Posts Tagged ‘Chaucer’

History Debunked on the Anachronistic Casting of Black Actors to Play Ann Boleyn and Queen Caroline

December 14, 2020

One of the complains raised by some members of the right against the demands for more Black presenters and actors on screen is that it represents a form of cultural colonisation. The past is deliberately being re-shaped to suit the multicultural present. The right-wing internet YouTuber, Alex Belfield, has argued that by the Beeb’s standards, Blacks are actually overrepresented on television. At the moment British Black and Asian population constitutes about 13 per cent of the overall population, but form 22 per cent of the presenters, performers and broadcast on the box. It’s why he choose in one of his videos to attack the Beeb for wasting even more license-payers’ money on someone to head a diversity department. He maintained that the problem wasn’t the underrepresentation of Blacks and Asians in front of the camera. It was that they weren’t represented in the ranks of BBC management, which remained very White and middle class.

There are a number of recent and forthcoming adaptations of classic literature, in which Blacks and Asians have been cast in traditionally White roles. And so Blacks have been cast to appear in the children’s classic, The Secret Garden, Philip Pullman’s Fantasy series, His Dark Materials, and Dev Patel, who played the Master in the last series of Dr. Who, appeared in a colour blind, multi-ethnic version of Dickens and is due to star in an adaptation of the medieval story, Gawain and the Green Knight. There’s also a version of the Lord of the Rings planned by the Corporation, in which a third of the cast will be Black or Asian with Lenny Henry.

But this desire to recast White characters with Blacks isn’t confined to fiction. Channel 5 has announced that it has cast a Black actress, Jodie Turner-Smith, to play Ann Boleyn in a three part series about Henry VIII’s second wife. And Netflix has also chosen a Black actress to play Queen Caroline in its regency romance, Bridgerton.

History Debunked’s Simon Webb has posted several videos about this. He was rather incensed by the decision to recast one of the characters in The Secret Garden as Black, and describes how there was some popular criticism of a similar recasting in His Dark Materials. However, he says that left-wingers and progressives answered that by arguing that the role was fiction, and that Pullman never specified what colour the character was.

That argument, however, cannot be used to defend the false representation of Boleyn and Caroline as Blacks. He views this as a deliberate attempt to colonise the past so that it resembles what he describes as the ‘bastardised’ multicultural present. It is also not being done in a vacuum. There are Blacks, who believe that Queen Caroline really was Black, as was James I of England/VI of Scotland, and Edward III’s son, Henry, the Black Prince. This recasting of real, historical figures has to be resisted because it is actively falsifying history to make it appear that Blacks had a far greater role in shaping history than they did.

Here’s the video about Ann Boleyn.

Jodie Turner-Smith to play Ann Boleyn – YouTube

The idea that Queen Caroline was Black comes from the fact that she was partly descended from a thirteenth century Spanish Moorish prince. The Moors in Islamic Spain – al-Andalus – were Arabs and Berbers, rather than Black Africans. Caroline herself was so far removed from her Moorish ancestor that any Black ancestry she had wouldn’t have been expressed physically. She was a German princess, and so would have been White in appearance.

A black queen in Netflix’ new series Bridgerton – YouTube

See also:

New, multicultural versions of two classics of English literature – YouTube

TV Diversity Is NOT A Problem 🇬🇧 22% 📺 BBC Give Us Back The £100,000,000! – YouTube

Multi-Racial Casting Already in Theatre

I think there are also a number of other factors driving this trend. Multiracial casting has been around in the theatre for a very long time. I think as far back as the 1990s Black and Asians actors were being cast in traditionally White roles in Shakespeare. I remember an article in the Independent or the I came out a few years ago commenting that such casting was accepted by audiences, even when people of different ethnicities played members of the same family. There was also something of a furore a few years ago when the Black opera singer, Willard White, was cast as Odin in Wagner’s Ring. What seems to be happening is simply that this same process is being extended to film and TV. The Dickens’ adaptation that came out recently not only starred Dev Patel as the central character, but also had members of the same family played by actors of different races. It was made by Armando Iannucci, one of the brains behind the comedy news programme, The Day Today and other shows in the 1990s.

