I was born in the Black Country, a region in England, west of Birmingham, and so were generations of my family before me. For those of you who don’t know, although the ‘exact’ boundaries of the Black Country are regularly disputed, it is generally accepted that the four metropolitan boroughs of Walsall, Sandwell, Dudley and Wolverhampton constitute the locality, today. Folklore dictates that the area took its name from the thick, black smog that idled across the region’s skies during the industrial revolution, a sight that prompted Queen Victoria to request her curtains be closed each time she passed through, what became known as, Britain’s industrial heartland. My favourite reading of the Black Country, however, is one that is less forlorn and offered in Francis Brett Young’s fictional novel Cold Harbour, which paints an elegant landscape, one that emerges from the labour of the industrial revolution:
The high ground along which the road ran fell away through a black, woody belt, and beyond it, for more miles than you can imagine, lay the whole basin of the Black Country, clear, amazingly clear, with innumerable smokestacks rising out of it like the merchant shipping of the world laid up in an estuary at low tide, each chimney flying a great pennant of smoke that blew away eastward by the wind, and the whole scene bleared by the light of a sulphurous sunset. No one need ever tell me again that the Black Country isn’t beautiful.
Surprisingly, serious and focused explorations of the Black Country have, in recent times, been infrequent. There are, however, abundant historical accounts of the Black Country and its customs and peoples, most of which read as chronicles, commissioned to record the region’s supposed coherent character: local people’s pride in its industrial landscape; a predominantly working-class community and culture; a geographical, linguistic and cultural independence, especially from nearby Birmingham; a belief in ‘community spirit’; an inimitable local cuisine; a unique sense of humour; and a distinct accent and regional dialect are all characteristics of ‘authentic Black Countryness’.
Despite a supposedly stable regional personality, local man, Phil Drabble, later of One Man and His Dog fame, warned most bluntly in the 1950s “the Black Country is fast becoming no more than a memory. For one thing it is no longer black”. Others, too, have expressed concern about the impending “extinction” of the Black Country and its rich industrial heritage and regional identity. Indeed, given the economies of the area are less and less reliant on those factories that produced the fumes which gave the region its name, it is easy to see how the idea of the Black Country might have limited significance for residents of the area, today. However, seemingly spurred on by such observations, a number of Black Country conservationist movements have arisen. From the Black Country Society and the Black Country Living Museum to, more recent innovations such as, the Black Country flag and Black Country Festival, the region is well served by a community of people invested deeply in its continuation.
As a proud Black Country ‘mon’, and as a scholar of contemporary Black Country identity, during my most recent research project into Black Country identities, I made a number of observations, which I would like to share with fellow regional enthusiasts. My first point relates to the sheer volume of books and resources available on the region dedicated to and catering for the nostalgia market. Book upon book, page upon page, historical accounts and black and white photographs featuring predominantly white working class men saturate the literature on the Black Country. The lack of up-to-date contemporary geographical, social and/ or cultural research and resources means the Black Country of today is relatively unknown and undocumented.
My second point relates to the contemporary conservationist movement, which operates alongside and arguably emerges from the region’s libraries of nostalgia, and its cultural crusade to ‘save’ the Black Country, by emphasising its historical significance. While I certainly do not object to the central organising principle of this mission – quite the contrary, I support the sentiment of such an endeavour – I am however concerned by its focus on and tendency to romanticise the industrial revolution. The Black Country flag, for instance, is the perfect emblem of this epoch and the kind of Black Country the traditionalists want to breath life into; thus it is a useful place to begin to expand my second point. The Black Country flag, according to the 12-year-old girl who designed it, is supposed to symbolise the ironworkers who made chains, how the region was black by day and red by night and the Red House Glass Cone which was used for the production of glass. The flag pays homage to the past and says very little of the Black Country many of us live in now. A past that is often conveniently and rather romantically constructed as some kind of industrial working class haven. However, although I do not wish to deny the significance of such readings as markers of ‘heritage’, to me the Black Country, surely has to be more than simply its past given so many identify with it today?
Because of the anchoring of dominant understandings of the Black Country in yesteryear, I understand Patrick Vernon OBE’s comments and his frustration at how the flag is yet further evidence of how “we shy away from” certain aspects of our past, such as the slave trade. I, too, can see how the linked chains on the flag might be the result of a curriculum and cultural heritage uncritical of the region’s links to (white and black) slavery. Irrefutably, the evidence is there to link the region, and even its chains, to slavery. Now, this is certainly not to say that those who celebrate the flag are apologists for slavery or racist bigots, or that all of the people of the region at the time supported the slave trade; to reduce the debate to this level, as have a number of politicians and media, is wrong, divisive and dangerous. It is however to say, if our goal truly is to unite a population of circa one million people under a banner, we should be alarmed by the divisive and vitriolic condemnation of Vernon, a black Black Country man, which ensued after he dared remind us of the region’s links to the slave trade.
