Loops

#13 Two Black Boys – Part two

April 12th, 2022

In the final part of this episode, artist, researcher and writer Dan Guthrie looks at public responses to the ongoing ‘culture wars’ over statues in the UK, from the Government’s tweaks to legislation surrounding the removal of statues to the online comments made about a consultation happening in Dan’s hometown of Stroud. 

Image: A wooden childlike figure with tar black skin, red lips and a golden leaf skirt stands in front of a stone wall. Image credit: “Is time up for the ‘Blackboy clock’? Racism row divides Cotswolds town”. The Guardian, 15 August 2021. 

About Dan Guthrie

Dan Guthrie is an artist, researcher and writer whose work often explores representations of Black Britishness, with an interest in examining how they manifest themselves in rural areas.

His work has been screened at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, Focal Point Gallery, Obsidian Coast and the ICA, and he has previously worked as a submission viewer for London Short Film Festival and Glasgow Short Film Festival.

At the moment, he is developing a new body of work investigating historical and contemporary Black presences and mis-presences in his hometown of Stroud, working across moving image, sculpture and writing.

He is currently a participant in East Bristol Contemporary’s Day School programme, a panel member for Stroud District Council’s review of statues, buildings, streets and monuments, and a part-time librarian.

He lives and works in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Producers

Music, Edit and Mix

Rowan Bishop  – www.rowanbishop.co.uk/

References

Podcast Transcription

Dan Guthrie: Quick content warning: this podcast contains references to slavery and racism.

Hi there, welcome to Loops, the podcast brought to you by Caraboo Projects. 

My name is Dan Guthrie, I’m an artist, a researcher, and a writer, and my work often explores representations of Black Britishness, with an interest in examining how they manifest themselves in rural areas. 

This is the second part of a podcast called Two Black Boys. If you’ve not heard the first part then you might want to go back and catch up on it, but if you don’t have the time, then here’s what went down. 

Part one was all about the history of an object in my hometown of Stroud in Gloucestershire called the Black Boy Clock, which features a statue of a small child with tar-black skin and red lips. I told you about how it was made in the midst of the transatlantic slave trade and drew on racist stereotypes held about Black people at the time in its design; about how it got moved to the front of a school in 1844, ten years after the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed; about how it was restored in 1974 by a local resident, and then even more recently in 2004 in a job that was funded by the local council; and about how it sat on the same street as my old primary school, haunting me in the present day.

I’ll get to what happened next in Stroud in a bit, but before that, let’s take a quick diversion and head down the road to look back at the chain of events that started in summer 2020.

On the 7th of June 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests across the UK sparked by the death of George Floyd in America, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was taken down and thrown into Bristol harbour by protestors, kickstarting a nationwide debate about statues. 

Colston, a man that a lot of people didn’t even know existed before his statue came down, was now on everyone’s lips. From protestors and politicians on all sides, to outraged columnists and commentators desperate for attention, everyone was talking about him and his statue. Some were continuing, or starting for the first time, genuine conversations about the structures of systemic racism and white supremacy in the UK, and others just wanted to use it as an opportunity to complain. 

And just like dominoes, other statues started to fall. In the days after Colston’s toppling, some statues of figures linked to Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade were either taken down by the organisations that owned them, like Robert Milligan from outside the Museum of London Docklands, or boarded up, like Thomas Guy outside of his namesake hospital in Southwark. 

Elsewhere in England, the bust of a black head in Ashbourne was taken down by a group of local residents who claimed they were moving it to a secure location for a ‘lick of black paint’ before it could officially be removed by the council; and the statue of a black man carrying a sundial was removed by the National Trust from outside Dunham Massey Hall in Altrincham, with a spokesperson for the Trust saying that they needed to reconsider how to display it ‘in a way that fully acknowledges the appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade’.

Things were happening fast, and the government felt like they needed to wade in. On the 12th of June, MP Oliver Dowden, who was the Culture Secretary at the time, wrote to all Conservative councillors, MPs and peers to officially state the Government’s view on the removal of statues, in a letter he called ‘Public Monuments and our Collective Heritage’. 

