Friday, 16 February 2007

Remembering Slavery

Two hundred years ago the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by British parliament. There has been much debate around Bristol, a city whose past is inextricably linked to the slave trade, about how to commemorate this event. I want to recommend several books that bring to light some of the horrors of that awful trade, the legacy of which still stains the society in which we live today...

First on the list is Roots by Alex Haley. I've been reading this book over the past few weeks and it is sensational. Alex Haley traced his only family tree back to an African man, Kunta Kinte, who lived in the Gambia in the 1700's. By means of the rich oral tradition of Haley's family, and of the Mandinka tribe from which his family descended, Haley has reconstructed many of the details of Kunta Kinte's life and of the circumstances which led to him being kidnapped and taken to America as a slave. The book is easy to read but no less compelling for that; "Roots" burns with Haley's anger at the injustices which have been inflicted on his family.

What's more, in providing a direct, documented human link from now back to the time of slavery, Haley has evidenced the ongoing effect of slavery today. Those whose hard hearts lead them to protest that apologies are irrelevent, because "it all happened so long ago", forget that there is a continuous human link through which cause and effect is seamlessly propagated. We breathe air polluted by the history of slavery.

It's worth noting that "Roots" is not the only famous book by Alex Haley. He is also responsible for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X". He published this shortly after Malcolm X died and it is based on many hours of conversation between Haley and Malcolm X. That book too burns with anger at the plight of African Americans; in its own way it is as much about slavery as is "Roots".

Like "Roots", The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron is a fictionalised account of the life of a real slave. Nat Turner was a slave in Virginia in the 1800s who lead a bloody slave revolt against his white masters. The revolt was quickly suppressed and Nat Turner was executed but, nonetheless, the revolt had a serious impact on Virginian society of the time, polarising public opinion and causing great alarm among the so-called respectable classes.

Styron's account of the revolt is skilfully written but controversial. He concentrates a lot on Nat Turner's religious motivations, as well as on some of his sexual ideations. For this reason it has been criticised by some black authors as perpetuating the "myth of the black rapist". The book has been defended however by such notable black authors as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison; reason enough to read it!

In fact James Baldwin's work is itself worth mentioning in the context of slavery. I have read two of his books - "Go Tell it On the Mountain", a novel, and "The Fire Next Time" which consists of two essays - which are both notable in their own right. First of all Baldwin's writing is beautiful; understated and yet forceful. Secondly the content of what he has to say is extremely powerful - he does not speak of slavery directly but, like Alex Haley, his concern is for African Americans and so everything he writes has the shadow of slavery hanging over it.

On no one did that shadow fall more heavily than on George Jackson. Jackson was a member of the Black Panthers; he was imprisoned at age 18 for stealing $70 at a gas station and he remained in prison for the next 12 years. He was killed, aged 29, whilst trying to escape from San Quentin prison. George Jackson's "Soledad Brother" is possibly the most angry, most inflammatory book I have ever read. If one wants to consider the legacy which slavery has left humanity one need look no further than these words concerning the struggle of black people for justice in today's America:

"The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative.

The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage. To die for king and country is to die a hero.

The Kings, Wilkinses and Youngs exhort us in King's words to 'put away the knives, put away your arms and clothe yourselves in the breastplate of righteousness' and 'turn the other cheek to prove our capacity to endure, to love'. Well, that is good for them perhaps but I most certainly need both sides of my head."

Friday, 9 February 2007

Deportations Imminent

This afternoon about thirty people participated in a demonstration of support for two asylum seekers. This demonstration was announced at very short notice after people heard of the plight of these two men. See the original IndyMedia article:

Ahmed and Anan are both from the Kurdish part of Iraq. They fled Kurdistan some years ago and have been resident in Bristol for the last seven years. Their application for asylum was first rejected four years ago and appeals have been in process since. In recent times they have both been obliged to regularly sign on at the Trinity Road police station.

This was how things stood up until last week. As usual Ahmed and Anan turned up at the police station to sign on but, to their horror, were detained by the police. They spent the next five days in the cells at Trinity Road before being transferred to detention centres in different parts of the country. They have been told to expect deportation this Monday 12th February.

Ahmed and Anan were not allowed any time to say good bye to the friends that they have made over the last seven years, to collect their belongings, to prepare for departure in any way. They have been behind bars since the moment they arrived at Trinity Road police station last week. And yet their behaviour with regard to their asylum application has been exemplary throughout their time in Bristol. They have complied with all the demands that the law has made; they also have a reputation as excellent employees. All of this counts for nothing when it comes to matters of immigration.

As part of this afternoon's demonstration the thirty people in attendance met with the Liberal Democrat member for Bristol West, where the two men resided, Stephen Williams. A number of very grave concerns were raised by the demonstrators:

- First of all the serious physical danger that these two men face on their return. They fled Iraq in 2000 because of the danger which resulted from their political opposition to the PUK. Kurdish Iraq is now controlled by the PUK so the danger continues. In addition Amnesty International have released a statement saying that "'forcing people back to Iraq, even to the North, will put people's lives at risk".

- Secondly, the inhuman way in which this deportation has been carried out. Seven years of life in Bristol represents a huge investment of their humanity in the city. They have many friends, they have jobs, they have LIVES. Government interference in these men's lives is grossly immoral, and, given article 8 of the Human Rights Act, very likely illegal.

In addition to concerns for the well-being of these two men there is grave concern about other asylum seekers in the UK. Monday has been earmarked "deportation day" for many Iraqi asylum seekers around the country who have been herded into detention centres awaiting departure for Iraq. It is not known exactly how many people are expecting to be deported; this operation has been largely secret.

Furthermore we must consider the plight of other asylum seekers in the UK who do not know if one day, out of the blue, their life here will be ended. Stephen Williams told us that he was unlikely to be able to affect the situation for these two men as the Home Office had already taken their decision. He counselled other asylum seekers in this country to ensure that they have good legal advice and to get in touch with their local member who may be able to make representations on their behalf.

But, with the possibility of sudden departure hanging over people's heads, how are asylum seekers to adjust positively to life in this country? And how dare this government so disregard the basic humanity of the people involved? The situation is an outrage; an outrage that looks set to cost Ahmed and Anan everything.