Wednesday, 26 October 2016
ON BLACK MINERS IN eNGLAND
African and Asian people in this country didn't know that there were many non-white miners here. It didn't impact the depth and passion of our support to the striking miners. African and Asian migrant communities in England gave massive disproportionate support to the Miners in this country when they went on strike in the early 1970s and then again in the historic strike of 1984-'85.
Although many Miners were openly racist towards us, a racism depicted in many documentaries on the subject, African and Asian people saw the Miners as oppressed people by the same oppressors who were targeting us, and despite their racism as long as their struggle was directed against the state, we supported it with great enthusiasm. Miners who were racist would see our people and think all manner of racist shit about us, but many of these racists had to accept that we gave them a lot of solidarity, concrete direct support and love. Was this ever reciprocated? Not really, apart from a few moments that were very limited in many ways anyway like Arthur Scargill supporting the Asian women strikers at Grunwick.
Arthur Scargill especially had a relatively deeper understanding of racism and imperialism than many other trade union leaders. Coming from the most militant trade union, Scargill could appreciate a bit more than others what racism and imperialism is all about. But the limitation to that and the contradictions of someone like Scargill has also always seen him take UK nationalist positions, albeit from a left posture, such as opposing immigration to this country and his advocacy of Brexit and being in a deeply problematic alliance therefore with right wing and far right political forces.
I personally was a leader of Scargill's party - the Socialist Labour Party - for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Scargill was and is to some extent one of the greatest radical socialist orators, but also someone who has never managed to shed the constraints of UK nationalism. Has anyone of the English left who has any leading position and is white ever thoroughly overcome this problem? I don't think so. Scargill would proudly speak, as he still does, of being the son of Irish immigrants. There is a major problem in this country of people of immigrant heritage, especially Irish who now generations later as residents of England have adopted too much whiteness and racism, something that Bernadette MacAliskey raised in the context of Irish people in the six counties. How can one be the child of immigrants and support the growing vicious anti-migrant project that is Brexit? Perhaps only one that has internalised racism and UK nationalism.
Despite a few comments over the decades, I never knew about Black miners in this country. Many of them were in Nottingham, the Nottingham area NUM infamously sold-out the strike in the 1980s. The Black miners were put into a very tough situation whereby they were on the bottom of the ladder amongst their workmates, and also in society and in relation to the police. Also from the article below, you can see how difficult it was for them to navigate the complex terrain of racism in their lives in relation especially to their work, colleagues and industrial disputes. Some of the stuff in the article below is just terrible: only being respected when you are in the pits, but on the surface the white colleagues stick to the other whites and the racist abuse towards the Black colleagues is ignored by the Black workers as they didn't want tensions down the pit. Horrible dehumanising stuff. And as the NUM banner shows, 'brothers under the surface', but above the surface?!
However, there must have been other non-white miners across the country, and having known more about these brothers, if African and Asian communities knew about them and that they were celebrated, it would have deepened the working class struggle of African and Asian people trying to develop a consistently and militantly anti-racist united working class movement. However, the problem is that this has never been achieved despite some level and partial amounts of unity achieved here and there. The fact that these non-white miners are hardly known and never became a part of the working class culture in this country shows how powerful racism is that through a silent white supremacist violence kept this reality hidden and suppressed. And even the Irish heritage of working class communities here has been battered by racism to such an extent that many Irish heritage working class people in this country their political actions and analysis can often be hardly counter distinguished from racist white english people.
In a context of growing Brexit fascism and racism, we have to do all that we can to positively assert these realities and Resist racism in the UK state and from amongst vast swathes of its population.
Sukant Chandan, Sons of Malcolm
How Britain’s black miners are reclaiming their place in history
Thousands of black miners worked in Britain’s pits from the 1950s onward – and a new project has discovered that while racism was accepted above ground, deep underground there was no divide
One of the things that attracted Fitzalbert Taylor to becoming a coal miner was the warmth. “It was like I’d emigrated to a different country down there,” says the 88-year-old. “It was so warm. When I was in the building trade, I couldn’t feel my arms or my legs – donkey jacket, two pairs of trousers and you were still cold.”
Taylor moved to the UK from Jamaica in 1954 when he was 26, and spent 25 years working as a miner. Now he has joined about 20 men who are involved in a project that aims to record the experiences of black miners in the UK – Coal Miners of African Heritage: Narratives from Nottinghamshire.
