My first encounter with rural racism was in 1999. The TMG Freephone Helpline had received a call from a black family living in the middle of Bedfordshire. I went to visit the family in an idyllic English village, to discover their house had been daubed with the word `niggers out` in large graffiti. No action had been taken by the authorities, but where the authorities failed the family, elderly folk from the local church had bravely challenged the local youth face to face. I sat in the church hall listening to a 75 year old white elderly lady criticising the police in precisely the same words that I had heard previously from Black and Asian families many times before.
Ethnic minority families face racism everyday in rural and urban Britain. However, what is unique about rural racism is the ideological space statutory bodies seem to have to justify their inaction on issues of race.
In 2004 we went to see the Countryside Agency to talk about the issue of racism. At the time they were very interested, but asked us to wait until the merger with Defra was complete. We were not disheartened and we went back to see Defra a year later, and again another year later. Now three years later, the issue of racism is still not raised in any DEFRA policy or strategy and DEFRA publications appear to have air-brushed Black people out of the rural landscape.
In his book the ‘Country and the City’ , Raymond Williams surveyed English literature in terms of changing attitudes towards country and city. English rural is often portrayed as an idealized, idyllic, and pastoral way of life. Yet Williams shows that in reality this was never so. Rural England has always been part of the larger global economy and migration has always been an integral feature of rural life – whether it was slaves in Plymouth, the Dutch in Norfolk, or Baltic seamen in Lincolnshire. Yet race and migration are presented as urban issues, in order to keep intact the sense of an exclusive rural English identity.
If rural England is an inalienable part of the English identity then is it so surprising that black and ethnic minority are deliberately excluded from the rural landscape? Well, you would think so, after all New Labour seemed to pursuing a new liberal cosmopolitan mission.
There have been some recent changes in the heritage sector, where the black presence in English history is beginning to be acknowledged. Most schoolchildren now know about Mary Secole and her role in the Crimean War, but the more fundamental rewriting of our history books has not taken place.
This was most clear during the recent celebrations around the abolition of slavery, where the brutality of colonialism were downplayed, but the modernising character of colonialism overplayed. How this reads in rural communities is important. It could be argued that the treatment meted out to asylum seekers, migrant workers, and Iraqis is ultimately good for them in the long term.
This failure to acknowledge the presence of black and ethnic minorities in rural England, and English identity is damaging in three ways.
Firstly, it hinders the development of an inclusive modern national identity. National identity is built around an `an imagined community`, as Benedict Anderson famously wrote. Though strangers to each other we form an `imaged community` because we share an idea of a nation and what it stands for. By deliberately excluding black and ethnic minority communities living in rural areas there is little opportunity to build an inclusive English identity.
Secondly, the failure to address the needs of black and ethnic minority people in rural areas is an abandonment of the reforms started by the changes in the Race Relations Amendment Act, the Lawrence Report and the Human Rights Act. You are far more likely to face a race attack in rural Britain than urban Britain yet there are hardly any reporting centres for victims of racist incidents in rural Britain.
Lastly, this approach fails rural white communities. Whereas urban areas are suffering de-industrialisation, rural areas are now more industrialised and part of the global economy than ever before. Instead of developing its local education system to produce the next generation of workers who can benefit from the opportunities, most local education curriculum seems to look inwards, still celebrating the victories of the Second World War. In his book, Learning to Labour, Paul Willis describes the way in which working class pupils in the lower reaches of the educational system reacted to school, and how the educational system prepared them for menial jobs. The Army and the Air Force have a great presence in Lincolnshire, and Royal Navy in the South West, and perhaps tales of the Second World War are necessary to build national pride, but unless these issues are presented in the context of the world young people occupy there is the danger that it simply feeds racism and xenophobia.
One only has to walk around the rural towns, and see how important black style and culture is to young people, but this interest in the outside metropolitan world is not really allowed to develop because their identity is kept so exclusive.
In this project we worked with three different communities who have arrived and settled in England at different times and places.
The African and Caribbean community arrived in Chesterfield in the 1950’s to face hostility from many in the local community. The participants in the project were among the earliest migrants to arrive in rural Britain, and now are some of the first black elders in the country. Rob Graham, a Nottingham photographer worked with this group to collate their stories and in the process has created a repository of their experiences, of race, of families amidst an ever changing rural landscape.
Our second group, the Portuguese community living in Boston, Lincolnshire, represents a relatively new community, having arrived in the UK over the past five years. Portuguese artist, Ana Antonio Gill worked with the participants to explore migration through the word `saudade` which can be loosely translated as ‘nostalgia` in English. Yet nostaligia implies comfort, even indolence, and it is more than this, a sense of being buffeted by memories, abuse, and sometimes regret as part of the migratory experience.
The final group – the Romany Gypsy community have been a permanent feature of the English rural community for over 400 years, yet are excluded from the rural landscape. Our project is among the first in which members from the community have been allowed to document and explore their relationship to the rural landscape themselves. Sara Heitlinger and Cecilla Jardemar have worked with the group to create a unique sound and photography collection.
I want to thanks the four talented artists, Ana Antonio Gill, Rob Graham, Sara Heitlinger and Cecillia Jardemar for their professionalism and thoughtfulness in bringing the project to fruition. Our gratitude also goes to our two funders, the Arts Council England and the Carnegie UK Trust, for without their assistance the project would not have happened.
A central core of TMG’s values is community empowerment and the visual idiom of this project is created by the participants who use their own iconography to relate their stories to the outside world. In the process the participants have created a different landscape of rural Britain and many will feel like a tourist in the exhibition, albeit for a fleeting moment. Indeed, we might even cancel our trip to Defra this year and send them a postcard instead, from pastures new.
The Monitoring Group and New Art Exchange present a mixed media exhibition reflecting the diverse communities within rural Britain. People from Romany Gypsy, African Caribbean and Portuguese backgrounds. Exploring their reality, aspirations and dreams. The artwork in this exhibition was produced by people from these specific communities, for many their first involvement with art and photography.
Supported by professional artists Sara Heitlinger, Cecilia Järdemar, Ana Antonio Gill, Rob Graham.