Few Explicitly Black Parts and the Metropolitan Bubble

I also believe that it’s due to the fact that there are too few parts specifically for Black and Asian actors. That’s been the complaint voiced by one of the Black activists pushing for the greater inclusion of Black performers when he was interviewed in the I a little while back. Blacks and Asians are minorities, and generally are under represented in the upper ranks of society. Hence the demand for colour blind casting and that directors should be willing to cast Blacks and Asians. It also seems to me to be also partly a product of the metropolitan bubble in which the media and its chiefs live. Over a third of London’s population is Black and Asian, and I think there’s an automatic assumption that somehow this is true of the rest of Britain. Some Black activists and performers have been really shocked to find that there are large parts of Britain with hardly any people like themselves. Years ago the late Black actor and comedian, Felix Dexter, appeared on the panel in an edition of the News Quiz, which came from Edinburgh. He expressed his surprise that there were areas of Scotland with hardly a Black face to be seen. While undoubtedly true, his surprise struck me as also a tiny bit racist in itself. There was an element of complaint in it, as if it was somehow a defect that these places happened to be nearly all White. It reminded me a bit of the comments by Victorian explorers about going into parts of Black Africa and elsewhere previously untouched by the White man. I’m sure Dexter and those, who share his views would have been horrified by the comparison, but I believe it’s a true one.

Selling Programmes to a Non-White Foreign Audience

I also wonder if it’s also driven by a need to sell these programmes abroad. Blacks constitute something like 10-13 per cent of the American population, and together with Asians constitute 25 per cent of the American population. I’ve no doubt that the Beeb will also be seeking to sell the programmes to Black majority and Asian countries, such as Africa, the Caribbean, India and so on. Hence the decision to cast Black and Asian actors may well come from a desire to appeal to foreign, non-White audiences.

Dangers of the Falsification of History

I wouldn’t have a problem with this, were it not for two reasons. I’m afraid that it really will result in a falsification of history. If it was just a case of TV companies trying to reach new audiences in line with present, multicultural sensibilities, I’d be perfectly happy with it. Provided that the audience understood that what they were seeing was fiction. They they understood that Queen Caroline and Ann Boleyn weren’t really Black, and that Victorian and medieval Britain weren’t as multicultural as today’s London. But I really don’t think they do. And this is going to be a particular problem with some Blacks, who believe that their history has already been appropriated by Whites. This is very much the case with Afro-Centric History and ancient Egypt. All the Black people I’ve met have believed that the ancient Egyptians were Black. This isn’t unreasonable. They portrayed themselves as darker than the other peoples further north and east, like the Minoans and the Semitic peoples of Canaan and the Ancient Near East. Examination of human skeletons from ancient Egyptian tombs show that many were more Black African in appearance than previously assumed, and certainly the sculpture of Queen Ty shows her as being very Black. On the other hand the Egyptians portrayed the African peoples further south, such as those of Nubia, to be much darker than themselves. I also don’t think that the ancient historians, like Herodotus, described them as Black. Herodotus was well aware of Black African peoples and tribes, like the Ethiopians, but he doesn’t describe the Egyptians as one of them, at least, not that I can remember. It isn’t unreasonable by any means to believe the Egyptians were Black, but there’s also room for debate. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some really bonkers conspiracy theories about the supposed White appropriation of the ancient Egyptians. One Black American I knew at college claimed that the reason so many statues from ancient Egypt had chipped or missing noses and lips was because the European archaeologists deliberately removed them in order to hide their African identity. It’s a paranoid, ludicrous idea, though you can’t really blame people for believing it. Black people have historically been abused and exploited, so it’s to be expected that this sense of exploitation, and that they are being deliberately denied a glorious history, should extend to one of the most famous and brilliant of ancient civilisations.

But I’m very much afraid that once the decision is taken to cast Blacks as real, historical figures, some people will genuinely believe that these figures really were Black, and that those evil Whites have falsified history once more to hide their true racial origins.

There is also the problem that recasting the past so that it appears more multicultural than it really was may also lead to modern audiences not realising just how hard a struggle Blacks and Asians had to gain their freedom. Nearly a year ago now Mr H of the YouTube channel Mr H Reviews raised this objection to the Beeb’s new adaptation of that horror classic, Dracula. The convent to which Harker flees for help and medical treatment in Budapest is shown as multiracial, with many of the nuns Black and Asian. He felt that this was anachronistic, though I’m told by a friend of mine with a greater knowledge of church history that the Roman Catholic convents in the city were staffed with people from the missions to Asia and elsewhere, so it’s possible there would have been Black and Asian nuns there.

