Black and British: A Forgotten History review – this is what it means to share a heritage

From Hadrian’s Wall to Beachy Head, David Olusoga’s thought-provoking programme takes us on a timely trip back to Britain’s multicultural past

David Olusoga is walking through the wheat fields of Northumberland, where he grew up in the 1980s. The charismatic historian and Bafta-winning broadcaster, who appears to be single-handedly putting Britain’s black history back on the map, stands on Hadrian’s Wall and gazes at the famous sycamore tree dipped into the hillside. This is Britain as we know it: rolling landscapes, weather-beaten ruins, honeyed light, soaring BBC- commissioned music. Except it is not.

“Black British history has been whitewashed,” Olusoga reminds us. In Black and British: A Forgotten History (BBC2, 9pm), the flagship series of the BBC’s month-long Black and British season, Olusoga excavates our shared heritage with humanity and verve. One of his main messages is that remembrance is a political act. And in a present as tumultuous as ours, facing a future as uncertain as it gets, we need to look to the past more than ever. History never seemed so prescient.

Our generous guide begins in the Cumbrian village of Burgh by Sands, where during the third century AD, a unit of north African Roman soldiers were garrisoned in a fort. The first known African community in Britain, living, working, loving and shopping in this bucolic spot 2,000 years ago. Olusoga erects the first of 20 plaques commemorating this hidden history, and local residents – children and adults, black and white – cheer and sing an African song. It’s heartening stuff.

Next to East Sussex, where the remains of one of the earliest black Britons, known as “Beachy Head woman”, have been found in a quintessentially English village. Bunting-strewn fetes, straw boaters – and a black woman who grew up here 1,700 years ago. Olusoga holds a forensic pathologist’s reconstruction of her head in his hands and, visibly moved, murmurs: “She is the same as me.” A powerful message, simply conveyed. The point is that Britain has never been a monoculture. Those who seek to reinstate white privilege – both here and across the Atlantic – want to turn back the clock to a time that never existed. Olusoga and millions like him have ancestors on this small island, too. This is what it means to share a heritage.

In York, he discovers that parts of the city were more multicultural in Roman times than they are today. In London, he visits Samuel Johnson’s house to admire a painting of his servant, Francis Barber, born a slave in Jamaica. This “Georgian odd couple”, as Olusoga describes them, cemented their friendship at the same time as Britain was exporting millions of Africans into slavery. So close were they that Johnson left Barber the majority of his considerable fortune. So many fascinating stories like this I had never heard before. It is Barber’s great-great-great-grandson, ostensibly a white man called Cedric, who unveils the plaque commemorating his ancestor. “We are going around in disguise,” he says of the two to three million people in Britain with a black ancestor, “in camouflage.” Which makes me wonder whether at least a few of them are Ukip supporters.

This thought-provoking series feels like an ideal companion to Mary Beard’s popular reappraisals of ancient Roman history. There is something jubilantly subversive, cheering and Beardy about the whole thing. And Beard pops up at a village fete to remind us that the Romans may have been “murderous thugs” but they were not racists. “We live with the myth that we’ve got less prejudiced over the centuries,” she tells Olusoga. “It’s simply not true.” What we need next is a myth-smashing series fronted by Beard and Olusoga, a match made in BBC heaven in which the whip-smart duo walk ancient walls, redraw the boundaries of history, and give us some hope. Actually, strike that. We need it now.

Black is the New Black (BBC2, 10pm), part of the same season, is a more sexy, conceptual affair: an aesthete’s approach to honouring black history. Artist and director Simon Frederick places exceptional figures in politics, business, culture, science and religion on a red box, against a red wall, holding photos of their childhood selves, and films them talking about being black and British. No voiceover, no archive, just black people at the top of their field speaking for themselves. The list of contributors is impressive: Naomi Campbell, John Sentamu, Les Ferdinand, Baroness Scotland and Thandie Newton among them. None get enough time among all the arty closeups and staccato editing but these are fascinating stories about family, racism, the British weather and the pressure and will to succeed. And if we are to learn from history, we must listen to people now.


Chitra Ramaswamy

The GuardianTramp

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