This series by BBC based on novellas by Malorie Backman is an interesting challenge. There are those who may feel that heavy analysis of this work is more than it deserves, that it is in fact light entertainment. I seriously disagree.
One must address the issue of production, context and reception for artistic creation as Stuart hall so well educated us. A fundamental issue is that the perspective on life presented here turns the political into the personal. To be more exact, it turns the political into the exclusively personal. This is important.
Her claimed intention was to flip’ the story by having Blacks in privilege and whites as oppressed. What is missing is any roots in politics or economics. There is no gold rush, no minerals, no oil and no divide and rule. Once one looks at the politics of empire nothing has been flipped or taken into account. An empire becomes simply an extension of personal dominance. To be more seriously flipped’ there should have been competing African empires in pursuit of resources either labour, minerals, land space etc.
There is also another reason why one should not ignore politics. This is because it will surface unseen if not watched. The series is described as set in a dystopia. But flipping colours on the current situation cannot create a dystopia UNLESS those who claim it is a dystopia wish to describe the current situation as a dystopia! Because she is so non political she doesn’t notice this highly political description of her series. Certainly she doesn’t realise she is duty bound to object!
By seeing racism as merely personal she is able to focus on the emotional dynamics and some of this is insightful. But she misses the elephant in the room. By making racism merely personal she links herself into a very dangerous and vicious narrative. There is a deep seated view among conservative whites which has a long history in European thought and can be exhibited in the works of Immanuel Kant. This view is that races naturally hate each other and compete with each other. As a matter of historical fact whites have tended to win but if other races had won they would have behaved just as whites behaved. Corsairs regularly kidnapped and enslaved Europeans in hundreds of thousands. This view rapidly degenerates into an a-moral and a-historical view of the world.
Given that the implicit political sub text is so conservative, apologetic and compromised one might be surprised by the political objections raised by white journalists. This is due to an amusing issue: the conservative approach, such as in ‘White over Black’ by Winthrop Jordan, accepts that white people behave atrociously but simply adds that ‘if the tables were turned so would you’. However in the UK there are many liberals who do not wish to see their society portrayed as vicious and unjust and anyone telling them that is a political agitator. Ms Blackman being so unpolitical is unable to understand the jibes or what an appropriate response would be.
There is also another issue. Ms Blackman comes from a TV screen writer background and a children’s author. Many Western authors come from a seriously scholarly background. Why does this matter? Because it apparently does not occur to her that this ‘flip’ already happened at various times in history and any scholarly author would not miss dropping a few subtle references to such episodes. Any non autodidact, anyone brought up in the literary tradition of universities, would ask themselves – had this ever actually happened in the past? How was it when the Roman Emperor was an African? How was it when the Pope was an African? How was it when the Roman governor of Britain was an African? I mention her weak academic background as extenuation otherwise she would deserve some serious criticism on this aspect, for this gross failure and naivete.
I know what she would like to say: I am a children’s author, not a political writer and I focus on personal interactions not high politics. In this world the personal can easily become the political. One cannot simply pretend it is not there as that way one becomes complicit in the misuses of one’s work. To put it simply: one can try and ignore the bus, one might even succeed in largely ignoring the bus for some time. Regardless, the bus will still be coming your way.