The project will produce a collection of audio recordings and oral histories, along with a booklet to help preserve and share the miners’ stories. The initiative’s founder, historian Norma Gregory, says the role black miners played in the history of British mining industry has been badly neglected. “I’ve searched through so many books, films and archives, with the help of volunteers, and I’ve found very few mentions of miners of other nationalities,” she says.
Gregory is also working with the BBC to produce a programme about the history of black miners, due to be broadcast later this year.
Depictions of Britain’s industrial history tend to focus on white working-class communities, but Gregory’s research into Nottinghamshire’s mining industry has revealed communities of miners from Italy, Lithuania and Poland, as well as the Caribbean islands.
It’s important to recognise that “this country wasn’t built by one set of people”, says Gregory. There are no reliable records of how many non-white miners worked in British mines but Gregory estimates that between the early 50s and the late 80s there were nearly 1,000 men of African-Caribbean origin working in Nottinghamshire mines at any one time. Collieries did not keep records of workers’ ethnicity, and when pits started closing in the 1980s personnel documents were often destroyed, leaving researchers like Gregory to rely on former miners to suggest possible interviewees.
Garrey Mitchell started working at Gedling colliery in Nottingham in 1975, aged 17, and worked there until 1986, when he left to start his own business. He got the job because the manager had known his father, who was also a miner, and who had emigrated from Jamaica in the early 50s. “We were very united down there. You had to be,” says Mitchell. “You had to watch each others’ backs. Colour didn’t come into it. We were all on one level.”
“Once you came back on to the surface and had a shower, then the white folks would stick to themselves and the black folks would stick to themselves,” says Mitchell. “But when you were down there, you were automatically united, because you knew you were all in the same boat.”
Gedling colliery – where many of Gregory’s interview subjects worked – employed men from 15 countries and was described as the “pit of nations” in a 1967 Daily Mirror report. In the 60s, 10% of the pit’s 1,400-strong workforce was thought to have hailed from the Caribbean, and the colliery’s union banner showed a black miner alongside two white colleagues above the words “Brothers beneath the surface”.
The harmony depicted on the banner, however, did not represent race relations in Nottinghamshire. On 23 August 1958, the city saw a 1,000-person-strong race riot, a precursor to the violence that erupted in London’s Notting Hill a week later. Eight people were hospitalised and the Nottingham Evening Post wrote that Nottingham had become like “a slaughterhouse”.
Cole says his introduction to the city in the early 60s wasn’t particularly pleasant. “There were teddy boys with bicycle chains,” he says. “From six o’clock you couldn’t go out, because they would kick you left, right and centre.” While racial tension was simmering over on the streets, it does not feature much in the accounts from below ground. When a colleague used a racial slur against Cole, the colliery manager told the offender to apologise immediately and threatened to sack him. The men report that opportunities for promotion were limited because of their skin colour, and Mitchell says black miners generally brushed off racist comments by colleagues: “There was no use having friction, because it would give a bad atmosphere and [that was] the last thing you wanted.”
When the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike in 1972 and 1974, black miners in Nottingham joined their colleagues on the picket line. However, along with 73% of their fellow Nottinghamshire miners, most did not strike during the 1984-85 strike.
“I stood side by side with the miners who were on strike,” says Mitchell, who did strike in the 80s. “You had to stand with your colleagues, you couldn’t let them down.”
Taylor recalls being asked to stand at the front of the picket line during a strike in the 70s. “If the policemen had seen me at the front, [a black man], you can just imagine how they would have hit me,” he says. “I’d been in this country too long not to know what was going off.”
In an interview with Gregory, Taylor said that the experience persuaded him that industrial action was not for “us black men”. “After the 1972 strike, I said I was never going on a picket line again,” he said.
Many of the ex-miners now suffer from long-term health issues such as emphysema, pneumoconiosis, or “black lung” (coal dust in the lungs), and chronic bronchitis. “It was hard work, because you had to be on your hands and knees,” says Cole, who fractured his hip bone in an accident. “My body was knackered, but it was worth it, because it was secure [work].”
Taylor was forced to take seven months off work after an accident left him with a broken helmet, a “bust head” and a broken jaw. “I didn’t know how bad it was until I resumed work and one of the men said to me: ‘Albert, when you came up that day and I looked at you, I thought you were dead.’”
The project seeks to redress a historical oversight. “I went on the internet to find out about black miners in Britain and there was nothing at all. I was very surprised. We’ve just been left out,” says Mitchell. “I feel hurt by it all, because black people contributed a lot to the mining industry.”