Home Museum institution Beware the ‘ghosts’: People who downplay Britain’s slavery shame and silent calls for justice | Kris Manjapra

Beware the ‘ghosts’: People who downplay Britain’s slavery shame and silent calls for justice | Kris Manjapra


In Jesus College, Cambridge, an ornate marble monument dedicated to the college’s benefactor, Tobias Rustat, an influential trafficker of enslaved Africans in the 17th century, dominates the nave of the chapel. In 2019, the faculty and students of Jesus decided that the Rustat memorial should be moved to a new space on campus as part of an exhibit on slavery and colonialism. But a few teachers and an organized group of former students vehemently opposed their plan. Former Spectator editor Charles Moore described the move as a deed of “cancellation” which would jeopardize “education, religion, built heritage, history and the rule of law”.

In the face of attempts to confront the causes of institutional racism in Britain, the Tories often resort to a key strategy. I call this strategy “ghostlining”. It is a technique long used by the ruling classes that frames public debates in ways that set aside the experience of the oppressed and silence calls for social justice. Ghostlining Employs a One-Two Punch: First Disavow Ongoing Effects slavery, colonialism and racism; and second, to play benefactor and victim at the same time. Ghostlining removes the experience of the oppressed from the center of the discussion and instead reframes the debate around the interests of a ruling elite.

The backlash from the relocation of this ornate slab bore all the hallmarks of ghostlining: a small group, backed by high-level reactionary opinion makers, sought to deny the reality of institutional racism, then presented themselves as the victims of zealous revisionism. For the foreseeable future, Rustat remains in place (a judge representing the Church of England, which has jurisdiction over the Jesus Chapel, rejected the relocation plan in March this year). But public opinion continues to turn against this decision. In April, the Church of England’s Racial Justice Commission slammed the court’s decision. Sonita Alleyne, the Barbados-born mistress of Jesus College, called the judge’s decision “offensive”.

Much like the leaders of the National Trust and the University of Glasgow, who are trying to expose their institutions’ involvement in slavery, those who have tried to remove the memorial have drawn their energy from the restorative justice movement. This movement recognizes that racial inequalities are rooted in unfinished histories of plunder and colonial oppression. It seeks to remake our social institutions in order to end these persistent inequalities.

It might be strange to think that all of this is taking place in a place like Jesus College, which is part of a former elite university. Yet many institutions benefiting from slavery and colonialism became the starting point for a broader struggle against the lingering injustices that stem from Britain’s colonial past.

Indeed, Jesus College has set the bar in formally acknowledging the harm caused by his involvement in colonization and slavery, and returned his Benin bronze rooster to the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria. Under Alleyne’s leadership, the college also changed its outreach strategy to significantly increase the number of admitted students from diverse backgrounds. The college’s Legacy of Slavery Task Force is developing plans to repair the psychological and emotional toll of slavery and the effects of institutional racism on its black students, staff and faculty.

The right has already prepared to mount a counter-offensive. A look back at the pattern of ghostlining that has run through Britain’s recent history shows that in the long run this approach simply does not work. The right-wing reaction against the visionary African Reparations Movement in the 1990s sounded a lot like our current “culture war”. Led by Labor MP Bernie Grant, this movement demanded that the government redistribute wealth to communities of African descent and that British museums return looted African artifacts to their rightful homes. He demanded significant investments in the arts, education and the media to address the psychological damage caused by racial discrimination against black communities. Basically, he demanded a radical overhaul of education, health, housing and legal policies to abolish institutional racism.

When Anthony Gifford, a veteran lawyer who worked with this movement, raised the issue of reparations in the House of Lords in 1996, he was met with backlash. A peer has suggested that the reparations movement made Britain the victim of a false narrative and that the British government actually played an honorable role in suppressing the slave trade. Another said that Africans are “immensely forgivingand that the demands for reparation are “against” their nature.

It was the ghost playbook in action: denying the story, playing the role of the hero, and playing the victim of false attacks. And that ended discussions of reparations in the House of Lords (the subject has rarely been mentioned in the chamber since then). But attempts to downplay these demands for progress only ensure that these demands happen again with renewed potency. In recent years, Lloyds of London and the Bank of England have issued apologies for their role in the atrocities of slavery; Meanwhile, institutions such as the Horniman Museum in London are drawing up plans to return looted cultural objects to African nations. These changes have happened because the current of opinion is changing. People are tired of ghosts and want institutions to tackle racism at its root.

Jesus College is just one part of a larger movement of struggles for reparations. In Britain, the newly created Black Equity Organization focuses on changing policies and legal processes that harm black Britons. The Stop the Maangamizi Campaign organizes grassroots community mobilization for reparations. There are growing calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ in schools, colleges and universities, while a number of UK universities, including Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, are coming up with concrete initiatives. The University of Glasgow announced in 2019 its intention to work with the University of the West Indies on restorative justice initiatives.

Bernie Grant, in his famous speech from 1993, Reparations or Bust, asked the big questions: “What kind of reparations do we need? Why do we need them? Are we entitled to it? People ask all these questions. Reactionaries hoped then, as they do now, that these issues would be discredited in public discourse and shunned in political debates. Yet their fury only publicize and promote the cause.

  • Kris Manjapra is a professor of history at Tufts University and author of Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation

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