A Love Letter to Bristol

Black Lives Matter demo, Bristol. © Keir Gravil 2020
Black Lives Matter demo, Bristol. © Keir Gravil 2020

I am a middle-aged, middle-class, liberal white woman who has called Bristol home for the last 26 years. I read The Guardian, I love a nice bit of overpriced sourdough with my morning coffee; I am mired in white privilege and I am well aware of this. After the toppling of the Edward Colston statue yesterday I am also very proud of my city, in a time where I can find very little to be proud of in the world. 

There hasn’t been enough education of white people in the UK, in Bristol, in our schools and homes, about Black history and white privilege. Hopefully now, at last, we can learn something from that statue and how it ended up in its watery grave, of more use now than it was staring down on the concrete sea of our city centre, haunting the whole city quietly. It is time for white people to educate themselves.

I grew up on a council estate in a predominantly white satellite town in the 1980’s, about 15 miles north of Bristol. I grew up in a family within which casual racism was considered acceptable and the norm, no matter whether you voted Labour or Tory. Distrust of People of Colour wasn’t political, it just was. Not the out-and-out fascism that our elders fought against in the second world war, no, that was obviously wrong, but it was okay to call Black people derogatory names behind their backs, the local takeaway was the ‘c***ky’, the off license the ‘p*** shop’. My Grandad would send me off to the shop with 50p every morning when I was little to buy a copy of The Sun and a packet of Smarties. The Daily Mail was the paper read in my house because we were more upwardly mobile than Sun readers. But my one Black friend was not welcome in my house in my teens, although she was begrudgingly allowed in when she came to call for me, because that was the done thing.

I studied history at school, and was lucky to have an amazing history teacher; I will never forget the rage and indignation on his face and when he waved a copy of The Sun at us in assembly after the Hillsborough disaster and told us that England should be ashamed of itself today. In spite of his passion we only learnt a little bit about the slave trade, maybe one lesson on it. There was certainly nothing on the curriculum about the crimes committed in the name of the British Empire, or Bristol’s role in the slave trade and how the city was built on money earnt from selling slaves. Nothing about Edward Colston; I didn’t know a thing about him until my twenties, except for the fact his name was scattered over streets and buildings and institutions throughout my home city, so he must have been pretty important once.. 

I moved from my hometown to the middle of St Pauls in 1994, at the age of 18, with very little understanding of the rich history of the area and it’s residents. I was excited, and a little scared, to be in the middle of Bristol at such a time in such a place. Bristol was culturally booming then, and a lot of that was because of it’s black culture. Drum & Bass was emerging, although Roni Size was still hanging around Easton Community Centre on his mountain bike, Massive Attack, having just released Protection, were actually massive and I would see them around the area, in the local pub or drinking tea at a friend of a friend’s kitchen table. Hell, Daddy G even gatecrashed my 19th birthday party with Smith and Mighty and did an impromptu DJ set. Black culture was all around me, I was mesmerised and starstruck, this Bristol life was so exciting compared to my life before. Even though I did nothing to learn more about black culture and history, even though it was going on under my bloody nose, I couldn’t possibly be racist, could I? 

I was passive, inactive; to paraphrase Amanda Seales and later Clara Amfa, I was enjoying the rhythm without feeling the blues. I can only see now that taking  what I wanted from Black culture without being interested in understanding the struggle is still a type of colonialism.

Black Lives Matter demo, Bristol. © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020
Black Lives Matter demo, Bristol. © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020

Fast forward 26 years, and I have made Bristol my permanent home. It is the city I have chosen to raise my children in; I love this city like no other. I could write Bristol 100 love letters, and no matter where I go I always seem to return. One of the things I love about it is it’s diversity; it is woven into it’s very fabric. Over the last five years or so I have done a lot of work to dismantle the ingrained racism my upbringing gave me, I thought I had done enough. I thought the white residents of Bristol, living alongside people from many different cultures on the whole happily, had done enough. But over the last couple of weeks, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I realised many definitely haven’t. 

I have never spoken to my children about racism truthfully, I have whitewashed it and made it palatable to ‘protect’ them, concentrating on bigging up the wonderfully diverse place they live in and praising and encouraging their friendships with children from all backgrounds. I have never taught them any of our shameful history, or explained to them that ‘good’ people can be racist too. Just like me at their age, they knew nothing about Edward Colston and why people have been asking politely for his statue to be removed and for our city to stop celebrating him for his philanthropy.

Edward Colston’s statue toppled. © Keir Gravil 2020
Edward Colston’s statue toppled. © Keir Gravil 2020

On Sunday Edward Colston’s statue was toppled from its pedestal, tied up with ropes, dragged through the streets and dumped in the docks just like 19000 black people were dumped in the sea, either dead or alive, by his company the Royal Africa Company. I didn’t attend the protest, I donated instead and watched it online from my covid bubble, but I felt a rush of pride and excitement when I saw what was happening on Twitter. It felt fucking important and symbolic, and like history was being made. 

