My two songs today are ‘War’ and ‘We’ll Meet Again’. I sing these two songs in an attempt to highlight a number of important things in this multiracial and multicultural world we are supposed to live in, and where black and white citizens live-side-by-side, but do not always reside as good neighbours ought to do; in peace and harmony. When impartial historians look at the conditions, circumstances, responses and reactions that have divided the black and white citizens of both America and England over the past two centuries, neither country will emerge ‘lily-white and spotless’ in their dealings with their black brothers and sisters. The whites of both countries have prospered at the direct expense of the black person and white superiority over the black person has been maintained throughout by one means or another.
Historians know that ever since the earliest wars occurred between one tribe and another, one nation and another, that the conquered who were captured were usually taken as slaves to improve the lives of their victors the remainder of their lives. And so it has remained for thousands of years, in economic, personal and political freedom terms at least.
For thousands of years, even when there have been no wars on the battlefields, the rich have got richer through their economic conquests in the money markets of the world and the poor have got poorer! This is no mere economic consequence that just happens by accident; it is designed through the government policies of all the wealthier nations on earth, at the direct expense of the poorer nations and the poorer citizen. Whether the conquered are placed in chains and are manacled in irons by their capturers, or become part of the world’s cheapest labour market, and are expected to live in city slums and remain subservient to the rule of their white man ‘master’, the result still equates with blacks often living a life of enslavement in a world dominated by whites.
Ever since the slave trade was first recognised by European economies as being a profitable currency of trade transaction, the enslavement of the black person, the poor person and the disenfranchised person has remained a constant feature of white colonialism and economic exploitation. It took thousands of years and thousands of deaths of the black person before slavery was abolished in 1833 by a British Parliamentary Act, and credit to the British and the politicians of this country who were the first to press the rest of the world for the abolition of slavery and freed more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in most British colonies, and in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada. England recognised its former inhumanity and attempted to redress it.
Racism continued to exist in Great Britain and America, and many would argue that it still does in different degrees. I know that during the 1960s when I grew up as a young man that it was not uncommon to see notices placed in the windows of English boarding houses that said, “No blacks. No dogs. No, Irish!” I recall as the youngest textile shop steward in Great Britain in 1960, bringing 300 workers out on strike because a West Indian who applied for a mill vacancy at the firm where I worked had been refused employment by the mill owner because he was black. The mill where I was shop steward had been a family firm for over 100 years and had never previously had a strike by their workforce. The incident at the time attracted national press coverage. After five days, we won the right to have a black workmate alongside us, but the West Indian concerned decided against taking up the job we had won on his behalf because of all the publicity his situation had received. Despite the victory gained by my workmates in 1960, the win was largely a hollow victory.
Blacks were still denied membership of most British trade unions and in 1968, Enoch Powell gave his now infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech at the Birmingham Conservative Political Centre warning that England was receiving too many black immigrants to our shores. His speech was peppered with inflammatory language ( warning that England would be ‘swamped ‘ with the numbers of black migrants arriving and that the black immigrant would gain the ‘whip hand’ if the British did not reverse the tide of newcomers arriving on our shores). Many saw Enoch Powell’s expressed views as being clearly racist views being expressed, while unfortunately many more English citizens wholeheartedly agreed with Enoch.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, America was far from being a federation of 52 ‘united states’ and the degree of racism practised against their black citizens was far more extensive and much more deeply entrenched than any racism ever practised by the British.
The United States of America came into being following the American Civil War (1861–65) between the United States and 11 Southern states that seceded from the Union and formed the ‘Confederate States of America’. The ensuing outbreak of armed hostilities was the culmination of decades of growing sectional friction over ‘slavery’.
After the Northern states had won the civil war, in Congress on July 4, 1776, the ‘Declaration of Independence’ was signed that granted a ‘Bill of Rights’ to all Americans, black and white. As we reflect today upon the unlawful killing of the protester, George Floyd in America, it is appropriate to reflect upon the ‘Bill of Rights’ granted to all Americans 244 years ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
From the mob lynching’s of numerous American blacks by American whites and ‘Ku Klux Klan’ throughout the 20th century, through to the Civil Rights' struggle of the 1960s, experienced by black Americans as they fought segregation on the buses, in the cafes, restaurants and entertainment establishments, at the drinking pub and washroom facilities, in the schools, universities, and in the armed forces, in the workforces, and in their living accommodation, These black citizens were being effectively treated as ‘less worthy citizens’ by the law enforcement agents, courts and prisons of the United States of America; then as well as today many would argue.