In it, he decried all those who, in his words, ‘desecrated’ statues, saying that ‘if one wants to change the urban landscape, this should be done through the democratic system’. He then went on to say that the removal of statues and other objects he referred to as “‘so-called’ contested heritage” did ‘harm rather than good’, and that whilst it was right to examine history, they should be kept in place and used to ‘educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, good and bad’. 

And with that, the party line was laid out, signalling the start of the ‘so-called’ war on ‘so-called’ contested heritage, spearheaded by the Tory Government. 

To see what happened next, let’s fast forward a few months to September, when Oliver Dowden wrote to a number of national museums and galleries – including the British Museum and the British Library – to reinforce the government’s position on contested heritage. 

He told the organisations to ‘contextualise or reinterpret’ any controversial objects in their collections rather than ‘erasing’ them, so that people could ‘learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be’, as well as threatening to withdraw their funding if their curatorial views were seen to be ‘motivated by activism or politics’ or were in any way ‘[inconsistent] with the Government’s position.’

Then, in October 2020, Historic England, the Government’s advisors on the matter, clarified their position. Sir Laurie Magnus, the chair of the organisation, told a Government review panel investigating contested heritage that the best way to deal with controversial objects was to leave them in place and re-contextualise them, adding somewhat confusingly that they shouldn’t be moved to museums, because ‘people then have to go to the museum’ to see them.

But in January 2021, Robert Jenrick, the then-incumbent Communities Secretary, took things to the next level as he announced changes to the existing planning laws surrounding the removal of statues. 

In an article he wrote for The Telegraph called ‘We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past’, he said that any future decisions to remove or alter contested objects would need to involve planning permissions, listed building consent from Historic England and ‘consultation with the local community’, so that they could be ‘reviewed thoughtfully’ rather than ‘removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.’ 

This move was widely criticised, with historian David Olusoga describing the announcement as a distraction from the Government’s handling of the pandemic over the Christmas period in the form of a ‘culture war provocation’, but the next day Jenrick’s department issued a press release announcing ‘new legal protection for England’s heritage’. 

This introduced the catchy new slogan of ‘retain and explain’, following in the footsteps of ‘get Brexit done’ and ‘hands face space’, which is a short way of saying that statues should stay where they are, with new information added if needed, and that they should only be removed in what was obtusely referred to in the press release as ‘the most exceptional circumstances’. 

Also added into the mix at the same time as this policy was introduced was the news that the Communities Secretary, who was Jenrick at the time, would be able to make the final decision on any application to remove a statue that was rejected by Historic England. A written statement sent by Jenrick to the House of Commons the next day to formalise his changes to the legislation added that the Communities Secretary would also be able to ‘call in’ any controversial decisions to personally weigh in on, even after a decision had been made, essentially giving them the final say on any decision.

So in the space of about half a year, what started with one statue of a dead white man getting chucked in a river ended with one living white man having complete control over all statues across the country. The power of decision making had been taken out of the hands of local authorities, who had the greatest understanding and awareness of the context in which specific statues exist, and placed in the hands of central Government, solely driven by a three word agenda.

Oh and by the way, since June 2020 the cabinet has been shaken up and Robert Jenrick has been replaced as Communities Secretary by Michael Gove.

But whilst this was all going on, things were moving in Stroud at a much slower pace. 

Let’s rewind back to where we started off. It’s June 2020, Colston has just come down, and I’m in Stroud, just an hour’s drive down the road from Bristol. 

I’d been locked down here for the past few months, and I’d known about the Black Boy Clock for a while now. One of my earliest pandemic memories was taking a photo of it whilst out on a walk one day, and I’d done a bit of Googling to try and find the story behind it, but apart from some brief entries on local history websites, I couldn’t find much.

I knew that now was the time to try and do something about it, but I felt voiceless. 

