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Remembering to forget: the BBC Abolition Season and public memory

Ross Wilson (University of York)

The Abolition Season commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on and around the 25 March 2007 contained a variety of programmes on radio and television. The Corporation thereby played a major role in the production and dissemination of what was to be commemorated for the bicentenary. Examining the commissioning and content of these programmes, this paper highlights the particular emphases placed on certain aspects of the history of abolition and enslavement and the connections of these decisions within wider British society.

The BBC took a prominent position in the commemorations to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The specific fashioning of 'media memories' by the Corporation reveals the particular manner in which abolitionism and enslavement were remembered by the wider British public. The concept of 'media memories' refers to the manner in which the wider public consciousness is shaped by the content of television, radio and film. It must be stated that a homogenous mass which can be easily labelled 'the public' is impossible to define, as different groups and communities within societies respond to media in different ways (Fiske 1989). The presentation of the past in the media however acts as a means to frame perceptions; ensuring viewers possess a structure in which to understand the commemorative events. This is not to imply that consumption is an entirely passive act. In effect this can be viewed as a reciprocal process as audiences critically consume whilst producers respond to their audiences. This model echoes Marx's observation (1973: 92) that consumption and production were locked in a recursive cycle perpetuating the conditions of society, its beliefs and its structures. The Abolition Season on the BBC therefore appears as a significant tool in creating and maintaining the memory of abolition and enslavement in Britain. The very existence of a specific Abolition Season already defines the anniversary as of national importance. The programmes, whilst concentrated around the 25th of March also spread throughout the rest of March and April, highlighting the prominence afforded to the commemorations. The content of the programmes were varied, a mixture of historical analysis, discussions and the arts. What was significant about the content of the programmes was the manner in which they commented both upon the past and the present.

A prominent aspect of a number of programs was a desire to forge through a process of reconciliation, a new understanding of identity in Britain based upon a multi-ethnic society. The Black Chord, a BBC Radio 2 show hosted by singer Neneh Cherry, charting the development of music through the African Diaspora, was a significant carrier of this message, as Cherry stated, 'you're part of it too.' Addressed evidently to a non-black audience Cherry explains this as, 'I'm a black chord woman, part African-American, part European. And all this music means something to you and to me. When I go to Africa I feel like its home. And since all human life began there we've all got a bit of African in us. It belongs to all of us.' Simon Schama's Rough Crossings also propounds the theme of redefining identity; in this regard contemporary notions of American, British and African identity are repositioned by contemplating the history of the settlement of Freetown, Sierra Leone. This theme is repeated in the BBC Radio 4 programme The Essay, a four-part documentary which examined the stories behind a number of aspects of the slave trade. This note of reconciliation appears in all four of the episodes; figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp are given equal prominence, and an apparently integrated black community in eighteenth century Cumbria is examined. To conclude, the presenters remind the audience that abolition is regarded too often as a victory for 'the campaigns of white politicians.' 'Equiano should be as well-known as Wilberforce. Their experiences should be remembered as part of history of all peoples', states presenter Angelina Gilmore. 'Yes, that's right, it's a shared history', replies fellow present John Osborne. A shared history, inclusive histories, forgiveness and reconciliation are recurrent themes in the Abolition Season. Britain is painted as an untroubled, vibrant multicultural society, where equality and social justice are available to all. It is only in this light perhaps that programmes such as BBC4's The Black Eighteenth Century, can puzzlingly describe eighteenth century portraits of enslaved or formerly enslaved men and women of African descent as, 'trailblazers of Britain's multicultural future.'

The cracks and divisions within society are smoothed over in the programmes; this conciliatory perspective is evidenced in the special edition of BBC Radio 3's Words and Music. The songs, poetry and prose are chosen by the poet Jackie Kay, and whilst the heritage of black music, literature and identity is celebrated in the program its inclusion of Handel and Walt Whitman also provides a means of reinforcing a harmonious guise. The avoidance of any sense of the past which might be too painful or too traumatic is avoided by including dissenting voices into the overarching schemes of remembrance. The Road to Abolition on BBC Radio 3 completes this process adeptly, as historian Anne C. Bailey reveals a compelling history of slave resistance which is made to fit comfortably within a traditional narrative of British abolitionism. What could have been a powerful alternative inclusion within the schemes of remembrance is diluted in effect by its placing at the end of the programme. This positioning appears to imply the rebellions of the enslaved stemmed from the actions of abolitionists a perception the programme does nothing to prevent. The experience of enslavement is also compared to the conditions suffered by the industrial working-class in Britain. Naval press-gangs are also used as a comparison, further diminishing the historical specificity of the Atlantic slave trade. The BBC Radio 4 programme Trade Roots presented by Michael Buerk highlights this reluctance to consider painful and traumatic histories. Trade Roots which aims to reveal the financial gain made by British institutions from enslavement merely acts to obscure the suffering, brutality and resistance of the history of enslavement. Focused entirely upon a 'British' economic perspective the programme itself promotes the absence of the enslaved in historical perspective.

