It’s common for modern historical pieces – films, novels, etc – to include black figures in ways that previous iterations of the genre never did. For instance, the BBC series Merlin included a black Guinevere, played by Angel Coulby. Netflix’s 2020 series Cursed goes a step farther, casting Devon Terrell as Arthur himself. Terrell has also played a young Barack Obama.
These see a lot of criticism from those claiming that black faces have no place in English history, or even fantasies about English history. Even relatively modern British-set film sees it (thousands signed a petition arguing that a black James Bond would ruin the franchise)
For Black History Month, which is October in the U.K., English Heritage, the organization which takes care of hundreds of historic sites and tens of thousands of works of art in England, is set on re-educating those critics.
“Black history is part of English history and, while we know we have more to do, English Heritage is committed to telling the story of England in full,” said the charity in a statement on their website. The first step they’re taking is an exhibition of paintings of one Ms. Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a girl born into slavery who became the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, who sponsored her education. The major painting is a striking one – Ms. Bonetta in her full-skirted wedding gown, her direct gaze locked with the painter’s. Her paintings will be displayed in Osborne House, the royal seaside retreat where Victoria first learned of Bonetta’s death at 37, of tuberculosis.
“There are a number of black figures from the past who have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but their stories are not very well known,” said Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage.
Beginning in spring 2021, as things hopefully open up, English Heritage plans to display as many paintings as they can of the black history associated with their 400+ sites.
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