What did Mary Seacole ever do for us as black people?

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YEARS AGO Patrick Vernon’s Every Generation did a famous survey to discover who was the greatest black Briton. Mary Seacole topped the poll. No disrespect to her, but she didn’t think much of her darker skinned brothers and sisters. Read her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole In Many Lands if you don’t believe me.

I wonder how different that poll would have been if it had been only open to black Britons.

The thing about Mary Seacole is that white Britons love her even more than we do. To them it makes no difference that she used the ‘n’ word to describe black people who were not, unlike her, a ‘high yellow’ in colour. To them she was simply the unsung hero of the Crimean War and did more than any other black person ever to relieve the suffering of British soldiers. Indeed, the conclusion of her ‘wonderful adventures’ is a series of testaments by members of the British military establishment acknowledging her service.

So we could reasonably ask, what did Mary Seacole ever do for us?

Surely the answer is ‘nothing’. Absolutely nothing. Was she not the house negro that Malcolm X so dismissively illustrated? The enslaved African who loved his massa more than massa loved himself. And where the field negro would go and pray for a strong wind to burn down the plantation, the house negro would risk his own life to put the fire out on behalf of massa.

Are there not echoes of the house negro about Mary Seacole?

HERO: Bristol bus boycott hero Paul Stephenson

And is it not a sign of our desperation as a marginal demographic group in Britain that we have to cling on to someone as our greatest black hero who hasn’t done anything tangibly for black people except be the most loved black person amongst white Britons? That is some desperation, I tell you.


So when a well meaning group such as the Mary Seacole Appeal begs for funds to build a permanent memorial to the nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital in London I, for one, feel queasy about contributing. I feel it is the British army and the British state that the appeal should be aimed at. Not black people. It is the army and state who should feel that they owe this ‘black’ woman a posthumous ‘debt’. It is not us the sons and daughters of Africa who should feel guilty about not being able to raise the tens of thousands such a permanent memorial in the form of a statue would cost. It is the prime minister and his government.

No, if we are to talk about greatest black Britons we would have to consider a stalwart such as Dr Paul Stephenson, OBE who was the man who organised the bus boycott of Bristol when the racist bus company there was refusing to hire any black people. He is a real hero; our Rosa Parks. Why he has not become Sir Paul Stephenson or Lord Stephenson is a disgrace not only to the British government but to us the people who benefitted from his selfless act, which came at great cost to himself. We are yet to honour him in the way that befits a true giant.

If readers of one tabloid can mount a campaign to get a geriatric game show host a knighthood then what about the readers of The Voice?

Thankfully Dr Stephenson is still with us and there is still time for David Cameron to recognise his immense contribution to race relations in this country. Ask for donations for a permanent memorial to Paul Stephenson and I will be the first one in the queue with my credit card details.

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