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  • Writer's pictureQyya

Collective Memory and National Identity: The Silences in the British Tapestry

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

There are certain silences that scream louder than spoken words.

They resonate with an echoing hollowness in the collective heart of a nation, hinting at forgotten stories and unacknowledged histories. Collective memory - that shared reservoir of experiences, images, myths, and narratives - is a key ingredient in shaping national identity. But when memory is selective, when it glosses over uncomfortable truths or outright neglects them, the national identity that emerges is incomplete, fractured. The experience of Black communities in the United Kingdom exemplifies such an omission, making it imperative to interrogate the very basis of 'Britishness' and its historical narrative.

To speak of Britain is to speak of empire. An empire upon which, as the adage went, the sun never set. The vastness of the British Empire, the richness of its tapestry, was built not only by the English, Scots, or the Welsh but also by those from lands far beyond the Isles. Africa, the Caribbean, India, and myriad other colonies were stitched into the fabric of British identity, not as separate patches but as threads integral to its weft and weave. Black communities, in particular, have been present in Britain since Roman times, their existence recorded in literature, art, and historical texts. They fought in British wars, contributed to its industrial revolution, and played pivotal roles in its cultural renaissance. Yet, these contributions are marginalised or even erased in popular national discourse. How did this erasure come about?

One answer lies in the manner the British Empire is remembered - or rather, forgotten. The Empire's stories are not just tales of conquest and commerce but also tales of extraction, exploitation, and violence. The brutalities of the slave trade, the economic drain, and the cultural suppression form a sombre backdrop to Britain's golden age of imperialism. Yet, the collective memory of the nation often fails to encompass these. There is a lack of education, a lack of awareness. Many in the UK remain ignorant of the empire's extensive footprint or are taught sanitised versions that de-emphasise its brutal aspects. Without understanding the empire, one cannot truly grasp the multiculturalism of modern Britain.

The lack of education about the empire effectively blinds the UK populace to the context that brought numerous Black and Asian communities to its shores. Migration, whether forced during the slavery era or voluntary during the post-war periods, was not an accident. It was a consequence, a legacy of centuries of intertwined histories. Ignoring this context allows for harmful narratives to take root - narratives that paint Black communities as outsiders, as recent arrivals, as 'others' in the British story.

These narratives have consequences. They create fissures in the collective consciousness, fostering feelings of alienation and otherness among Black Britons. They erase histories of resistance, of contribution, of shared culture. They ignore the Windrush Generation, those who came to rebuild post-war Britain, only to face discrimination and neglect. They allow for policies that further marginalise and victimise, as seen in the Windrush scandal, where citizens, integral to Britain's post-war story, were wrongfully detained, denied legal rights, or deported.

So, what then is 'Britishness'? Can it truly be defined without acknowledging the multitude of voices, the myriad histories, and the countless sacrifices that have shaped it? For national identity to be truly representative, it needs to encompass all its stories, especially those that challenge or complicate a straightforward narrative. The relationship between collective memory and national identity is not just about what is remembered but also about what is forgotten, omitted, or deliberately left out.

To reclaim 'Britishness', to make it more inclusive and more honest, requires diving deep into these silences, filling them with the voices and stories of Black Britons and other marginalised communities. It requires acknowledging the empire, not as a distant past but as a living legacy. It requires education, empathy, and a commitment to truth.

Black communities in the UK, and their rich tapestry of experiences, are not appendages to the British story. They are its heart and soul. And it's high time they are recognised as such.

Painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Further Reading:

Berg, Maxine, and Pat Hudson. Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. John Wiley & Sons, 2023.

Eric Eustace Williams. Capitalism & Slavery. The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1995.

Olivette Otele. African Europeans. Basic Books, 2021.

Olusoga, David. Black and British. London: Macmillan, 2016.

Sanghera, Sathnam. Empireland. Penguin, 2021.

Scanlan, Padraic X. SLAVE EMPIRE : How Slavery Built Modern Britain. S.L.: Robinson, 2022.

Walvin, James. The Trader, the Owner, the Slave. Vintage Books, 2007.

Younge, Gary. “Lest We Remember: How Britain Buried Its History of Slavery | Gary Younge.” the Guardian, March 29, 2023.

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