Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!
Last week, everyone was too busy for British Isles Friday.
I complain fairly frequently that the British refuse to take their fair share of the blame for slavery. The most brutal form of slavery that was every practiced in the world happened in the US. As the book Sugar in the Blood showed, those techniques were developed in the British colony of Barbados and imported to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia while they were still British colonies.
When I was in England, I looked, in vain, for a copy of Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart in every book store that I entered. I always found a couple of biographies of William Wilberforce credited for ending British slavery, but never a copy of this book that explained the British origins of it.
I don’t blame individual Brits for this. I’m sure that their history classes cover the best parts of their history and gloss over the worst parts — just like we do in the US. There are systemic forces in both countries that kept this history hidden. I’m sure many Brits have the same reaction that my book group does when we learn about things like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — “Why wasn’t I taught this in school?” Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know.
Both countries are improving in this area with popular books like Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi in the US and with this engaging radio program in the UK.
I just love the approach taken by the Descendants radio show. They start with people who are alive today and looked at what their ancestors were doing in the time of slavery. Some people had ancestors who enslaved people. Other people’s ancestors were enslaved. In some cases, people had some ancestors who were enslaved and other ancestors who were enslavers.
That part of the show felt a little like some episodes of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s genealogy show on PBS, Finding Your Roots, where he sometimes connects people to the history of slavery in the US via ancestors who were slave owners, who were enslaved, or both.
Descendants takes this farther. The show connects people through their ancestors. This person’s ancestor was enslaved by that person’s ancestor is only one of many connections woven in the show. The eight episodes take an absolutely fascinating arc that starts with one person, connecting her link by link, through other people, and ends, eight episodes later, in a wonderfully surprising place.
Slavery was brutal. Learning about slavery can seem fraught with peril. But I’ve learned something from myself and others in our interracial book group. We’ve been reading books about race in America for 13 years, this month.
Here’s what I learned from that experience: Something happens when you slog through the horror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear to learn about real history. You reach the other side and what you find is connection, community, and a commitment to build something better on our shared history.
Descendants reaches that connection in a way that is remarkably entertaining. Today, I’m giving credit where it’s due. Descendants tackles British slavery head on — just what I’ve been hoping to see since I first read Sugar in the Blood.