As an ethnic minority in what is, without a shadow of a doubt, an overwhelmingly white area, I just didn’t feel like I had the power to say something. I had seen footage of Black Lives Matter protests being met with resistance in all corners of the UK, with the organisers of one gathering in the nearby Forest of Dean getting racist abuse and death threats.

The amassed hordes of the self-described ‘statue defence squad’, who had come out in force to ‘protect’ the Churchill statue in Parliament Square, were captured running across abandoned Central London by drones and broadcast live on the BBC News Channel like something out of a horror film, and quite frankly, it terrified me. I didn’t want to bring that to my front door.

On top of that, the seemingly endless flood of infographics, fundraisers, cancellations, apologies and black squares across social media, coupled with the inescapable tidal wave of white guilt, both real and insincere, had really burnt me out and I didn’t have the energy to try and start any sort of petition or campaign.  

So I decided to take things at my own pace. 

A week after Colston, I sent an email to Stroud District Council about the clock and what I think should happen to it. Well, actually, the email took me about an hour to write and then I needed an extra couple of days to summon the strength to send it off. I even sent it from an anonymous burner account because I was worried about the backlash that it might generate and I didn’t want it being traced back to me, given that a local Tory councillor had recently been caught retweeting Katie Hopkins saying that ‘the real Minority Ethnic in London is White Brits’.

Soon after, on the 23rd of June, Stroud District Council released a statement titled ‘We’re listening to BAME residents to tackle racism’. In it, they set out their immediate response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests and included three long-term actions to form part of their ongoing commitment to ‘promoting equality and tackling discrimination’. The third of them was to ‘consult with the community on any street and building names, statues and architectural features that may be considered offensive and if actions need to be taken’.

This felt like a start! It felt like a commitment to doing something… but nothing really came of it. 

I got a few emails back from people at the council, promising that action would start soon, but those soon faded away as the weeks went on. In the meantime, I set about extensively researching the history of the statue, doing some in-depth internet investigating, buying local history publications online, and spending hours in the library delving through microfiche newspaper archives to gather all the information that makes up the first half of this podcast. 

As the months rolled on, I hoped that somebody else might notice the statue and kick up a fuss about it, but that didn’t seem to happen. A Historic England research audit called the Impact of Transatlantic Slavery on England’s Built Environment, published in September 2020, seemed primed to feature it, but only the anti-slavery arch in Paganhill got a mention. 

And that’s when I realised; no-one else was complaining because no-one else knew it was there. 

In person, the clock is well above eye level, like a gargoyle, so it’s not in your default line of sight. You might only be aware it exists if you spotted the pretty inconspicuous plaque on the building’s railings and looked up to try and find it. 

When the building’s function shifted from being educational to being residential, the clock melted into the background of the street. Its daily foot traffic dropped drastically, and those who went to the school and might have remembered it being there moved on with their lives, leading it to be unintentionally accepted as part of the scenery by way of collective amnesia. It became invisible whilst remaining in plain sight.

Meanwhile, more attention was paid to the anti-slavery arch as a thing to be celebrated, rather than acknowledge the clock as a thing to be ashamed of. Over the years, the arch had been heralded by Historic England as Britain’s oldest anti-slavery memorial, commemorated with plaques and educational projects, and even had a nearby secondary school named after it, all whilst the clock went forgotten. This was perhaps best demonstrated when a local history pamphlet called ‘Stroud versus Slavery’ devoted a single paragraph to the clock and four whole pages to the arch. 

But I digress. In Autumn 2020, I was invited by DJ and radio host Zakia Sewell to be part of her BBC Radio 4 series, My Albion, which looked at the songs, signs and symbols of British national identity. Zakia came to Stroud to do an interview with me, and I took the opportunity to take her to the clock so we could talk about it.

