A Provocation for the launch of the Museum of Colour
Nasheed Qamar Faruqi September, 2019
The Museum of Colour’s mission - to gather and celebrate the work and lives of “people of colour” in Britain - is timely. What better moment to look beyond the sanitised narratives of “this island nation”? While we are being called on to narrow our sense of belonging by a relentless and essentialising political conversation, we can find evidence in this museum that our histories are varied, dislocated and complex. The words we use to tell these stories will, by virtue of this dislocation and complexity, be difficult to choose. To describe and label items in such a museum requires us to confront our language, our histories, and our values. Every label tells two stories: the story of the item it describes, and the story of the person or institution that produced it.
It is more important, and perhaps more challenging, than ever to embark on a project that addresses these matters head on. Not just because our political climate is one of intolerance and bigotry. Now, more than ever, we police each other’s utterances both online and in real time. Social media allows us to reach an ever wider readership, and potentially offend an ever growing circle of people. At the same time we are presented with manuals, initiatives and policies that seek to address the realities of social inequality and prejudice in our society. Many of us feel jaded by these efforts at achieving what we like to call “diversity” (not so different from “multiculturalism” to use a now buried term). There is no doubt in my mind that I prefer my cultural institutions to try (and even fail) to be more representative, more equal and less exclusive than not. Unfortunately our focus on political correctness and box ticking exercises can lead to what one psychoanalyst describes as “thought paralysis”: we become so scared of being considered politically incorrect that we give up. This paralysis coexists with, and inadvertently reinforces, the appeal of white supremacy and racist rhetoric.
The Museum of Colour has set itself the task of gathering and describing artefacts pertaining to the lives of the often marginalised segments of British society who originate from Britain’s erstwhile colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In describing these lives and objects the museum team has found itself confronted with a legacy. This legacy takes the form of a discourse (a system of thought and assumptions reflected in language, image and everyday social relations) inherited from our colonial history. They have been confronted by labels produced by a power structure that privileges a particular subject position, one that assumes the superiority of white European cultures and races. How does the Museum of Colour begin to unpick and unpack those labels? How do they challenge such assumptions for good, and seek not to fall into similar traps themselves? How do we create, for now and for the future, cultural spaces that understand the world and describe it through a more equal lens?
For me the first step in rethinking the language we use to describe people, cultures and objects, even in an every day context but especially in a museum or archival context, is to think about etymology and history. When you know where a word has come from, how it has been used in the past, how its meaning may have evolved or shifted over years, decades and centuries, you can have a more rounded sense of what it might mean to other people. Yes, this is an enthusiastic call for dictionaries, and it is also a call for the kind of cultural archaeology and intricate research done by scholars like Raymond Williams.
In addition to thinking about and investigating our language, we also need to recover the untold stories and histories behind contemporary race and cultural relations in Britain. This means looking back at a history of colonial (and class) exploitation in the hope of making it available to more people. The aim is not to indulge in self-flagellation (or add to “the white man’s burden”) but to move forward with greater self-awareness and trust. In a school career that spanned the eighties and nineties, I never learned about British colonialism. I learned about it at home. Like many second generation immigrants I grew up knowing that there was a whole side of “History” my school did not want me to know about. Or maybe they thought it wasn’t important enough.
We also need to interrogate what we think we know about cultures and the words we use to describe them. What after all does it mean to be “white”? We must ask ourselves if we really know what we are talking about when we talk about “race” and “ethnicity”. It is tempting to talk about these things as if they were entirely real and un-problematic. In 2004, the scientific journal Nature published research showing that race has no genetic basis. Race exists as a social structure that determines power relations, but recognising this is not the same thing as thinking about race as a set of characteristics that differentiates human groupings.
Another thing we can do is reclaim words that have been used to objectify and disempower. This is often a tricky thing to do; it is not always clear who has the authority and authenticity to do this kind of reclaiming. Curators at the Museum of Colour showed how it can be done with the phrase “Modern Savage”. For them, what began as a playful gesture on Twitter in response to the shock of the bald prejudice and superiority evinced by one museum label, has turned into a re-appropriation of the terms on that label and an interrogation of the history behind it.
We go to museums (physical and digital) to understand, order and categorise the world/our experience of the world. We go to encounter things we didn’t know about before, ideas and objects we cannot reach in our ordinary lives. How wonderful to think that in such an encounter, we might find new ways of describing and experiencing our world more responsibly and with greater equality and self-awareness.
Selected Further Reading
Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (London: Penguin, 2007)
Baldwin, J. Selected Essays (Ed. Toni Morrison) (New York: Library of America, 1998)
Frankopan, P. The Silk Roads (New York: Knopf, 2015)
Dalal, F. Thought Paralysis, The Virtues of Discrimination (London: Karnak, 2012)
Dyer, R. White: Essays on Race and Culture (London: Routledge, 1997)
Eddo-Lodge, R. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)
Fanon, F. Black Skins, White Masks (London: Pluto Books, 2008)
Said, E. Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1978)
Sen, A. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (London: Penguin, 2006)
Williams, R. Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976)
Young, R.J.C Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2003)
Gopal, P. “The British empire’s history is one of resistance, not pride” in The Guardian Friday 28th July 2017. Available here
Royal, C & Dunstan G. “Changing the paradigm from ‘race’ to human genome variation” in Nature Genetics 36, 2004. Available: here (may require subscription)
Appiah, K. A The Reith Lectures 2016: Mistaken Identities (London: BBC Radio 4, 2016). Available here
The Oxford English Dictionary Online OED Online (Oxford University Press). Available here
1. Sancho to Sterne
It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call "Negurs."—The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.—A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro' God's blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.—Your Sermons have touch'd me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse, page seventy—eight, in the second volume—is this very affecting passage—"Consider how great a part of our species - in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!"—Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour's attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God! - what a feast to a benevolent heart!—and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.—You, who are universally read, and as universally admired—you could not fail—Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;—figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.
2. Sterne to Sancho
Coxwould near York July 27. 176
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro—girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James's, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, 'ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but 'tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make 'em so. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying—& could I ease their shoulders from one once of 'em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes—[which] by the by, sancho, exceeds your Walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a Visit of Humanity, should one, of mere form—however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more—he is [your] Debter,
If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I'm [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.
And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]
3. A tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl
When Tom, an' please your honour, got to the shop, there was nobody in it, but a poor negro girl, with a bunch of white feathers slightly tied to the end of a long cane, flapping away flies—not killing them.—'Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy—
—She was good, an' please your honour, from nature, as well as from hardships; and there are circumstances in the story of that poor friendless slut, that would melt a heart of stone, said Trim; and some dismal winter's evening, when your honour is in the humour, they shall be told you with the rest of Tom's story, for it makes a part of it—
Then do not forget, Trim, said my uncle Toby.
A negro has a soul? an' please your honour, said the corporal (doubtingly).
I am not much versed, corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me—
—It would be putting one sadly over the head of another, quoth the corporal.
It would so; said my uncle Toby. Why then, an' please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?
I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby—
—Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her -
—'Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,—which recommends her to protection—and her brethren with her; 'tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now—where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!—but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.
—God forbid, said the corporal.
Amen, responded my uncle Toby, laying his hand upon his heart.