Last Saturday, I was innocently looking for updates on the preseason friendly between Solihull Moors and Walsall (Moors won 3-2), and stumbled across the website of the Black Country Express & Star. What immediately caught my eye was a fast-developing local controversy. According to reporter Pete Madeley, the newly-elected MP for Wolverhampton South West had declined to be photographed with the local flag due to its ‘racist connotations’, and was calling for it to be scrapped.
I immediately showed the article to a colleague of mine, a (white) South African who is consistently shocked by what he perceives to be the ignorance of the British public towards their own history. Sadly, the people of the Black Country appear to be proving him right in this instance.
The original article, which has since been edited, appeared at first to insinuate that, as a Brummie, Eleanor Smith MP was not in a position to understand the history of the Black Country. It went on to suggest that the MP had called for a ban on the flag, and quoted a succession of people who disagreed with her. Helpfully, they also did a little video bit, in which they interviewed more people defending the flag, and – with apparently no sense of irony – went out and found a black man on the street to agree with them (‘See? Even black people don’t think it’s racist! I know because I spoke to one!’).
At no point does the article, nor any of the people it quoted, nor any of the interviewees in the video, attempt to engage with the core issue of slavery. Eleanor Smith MP, despite being from Birmingham (which, I suspect, is a polite way of othering her without making reference to the fact that she’s black), appears to have a much firmer grasp on the finer points of Black Country industrial history than the local press in that regard.
I fired off an email that same afternoon to the Express & Star. I explained that I’d stumbled across the article while looking at the football scores, and as a historian it had piqued my interest. I also told them that I sympathise with the desire of Black Country people to celebrate their identity, but that I found both the flag and their coverage to be problematic in the way they go about doing so. I offered to write an even-handed response from a historian’s perspective. It probably would have looked a lot like Matthew Stallard’s eventual Guardian article.
I truly am sympathetic of the Black Country’s pride in their flag. Of course I sympathise with the people of the West Midlands wanting to express their identity. I encourage them to do so. I do it all the time. Let’s face it, both Brummies (like me and Eleanor Smith) and Black Country people (this seems like a clumsy way of referring to them, but I think they’d take exception to me using the term Yam Yam in much the same way that Black people might object to them celebrating slave chains) get terrible treatment in the British media. We’re derided with all sorts of stereotypes, which often contradict themselves. In a way, the Black Country has it worse than Birmingham. Birmingham can at least point out that it holds many of the hallmarks of a vibrant, international major city. People from the Black Country are unfairly dismissed even by Brummies as their poor relations; slow-witted but friendly yokels with a quaint early modern dialect – a bit like the hobbits of Brummie-turned-Oxonian J.R.R. Tolkien.
On top of that, British culture remains so utterly poisoned by class division and downward-punching class warfare that working class culture is all too often dismissed as inferior and backward. Displays of working class pride, and celebration of working class heritage, are generally viewed with suspicion by the media-political elites. The near 25-year gap between Neil Kinnock addressing the Durham Miners’ Gala, and the return of the Labour leadership to the event under Ed Miliband, is no coincidence. For swankocrats like Tony Blair, working class culture is way too passé. That is, unless it has the crossover value to be packaged to middle class people, like Britpop or Premier League football. There was plenty of political mileage in associating with that. No wonder the Black Country has embraced their flag with such pride and affection. Why should the ordinary people of the West Midlands be denied their right to their identity?
Obviously, I was completely ignored by the Express & Star.
I told them that I was going to write about it either way, and thought they might be interested in adding a different perspective to their ‘debate’. Luckily I wasn’t holding out much hope for a positive response, or indeed any response at all.
In the time it took me to get around to setting up the blog (too much actual history-writing getting in the way during the week), the minor local controversy blew up into something much bigger. Eleanor Smith came out swinging, claiming that the Express & Star had deliberately misrepresented her comments. The flag found an unlikely ally in Theresa May, who took what was quite obviously a planted question from the member for Dudley South, Mike Wood MP, urging her to rally to the defence of the flag and the local newspaper. Theresa praised the flag and celebrated the fact that the Black Country is a ‘great place to do business’. The Express & Star was delighted, adding that Stan Collymore – a man well-known for his expertise in British history – had also come out in support of the flag.
To be fair to Smith, the Express & Star has form when it comes to attacking black people who feel uncomfortable with the flag. This isn’t a new controversy. Wolverhampton-born anti-racism activist Patrick Vernon raised exactly the same concerns in 2015, and was treated to this reaction from the newspaper. ‘He is clearly talking out of his hat’, their editorial states, ‘And that’s putting it politely’.
At the time, the paper dismissed Vernon’s concerns under the catch-all term used for dismissing an argument without engaging in it: political correctness.
Again, they did not even try to engage with his well-made points about the connection of West Midlands metalworking to the slave trade. Again, they simply quoted a load of local politicians. Apparently, the Conservative MP for Dudley South said that Vernon ‘should not be trying to re-write history’. The uncomfortable fact is that he doesn’t need to: it isn’t disputed that industrialisation in Britain was tied to imperialism, nor metalworking – chains and all – to slavery and slave industries in the colonies. Eleanor Smith and Patrick Vernon are the ones trying to have an open conversation about the region (and Britain’s) modern history. On the contrary, it’s the Express & Star who seem most insistent on re-writing history, or – more typically – not engaging with it at all.
It’s not for me to adjudicate on what is or isn’t racist. However, what is clear to me is that those who defend the Black Country flag do so from a position of wilful ignorance of the consequences of their own history. The problem is as much the complete unwillingness to have the debate as it is the chain design on the flag.
Three common defences are wheeled out for the flag. I want to deal with each of them in turn.
The first is that, having being designed by a 12-year-old, it can’t possibly be racist. After all, she’s just a child and didn’t intend to offend anybody.
