The Black queen making television history

Her Majesty: Jodie Turner-Smith’s performance as Anne Boleyn has been widely praised. © Channel 5

Is race a modern invention? Yesterday, a new TV drama launched with a Black actor as Tudor queen Anne Boleyn. There were many Black Tudors and experts say their race was not an issue.

The queen stands in the dark church in a white veil. She looks to her side and sees an axe glinting ominously, and the story begins by pointing to its end.

This is the opening of a new drama series, Anne Boleyn, which retells the life of Henry VIII’s second wife. Anne, the mother of Elizabeth I, was beheaded for treason.

Yesterday, much discussion of the show focused on the actor playing Anne, Jodie Turner-Smith, who brings a regal bearing to the role. But critics also paused to dwell on the fact that, unlike the historical Anne Boleyn, Turner-Smith is Black.

Some critics see a Black queen as a trendy anachronism, but many others see her casting as a sign of present progress.

From Netflix’s Bridgerton to the recent film of Dicken’s David Copperfield, the diversity of present-day Europe and America has become more evident in the onscreen past.

While some think that it is historically inaccurate to portray a White queen as Black, for others, to make a big deal out of the difference is, in its own way, just as historically inaccurate.

That is because the way most people understand skin colour now is different from in 1536 when Anne was executed.

People have always noticed differences in skin colour, but that doesn’t mean that they understood this as something called race; nobody in early 16th Century England described themselves as White.

There was an African man in Henry’s court, a trumpeter called John Blanke, who probably came to England via Spain. While the record of his life is limited, there is no sign that he was treated differently from the other musicians in Henry’s service.

But the process of dividing people by race had already begun. Some scholars see the roots of the ideas in 15th-Century Spain. There, laws split Muslim “Moors”, Jews and Christians.

In that same century, a European trade of enslaved Africans had started, and it is the development of the slave trade and the colonisation of the Americas that ensured the idea of race left its mark on the modern world.

Describing differences in skin tones as “race” made it a question of biology. And it permitted Europeans to talk about slavery as a condition that could be inherited.

By 1660, Britain was the biggest player in the slave trade. By 1661, a code of laws justifying slavery on the basis of race was created for the British Caribbean, where the enslaved were forced to work on plantations.

In the 18th Century, Europeans developed a taxonomy of human races, with White people at the top of the ranking.

Scientists long ago debunked the attempt to group humans into races, but the legacy of racism has formed group identities. People define themselves and others in response to oppression which continues to this day. Because racism exists, race is a fact of many people’s lives.

Is race a modern invention?

Divide and conquer

Yes, say some. Our idea of what race means is not simply about recognising different national backgrounds or physical features. It is a concept of essential difference that was invented to help create the global system of trade that defines the modern world. The invention of race, like the steam engine, shaped what historians call modernity. From the 17th Century to the present, race has been one of the world’s ruling ideas.

No, say others. Ideas of human difference are more fluid than this. The racial hierarchies of Europe are not so different in kind to the Medieval treatment of Jews, or conceptions that the ancient Greeks had about national characters. We cannot bracket off the influence of such ideas in order to call race either modern or an invention. To point to a moment when race was “invented” is to oversimplify history.

You Decide

  1. Should actors playing real people try to copy them as closely as possible?
  2. Should history focus on the lives of the oppressed or on people who had power and influence?

Activities

  1. After watching the video about Black Tudors, in pairs, write and perform a song about the life of John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpet player. If you do not wish to write your own tune, use Henry VIII’s Greensleeves.
  2. In groups of three, each of you should choose one film and make a case for why it would be a good or a bad idea to remake the film with a colour-blind cast.

Some People Say...

“The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the colour-line.”

WEB DuBois (1868 – 1963), African American sociologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that there has been an African presence in Britain since Roman times. Historians looking at the 16th and 17th Centuries have identified at least 448 individuals in the archive who were of African origin. The majority of these were domestic servants, but other occupations included weavers, goldsmiths and a diver employed to recover goods from the wreck of The Mary Rose.
What do we not know?
One area of debate concerns how important metaphors of light and dark – in which light is associated with good and bad with darkness – were to the development of racism and racial hierarchy. In the 16th Century, English begins to use the same word, “fair”, for good and for pale. Shakespeare uses and plays with such ideas in his sonnets to the “Dark Lady”. Historians are now exploring whether such metaphors helped to pave the way for more literal hierarchies as colonialism developed.

Word Watch

Ominously
In a threatening manner, or suggestive of something to come in the future.
Treason
Anne was accused of adultery, which is treason when the person you are betraying is the king.
Anachronism
Something from a different time or does not belong, such as a helicopter appearing in a medieval battle scene.
White
Among the earliest uses of the phrase “white people” in English is playwright Thomas Middleton’s 1613 pageant The Triumphs of Truth.
Spain
Large parts of Spain were under the rule of Muslim kingdoms until 1492. After the establishment of total Christian control, the descendants of Muslims and Jews were often persecuted.
Plantations
Enslaved Africans were transported to the New World to take part in a new intensive system of agriculture, growing crops such as tobacco and sugarcane.
Taxonomy
The study of classification. Modern biology still uses the general scheme of taxonomy established by Carl Linnaeus. His system split all animals into genus and species. Linnaeus then divided humans into four subspecies, corresponding to Asian, African, American and European.
Debunked
Disproved.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.