I found the backlash, stoked by the populist rhetoric of the Express and Star newspaper, against Vernon to be terribly ‘un-Black Country’ in that it goes against a number of stalwart tenants of the Black Country character historically rooted understandings ask us to be proud of: respect, solidarity and community. Most alarming in its quickness to contravene these unwritten regional social codes, was the response of Sandwell Council’s Darren Cooper, a white man, who told a black man: “It is simply wrong to say the flag is offensive”. Yes that’s right. A white man told a black man, whose ancestors were recorded as “chattels” (e.g. personal possessions), what he can and cannot find offensive. Other responses from posts by readers of the Express and Star were even more shocking:
If Chains are a symbol of slavery and therefore offensive, should we also find Cotton offensive since it was picked by slaves?
Mr Vernon, please leave my country alone [my emphasis], you might possibly have been born in England but you certainly have no tradition.
People like Vernon make me sick. No one would ever think of this flag as a symbol of racism except someone like him
Why dont you go after the people who were making money from the slave trade, and leave alone the hard working people of the black country who were just doing what they could to survive.
If their is no racist problem they will prod and poke until there is one. How dare he call the Black Country and its good people racist. Grow up.
if [Mr Vernon’s family] are not prepared to accept our history and heritage, warts and all, then they are quite free to leave as I really cant understand why they are living here.
For the rest of the folk here in the Black Country, we see the flag representing our past industrial heritage, nothing more. if you CHOOSE to read more into the flag, that’s YOUR problem, but don’t try and make it OUR problem.
The point here must be that barely any of the coverage or responses engaged with Vernon’s main argument, which was, not to call anyone racist (given there is no such mention of the word in his communications on the issue) but, to ask us enthusiasts to accept, simply, the Black Country, was a place that profited from the slave trade, which undeniably parts of it did. And where there is an engagement there is a startling willingness to trivialise slavery, deny its severity, read allegations of racism into his comments and for respondents simply to “CHOOSE” to refuse the evidence. As Mairtin Mac an Ghaill would have it, there is a curious aspect of the British condition which causes selective amnesia, especially when something such as morally repugnant as slavery is attached to a region many construct their sense of self around.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the region needs a flag, despite howls from local MPs that assert it has brought together the region’s diverse communities. There is no evidence whatsoever to support these claims and, as such, they are at best anecdotal. As a son of the region, I’m able to make sense of it without a flag. The Black Country I feel apart of today is relevant to me because it helps mark a contemporary economic, linguistic, geographic and cultural independence from the rest of the world (especially Birmingham). My sense of belonging to the region owes only a very small amount to old iron ore production or chain-making; rather, my pride is found mainly in the Black Country’s multicultural and multifaith communities, who live peacefully together, and how it welcomed my father’s family when they arrived from Italy in the 1950s. Thus, while I acknowledge the Black Country’s links to the slave trade – a legacy we must accept alongside the region’s more positive artefacts, and teach to future generations, so they are not doomed to repeat it – this does not prevent me from identifying with the area and its peoples and cultures today, nor does it require me to hold ill feeling toward Vernon as a show of some sort of obligatory regionalist patriotism.
Having researched Black Country folks’ allegiance to the Black Country in some detail, my advice to those who wish to keep this strand of regionalism alive is to reach out to a wider demographic whose labour histories do not extend as far back into the geographical Black Country as others. To acknowledge the less savory aspects of the region’s history, without the fear it will somehow render the Black Country conservationist project morally bankrupt, is vitally important if we are to work towards a plural understanding of what it meanings to be from the Black Country today. A strategy I see as more progressive and inclusive. If we do not, the kind of Black Country the flag symbolizes – a world which no longer exists – will begin to resonate only with those who were raised on a diet of ‘faggots and peas’, and increasingly there are less and less of those people about. In simple terms I am arguing here for us to think collectively, across the region, geographically and ethnically, about the Black Country as a place rooted in the here and now, a region as much about the ‘Balti Mile’ as it is pork scratchings. Only that way will the region avoid its cultural boarders eventually regressing into the Black County Living Museum. I’m not sure if these culinary icons are suitable for any future incarnations of the Black Country flag but, on a serious note, they do speak to a need to move past icons of white labour histories as sole ‘authentic’ regional markers and to focus more on the multiple ways we might interpret Black Country identities today, whatever our gender, ethnicity or labour histories.