John Blanke: Exposes the simplistic 'black' presence narrative in British history as an Afriphobic fabrication
Before I can pass comment on the relevance of John Blanke, it may be helpful for me to share my positionality.
I am a scholar-activist.
It has been a long journey locating an identity that recognises how my creativity and knowledge can result in logical, radical actions for social justice. My desire to change our world for the better by merging the world of my imagination with that of my experiences has been challenging. But my passion for doing so started with my childhood. From a very young age, I have always loved watching science fiction. However, despite the joy it gave me, I grew increasingly aware of a huge gap in the genre. No matter where or when the stories were based, African people did not exist, at least, not as central characters. At the most, we were depicted as ‘blacked’ Europeans in peripheral roles. It was a void I did not see resolved until as an adult, I started reading authors like Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and later Courttia Newland and Nnedi Okorafor. Suddenly this anomaly was repaired as I realised, to paraphrase Einstein - the power and rigour that a holistic fusion of imagination and intellect could deliver as scholar-activism.
One of the reasons the young Toyin explored the future was because he was taught in the schools that he attended that there were no African people in British history. In the state-sanctioned version of world history perpetuated by the national curriculum, all African people were racialised as ‘black’, and all their Ancestors were portrayed as either enslaved or colonised. As a child, I was critical of the veracity of this history. The revelation of John Blanke’s existence as a trumpeter in the early 16th century provides some of the evidence required to help destroy these myths.
John Blanke’s visual presence in the Art of the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll and his references in the Treasury Archives is the result of scholarly research. It exposes the simplistic ‘slavery to Empire Windrush’ narrative used to describe the African presence in British history as a myopic Afriphobic fabrication. Blanke’s very existence is a riposte to a revisionist, ethnonationalist attempt to deny the presence of self-determining Africans in the UK predating Maafa.
I am curious about the ethnographic details surrounding Blanke’s personal story but not as an activist or Pan Africanist. Blanke’s presence has implications for society and education, such as my module on the Anthropology of Nationalism, Ethnicity and Race. This confirmation of his existence and political agency provides objective evidence that corrects and projects an updated history of African people in the UK’s past - into the future. It is now for us to actively continue imagining and intellectually excavating details of other Africans whitewashed from British history.
Dr Toyin Agbetu
Lecturer in Social and Political Anthropology at University College London