs, I always felt the lack somehow. A lover of the ancient world even as a small child, I missed out on that! I remember the tail end of the Romans in primary school in the UK and Greek myths. And then History just got really, really boring (English kings and queens and dates – important, but I also didn’t fully understand the point of memorising dates when you could just look them up in a book – this was before the internet was the most popular search tool!). I ended up choosing Geography as my Humanities subject instead (I wanted to travel and move to San Francisco and my Geography teacher was so young and hip and cool and well-travelled. Also, his name was Mr Mallalieu, pronounced Mallaloo, so of course, he became Mr Mallatoilet, and my personal favourite – because I made it up – Mr Mallalavatory…). Strangely enough, I still went on to do a Masters in History – in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCL in order to dive deeper into the context and world of miniature painting – later in life as I still loved history itself – I always did, right from learning about Chinese and Hong Kong history in Hong Kong; it’s so connected to cultural studies which is a real centre point in my life. I then looked on with slight jealousy as my peers studied American history at GCSE and A Level, which I hadn’t reckoned with and which I still feel I am lacking (better late than never!).
All this to say… I sat up and showed up about slavery.
HOW HE CHANGED MY LIFE AND WHY I AM A CRAP BAKER
I am an artist, and every time I go to the Tate Gallery, which I love (It’s a great institution! Become a member!), I still have this little formula/ditty at the back of my mind:
Tate Gallery. Tate and Lyle. Sugar = slaves.
Around the same time as a teenage girl I read possibly the only dietary book I’ve ever read in my life – Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin – the history of sugar and why it is so dangerous.
You never need to eat refined sugar. Your body makes its own sugar and you can get it naturally from fruit. My teenage homage to the abolition of slavery was to abolish the purchase and addition of sugar in my own cooking there and then. I still cringe when I see a bag of white sugar (maybe that’s why I’m a crap baker. However – since I also learnt about irreversible chemical changes around this time too I figured that once sugar has already stealthed its way into other people’s cooking, I can no longer do anything about it and therefore can’t avoid it entirely. Therefore, I can eat other people’s cakes, as the rule doesn’t extend to that, so, therefore, please continue to give me cakes).
I started drinking tea instead (and, the – colonial – histories of tea, spices, salt…milk…!)
I am a ‘foreigner’ everywhere. I am a proud MOTH MOTHER, haha! Mixed Race OTher on all forms = MOTH and a mother to moth babies too. But, my ancestors were not slaves. Check your privilege.
History matters. Black lives matter.
AN ASIDE: MY LITTLE RANT ON CATEGORIES AND MY IDEAS FOR CHANGE:
“Asian” as a category is stupid. In the UK: People from the subcontinent do not represent all of Asia; what about, say, Koreans? In the US: People from China, Japan and Korea do not represent all of Asia. What about, say, Mongolians? Or Kazakhs? Or Kalmyks? Or Buryat? Or Kirghiz? Or Arabs? Yes – Arabs and people from the Middle East are actually Asians too – they are not Europeans. Asia is the ‘world’s biggest continent’ and Europe is almost like a little elbow of the giant that is Asia. “Caucasian” is an outdated stupid category. “Caucasians” are people from countries graced by the beautiful Caucasus mountains, so quite a small number of people: Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. “Caucasians” do not represent all white people (Celts, Slavs…)
I love Asia. I love Europe. I’ve lived in both. I’m deeply connected to both and the older I get the more I see it as a continuum (you can travel the entire Silk Road from Venice to China overland). As a whole it is the world’s biggest landmass and an endless source of inspiration for both my life and art. So why not call the whole thing Eurasia?? Idea no. 1
[And why not classify humans by blood type? Even though it does vary by race, you still actually find all the blood types all across the world with more similar distributions across races and I think this is more of an equalising factor….? Eg A B AB O and positives and negatives. Mine’s rare – the ‘Universal Receiver’ – Idea no. 2]
[I am a colour geek – why not classify skin tones in terms of wood? Trees are pretty neutral and you can find wood in all colours of human skin, from deepest gorgeous ebony to beautiful pale birch to rich mahogany, golden pine, red maple…Actually, maybe makeup companies are ahead of the game here. Idea no. 3; maybe I’ll write a longer post on race in future]
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Thank you, Mr Walters. You really did change my life, though I may not have fully realised it at the time. You woke me up. My kids will be woke. I hope you are still hydrating yourself adequately – in a funny completion-of-a-circle way, it’s now become trendy and the norm to check one’s own hydration levels daily. So you were ahead of the game in many ways. Sorry about our (always affectionate!) name games, Mr Mallalieu – we loved you too, but possibly loved wordplay more 😉