“So, what do you feel when you see it and, cause you were saying you were campaigning to get it removed, and why, why do you want, why do you want to get it removed?” “I think it should be removed just cause I don’t think this is the right place for it” 

The episode went out in December 2020 and seemed to kick things into action a bit. Early in the new year, Stroud District Council invited me to be part of a panel that was being set up to review street names, building names and monuments in the area. A consultation was to be launched to ask people’s thoughts on what they think should happen to the clock, and if they thought there were other things in the Stroud area that needed reviewing. 

It took another couple of months for things to get properly moving because of local elections, zoom meetings and the like, but the consultation finally went live on my 21st birthday in July 2021, a year, a month and a day after Colston was thrown in the water. I celebrated that evening with a well deserved meal of chips and champagne in the back garden, before posting a link to the survey on Instagram and turning my phone off for the night. 

As I walked past the statue the next morning, I saw two crows sat atop it, pecking away at the woodwork. It seemed like an omen of sorts, but I couldn’t tell whether it was a bad one or good one.

Well things started off small. Our local newspaper the Stroud News and Journal reported that the consultation went live, and that somehow got picked up straight away by a online right-wing group called Save our Statues, who describe themselves as the ‘silent majority standing up for our heritage’. 

The next week, the Stroud News ran a few letters about the consultation sent in by local residents, followed by an article featuring the views of a local anti-racist group, Stroud Against Racism, who called the clock ‘dehumanising’. When that one got shared on the Stroud News’ Facebook page, it got a few hundred comments underneath, many of them pretty negative. 

Next thing, I was invited by the Stroud News to respond to a statement made by my local MP, Tory Siobhan Baillie, in which she said that ‘a certain minority of people with loud voices had an unquenchable desire to be constantly finding things to be outraged at’, and that removing the statue wouldn’t end the ‘scourge of racism’, and could even be counterproductive in the longer term. 

Some of my thoughts were printed in an article, along with excerpts from Siobhan Baillie’s press statement, and quotes from Stroud Against Racism and the race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust. Again, when that got posted to the Stroud News Facebook page, there were a couple of hundred negative comments, but so far, all still pretty local. 

After that, I spoke to BBC Radio Gloucestershire for a morning news segment, which then got spun into an article on the Gloucestershire section of the BBC News website, which then got tweeted out by the main BBC News Twitter account to its 12.7 million followers. A far right Youtuber, calling himself ‘The Voice of Reason’ from his velvet Union Jack sofa, spread the news to his 346,000 subscribers whilst somehow also managing to be transphobic at the same time.

Meanwhile, Siobhan Baillie complained that her comments were taken out of context and wrote to the editor of the Stroud News to get them to print her statement in full, later going on to thank the ‘sensible and often unheard majority’ that had supported her views in a Facebook statement. She then went on to write that ‘cancel culture must be challenged whenever its tentacles attempt to grab our communities and bully them into silence’ in her regular weekly column for the Stroud News. Things got quiet after that, but a few weeks later, it got bigger than ever. 

The Guardian ran a full page spread on the third page of the Sunday Observer about the consultation, featuring yours truly talking about the situation. A charity that Siobhan Baillie works with, Kick It Out, which campaigns against racism in football, condemned her behaviour in the article, and Baillie retorted with the one line statement of “any suggestion that I am trying to whip up a culture war is absolute rubbish.”

The story got picked up by broadsheets like The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, as well as some more overtly right-wing outlets like Spiked Online and Leave.EU, all of whom put their own spin on things. I started to get all sorts of interview requests, everything from regional news channels to national radio stations and even from the former Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, making a documentary for Channel 4 about ‘cancel culture’.

“So I’m in Stroud, in the Cotswolds, a very beautiful place, but a place where a giant cancel culture row has kicked off about a clock in the town centre that is apparently racist…”

And of course, with all this, the online comments started to multiply. There are 866 on the Daily Mail website, 1400 on the ITV News Facebook page, and staggeringly, one hundred and fifty thousand on a single talkRADIO Facebook post. Yep, I said that right, one hundred and fifty thousand, one five, zero zero, zero zero. 

