The Difficulty of Nuance (October 2019)

I listen to BBC Radio 4 in the mornings and on school days I listen to it as I move from room to room conducting the personal admin required to deliver me in full scholarly regalia to Steel House. This means I collect disconnected fragments, and one of this week’s disconnected fragments was the news that BBC Sounds will be having a Beatles Season. They will play Beatles songs, talk about the Beatles and maybe even make the sorts of noises that a Beatle likes to hear (although only A.A. Milne and Melanie can reproduce these reliably). I’m not sure about these season thingies – don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of Beatles scholarship, but it sort of feels unnecessary – it’s not as if anyone is going to listen to this season and, never having engaged with them previously, discover the Beatles. If they’re going to have a season they should have a Jethro Tull season – I’m thinking about the 1970s professional flute botherers and progrock enthusiasts, but actually a season on the seventeenth century agricultural innovator would be pretty cool too. The Beatles though? They already get enough airtime.

Hmm, this introduction seems to have got away from me. Let me start again with a joke on subtlety that has been circulating the internet for the last decade or so. It’s old now, but it was new once.

Thank you to those of you who laughed – it’s difficult to pull that off in an assembly. In fact it’s difficult to convey nuance in an assembly at all – too subtle and you don’t notice, not subtle enough and it’s not nuance at all. This is a shame because I have it on good authority that the best essays, particularly the best personal investigations – shout out the the Pre-U folk – are niche, nerdy, and nuanced – a bit like my comment about A.A. Milne and Melanie. Nerdy because I was quoting a line from the fourth verse of a poem, niche, because the poem is an obscure A.A. Milne poem turned into a song by the obscure artist Melanie (it’s rather wonderful nonetheless, look it up), and nuanced because the beetle of the poem, Alexander, is a beetle with two es whilst the ubiquitous liverpudlians spell their name with an "ea".

Since we’re being niche this morning, I’d like to start (three paragraphs in – that’s nuance for you) with the Bantu expansion. This is an event of about three thousand years ago in which a group of people from what is now Cameroon spread out through Africa, as far as the Fish River in what is now South Africa displacing the tribes who had been living there. Most of Sub-saharan Africans are descended from this group – Nelson Mandela, for example, was Xhosa – a member of a Bantu tribe. The Bantu Expansion wasn’t what we’d now consider a war of conquest or imperial domination but it was almost certainly violent with the dominant group using advanced technology (in this case, agriculture) to overcome their opponents. I say almost certain, because there are no written records and no definitive archaeology: the reconstruction of the growth and dispersion of Bantu tribes is primarily done through comparative linguistics – which is a wonderful piece of nerdiness. One of the groups marginalised by the Bantu expansion was the pygmies of the Congo rainforest. They still exist as groups of hunter gatherers but their numbers are small, their land disappearing. They are also poorly treated – to a point that is arguably genocide: in the Republic of Congo, where pygmy and Bantu is the primary racial division, many pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters, and others have been hunted for meat as if they were game animals.

It’s difficult to be nuanced about genocide and getting too nerdy about it is more unpleasant than I like my assemblies to be so let’s move on to a Bantu kingdom of the middle ages. Between around 1000AD and 1450 some Bantu people, the Shona tribe, settled in central southern Africa and built large, magnificent, stone monuments and fortresses. These were called Zimbabwes: a word that has provided a name for the modern country that occupies this part of the continent. The largest and finest of these is called Great Zimbabwe – a city and palace with magnificent walls, the largest medieval stone construction of southern Africa, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a national monument. I haven’t been, but I’d like to. It’s an important part of Zimbabwe’s political history too, because in the sixties and seventies, when Zimbabwe was ruled by a racist government, the official line was that this could not have been built by the Shona people it must have been some group of whites – or possibly Arabs who did it. There is no evidence to support this thesis which was created to support the myth that black Africans were somehow primitive and unable to have organised kingdoms and large stone structures. Actually, though, the kingdom of Zimbabwe began after the collapse of the kingdom of Mapungubwe and survived for hundreds of years, based around its amazing capital, until it was conquered by the Kingdom of Mutapa which survived to be taken over by colonising Portugese and turned into Mozambique.

Further north, and later on, in the kingdom of Ethiopia – an area that was never part of the Bantu expansion – the Emperor Tewodros II ruled from 1855 to 1868. Like many empires, his ruled over different groups of people, not all of whom felt a natural loyalty to their overlord. He spent most of his reign putting down rebellion, quelling uprisings, and defending his land against invaders from the north. In 1862 he wrote to Queen Victoria, appealing to her as a fellow Christian monarch for military and technological help to repel the Muslim invaders. This letter was marked pending and filed for two years before being sent to India in order to be marked “not even pending”. The queen never saw it. In order to get her attention, Tewodros, who seems to have been getting erratic, imprisoned all the British and most of the Europeans who lived in his capital Magdala. The British sent an expeditionary force to rescue them which, in contrast to another such force sent to the Sudan to rescue General Gordon, was well organised and efficient. In 1868 the force travelled from India and marched hundreds of miles across mountainous terrain, finally fighting an open battle in front of Tewodros’ great fortress. Two British and about 700 Ethiopians died in what was a conclusive victory. Tewodros committed suicide, the British forces looted the palace (books, documents and artefacts taken from Magdala can be found in many of London’s museums and a statue to the commanding officer can be found in Trafalgar Square) and then they returned home.

This is enough niche History for one morning – but that it is niche, that I expect it will have been new to most of you is one of the reasons that Tirah are holding a Black History season. I’m thoroughly in favour of you learning more history but I feel that Black History Month as celebrated in other schools lacks nuance: it seems nonsense to lump the three stories I’ve told you, of Congolese pygmies, of Great Zimbabwe, and of Tewodros together simply because of some similarity in skin colour. I also worry that it’s a bit like Beatles season – at Harris Westminster we are not simply black or white, there are almost as many ethnicities as there are students, and to take a month focusing on one group raises the question of when are the months for other groups, groups who in our community are smaller and have less of a natural voice. When is Burmese History Month, or Mongolian, or Albanian – but I don’t want to go down that route, dividing us up into groups based on where our parents come from. If today’s stories show anything, it is that humanity is all alike: people can be wonderful or awful or both and no crude genetic grouping makes you any more likely to be one rather than the other. And so, instead, our school focus comes in January with Resilience for a better Tomorrow in which we consider all the ways in which humanity is broken up and in which one group belittles, or persecutes, or ignores another.

In October, instead, we have half-term, which is our season of vacation, a time when you don’t need to come into school, but in which you should still use your time wisely. Read books – if you enjoyed today’s assembly you might like Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman on the March, or, tangentially, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Why we should all be feminists. Rest, take joy, talk to people – my interest in Zimbabwe stems from conversations with my wife’s family, some of whom used to live there. And, finally, take this opportunity to review the half term, to look over what’s been covered, to reflect with pride on the vast quantity you’ve learned, and to respond, intelligently, strategically to the assessments and to the feedback you received. You have seventeen days without school and for the working part of those days, when you’re not enjoying the Beatles on BBC Sounds, 9-5 or thereabouts, you should read, rest, and review – in equal measure.