Isn’t it time, just out of perversity, that we all signed the petition on the Operation Black Vote website to restore the part-time nurse Mary Seacole to the national curriculum? I am beginning to think that our children should learn all about this entertaining woman; she’s given me a good laugh for the last dozen or so years, ever since she was dredged up as an icon by the deluded and hysterical liberal-left.
After all, if Mary is not restored to the curriculum, kids will be pestering us to know why so many buildings in this country are named after her. The University of Salford, the University of Birmingham and Brunel all have outposts bearing the name of this mysterious woman, along with a bunch of nursing centres and, inexplicably, part of the Home Office. It is quite possible that many of these edifices were originally named after Winnie Mandela — before she started putting burning tyres around the necks of her political opponents. You don’t see many Winnie Mandela council blocks any more. Those necklaces were a bit too much.
But maybe OBV is right: we should tell our children the whole story; it will be an object lesson in the imbecility and absolutism of a certain section of the ethnic left, not least its wish to revel in perpetual victimhood. And a sort of weird inversion of anti-racism; that somebody should be considered important solely as a consequence of the colour of their skin. It is tempting to say that if Mary Seacole had been white then the people at Operation Black Vote wouldn’t have given a monkey’s about her either way. But that ignores the final paradox: she was white. Three quarters white. In her own words, only a little brown. And yet the campaigners will not accept this. Black: the woman was black, definitely, they howl, and to ignore her blackness is redolent of colonialism and prejudice and oppression and drinking taps for whites only and Love Thy Neighbour etc etc.
Rarely have we seen exalted a more misplaced, misappropriated god than poor old Seacole. Rarely has a campaign been willing to swallow so much utter tosh in order to advance its cause — and all achieved with the patronising connivance of well-meaning but vacuous white liberals.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has decided that children should no longer be taught about Mrs Seacole, presumably because her contribution to history was minuscule, though largely benevolent. She helped out a bit in the Crimean War, which was kind of her. She showed a certain bravery in travelling, sometimes at her own expense, to far-flung places in order to minister to our armed forces. She seems to have been a familiar mixture of the magnanimous and the self-advancing — her autobiography makes all sorts of absurd claims which only the people who run Operation Black Vote would be stupid enough to believe. Florence Nightingale — who, as a consequence of her skin colour the OBV people seem to despise, unless they just don’t like lamps — was critical of Seacole for her habit of giving wounded servicemen alcohol. I think I’m with Seacole on this, by the way, and I don’t think we should hold this against her. She helped, she was kind and perhaps even altruistic. But an important actor from Britain’s most gilded century? Nah, not a chance. And a role model for black British youngsters? Hell no. There is nothing wrong with nursing as a profession, but wouldn’t we rather have our kids aspiring to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel or George Stephenson — or better still, Michael Faraday? All of them were only slightly less black than Mary who, like Faraday, was at least part-Scottish.
If OBV continues its obsession with skin colour, we could always black up some of those old Victorian portraits to keep them happy. Why should black kids be coerced into venerating someone simply because of their skin colour? Isn’t that exactly the sort of thing we could do without? The campaigners seem to wish to keep these children ghettoised, defined by characteristics which it is beyond their power to alter. There is nothing good about being black. There is nothing good about being white, either.
Anyway, old Gove has now got to contend with a fusillade of illiterate abuse from the OBV people. ‘A blatant racist decision from a Conservative fascist,’ one halfwit insists. Another suggests that the blessed Michael is ‘scared of what she (Seacole) represents’. What, scared of a fallacy? A third communicant to this hilarious website — which, incidentally, serves as a pretty damning indictment of our schools all by itself, to judge by the grammar of those who use it — asserts that Gove is unqualified to make the decision to remove Seacole from the curriculum, because he himself has not served as a nurse during wartime, and definitely not during the Crimean War. That’s a very valuable point and one I hope that Michael will take on board.
In the meantime, put her back on the curriculum. But take her out of history classes and put her somewhere else, some place where they learn about our present society and how it came to be so brain-damaged. Let the kids marvel at how a nice woman who wasn’t really very black came to be revered as a black icon because, unsurprisingly, given the make-up of British society prior to the 1950s, they couldn’t find anyone else.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 12 January 2013