THE BBC’s new drama series, Noughts + Crosses, has been hitting the headlines for its treatment of racial issues. It presents an alternative dystopia in which Britain (‘Albion’) suffers under African (‘Aprican’) hegemony, following centuries of colonial rule. The white Nought population suffer similar treatment to that experienced by blacks in South Africa under apartheid and in the US South under the Jim Crow laws.
Set within a white Romeo (Nought) and black Juliet (Cross) context, the drama evolved from novels for young adults by former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. A row has, inevitably, erupted over criticism of the drama for being too woke, too divisive and too likely to whip up racial tensions.
Mixed-race former Brexit Party election candidate Calvin Robinson wrote in the Daily Mail that Noughts + Crosses is ‘less a TV show than a political statement. In places, at its worst, Noughts + Crosses stoops to naked race-baiting, stirring up antipathy under the pretence of attacking racist attitudes’.
The author of the novels was not slow to reply:
‘To those accusing me of being anti-white or stating I must hate white people to create such a story as Noughts + Crosses, I’m not even going to dignify your absurd nonsense with a response. Go take a seat waaaay over there in the cold, dark and bitter haters’ corner.’
Robinson’s concern, though, about the drama feeding racial tensions and a sense of grievance amongst the black community is legitimate. Equally, I have some sympathy for Malorie Blackman’s reaction. Showing that some black people can be as racist and vile as some white people may not be the author’s only intention but it emerges from the drama as true and unquestionable.
Many viewers and commentators on Noughts + Crosses might be surprised to learn that African power in Britain is not entirely fictional. According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, the emperor from the Roman Province of Africa, Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), went so far as to decree genocide for rebellious Brits living north of Hadrian’s Wall.
At the head of an invasion army that was probably the largest ever to arrive on these shores, he told his soldiers: ‘Let no one escape sheer destruction . . . not even the babe in the womb.’ Severus died in York before the order could be carried out. As an adviser to Michael Gove in the writing of the national curriculum for history, I failed to persuade him to include Severus as a specific topic.
The fact of an African emperor presiding over and, where necessary, enforcing further slavery on Brits is largely forgotten these days, not least in history lessons. There is a growing call, however, for more black history to be taught in our schools. The BBC reported: ‘Black History Month in the UK is officially in October, but an educational group, The Black Curriculum, is pushing for the British school syllabus to be changed so that black history is taught throughout the year.’
This demand should be rejected. Any requirement for schools to teach history through the lens of black history will lead to the subject being distorted and narrowed. Teachers will need to seek out historical topics that lend themselves to a black history narrative.
Of course, where relevant, black history should be taught at any time of the year. The truth is, though, that most of our history cannot honestly lend itself to this politically correct approach. What, for example, was the black dimension to the reign of Alfred, to the Norman Conquest or to Magna Carta?
An African presence in Roman Britain has proved especially contentious. It should not be. Children should know about racial diversity in the Roman Empire in general and in Roman Britain in particular.
What promoters of black history leave out of the story of Africans in Roman Britain is they that were here as part of a foreign army of occupation. They murdered, massacred and mutilated in the time-honoured Roman fashion. Referring to the British, the Roman politician and historian Tacitus summed up the role of that army, including its Africans, in his Agricola: ‘Because they did not know better, they called it civilisation when it was part of their slavery.’
He added: ‘To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.’
The black history lobby needs to overcome its obsession with Africans as victims for whom penance must be done in the school curriculum. Africans were enslaved and so were non-Africans, including white Brits. The enslavement of Britons described by Tacitus, however, lasted close to four hundred years – rather longer than Britain’s so-called triangular slave trade with West Africa.
Over millennia, across the world and, even, today, political leaders regardless of race or colour have promoted slavery. Britain’s political class, though, was the first to abolish the trade in slaves. Within Britain, itself, slavery had not had any legal status since the collapse of feudalism.
Fantastical arguments, such as the one proposed by Diane Abbott, discredit the case for teaching more black history: ‘The earliest blacks in Britain were probably black Roman centurions that came over hundreds of years before Christ.’
Black history has a part to play in our national story, especially since the expansion and decline of Empire in recent centuries. When it is presented in the classroom or by the media, however, we need to be given the whole picture. Whether playing the part of enslavers or enslaved, different races differ little in terms of mindset.
Taken at face value, which is difficult and most likely will not happen, the BBC’s Noughts + Crosses drama shows that black and white, white and black, are very much the same when it comes to the human characteristics of goodness and evil. History shows that, too. This should be the lesson for young people. Ditch the sense of grievance whichever side of the fence you are on and look at the whole picture.