Introduction to ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr. Churchill’ with Madhusree Mukerji, Kehinde Andrews, and Onyeka Nubia.
It is a pleasure to welcome so many of you to this event. Thanks are due to the Archives Centre, and its Director, Allen Packwood, and the College, for insisting, rightly, that it is the solemn responsibility of education institutions to undertake full and critical historical reassessment of important figures and legacies even and especially when they involve acknowledging difficult truths. This event is part of a wider effort to start a national conversation about Winston Churchill’s legacies in relation to race and empire but not just about Churchill; indeed no discussion about Churchill is just about Churchill — it is necessary to break the wider silence on how empire and race have shaped contemporary Britain. This is less about the reputation of a long-deceased individual in the tradition of Great Man History — although it is necessary to fill in some blanks there — and more about examining a national narrative that has grown around this figure and its consequences, not least in what it leave out. Today Winston Churchill is less an individual who existed in history and far more a symbol of Britain’s official view of itself; rather than the individual it is the meanings invested in what some have called variously ‘the cult of Winston Churchill’ or ‘the Churchill industry’ is what requires analysis.
The great scholar Edward Said noted, “More important than the past itself …is its bearing upon cultural attitudes in the present”. That the very holding of this event has upset so many speaks volumes about those cultural attitudes and the continuing pressure to leave out less glorious bits of history. Having difficult but necessary conversations is not an easy task to undertake in an era where mythology and hagiography are preferred to honesty and informed reflection especially by many in politics and, sadly, the media. Historians and scholars who don’t think history should be treated as a comfort blanket or a warm bath with candles have to constantly negotiate weaponised fragility and quite frankly, a degree of cowardice. It takes courage, individual and national courage, to see history, historical events and historical actors in their fullness, it takes a willingness to develop what writer Jamaica Kincaid calls a ‘more demanding relationship with history’ so we come to understand who we are as people and as societies.
When an event such as today’s is described as ‘idiotic’ even before it takes place, it seems clear that the problem is less with what might or might not be said today but with the very fact of having a discussion on the meaning and legacies of Winston Churchill in relation to race and empire. In getting to the heart of this particular anxiety and enforced national silence — we must ask then : what is it that we are not allowed to know, talk about or even merely raise as a topic for discussion? Should commemoration mean unconditional celebration, averting the gaze from unpleasant and troubling but consequential truths? We hear a great deal about Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany, won alongside others, but why do we not hear about a point many anticolonial fighters from Britain’s colonies raised repeatedly: how was it possible for Britain to claim to fight a war for freedom while subjugating so much of Asia and Africa? Churchill was very clear, for instance, that the freedoms and self-determination enshrined in the Atlantic Charter did not apply to Britain’s colonies? What do we make of historical facts like that when commemorating the man and his legacies? It is also simply not true that he was simply of his time: he was criticised robustly for this in his time as Professor Richard Toye pointed out during our last event, many of his contemporaries found occasion to remark on Churchill’s heavily racialised worldview.
Before I introduce the panel, let me comment on the other elephant in the room which has created disquiet. The three panellists and the chair — all very different people with very different perspectives, with four different regions between us, are marked by the fact of not being racialised as white. Our credentials have been questioned — scholars of colour are quite used to this, of course — as has our right to speak about the topic. Let me just point out that though we share large quantities of melanin in our skin between us, which no doubt renders us controversial, we hail from three different continents in our heritage and are hugely varied in our interests and expertise. We are also, none of us, easily fazed by racism.
Where all white and indeed all male panels frequently pass without comment, indeed are the norm, this panel with four scholars of colour has created not just unease but also elicited, startlingly, the accusation that it is somehow ‘unbalanced’ just by virtue of this fact. So a word about balance then. Regardless of what is to be said or discussed in the next hour, to discuss Churchill and Churchillian legacies in relation to race and empire is not imbalanced — it is precisely to bring long overdue balance to a heavily skewed national story that has preferred untrammelled glorification to a balanced assessment in the round. Today’s event is just one of many that will be needed if the country is to have any sort of balance at all. Most importantly, it’s worth remembering that neither this particular discussion — and it is a discussion, not a debate — nor the year-long series are focused on Churchill the individual, or his character. More to the point, more relevant for us, are the political, ethical and ideological legacies of the Churchillian era as they shape us in Britain today and in the world beyond.
To this end, we are honoured to have three outstanding scholars and commentators today who will give us today, between them, some missing but vital perspectives.