In the case of regency Britain and the upper ranks of society, intermarriage between Whites and Blacks wasn’t unknown, but it was rare. A few years ago back in the ’90s Radio 4 did a programme about the Black son of a White planter or British aristocrat, who had a glittering political career as an MP and ended up, I believe, as the sheriff of Monmouthshire. One the other hand, when Major Moody came to write his report in the 1820s on whether Blacks were ready for their emancipation, he argued that they would never be accepted and treated fairly by White society. Part of his argument was that there were so few marriages between Whites and Blacks among the upper classes. Moody’s wife was Black, and so his report and its conclusion that the enslaved population of the British empire weren’t yet ready for their freedom was a real shock. But if Queen Caroline is presented as a Black woman, it obviously contradicts Moody’s own observation. And his observation and the argument it supports shows just how strong racial prejudice was among some sections of the populace in 19th century Britain.

Double Standards on ‘Cultural Appropriation’

My other problem with this is that of the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’. This only seems to go one way. Black involvement and participation in White culture is actively encouraged and its absence condemned and deplored as a form of racism. But this doesn’t go the other way. When Whites adopt non-White culture, it’s condemned as a form of cultural theft. In the case of those cultures that have been colonised and nearly destroyed by White expansion and imperialism, like the Amerindians and Aboriginal Australians, this is fair enough. But there should surely be no objection to the casting of White actors as Black characters in works by Black and Asian writers and playwrights. Not if it’s done as part of a multi-ethnic cast and avoids the obviously offensive, like blacking up. But I’ve yet to see a White actor cast in a Black part in an adaptation of one of Wole Soyinka’s works, or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I therefore feel that Webb has a point when he attacks it as a form of cultural colonisation. Because until Whites are allowed to play Black roles, that’s what it is.

I’m prepared to accept that the portrayal of myths and literary characters on screen is changing as society changes, and that mostly this harmless. Dickens, Shakespeare and medieval classics like Chaucer and Gawain are great tales, and should appeal to everyone, regardless of their colour. But I have grave reservations about the decision to do the same to historical figures.

It might be well intentioned, but too many people may believe it’s fact, and so a mythical, false history created.

John Wycliff’s Arguments for Pacifism

February 18, 2018

Last Sunday I put up a piece about the Lollard sermon, The Perversion of the Works of Mercy. The Lollards were the late fourteenth-early fifteenth century followers of the English theologian and reformer, John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a kind of proto-Protestant, who denounced the corruption of the church, rejected the papacy and maintained that the Bible should be the sole authority for Christian doctrine. The Perversion of the Works of Mercy attacks the way people have turned away from performing their Christian obligations to feed, clothe, give drink to the poor, visit and care for the sick and prisoners, and instead do this all for the rich and powerful. It’s a powerful message for today, when the Tories’ official policy is to increase the tax burden of the poor, in order to give massive tax cuts to the rich. The Tories are also cutting benefits to the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled as part of this programme of making the rich even richer, while at the same time claiming that the destruction of the welfare state is all for the benefit of the poor themselves. It’s saving them from ‘welfare dependency’, and is encouraging them, in the notorious words of Norman Tebbit, to get on their bikes and look for work. It’s all part of the Tory and Thatcherite embrace of the Victorian attitude of ‘less eligibility’, which stated that conditions of state aid should be as harsh as possible in order to deter people from taking it up, and encourage them to take any job, no matter how low paid or exploitative.

Wycliffe was also a pacifist. I also blogged a month or so ago about a book I found on his pacifism in the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue. Wycliffe’s pacifism is also discussed by Basil Cottle in his The Triumph of English 1350-1400 (London: Blandford Press 1969). Here’s the passage where he discusses Wycliffe’s rejection of war, quoting the medieval theologian himself:

