Controversy de la semaine around these parts comes in the wake of the increasingly-popular Black Country Festival. This sort of thing is a great idea – fostering a bit of community spirit can only be good for morale amongst a particularly under-employed, under-paid part of the country, and encouraging people to make use of their local areas will surely bring its own economic rewards. It’s also a great opportunity to publicise the area’s unique history – but it’s that which has caused some aggro recently.
Wolverhampton-born former London councillor, Patrick Vernon OBE made the suggestion (somewhat bluntly, it has to be said) that the Black Country flag should be withdrawn. This design was the result of a competition won by a 12 year old girl from Stourbridge and has been swiftly and cheerfully taken up across the region. It incorporates Elihu Burrit’s famous depiction of the Black Country as “black by day, red by night”, and two of the myriad industries that the region’s economic might was built on, glassworking and chainmaking. It’s the later which has upset Mr Vernon: to him, the chains represent the horrors of the slave trade, which was significantly supplied in metalwork by the Black Country; we shouldn’t celebrate something which caused such misery.
My initial mistake when reading this story on the Express & Star website was to read the comments section. Sigh. Newspaper comments sections are where the dregs of the nation’s spelling capability goes to die, for a start. But they’re also a wonderful analytical source for the art of the kneejerk reaction, and each newspaper’s reading public can be characterised in detail through these mini-polemics. As you might imagine, the response to Mr Vernon’s piece were not favourable.
It’s easy to see why. The flag is an attractive and popular emblem of a region that only appeared on an Ordnance Survey map 6 years ago, a place whose community feeling has suffered since the decline of its heavy industry; it gives us yam yams a bit of an identity. Nobody is claiming that there was any racist intent in the flag’s design, so to superimpose this view of history over the top of a successful community endeavour seems a bit off.
But, as historians are so beloved of saying, it is of course more complicated than that. The fact remains that the Black Country was the major source for ironware for the African and American slave trade. Manufacturers were not only complicit in this, but advertised themselves as such: Henry Waldron of Wolverhampton was listed as a “Negro Collar and Handcuff Maker” in 1770; John Shaw of Penn also traded in hard and soft “negro collars”, listed alongside dog collars and handcuffs (source). When you dig a little into the lives and trades of some of those who made Black Country industry ‘great’, it can get a little uncomfortable. Perhaps 200 years of abolition softens the blow a little, but I’m not sure we’d be so ready to celebrate such industry if we knew the whole, unpalatable truth. Even our celebrated lady chainmakers are best known for having to strike for a living wage. If it weren’t for the friendly chainmaking demos at the Black Country Museum, or the legacy of chainmaking in the area, wouldn’t a flag showing something whose purpose is to bind and hold down, be a little strange?
That gets us into the thorny issue of which history, or whose history, do we appropriate? If we celebrate the industrial heritage of the Black Country, is it safe to celebrate the great industrialists, the masters, the tradesmen, the outputs of the many thousands of forges? By the same token, is it safe to raise a whole region’s ire based on something without the intent to offend? There’s a whole mess of postcolonial issues right here, well beyond my experience to analyse, but… it’s complicated.
As usual, after having a think about it, I’m going to blame capitalism. Today’s sleek, neoliberal capitalism is a world away from the raw proto-capitalism of 1770, yet as an economic system its power to exploit remains undiminished. In the Black Country, the chains were made to bind thousands of innocent lives to a pitiful destiny in a foreign land. Those taken had no choice, no escape but death, no rights, no humanity allowed them. Those producing the chains were not the Shaws or Waldrons of the world though. In Adam Smith’s brave new economic world all had the right to choose, to change their lives; but who of the chainmakers had the ability to do that? They were slaves of a different kind, with no bonds but tied inescapably to their forges.
Today, the forges and collars are museum pieces only, but the country is still heaving with the vulnerable, poor and exploited. Perhaps until we recognise that central to the debate must be a condemnation of that capitalist imperative to exploit the weak, we won’t get anywhere. Of course, that would be very uncomfortable, even… complicated? The E&S’s response clearly didn’t want to go down that route, being a masterclass in handbag-held-high sarcasm, but they do manage to drag in some Rousseau, so I’ll leave you with that:
Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.
JJ Rousseau, The Social Contract