As you can probably imagine, most of them weren’t great, and quite a few of them were even directed at me. I’m not going to name and shame people, or read out any specific ones, but the general vibe was:

“If you don’t like it then don’t look up, or take a different route, or move to a different town, or move to a different country, or go back to where you came from.”

“And we can’t change the past because it’s history, and we need to learn from it, and if we erase it then we may forget about it, and if we start here then where do we stop?”

“And what about Blackpool? What about Blackburn? The Black Country? The country houses? The pyramids? The Roman roads? Little black sambo and the golliwogs too?” 

“And I don’t find this statue offensive, and I’ve got Black friends who wouldn’t find this offensive, and in fact I think it’s beautiful, and I think you should be grateful for the representation, especially with it in ‘native dress’ like that.” 

“And those complaining will complain about everything, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time and money, and there’s more important things to try and sort than this, and besides, we the majority, we shouldn’t listen to the minority anyway.” 

And I could go on and on and on but I’m not going to. So here’s what I’m gonna say instead. 

I’d like to think that these comments came from a place of miseducation, rather than a place of hate. Racism isn’t innate, it’s learnt, and so it can be unlearnt too. Hopefully, as a result of all this, some people’s friends and families might have seen what they were posting online and called them out on their behaviour. 

I don’t really blame any individual for what they said, as they’re only regurgitating arguments put out by the right-wing media and reinforced by Westminster, but what I did see was a stark lack of empathy from white people unable to put themselves in the shoes of someone else. To them, this clock may just be a curio to be frivolously debated online, but an object like this to a person of colour like myself is a tangible manifestation of every single microaggression that we’ve had to encounter and a reminder that we are still very much seen as the other in a place that we try to call home. Perhaps a few seconds to pause and reflect before posting would have been useful. 

All this talk of history, our history, that came up time and time again from both online commenters and government officials, seemed to imply that we’re all meant to be seeing this from the same perspective; the perspective of whiteness. 

In fact, it might be easier to view the clock not as a depiction of a Black person, but as a depiction of the power dynamics between Blackness and whiteness at the time of its creation. Because of this, the questioning of a statue like this is seen as a pointed attack on the architecture of white supremacy and the structures of system racism that it perpetuates, and as your body might do when under attack, the defences kick in.

But let’s be honest, removing a statue like this does not have a negative impact for you or your quality of life; in fact, it might have a positive effect for ours. 

So that’s that, but where are we at now? 

The consultation closed on the 1st of September 2021 and got over 1600 responses, with passionate arguments from all sides of the debate. Me and the rest of the review panel are currently going over them, and starting to draft some recommendations as to what we think should happen next, based on the evidence gathered. 

I can’t tell you what those recommendations are, because I have to finish this podcast before we present all that information to the council in 2022. I can’t even tell you what I think should happen out of concerns of impartiality, but I feel like you may have a good idea which camp I’m in after listening to all this. 

What I can say is that this process isn’t quick. I sent that first email to Stroud District Council back in June 2020, the consultation launched in July 2021, and as I’m recording this in December 2021, we’re slowly starting to get somewhere. 

But the journey’s far from over. Depending on what the outcome is, there may be a lot of bureaucratic hurdles in the way before anything actually happens, if anything happens at all. If it gets moved or if it stays, if there’s new information added anywhere, there are all sorts of questions to be asked about logistics, ethics, costs and all of that, let alone all the associated paperwork.

One thing’s for certain though: the conversations have started. 

I’m recording these podcasts to document my version of the story. They haven’t been written by a neutral horologist or a historian, but from the point of view of a mixed race person of Black heritage who has had to walk past this statue every day. Because sometimes, history can’t be solely objective; sometimes you need to have a bit of humanity in it. 

Before this ends, I want to say thanks to the following people. Jack from Caraboo for commissioning this; Rowan for all his amazing production skills; the other podcasters Diwas, Harsha and Bryony; the other Review Panel members; anybody who shared information about the consultation or sent me a supportive message about it; all my friends and family for being so supportive, especially Nielsan for putting up with my late night text message rants; and of course, you, for listening. Thanks.