This trend is best evidenced by the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time which focuses entirely on the life and legacy of Wilberforce. Devoted entirely to a celebration of the abolitionist and Member of Parliament for Hull, those enslaved individuals whom Wilberforce campaigned for are noticeable by their non-appearance. The character of Wilberforce is presented as flawless as his status as an opposition to the rights of the working classes and extension of the franchise is forgotten. The apparent disinterest Wilberforce felt for those who were kidnapped, sold or born into enslavement is discussed and dismissed. The reassuring comment that the evidence that Wilberforce did share compassion with the individual enslaved African is described as 'missing' rather than non-existent, and that he was 'good friends' with the King of Haiti, which in itself is not a suitable rebuttal. The programme is indicative of the tone of the BBC Abolition Season, a desire to remember to forget rather than to confront or engage. This is even present in the well-made BBC 4 documentary, Racism: A History. Whilst revealing the way in which enslavement shaped the notions of prejudice which still afflict society the programme necessarily takes a global perspective. Such an engagement in world history inevitably reduces Britain's specific role in the transatlantic slave trade.

It is significant that one programme, BBC 4's Congo: White King, Red Rubber and Black Death, which is highly critical of a European nation's actions in Africa is focused on Belgium rather than Britain. In an intriguing, well-researched documentary the crimes of the Belgian King Leopold II and the Belgian Government in the Congo are laid bare with a history of exploitation, mutilation and death. A Belgian minister is questioned sternly in the documentary regarding the apparent denial of Belgium's Government and peoples for their country's role in the genocide of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Congo. Yet the same mode of investigation is not applied to Britain's own scarred history of slavery and colonialism. Indeed, Britain is presented in the documentary through the work of Edward Dene Morel and Roger Casement as a generous, humanitarian-focused nation, concerned for the plight of others. Even the apparent dissenting voice in the Abolition Season, BBC2's In search of Wilberforce, cannot despite its criticisms of British myopia, bring itself to dispense with the story of the abolitionist entirely. Wilberforce is still offered as the, 'conscious of the nation.' The BBC Radio 4 play Slavery - The making of, similarly attempts to find an alternative means of representation but predictably falls back on the speeches of Wilberforce to relay the story of slavery. The only occurrence of opposition to the tone of the BBC commemorations was found on the BBC Radio 3 discussion programme, The Legacies of Abolition. The format of this programme as a round-table discussion perhaps enabled the avoidance of commissioning guidelines. On this programme, featuring the notable commentators, Professor James Walvin, Adam Hochschild and Esther Stanford, the peculiarly British condition of remembering the nation's part in the ending of African enslavement, but not Britain's complicity in the crime is commented upon by all. Stanford exclaims, 'The truth about 1807 has to be told. What are we marking?'

The BBC Abolition Season therefore reveals a desire not to be confronted by painful and traumatic histories whilst maintaining the sense that abolitionism reflects the munificence of Britain. The 'media memories' which stem from these programmes is therefore one of displacement, a concern not to confront the perceivably potentially damaging memory of slavery. The past is presented as unfortunate and the present a mature, settled, unproblematic, harmonious existence. The BBC Abolition Season both creates and conforms to the wider public memory of enslavement and abolition (see Wallace 2007). This is a memory which is singularly located within a white, British/English perspective which pays only a cursory attention to the victims of enslavement or its legacy in British society. The Abolition Season was therefore a means of remembering to forget. In terms of comprehending the wider public responses through the programmes commissioned to mark the bicentenary, notions of avoidance must be considered. This avoidance should not be denounced immediately as, at best, moral complacency, or at worst, institutionalised racism. The lack of engagement with the issues and a 'superficial history' is a tactic in the consumption of media memories (see de Certeau 1984: 16). As the production and consumption of the media are linked into a reciprocal process, the avoidance of this past highlights the way in which slavery is a deeply troubling issue within Britain. The apparent means of dealing with this traumatic past however is by denying it or smoothing out its sharp edges. Painful histories are repressed to preserve the apparent calm. The BBC Abolition Season is a representation of wider trends within society which seek to 'move forward', rather than engage with the root causes of present problems. Soyinka (1999: 23), regarding the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, stated the necessity of possessing 'the truth of one's history in order to exorcise the past and secure a collective peace of mind.' The truth of one's history is far from present within the BBC Abolition Season, the past therefore still haunts and peace of mind is obtained at the expense of recognition.


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