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Charting our history

williamcuffeyMarking the end of Black History Month, photographer Red Saunders has produced this amazing image featuring 18th Century Chartist and reformer William Cuffay, the son of a former slave. Historian Professor Paul Gilroy comments on the importance of Cuffay and reflects on the photograph

The release of the Red Saunders image comes the day after OBV’s Black History Month finale, when many of Britain’s Black leaders spoke about their own favourite historical figures.

OBV began life in 1996 the organisation was closely aligned with Charter 88, a campaigning organisation that held the torch of freedom and rights for everyone regardless of race or class, as Lee Jasper wrote about on this blog in July .

Simon Woolley and Ashok Viswanathan, director and deputy director of OBV, were both volunteers at Charter 88 back in 1996, and the principles of the Chartists remain part of their core beliefs, as well as Dr Martin Luther King’s message of equality and justice.

Recovering fragments of past struggles

Reformers like William Cuffay had a vision of an equal Britain, says Professor Paul Gilroy

paul gilroy

Professor Paul Gilroy

The capacity to consider the past in relation to the present is being polluted by hopelessness and colonised by commercial distractions.

How do we respond to the assault by technology and trivia on imagination? In response to the explosive insecurities and fears of this dangerous moment, Britain’s opportunistic politicians have focused on national identity.

They think that popular nationalism will supply a short cut into the social cohesion they need if they are to compete with the BNP and make their war-mongering appear legitimate.

They are playing with fire but the racism and xenophobia unmuzzled by these tactics are of no consequence to them.

This widespread failure of imagination has been compounded by a deficit of historical information. The study of history in Britain’s schools declines and narrows.

People become a more anxious because they are bereft of the past. They neither know nor understand what happened before their own suffering. As a result, they can drift disoriented, towards political illiteracy.

Red Saunders’ creative re-staging of pivotal events drawn from the history of Britain’s revolutionary movements confronts these painful developments head on.

This artful image is the first in a series of shocking interruptions carefully designed to revive oppositional hope through the restoration of insurgent memory.

In other words, he wants to give us back our social and political history through bold acts of salvage that can be set to work in building a new radical consciousness in our own time.

In his illuminated dreamscape, we discover the Chartist William Cuffay and his fellow militants hard at subterranean work. Today, their forgotten struggles promise a different nation by bringing new life to the fragments of an alternative heritage.

This is not a morbid exercise. There is no melancholia here. Instead, the eye is seduced in an act of loving ingenuity. This is the start of something as important as it is beautiful, as productively unsettling as it appears real.

I urge you to support Red in these acts of recovery and imaginative daring.

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