In each particular, Wyclif’s views are revolutionary, and his treatment of of war is typical of this: those who go to war cannot with justice say the Lord’s Prayer. ‘And before the seven axingis that Crist techith in the Pater Noster meneth … algatis to axe in charite, and thefore men that liven in werre ben unable to have their axinge; but thei axen ther owne dampnynge in the fifte peticioun, for ther thei axen that God for3yve hem ther dettis that thei owen to Hym, ri3t as thei for3yven men that ben dettours unto hem.’ [And for this reason the seven askings that Christ teaches in the Lord’s Prayer mean… at all events to ask in charity, and therefore men that live in war are unable to have what they ask; but they ask for their own damnation in the fifth petition, because there they ask that God may forgive them their debts that they owe to Him, even as the forgive men that are debtors to them.] But what was the situation in which the divided Church now found herself?-the Pope offering indulgences t6o those who would fight against the antipope (a subject extensively treated in a sermon on Martyrs) , and Bishop Despenser of Norwich leading his beastly and futile ‘crusade’ of 1383 against Flanders: ‘now men seyen that thei shulden, bi lore of ther feith, werre upon Cristen men, and turnen hem to the Pope, and slee ther persones, ther wyves, and ther children, and reve hem ther goodis, and thus chastise hem. But certis this came nevere of chastyment of Crist, sith Crist seith He cam not to lese lyves bu save hem. And hefore this is chastyment of the fiend, and never chastyment of Crist, that uside pacience and myraclis.’ [Now men say that they should, by the teaching of their faith, war upon Christian men, and win them over to the Pope, and kill their persons, their wivs, and their children, and rob them of their goods, and thus punish them. But certainly this kinid of punishment never came from Christ, since Christ says He came not to destroy llives to save them. And for this reason this is a punishment from the dreadful fiend, and never a punishment from Christ, who used patience and miracles.] Yet ‘blynde heretikes wanten witt as ydiotis, whan thei seien that Petre synnede not in smytynge of Malcus ere, but 3af ensaumple to preestis to fi3t’ [blind heretics lack understanding, like idiots, when they say that Peter did not sin in striking off Maclhus’s ear, but set an example for priests to fight]-though Christ prevented him from fighting further. ‘Lord, where this Pope Urbane hadde Goddis charite dwelling in him, whan he stired men to fi3te and slee many thousaund men, to venge him on the tother People and of men that holden with him?’ [Lord, did this Pope Urban have ~God’s charity dwelling in him, when he incited men to fight and kill many thousand men, to avenge himself on the other Pope and on men who belong to his side?] The friars, says Wyclif, preach to a bellicose text- that the English must get in first with their attacks on their enemies in other countries, for fear they do the same and sin be increased on both sides; a hideous doctrine of sinning so as to good.)

Cottle goes on to observe that ‘This new pacifism may have distasteful to readers who still enjoyed the memory of Crecy and Poitiers and to the old soldiers who must have figure among the 1381 malcontents’ (the Peasant’s Revolt). (pp. 235-6).

This hatred of war was shared by Sir John Clanvowe, soldier, diplomat, courtier, poet, crusader, and the author of the Boke of Cupide. This was so similar to Chaucer’s works, that for a time it was accepted as that great poet’s own composition. Clanvowe himself died in a village near Constantinople. Clanvowe wrote

‘The world holt hem worshipful that been greet werryours and fi3teres, and that distroyen and wynnen manye londis, and waasten and 3even muche good to hem that haan ynou3, and that dispenden oultrageously in mete, in drynke, in clothing, in building, and in lyuyng in eese, slouthe, and many oothere synnes.’ [The world considers them honourable who are great warriors and fighters and destroy and conquer many lands, and waste and give much property to them that have plenty, and spend outrageously on food, drink, clothing, building, and living in ease, sloth, and many other sins.] (Cottle, op. cit., p. 253).

Cottle himself says of this passage that ‘the attack here is almost on rank, and Clanvowe is disgusted that it is of these proud and vengeful people that ‘men maken books and soonges, and reeden and singen of hem for to hoolde the mynde of here deedes the lengere here vpon erth’. [Men make books and songs, and recite and sing of them so as to keep the memor of their deeds the longer here on earth.] (p. 254).

As I said with my earlier post about the Perversion of the Works of Mercy, I’m not putting this up to attack Roman Catholicism. I despise religious intolerance and don’t want to provoke any more sectarian religious hatred. I’m also deeply impressed with the various Roman Catholic organisations, clergy and lay people that genuinely work for the poor and those in the needy, and radical groups like Doris Day’s Catholic Workers. My point here is to show merely that religious radicals, like Wycliffe and Clanvowe, despised the way the poor were ignored and treated by the rich, and condemned war as fundamentally unchristian.

This is an attitude that attacks and refutes the vicious opinions of the religious right, with their prosperity gospel – that Christ wants everyone to be rich, and if you’re poor, it’s your fault – and is solidly behind the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. These wars aren’t being fought to protect America, Israel or anyone else. They’re fought purely for the profit of immensely rich multinational corporations, who hope to profit from the theft of these nations’ state industries and oil reserves. As the above texts show, they would have been thoroughly condemned by Wycliffe and Clanvowe.