Reflections on Black Lives Matter

SELHuG Secretary Tony Brewer continues the discussion on Black Lives Matter started in last month. We welcome letters or further contributions on this subject, just email

During the lockdown I have enjoyed several of the streamed productions from the likes of the National Theatre and Royal Opera House in London & the Metropolitan Opera in New York. One of these was Les Blancs.

This play was conceived by Lorraine Hansberry, a young African-American writer, in the 1960s. Due to her untimely death in 1965 she never finished it but it was prepared for performance by her ex-husband.

The play is set in an unnamed African country, under British colonial rule, on the eve of an independence insurgency. The action takes place in and around a mission hospital set up by well-meaning Europeans some years previously. The principal character is Tshembe Matoseh, a young African who received his early education from the missionaries and completed it in Europe. For him, ‘home’ is England with his white wife and son. He has returned to his village for his father’s funeral. Initially he doesn’t want to get involved in liberation politics – ‘I have renounced all spears’. He supports the standard liberal argument that discussion and negotiation between people of good will is the best route to progress. However he is persuaded that, because years of patient diplomacy by African representatives has achieved no progress towards freedom and self-government, then more radical action is needed. Riots, fires & even murders are becoming more common.

The colonial position is represented by Major George Rice, a settler who has grown up in Africa and who now commands the local police force. He argues that it’s the whites – Les Blancs – who have developed the agriculture and exploited the mineral wealth so they have a right to the land. For him, ‘home’ is here in Africa. His attitude is summarised by the comment ‘I don’t hate the blacks, just so long as they know their place’. By implication, that place is subservient to the whites. This position is epitomised by Peter, by day the obsequious head servant in the mission but at night an active revolutionary.

By the end of the play Tshembe has joined the insurgency, has murdered his brother who, perceived as a ‘fellow traveller’, is training to be a priest, Major Rice has shot Peter & the mission has been torched. The message is clearly that liberal reasonableness is futile & that only violence brings results. Power trumps persuasion.

By coincidence, the following morning I read a leader in The Economist headed ‘A New Ideology of Race’. It explained that this ideology, which is emerging in American universities, rejects the liberal idea of progress & instead ‘defines everyone by their race & every action as racist or anti-racist’. The leader argues that, if this new ideology ‘supplants liberal values then intimidation will chill open debate & sow division, to the disadvantage of all, both black & white’.

So where should humanists stand? In describing ourselves we say every person has agency & the responsibility to use it for the common good. Further, we say that our actions should be based on evidence, reason & empathy. There is plenty of evidence: clearly, for those in power in the United States black lives don’t matter. According to the Economist ‘one third of black boys born in 2001 will probably spend time locked up compared with 1 in 17 white boys. In 1968 black households earned around 60 per cent as much as white households’. The situation in the UK is not that much better. So what do we think is the best way forward – should we support the liberal policy of recognising the human dignity of every person & push for legal, civil & moral equality for all people. Or should we be less idealistic & more realistic, recognising that while white politics holds the whip hand the best to be hoped for is only very slow & reluctant progress, so more radical action is required. We must decide where we stand.

(We will be discussing this issue of power v persuasion again at our forthcoming October meeting in the context of climate change. Robin Launder will be putting the case for Extinction Rebellion.)