This blog post is a little late, my apologies!
On the 19th October I went to hear Dr Shirin Hirsch discuss her work in her lecture ‘Rivers of Blood In Wolverhampton? Enoch Powell, Racism and Resistance.’ She’s been examining Powell’s relationship with Wolverhampton, and the part he played in stirring up right-wing sentiments around the time of his infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood Speech.
Shirin was joined by Eleanor Smith MP, the first afro-caribbean member of parliament for the West Midlands, and was introduced by Dr Shirin Housee, a lecturer in Sociology. To begin with, Dr Housee remarked that it was especially poignant for a lecture on racism in the 20th century that the panel was made up of three ethnic minority women. This is definitely cause for celebration! Academia is riddled with institutionalised racism and misogyny, so being in the audience felt like such a positive experience and confirmation that things are changing for the better (slowly…but a step in the right direction).
One of the parts of Shirin’s talk that I found particularly interesting was the involvement of the Indian Workers’ Association, who worked very hard with the mainstream British labour movement to acknowledge migrant workers as part of the working class. I don’t know much about the integration of migrant workers within trade unions, but I’m hoping to be able to learn more. At the end of her talk a member of the IWA gave a very emotional thank you to Shirin for her work, and told us the IWA slogan: ‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’. With so many people in the room from various anti-racism activist groups, I felt like we might all punch the air in solidarity at any minute!
It was interesting to know more about Powell’s motives, and about how his politics were clearly never defined by anything other than his own ambition. Powell was able to use the people of Wolverhampton as a platform and a focus, despite not being from here. He was extremely pro-Empire until he realised his career ambitions were getting more and more limited in that area, and so turned to domestic politics to try and carve a path to the top for himself. This is one of the things about 20th century political and social history that I find most fascinating: how the media has been used to fabricate social problems. The Victorian moral panic most certainly lives on! Powell’s speech and ideologies were printed in the local newspaper The Express and Star without any concrete challenge or scrutiny, and so it’s interesting to ponder how much this then went on to inform its readership. There’s no way to really assess the impact, as it can’t be assumed that the reading audience just passively accepted the viewpoints of the newspaper, but it has to have had an affect on public sentiment. With the Notting Hill riots occurring only a decade before, there is no doubt that tensions were indeed very high, and so whether publications were fuel for this, or a reflection of it, is a never-ending discussion.
Eleanor Smith MP then spoke about how far the West Midlands had come in terms of racism and integration. Perhaps she was a little simplistic at times, but I liked the optimism she has for our area and for how much we are capable of as a community. Of course, she is the embodiment of proof of Wolverhampton’s rejection of racism, because we elected her. That’s not to say that Wolverhampton can now be declared a Racist Free Zone (Brexit votes, anyone?) but I think Eleanor is right to celebrate the achievement without resting on laurels.
I really enjoyed the experience, and it was great to see Shirin’s work. Her style of presenting is very engaging, and her thoughts on how Powell fueled racism in Wolverhampton by pretending it was already widespread held particular relevance to the issues around xenophobia and racism that we are experiencing in our Brexit-driven environment. I look forward to her book!