Interview with Lisa Williams, creator of Black History Walking Tours

2020 was the year the statues came down. Throughout the summer, as demonstrations erupted over the senseless murder of George Floyd and the racist structures that define our social and justice systems, protestors across the world tore down the racist monuments that line our streets, from Confederate soldiers in the Southern United States to imperialist leaders across Europe. As each statue came down, the history behind it made loud and visible, the pervasive ways in which our cityscapes are constructed by and around racism was thrown into sharp relief.

For Lisa Williams, founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association and creator of its Black History Walking Tours, recognising the often unspoken histories contained within these monuments is a crucial step towards acknowledging and reckoning with the legacies of colonialism and racial capitalism that continue to this day. “There was a man who had been on one of my tours who said, ‘I cannot look at Edinburgh in the same way now. Because when I’m walking around The Royal Mile I’m now thinking about those young people who were held as enslaved people’,” Williams considers. “People are really shocked by how many Edinburgh men were involved in heading up massacres and genocide: not just Scottish men who were head of the military but actually from Edinburgh itself. Scotland’s over-represented on the compensation and list of former enslavers – not massively but significantly. Edinburgh’s over-represented on that list, and the New Town is over-represented on that list”.

For Williams, the Black History Walking Tours are a way of unpicking the deliberate erasure not only Scotland’s participation in the slave trade and colonialism but also the lives and legacies of the Black and Asian people who were caught in its wake. “I don’t like it when people turn around and call my tours the slavery tour,” Williams says firmly. “They’re not slavery tours”.

Instead, the tours and talks that Williams gives work just as much to highlight the construction of historical biases as they do the racist construction of the city-scape. “I did a talk about race and the Scottish Enlightenment for the National Library, because when I went into their Enlightenment exhibition earlier on the year, there was barely any mention of the intellectual construction of these pseudo-scientific ideas of race,” Williams explains. “So I gave a talk, and it shocked the people in the National Library. Because they don’t know necessarily about Black intellectual critique, or Black Enlightenment scholars, [or]…the significance of, let’s say, Islamic scholars coming from somewhere like Timbuktu, extremely well-read and well-respected being enslaved”.

In this way, Williams offers a reconfiguration of historical race relations that challenges the very ways in which our understanding of race has been received. “If we’re talking the last 250 or 300 years, people […] just made up these mad ideas, because they decided that they wanted to classify people into brown, yellow, red and white,” Williams says. “And then that became the standard book that was been built on by another scholar. But people [need to] understand that these ideas were interrogated at the time. We’re not putting the present lens on the past. All of these things were highly controversial at the time depending on who and where and what your interests were”.

Confronting Scotland’s specific history is also crucial in order to complicate the easy, preconceived narratives we have been handed down. “Scotland has a very peculiar, unusual context, in that it has been – I don’t say colonised because I don’t agree that it has been colonised,” Williams considers. “But Scotland has suffered: people knowing that their grandmother was beaten at school for speaking Gaelic, or the loss and banning of certain important cultural symbols like tartan and bagpipes. I encourage people to develop empathy for those who have been through similar experiences at a much more extreme version”.

It is this empathy, this rejection of individualistic perspectives, that is central to seeing and coming to terms with the past for what it really was. “I think that we’re lacking in skills of nonviolent communication and dialogue,” Williams sighs. “I think we are trained by our education system to have debates that we feel we have got to win, and it means we’re not listening to the other side. All that has got to shift, we need to have empathetic dialogue, and we [need to] move away from even using words like pride and shame.

“This is where it’s difficult in Scotland because people are holding onto their identity, and it is tied up with independence and having to have pride in a nation,” Williams continues. “I think we need to unpick all that and maybe even do away with it. It’s not helpful, and it stops people from investigating and having mature conversations”.

Yet for all that is left to do, Williams remains deeply hopeful about the future. “Having talked to certain curators and certain institutions over the years, there have been people inside who have been wanting to make change but as an institution, they haven’t been able to do it. I think the bolder these organizations are, other people will follow, because it gives them permission. This fear about potentially alienating their core audiences is starting to shift quite a bit. And I’ve been really pleased by the response,” she adds enthusiastically. “At the beginning when I set it up, I said, ‘this is about healing’. We can only really have healing if we can tell the truth”.


Details of the Black History Walks can be found here.

Image credit: Message from the Skies – Sugar for your Tea

Comments (2)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Excellent and subtle analysis of this complex web which underplays the development of capitalism. A recent Scotland Outdoors looked at the role that the money paid to slave owners following the ending of slavery in the Americas played in the purchase of Highland estates. The authors of that study suggest that the ideas of extreme exploitation developed by slave owners lay behind the clearances. Another reminder that we will never be free while others are not.

    And although the tour described is in the Newtown, there’s plenty of slave owners named in the roads to the south of edinburgh.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I think this article makes its points very well. I would just say that the section on the (by European standards quite conservative, possibly) Scottish Enlightenment chimes with what Robert A Williams jr writes in chapter 11 of his book Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, about the model proponents pushed about four stages ranking human societies from savagery, through shepherds, agriculture (civilisation) to their Age of Commerce on top, which was in extreme cases used to justify genocides (and from a similar perspective, ecocides). I also agree that for a mature understanding of history we need to look at how ideas have been contested, dissent suppressed and silenced, histories written for the benefit of various interests and so on.

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