Maxwell A. Ayamba is a PhD Research Student in Black Studies in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham. His research explores the lived experience of people of African ancestry’s access and use of the Peak District National Park using a comparative study of two cities, Sheffield and Derby. This reflective piece is about how some of the themes of the workshops he attended were relevant to his ongoing research.

Image credit: Mike Peel

The historical presence of people of Black African descent in the British rural countryside remains neglected and little documented. However, Miranda Kaufmann in Black Tudoors: The Untold Story (2017) provides an evocative and convincing picture of the lives of black men and women in Renaissance England. She argues, ‘the Africans who came to England in that era did not only a find meaningful place in English society such as London or Bristol but also in rural areas, for instance, Cattelena, an African woman lived in the Gloucestershire countryside’. [1] Onyeka Nubia’s Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins further documents Black people in rural England, providing evidence the African presence during the medieval period. [2] As the play Black Men Walking explores, the Black Roman Emperor Septimius Severus marched with his soldiers along a trail known as the Old Roman Road in the Peak District National Park. Such stories constitute an important historical narrative, however rural Britain is often typically perceived as a ‘white landscape’, historically and predominantly inhabited by white people. I argue this has led to the notion of racial ‘purity’ becoming associated with rural areas, with urban areas becoming aligned with racial diversity. Trevor Phillips, the former Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, referred to the rural countryside space as ‘passive apartheid’ on BBC News in October 2004, highlighting a problem which had already been identified in 1992. The ‘Keep them in Birmingham’ report by Eric Jay was one of the first official reports into rural racism, revealing how widespread racism exists in rural spaces, resulting in a contested sense of belonging for people of colour. [3]

As a Black academic, I believe that the erasure of the histories of the Black presence in rural Britain feeds into the prevailing narrative of the rural countryside as a ‘white space’. We need a new narrative that acknowledges the historical legacies of Black people in the British countryside. Understanding how ‘race’, legacies of enslavement, colonialism and post-colonialism impact on how Black people as a racialised category are perceived in national parks as spaces within the British countryside is crucial in order to represent a fuller picture of Black British identities.

My doctoral research, therefore, explores landscapes as places of identity and belonging, as well as the discursive power of rurality. As a keen walker, I seek to understand my lived experience more deeply through one of my flagship initiatives: the 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group which I co-founded in 2004. The group went on to inspire a piece of theatre Black Men Walking by Eclipse and Royal Theatre in 2018 and 2019. Though the ethos of the group was to “walk and talk” in the British countryside to improve our health and wellbeing, little did I know this act also constituted a political statement to reclaim our rights to roam the land that our Black ancestors walked before us. To quote characters in the play: ‘We walk. Though we are written into the landscape you don’t see us. We walked England before the English.’ [4] To many of Britain’s eight million minorities, the countryside still appears something of a middle-class white space. This perception is one of the reasons why Black Men Walking was a hit across theatres in England. Racism impacts how Black people access national parks while the mythology of ‘whiteness’’ associated with the rurality of the British countryside allows ‘race’, racism and whiteness to be mapped out onto British national parks.

As a member of the Black health and the humanities network, these ideas have been at the forefront of my mind during our workshops. It became apparent how challenging it is researching ‘race’ and how racist actions impact on lives of Black people, whether in education, health, environment, housing, or in terms of policing. The workshops I attended made me question how we situate the ontology of the raced ‘Other’ as Black academics in the everyday discourse of our research. This question is fundamental to my research from the perspective of understanding Black bodies in spaces that historically have been constructed as white. In workshop four, Amanda Thomson talked about how she uses her creative practice to fuse traditional and digital printmaking techniques, photography, bookmaking, video sound and creative non-fiction. She explores how we are located (and locate ourselves) in the world, paying attention to the nature, flora and fauna rooted in the highlands of Scotland.

Thomson’s talk helped me to reflect on what it means to feel remote in a ‘rural idyll’, which in the case of England, is a romanticized space idealised in the media, literature, film and painting. Rural spaces permeate coffee table books which show myriad woodland villages and romanticised Shakespearean countryside. These images maintain picture-perfect illustration of the rural idyll that is far from reality. Such constructs of rural spaces are powerful because they shape public perceptions on what the countryside is actually like and what it should be like in the eyes of ‘white’ British people. I was therefore drawn to Amanda’s talk as it had parallels with my own work on English National Parks and their potential as spaces to create a sense of belonging and identity. My work considers how national parks construct a ruralised place-based identity connected to ‘whiteness’ which underpins parks as sites of Englishness. By drawing on field data, I explore how such narratives of ‘whiteness’ and space give rise to attitudes and practices that have an exclusionary effect on Black people. For example, interviewees have received comments such as ‘oh, that’s a lot of your kind out here today,’ constituting some of the racists acts experienced by them when walking in national parks.