The mistake here stems from mis-defining racism as deliberate, individual acts of hate, rather than as a more complex cultural system that moderates our attitudes towards, and interactions with, people who are different from us. I don’t think anyone believes that Gracie Sheppard deliberately designed the flag in order to offend people. I doubt she even had slavery in mind when she came up with the chain design (and to be fair to her, that flag is a great design – very classy work). I mean, why would she? She probably had never been taught a thing about it. She can’t be held responsible.
However, those who use the child designer as an excuse do so in order to pass responsibility onto her. They deliberately pass responsibility for their lack of engagement with their own past onto someone who cannot be held responsible (and, let’s face it, isn’t responsible in any way, shape, or form), and in so doing, do the girl a terrible disservice. It’s cowardly.
One of the flag enthusiasts in the Express & Star’s video thinks that it’s ‘sad’ that anyone should find the flag problematic. I think what is really sad is that a series of educated adults – the people responsible for taking a child’s design and making it into an official regional flag – were so blind to their own history that they didn’t pick up on the problematic nature of an uncritical celebration of chain-making.
This brings me to the second common defence: that chain-making is a huge part of Black Country history, which they should be free to commemorate.
This is undoubtedly true. Except that it’s missing the vital caveat: that it should be commemorated with the necessary self-awareness and critical consideration of all of its implications. The terrible irony at the core of this controversy is that the chain makers of the Black Country suffered through terrible conditions themselves, so that their rich bosses could line their pockets selling a product that imposed even more misery on other people. In 1897, Black Country chain makers were featured in a book called The White Slaves of England, for pity’s sake. Chain-making is symbolic of the suffering of both white working class Black Country people and slaves across the British Empire.
It might be said that, in embracing the chain design as a celebration of their heritage, the people of the Black Country are rising above that oppression, reclaiming the chain as a symbol of the workers’ heroic struggle for their right to decent working and living conditions, and a fair share of the profit of their labour. I support that entirely. But the problem is that there is still no engagement with slavery and imperialism within that narrative. It still treats the industry as if it existed in a consequence-free vacuum.
Critical engagement with the past is the vital thing when trying to move past problematic legacies like slavery. Much criticism could be avoided if the defenders of the Black Country flag simply came out and said: “Yes, we know and recognise that the connection between chain making and slavery is a bit problematic, but we feel that it is worth preserving as an ambiguous but indelible part of our history. We also think that it would be beneficial to reclaim this element of our past as a shared, positive symbol of our community.”
A side point here is that there is another version of this defence, as illustrated by the UKIP MEP quoted in the 2015 Express & Star opinion piece, which sidesteps slavery by insisting that the chain in the flag just happens to represent some of those chains that had no connection with slavery. Of course, I can tell just by looking at the flag that it represents only the chains made in 1912 for the Titanic, and not any of the other chains ever made in the Black Country before that.
Sorry, did I say ‘can’? Because I mean’t ‘can’t’.
The third defence is to state that it isn’t history that’s important here. But that’s self-evidently absurd. The flag is embraced by the people of the Black Country because it celebrates their history, and by extension their identity. That’s also the reason it causes controversy. You can’t wriggle out of the controversy by saying that Black Country Day is celebrated by a diverse community today, as much as that might suit Dudley North MP Ian Austin politically. It’s great that all ethnic communities can celebrate their local area together. That doesn’t compensate for a disengagement with problematic local history in the case of the flag.
It’s meaningless to treat the modern-day inhabitants of the Black Country as if they are guilty of complicity in slavery. Nobody is asking them to apologise. In fact, given their situation, I think it would be an unfair assessment of the actual chain-makers themselves to suggest that they were supporters of slavery – even if their bosses definitely were. However, people must be aware of the dangers of celebrating certain aspects of their history without fully appreciating or engaging with the consequences of that history. If you want to celebrate Black Country chain-making, that’s fine. Just don’t try and defend it with selective interpretation of history, and accuse others of bad history when they point that out. This is something that the Express & Star, and the flag enthusiasts (and flag profiteer) they interviewed, are certainly guilty of.
The girl who designed the flag has now almost certainly left school. She will have completed a confused GCSE curriculum, in which the History syllabus veers away from meaningful discussion of the British Empire in order to focus inordinately on British triumphs in the World Wars, and the race-crimes of the Nazis rather than our own. Meanwhile, with no apparent awareness of the contradiction in message, the English Literature syllabus features a wonderful poem by John Agard, ‘Checking Out Me History’, which critiques the tendency of History classes in Britain to always present non-whites as passive victims of British aggression, if this is mentioned at all.
When I worked in a secondary school, I witnessed a teacher do a brilliant job of conveying this to a bottom set English group. I then witnessed – astonishingly – a support assistant interrupt to openly disagree with the teacher in front of the kids, telling her that the poem was a nice idea, but with there being barely enough time for teaching History as it is, it just isn’t feasible to teach about the history of ‘other countries’. Learning about ‘British people’ has to be more important. Leaving aside the lack of professionalism, it was shocking to see the instant defensiveness (and unwillingness to engage with the actual point) caused by any challenge to the dominant British cultural understanding of our history.
This is the same reflexive reaction displayed by the Express & Star. Over a decades-long period of refusal to begin to engage with our imperial past in a critical way – the consequence of educational experiences such as the above – Britain has come to view the empire as something far-removed, and, at any rate, not as bad as France, Spain, Belgium, or Germany. To many people, (assuming they think about it at all) that makes it okay. To challenge that view is to kick national pride. As Matthew Stallard rightly says, such reflexive defensiveness – and refusal to open ourselves up to challenge – is to the detriment of the inclusive sense of identity that the Black Country Flag was intended to create.