Please note that all these wrongs committed by American police officers that go back over many years and which involves the death of many black citizens before that of George Floyd, do not give the right of peaceful protest to be transformed into violent civil unrest and looting by some black citizens! Neither does it give the right to the British and other western governments to remain ‘diplomatically silent’ at this public outrage!
And neither can a million apologists of British colonialism in the past centuries take away all of the good things that we gave the people of the countries that we colonised! Neither can all the pacifists in the world deny the cause and the bravery of the British man and woman as England stood alone against the threat of Nazi Germany in 1939. We live in a better world today, because of the victorious outcome of the ‘Second World War’, that was only made possible through the countless deaths of brave British soldiers and their Allies, including the weaponry, and might of the American nation!
History, whichever side of the fence we sit on is never truly represented in ‘black and white’ terms that is devoid of all the grey in-between! For the Black Americans today, I sing the Bob Marley song ’War’.
Although I was a war baby who was born in County Waterford, Ireland in 1942, my family emigrated to West Yorkshire in England before the war had ended. Meanwhile, back in my homeland of Ireland, a policy of Irish neutrality was initiated and maintained throughout the war, having been initiated by the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera upon the outbreak of ‘World War Two’, although some Irish men did join the Allied Forces. A mere thirty years had barely passed when the Irish Free State Army had fought the British soldiers at the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916. Hostilities had started at the Post Office in Dublin when Ireland was an occupied country and the Irish citizen wanted their freedom.
My song today is one that my good friend of the past thirty years, Vera Lynn, sang to the people of England during those dark days of the war. Dame Vera, who was known as ‘The Forces Sweetheart’ helped to rally the country’s morale when Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, and the perpetrator of the Holocaust, and Fuhrer of Germany, threatened the freedom of Europe and the way of life we cherished.
Vera Lynn was my mother’s favourite singer when I was a child, and whenever she came on the wireless (that is the radio for you young whippersnappers), mum would make us all hush until Vera had sung her song. This would be followed by mum giving us the pleasure of her singing the song also, all day long! Unlike Vera, however, although mum had a golden heart, her voice tended to go down more like a lead balloon. Mum loved singing, and the mere fact that she couldn’t sing for toffee was neither here nor there. She would be invariably singing all the right notes but in the wrong order! She never got through any song without forgetting or not knowing all the words, but she never let a little thing like that stop her. Whenever this happened, she would simply make up another word and insert it. It mattered not if it was incorrect or made no coherent sense to the listener, as long as it rhymed.
If it is possible for our deceased parents and loved ones to look back down on us from time to time, mum would be so proud of her eldest son (me). Four years after mum had died at the early age of 64 years, I had occasion to make a planned visit Vera at her home address and she read one of my children’s stories about an evacuee during the ‘Second World War’ to her local school in Ditchling, Sussex. After that, we became good friends and she has helped me on numerous occasions with my charitable ventures and other requests over the past thirty years.
Mum would also be proud that Vera Lynn is now a Dame and is presently 103 years old. Her older brother died recently a few days before his 103rd birthday (a fact not commonly known).
The song I sing today is one that is ironically poignant to current times, as the country and many other parts of Europe are either experiencing lockdown or are just emerging from a Lockdown that was precipitated by the global Coronavirus pandemic. The song is ‘We’ll Meet Again’, and today, through our own lockdown experience over the past few months, we get a feeling of what it must have been like for love ones who never saw each other during six years of separation during the ‘Second World War’; and they were the lucky ones whose loved ones returned from the battlefields of Europe!
God bless all their souls, and God bless every person whose life has been cruelly taken by Covid-19. Like the soldiers who died on foreign battleground, they died without a relative nearby, just like the many deaths of loved ones by this pandemic virus that has swept the globe since early 2020. Whether the dead are the soldiers of the Second World War, or the deceased relatives of the 2020 pandemic virus, or the black citizen unlawfully killed over the centuries, we grieve their passing and pledge that ‘they will not be forgotten’.
Let us hope that Vera’s great wartime song also brings a ‘Meeting of Minds’ as well as a ‘ Meeting of Purpose’ along with a ‘Meeting of Peoples’ between all black and white citizens across the world, especially in Great Britain and America.
Love and peace Bill xxx