The English countryside has always been a space of historical contestation from the Commons when English people had an entitlement to the land. However, these rights were taken away from them during implementation of the Enclosure Acts in 1773 when land became owned only by the crown, aristocracy, gentry and church, resulting in access issues and the right to roam lands classed as forbidden resulting in the Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932. In Contested Countryside (1997) Paul Cloke and Jo Little,[5]  citing Sibley (1995) to argue that traditional visions of English rural life clearly exclude a host of ‘others’ from a countryside hegemony based on idyllic villages, and a certain conservative Englishness. Wellings alludes to this assertion in ‘Cobbett’s rural rides’, that since the founding of the National Trust in 1895, the English countryside became synonymous with representations of conservatism. This, as he points out, has led to an ideological representation of cultural conservatism in the form of rural nostalgia around the cultural habitus of country dwellers cladded in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies. [6] This became the culture, with Cotswoldian elites representing what the English countryside has come to stand for. Similarly, Wright[7] argues the construction of Englishness fails to take into account the hybridity of its early history, which includes the impact of its imperial racial map. He argues that preservationists from the nineteenth century onwards continued to conflate the English countryside with a white, English, rural upper middle-class. This led to oppositional discourses that artificially divide the city from the countryside.

Another of the Black Health and the Humanities workshops prompted me to consider how remnants of colonialism, British country houses, shape Black people’s experiences of the countryside. The third workshop involved a session led by Lynette Goddard on ‘Performing the Afterlives of Enslavement: Black Women’s Playwriting and the Politics of self-care’. In it, we reflected on the legacies of enslavement in Selina Thompson’s play salt, inspired by the playwright’s journey across the transatlantic slave triangle to retrace the steps of her ancestors. I found this resonated with Black Men Walking, where characters walk the English countryside to reconnect with and honour the spirits of their ancestors who walked the land before them. As Thomas, one of the characters, explains during a hike: ‘Not far from where we are, is the Roman Road. Further along over there is Fenny Lane. These are ancient trackways, you see? Once these roads were established all sorts would’ve used them. And these figures from history would’ve walked where we walk. We’d be passers-by! On the exact same path we’re on now. Think of it. Black Yorkshire! We’ve had black people here for centuries’.

On a field trip a few years back I visited the statue of the kneeling Black man at Durham Massesy Hall, near Altrincham, England which depicts an African man holding a sundial. Formerly the home of the Earl of Warrington, Dunham Massey is now in the hands of the National Trust. The sundial recently caused controversy because it used to sit in the most prominent position imaginable at Dunham Massey, right outside the front door. The figure is considered a survivor of what was then a popular motif in eighteenth-century art. A notice next to it read: ‘This sundial is in the style of one commissioned by King William III. It represents Africa, one of four continents known at the time. The figure depicts a Moor, not a slave, and he has knelt here since before 1750.’ The ‘Blackamoor’ was removed and put into storage just four days after the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol; the National Trust had to seek retrospective planning permission for this action.

The ‘Blackamoor’ figure has been expertly restored and now stands in a prominent place in the wonderful conservatory at Wentworth, in a way which now shines a light on the history of empire and colonialism. The Blackamoor figure has this updated notice: ‘Sir Thomas Wentworth helped to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. This international treaty confirmed Britain as the most important commercial power in Europe. It included a lucrative monopoly over the Atlantic slave trade. Wentworth represented this in his house and gardens, including a statue of a kneeling African man supporting a sundial that now stands in the conservatory. Like many of his contemporaries, Wentworth made a great deal of money from the sale and labour of enslaved Africans. This human misery helped pay for the house and gardens he built’. Many Black people could be unaware of this history. Seeing the sundial of the kneeling Black man on my visit made me reflect on the kind of inhumane treatment that my Black ancestors might have experienced. I question if by contextualising the statue, the National Trust have done enough to raise public awareness of this past history. The Mirror quotes a spokeswoman of the National Trust: ‘The statue has caused upset and distress because of the way it depicts a black person and because of its prominence at the front of the house. We don’t want to censor or deny the way colonial histories are woven into the fabric of our buildings” (2021). However, the Trust did not proceed to explain why this historical knowledge has been denied and refuted, contributing to the structural and institutional forms of racism upon which Black people face daily in British society.

In conclusion, the narrative about the historical presence of Black people and how they are depicted in Britain has not changed enough. The example of the sundial being displayed, hidden, and then displayed again indicates the contentious place of Black people in the history of the British countryside. On the other hand, the kneeling Black man figure now shines a light on the histories of empire and colonialism. That alone is a revelation of the place of Black people in the countryside, and our relationship to the legacy of British colonialism and slavery. Obviously, the past connects to the present, as seen in the Black Lives Matter Uprising in May 2020, where members of the National Front hoisted a ‘white lives matter’ banner on Ben Nevis and Mam Tor in the Peak District National Park to counter the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest. My research will ultimately centre Black people to reframe the countryside as a space where we belong.

[1] Kaufmann, Miranda. 2017. Black Tudors: The Untold Story. OneWorld.

[2] Nubia, Onyeka. 2013, Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins, Narrative Eye Ltd.

[3] Jay, Eric. 1992. “Keep Them in Birmingham”. Commission for Racial Equality, London.

[4] Testament. 2018. Black Men Walking. Oberon Books London.

[5] Cloke, Paul, and Little, Jo. 1997. Contested Countryside Cultures. Routledge.

[6] Wellings, Ben. 2001. “Empire-nation: National and Imperial Discourses in England”, School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, (accessed 15/03/2022).

[7] Wright, Colin. 2007. ‘Conservative Purity, Labouring The Past – A Tropological Evolution of Englishness’ Empire and After – Englishness in Post-Colonial Perspective, in Graham MacPhee and Prem Poddar, Oxford: Bergahm.