David Olusoga

The Bluecoat 5/9/18

The dust is yet to settle on 2016. There’re more fitting times to digress on how, in the space of two elections, liberalism proved to be something of a worn-out DVD squared up against a future-facing populist gramophone, spouting its out eerie triumphs of spitfires and the necessity of blue passports. For me, the two can be happily traded in at CEX for an insurmountable loss, but whatever. What’s important to take, at this point, was how 2016 quickly became regarded as the year of post truth. So much so the phase wore a sort of ill-gotten crown when it was named as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Prestigious.

With the double hit of Brexit and Trump the word was propelled into our everyday diction, despite having been coined by Ralph Keyes in 2004. We’re not all academics, or historians, or people who take an interest in public affairs. Most people don’t give a shit, really. But, it’s easy to see why post-truth rose to public attention when it did. We’ve always lived in an age of post-truth and alternative facts – we’ve just been less aware of this actuality. 2016 wasn’t the touchstone. Liberalism has explained away its failures as a victim of a morally-lacking rhetorical practice, post truth. The same practice it has weaved across our eyes for centuries, as DAVID OLUSOGA, acclaimed TV historian and academic eloquently explains, with tinges of frustration meeting the sharpest ends of his finely-crafted arguments. Post truth so easily became the harrowing red light in the darkness of liberalism’s failure. History will be more forgiving of those who were subject to injustice, so they’d have us believe. Just as the liberal play script would have us reminded of the British abolition movement ahead of our once dearest royals and their business venture, the Royal Africa Company. It’s rarely mentioned that the company, run by the Duke of York, was a heavyweight of the slave trade. No. Instead we’re handed a lyric sheet to Amazing Grace and we sing along, happily, as a shameless nation.

It’s fitting that David Olusoga ignites this train of thought as he discusses Britain’s camouflaged history; our continuing adherence to alternative facts regarding Britain’s role in slavery. “Historical blind spots,” he asserts. What’s clear is that post truth, stretching from as far as the industrial revolution, has been disseminated so effectively that Olusoga, delivering his talk on camouflaging slavery, does so in a building co-founded by a slaver. Or is it, as any naïve heritage organisation would claim, a building co-founded by a West Indian Planter and philanthropist? Olusoga, stood at the dimly-lit lectern, stands as the tip of this metaphor, which crushingly falls on the heads of the majority white audience. And so it should. It’s these contradictions that Britain celebrates so discourteously. Britain’s firm hand in slavery is all but looked past due to the image rehabilitating efforts of these so-called philanthropists whose names adorn our streets and buildings. Olusoga is firm is his argument that they should be remembered only for their orchestration of mass social death. Curricular history only serves as an exemplary of our continual, post truth-scripted narratives.

"post truth, stretching from as far as the industrial revolution, has been disseminated so effectively that Olusoga, delivering his talk on camouflaging slavery, does so in a building co-founded by a slaver"

Britain was the force of the industrial revolution. Britain was the force of abolitionist movement. Be proud or be unpatriotic. But what enabled such grandeur and progression? As Olusoga reiterates throughout his talk, there are gaping holes in our history. Ones we fail to address, be through shame or ambivalence. It’s Britain’s failure that places Olusoga here on this very evening. We’re capitated by arguments of Britain at work, working hard for the betterment of the world. The towering chimney stacks scattered across Lancashire didn’t equal the heights of ambition compounded in our sacred revolution. This was an era where we spun cotton day and night to solidify our status. An era where we spun a web of lies, emotive-ridden post truth, to ensure every primary school student of the future knows our betterment came from hard work. And it was us, those setting the moral compass, when the timing suited, who were the first to fight back against the demands of slavery.

Britain wears its guilt with pride. The grandeur of limestone statements displaying our excellence have been whitewashed and falsified, poisoning the streams of truth and fact running through their very foundations. Liverpool should know better than most. Industrial wheels where turned by the hands of enslaved Mississippi cotton pickers, but the two are kept apart in well-rehearsed narratives. One American and unforgivable, one proudly British. Olusoga can barely scratch the surface of Britain’s ignored history in his 45-minute speech. He is a gifted orator. His delivery is not lacking in detail, nor is it overbearing and overwhelmingly academic. The clear progression from historian to TV personality has issued a more digestible, direct, and approachable style in his speech.

The evening’s Q&A with Bluecoat director Bryan Biggs carries a more uplifting tone when acknowledging the contemporary surge for the removal of slavers’ names from our buildings. This is barely a note of progression, however. This society has made no progress if it chooses to brandish, so publicly, its contempt for refugees, as seen with the latest act of Biennial vandalism.

Olusoga concludes his talk by reiterating that historical facts, resting in plain sight, have been out manoeuvred by emotive sentiment and alternate accounts. 2016 was the year people heard what they wanted to hear, so it goes. This is far from the case, as Olusoga effortlessly illustrates.

I depart, walking through the Bluecoat’s orderly courtyard before meeting Hanover Street. Peering through the early evening revellers and black cabs, I’m hesitating in my step as I lock focus with a pub harboured on the corner of the street. ‘The Empire’, alive and well; it’s titling haunted by a half memory. Historical blind spots are only hidden when looked upon with eyes of selective blindness.

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