I have been a pretty shoddy teacher throughout lockdown, but Sunday evening was the perfect opportunity to take the kids on their first Black history field trip. On the way there I told them about the UK’s role in the slave trade, specifically Bristol’s, and about Edward Colston; why the city loved him so much, but mostly about where his money came from and why we shouldn’t be proud of him.

We joined the 100 or so people socially distancing and holding vigil  or just passing by and stopping by the empty plinth, and talked systemic racism both in the USA and UK whilst reading the placards. My daughter placed her own tiny placard she had made just before we left home from cardboard and a lolly stick declaring ‘Black Lives Matter’ amongst them. 

The only troublemakers around were two drunk topless blokes shouting “All lives matter! White lives matter! What about the IRA?”, one flipping the Vs at two young Black men, their red faces full of anger. One was moved on by the police, and apart from that it was calm, it felt safe, it felt like the only sane place to be right now, it was a coming together of Bristolians in reflection; the hushed tones only broken by cars beeping their horns in support and the gathering’s returning cheers every couple of minutes or so. . 

Retracing Colston’s last journey, author’s own photo.
Retracing Colston’s last journey, author’s own photo.

We traced the path the statue was dragged along, following the pale scrape-lines that glistened bronze where the sun hit them, along the harbourside until they stopped. Leaning over the railings gazing into the murky water below Pero’s bridge we talked about Bristol’s history and what should happen to the statue now. They both think he should either stay there or be put in a museum so people can see him, alongside information about why slavery was terrible and the story of what happened today. 

That night when I got home I saw the anger and vitriol posted across social media; caps-lock calls for the ‘vandals’ to be arrested, the shock at the ‘desecration of our historic city’, calls for everyone to recognise that removing the statue of Edward Colston would mean he would be forgotten, the city was being whitewashed of its history, his statue was educative. 

And what of this argument that Edward Colston should not have been torn down because his statue was a dignified reminder of our undignified past as a city built on slavery?

I call bullshit and I say no.

A statue is not a tool of education. A statue places an object or person upon a pedestal to be revered and respected. It is a tool of veneration. And with no known context for the viewer, it also becomes just an artifact, an aesthetically pleasing ornament.

That statue stood in the centre of Bristol for the whole of my childhood and taught me nothing about my city’s history. I was privileged enough to go about my daily business for most of the last 26 years I have lived here as an adult forgetting it was even there.

Black Lives Matter Demo, Bristol . © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020
Black Lives Matter Demo, Bristol . © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020

We find education in books, in museum exhibits, in school curriculums, in conversations with others; we find education in living, breathing history, not in leaving statues of murderers in place because we don’t want to upset the status quo. The act of Edward Colston being toppled and dragged to the water yesterday, where he made his fortune trading in the misery of Africans, has taught more people worldwide in the last 24 hours about his legacy than has been learned by anyone walking past his statue for the last 125 years. 

At last, after years of asking nicely, the people of Bristol took the situation into their own hands, rectifying some of our wrongs; they said enough is enough, we will create our own history. They turned the statue’s very existence into an act of rebellion that should be remembered for years to come.

And through our history field trip on Sunday evening, I learnt that we have a lot to learn from our children, because mine just couldn’t get their heads around how racism is even a thing, around the continued protection of the perpetrators of police brutality against Black people, and why on earth a statue of a slaver was still up there in the middle of Bristol city centre in 2020 anyway.

And that is why Sunday’s tearing down of an ornament honouring Edward Colston, rather than being an act of vandalism, is the perfect education white people like me need. It teaches us that things cannot stay the same, that sometimes people have to grab the future with their own hands and make it themselves. And maybe, just maybe, this will make it onto our school curriculum sometime. Bristol, my home city; I am truly proud. And I am sorry for my past ignorance and inaction. And I promise I will carry on learning, and educating my children, so mine is the last generation in my family that thinks racism is okay.

Black Lives Matter protest, College Green, Bristol © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020
Black Lives Matter protest, College Green, Bristol © Alistair Stuart Campbell 2020

Thanks to the two local, talented photographers Alistair Stuart Campbell and Keir Gravil who shared their work with me. You can find more of Alistair’s work here and Keir’s here.

This article was written for the everyday magazine

3 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Bristol

  1. I identify with this completely. I too need to write about it, to process my social conditioning. (Am on it now). It feels like when I read Small Island by Andrea Levy, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, sometimes we need to let our emotions make us act, and it is so easy to miss the moment when it matters to say things. Really powerful read. Thank you for prompting me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thankyou, it’s been a really cathartic piece for me to write, in a very cathartic time. I look forward to reading what you have to say about it as well! And please consider contributing it to my 2020 archive project http://www.19stories.net as well, we are constantly on the lookout for viewpoints on current events from a wide range of people.

      Like

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