To someone with the blood of African heritage running proudly through their veins, the issues of freedom and slavery are as contrasting as the difference between light and dark. Two of the first three American presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. In their roles as revered patriots and freedom fighters in the new America they fully utilized the income that their tobacco plantations had brought them.
My search for answers to the historical contradiction between freedom and slavery began at President Jefferson’s former home, Monticello. Monticello is built on a mountain-top with panoramic vista across Virginia and the nearby university town of Charlottesville, of which Jefferson was a patron. He designed his sumptuous twenty one room three-storey neo-classical mansion house and it is replicated in his monument on the Washington Mall. It dominates the thousands of acres that encompass it.
President Jefferson’s plantation was a network of gardens, buildings and farms that raised a variety of crops and animals that were tended to by over two hundred slaves. There is plenty of evidence that President Jefferson was a benevolent owner. In keeping with the thinking of the day, he viewed slaves as we would children, unable to live independent lives of their own. As I walked amongst some of the slaves’ quarters - built below ground so not to spoil the stunning views – I can begin to piece together the origins of how such a system existed and flourished.
Plantation owners ruled over millions of lives from the cradle to grave and sustained the growth of the Transatlantic slave-trade. British colonial slavery was first used in Virginia, and the peculiar institution of slavery was assisted by British settlers from Bristol who brought their African slaves with them from Barbados into the then royal colony of South Carolina. Through Charleston its major slave-trading port named after King Charles II, large-scale importation of African slaves first began to successfully cultivate rice on its plantations. In the south slavery spread to establishing the power of the plantocracy through indigo, then tobacco and then King Cotton. This became entrenched into the southern way of life that would take bloodshed and civil war to bring to an end.
During my visit to the Deep South I felt both a spiritual and emotional link between my home in Bristol, my parent’s origins in The West Indies, their own brothers and sisters now living in America and our shared heritage from West Africa. I began to connect my own past on a vast continental scale.
Like many of my generation, my first conscious experience of connecting the dots between my heritage and slavery was through the 1977 television series Roots
, based on Alex Haley’s epic novel. Watching it, I experienced a number of emotions including rage and guilt, but more importantly I was left with an important legacy of an awareness of my history.
I remember watching intently every Sunday evening aged 11 with my Mum. As its story unfolded Roots
became my story and our shared story. It was compelling family viewing unlike say Strictly Come Dancing or X Factor today.
As its story unfolded Roots
became my story and our shared story. I don’t remember at that point wanting to kill white people or any of those things that the media feared but I was awe-struck. My mother and I had recently moved from London to Bristol. Until then, all the environments I had lived in were multicultural. I was in no way prepared to spend my teenage years in the 99% white working-class suburb of Lawrence Weston in Bristol.
Lawrence Weston was a place where you could count the number of black families on two hands. All were known by their surnames like The Whites
or The Dixons.
With low overall numbers black families in the area were not perceived as a threat, or to borrow a phrase from the Deep-South uppity niggers
like the ones in St Pauls, Bristol but the N-word was still heard all too frequently for my liking.
As the journalist and author Gary Younge testified in No Place Like Home,
the playground taunts began the day after Roots aired and would continue for many years. One of the few black girls in my school year, was given the dubious title of my wife, the character Kizzy. Chicken George would provide laughs a plenty for his showmanship, fine-attire and cock-fighting skills. But it was the rebellious Kunta Kinte, who constantly kept running away and was beaten, whipped and eventually had his foot cut off who resonated with me. He also refused to acknowledge his ‘slave name’ Toby
with my quick temper and hot tongue it was very easy for me to make the connection of what life would have been like for a rebellious young black man. I banished the memory of Kunta Kinte being trapped in a net by fellow Africans and erased the uncomfortable feelings and implications that came with his capture. That was my only early recollection of slavery until my mid-teens. I was also naively unaware that the city that I had made home had played such a major role in the Transatlantic slave-trade.
Nearly a decade after Roots first aired; I came face to face with my history when I met maternal grandfather Charles Coleridge, for the first time. He had flown to Britain from New Jersey where he had moved from Guyana. When he came to Bristol he asked me to take him to a local monument that was near to one of my former haunts at Blasé Castle, Henbury. Grandfather wanted to see the grave of Scipio Africanus
a slave who had been buried there in 1719 at the adjoining church and whose headstone is marked with this epitaph from his owner.
I was Born a PAGAN and a SLAVE
Now sweetly sleep a CHRISTIAN IN MY Grave.
Wath tho’ my hue was dark my SAVIOUR’S Sight
Shall change this darkness into radiant Light.
Such grace to me my Lord on earth has given.
To recommend me to my Lord in heaven
Whose glorious second coming here I wait
With Saints and Angels Him to celebrate.
I never knew how my Grandfather discovered Scipio’s grave, as it was years before the age of the Internet. Sadly he was my only surviving grandparent I ever met and died in 1990. Scipio’s grave was a mile from my school and three miles from my home yet I’d never visited it. I needed by Grandfather's influence to help me discover this piece of shared heritage via the Transatlantic slave route of Africa, The Caribbean, USA and here in the UK. It was time to uncover more about my heritage. Much more.
Roger Griffith is the Chair of Ujima Radio CIC a community radio station based in St Pauls, Bristol. He is the Managing Director of 2morrow2day a community consultancy and a social entrepreneur. A former senior manager for Bristol City Council he has a wealth of knowledge and experience from his networks in the Bristol community and business sectors and uses his key skills in a mentoring and coaching capacity for leaders and young people.
Roger is currently researching and writing a book “My American Odyssey - From The Windrush to the White House” that explores his personal relationship with Britain and America during President Obama’s term of office. He travels and explores the mythical American Deep South sharing his historical and emotional connections with the ‘special relationship’.
He is also a broadcaster on Ujima, presenting the Old Skool Cruising Show (Monday’s 4-7pm) which also features many of Bristol’s leaders in ‘The Big Conversation’. He is a regular guest on BBC Bristol on American political issues and on issues of race and community, which recently included social commentary the death of Nelson Mandela.
Photo credit: Flickr/Special Collections at Wofford College