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A Forgotten History: black people have always been in Britain

09 Nov 2016

Tonight at 9:00pm on BBC Two, Black and British: A Forgotten History hits the small screens. Headed up by historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, the show is a televised accompaniment to his new book of the same name. Not only is it a “radical reappraisal of the parameters of history”, but also a fascinating and well put together introduction to a topic that has long evaded mainstream attention.

A Forgotten History, spread out over four parts that document the history of black people in Britain from Roman times to now, redefines our whitewashed impression of the nations backstory to a wider audience. The first episode begins with the undeniable blackness of the “Beachy Head lady”, an ancient skeleton discovered at the site of Beachy Head, East Sussex. They were believed to have lived there from 200-250 AD, and radiocarbon dating has found them to have been ethnically sub-Saharan African. It also utilises a portrait of Francis Barber, a picture of 18th century black nobility and companion to writer Dr Samuel Johnson, to reveal the rarely covered tale of black Georgians. They existed in tens of thousands in the nations capital and beyond, their legacy living disguised within the possible 3-5 million descendants in our midst.

Alongside the tales of black Britons living side by side with white Britons is the programme’s accompanying mission to memorialise those stories with commemorative plaques around the country. This feels a satisfying step to being more honest about our diverse past.

This documentary highlights a history beyond the Windrush generation and the spike in immigration of black people to Britain in the mid-20th century. It’s a series many people including myself are bound to be grateful for.  Whilst slavery is referenced, an inextricable element of the global African diasporic experience, it does not take centre stage. This allows the documentary to avoid falling in to the trap of being reductive and repetitive by focusing only on the well-known history of black peoples enslavement. Instead, it showcases a diverse range of experiences, from the African Romans who guarded Hadrian’s Wall to the black trumpeter of the Tudor Courts.

Important and surprising, A Forgotten History is a significant reminder that not all programmes on race have to be about racism, or have the ultimate objective of subverting racist stereotypes. Some programming that focuses on people of colour can be about celebrating our history with no other agenda. Humanising our history through documentation is not only a thoughtful and important process, but it makes for pretty good television too.

Black and British: A Forgotten History screens Wednesday, 9:00pm on BBC Two