Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Black Bristol, racism and slavery: one narrative to rule them all?

The parish of St Paul’s occupies an important place in the history of Black Britain. But what part should the history of slavery play in its inhabitants identities?

Edson Burton
29 August 2016

The Parish of St Paul’s. KylaBorg//

I first arrived in Bristol in September 1994. One of my first encounters from then with a Bristolian born and bred has stuck firmly in mind. While purchasing a fearsome slab of bread pudding, the young woman behind the counter concluded our conversation with the warning: “Don’t go into that St Paul’s”. I failed to follow her advice. Indeed, much of my social, creative and work life has since involved living and working in St Paul’s. But to this day, her warning continues to reverberate. And I’ve seen that her fears are as current now as they were then. Only this year, the choreographer Cleo Lake discovered that none of the twenty plus participants in her Bristol Black History workshop had ever visited the neighbourhood.

St Paul’s remains in the popular consciousness an immutable zone of vice and Blackness, a place where modern white missionaries find meaning or where thrill seekers find adventure. But the St Paul’s I have come to know is anything but frozen in stasis. Its recent history is among the most dynamic in Bristol. From a much fancied ward in the 19th century, it became a zone of transition long before Caribbean settlers arrived in the 1950s and 60s. Landlords turned their homes over to multi-occupancy for lucrative letting to Irish families, European migrants, and people from the Commonwealth.

What people don’t understand is that the Pan Caribbean community of St Paul’s emerged after migration.

But the availability of rooms, discrimination by private landlords outside St Paul’s, residential rules preventing West Indians from qualifying for public housing, and patterns of chain migration from parishes in Jamaica all led to a concentration of African Caribbean people in the ward. Yet what is little understood is that the Pan Caribbean community emerged after migration. It has no Caribbean antecedent. As such, it is a very ‘British’ phenomenon, with formerly disparate cohorts divided in the Caribbean by colour, caste, faith, income, profession and lifestyle all in a proximity that would not have existed previously. The resulting mix has been a crucial factor in St Paul’s’ contemporary vibrancy, as has been the fact that it has long been home to many white outcasts who remained or came to the area to enjoy its multicultural, youthful, non-judgemental vibe.

St Paul’s: A Personal View

Since my arrival in 1994, I have experienced many moments of celebration and crisis in St Paul’s’ community history. A vibrant voluntary sector has spawned cultural institutions such as the St Paul’s Carnival, the Kuumba Arts Centre, and service-based organisations such as Black Carers, the Centre for Employment & Enterprise Development (CEED). Colourful community leaders have risen in glory while some have fallen ignominiously.

The drug trade has delivered the antithesis to community spirit. Particular low points have included the senseless shooting of much loved caretaker Bangey’ and armed police patrolling the streets in anticipation of a turf war. Yet even at the height of gang violence the community retained the plurality which marked its foundational years.

I began to witness a reduction in the vibrancy of St Paul’s at the start of the current decade. Black professionals – some of whom had been rebels in their youth – started moving out of the area. Opportunities to buy elsewhere were a common factor, although a close friend living at the heart of the neigbourhood explained that he had run out of answers to his daughter’s questions about the young women on the corner or the used condoms in the gutters. Some residents in social housing were relocated away.

Changes in funding criteria and in some cases poor governance have also led to a stark decline in the Black voluntary sector. Of the multiple organisations that I recall only a handful remain. Beginning with the compulsory purchase order on the Black & White Cafe, many of the sites which gave St Paul’s its edge have, one by one, closed. The heterogeneity of the Caribbean descendant community of St Paul’s is not as it was once was. Recent migration into St Paul's has however delivered an alternative vitality. The migrant experience is being repeated today by Somali families that have settled in the inner city including in St Paul’s. Across the country inner city living has become attractive once again. In Bristol, first time white buyers have snapped up new and existing properties in St Paul’s. Proximity to the shopping district Cabot Circus and independent creative quarter around Stokes Croft are key factors. The influx of the latter has led longer term residents to bemoan gentrification.

The Slavery Narrative and Its Pitfalls

There are palpable challenges facing the Black community in St Paul’s and in Bristol more generally but there is also a strong tradition of resilience. That is why I am so struck by the community’s own narrative of itself, which relies on historic trauma and notions of powerlessness. I want to think here about how this has arisen and about its potential dangers.

For the children of migrants like myself, there was no comfort of island return when we were faced with racism. Britain was our ‘home’. But we were on the one hand absent from its narratives of glory and omnipresent in its tales of vice. How were we to make sense of this complicated relationship? Unsurprisingly, an interrogation of Britain’s historic relationship to the African diaspora and in particular to slavery was an important part of the process, especially in the former slave port of Bristol.

As part of the City Museum’s 1997 slavery exhibition, for example, artist Tony Forbes produced a visual collage of iconic Bristol symbols drawn from its slaving past and troubled present. A young black man in urban garb chained to a rock was placed at its centre. This is perhaps the most succinct visual representation of the popular narrative linking slavery to the contemporary identity and plight of Black Britons.

I grew up with this narrative, listening to the lyrics of Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. Yet I question the extent to which it allows the community to understand the forces that structure its current challenges. Let’s take gentrification as an example. Although gentrification may be painful for a community to witness, it is a colour-blind, class-insensitive process that is repeated across the country. It is not a conspiracy to ethnically cleanse the inner city.

Similarly with the criminal justice system. We all know that Black Britons are disproportionately incarcerated. But we also know that judicial systems in highly stratified societies across the world disproportionately target the poor regardless of their colour. Just as we know that those without the legitimate means of access to social mobility are most likely to engage in crime. So we need a more nuanced popular discussion about how the criminal justice system affects Black Bristolians instead of simply saying “It’s a re-hash of slavery”.

The same is true when we’re thinking about the fragility of governance in the Black voluntary. One particularly disempowering narrative holds that “We can’t run our tings properly”, as if we have been rendered historically incapable. Funders seem to agree, failing in the process to understand that organisational problems are a consequence of a skills shortage among what is predominately a working class population that needs support.

How useful is an appeal to slavery’s past in meeting the challenges faced by Black Bristolians?

Discourse(s) on health, education, employment and housing inequalities are also important. Although these inequalities clearly exist, when we look at them in a comparative cultural perspective we see that inequality’s major dimension is class. Indeed, we see similar patterns of exclusion among Bristol’s low income families regardless of ethnicity. What then are the unique challenges facing Bristol’s Black community and how useful is an appeal to slavery’s past in meeting these challenges?

Complacency must be eschewed and complexity embraced. Some second and third generation Black Britons access higher education, and others find work in professions that were closed to our parents. But many do not. Perhaps then the time has come for Black Britons to consider class distinctions within our own community? For by doing so we can begin to focus attention and resources where they are most needed. Appealing to a homogeneous Black identity shaped by slavery and racism draws attention away from recognising these other critical distinctions. We are not, after all, entirely in this together.

Researching the transatlantic slave trade is deeply effecting, especially when it involves the story of your own ancestors. I’m well aware of slavery’s toxic legacies, including racism. Racism is a force that stains every aspect of our human interaction. But I don’t believe we are brought any closer to understanding slavery’s legacy in contemporary society when its history is used as a catch all for a multiplicity of multifaceted social ills. We disempower ourselves when we reduce complex injustices to one simplifying cause. And we distort the actuality of Black life with narratives of ‘damage’ rooted in slavery. That said, it is unquestionably valid to remember slavery so that we may not repeat. We can honour the dead without conscripting their bones to every contemporary cause.

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