Billed as an industrial music drama, Cotton Panic! offers attendees an opportunity to consider the lives of the 19th-century working class in Lancashire. Building its narrative around electronic music that recalls Manchester’s respect for live arts and culture, the production leverages three projector screens to display larger-than-life images of actors portraying historical testimonies from the time. On stage, actor Jane Horrocks serves alternately as emcee, lead vocalist, and helpless child. She is tasked with carrying the entire 65-minute production, assisted on occasion by a backup dancer and three musicians. For the majority of the show, however, she is on her own. In its content, Cotton Panic! attempts to make a link between the chattel slavery of the southern United States and the lives of Lancashire’s white working class. Based on a decontextualized quote from socialist thinker Karl Marx, it suggests that both were based on capitalist exploitation.
In an effort to humanize narratives of the white working class, the show considers soft hands, the innocence of childhood, and other personal stories. It does this, however, without explicitly undertaking the same process in regard to the black slaves upon which white success was built. Rather, Blackness seemed to me to be represented as a voiceless fusion of features, in which one face becomes the next, as if all black people and their experiences are the same.
Simultaneously, the show recasts and lionizes the working classes of the time as engaged in high culture, as in its description of a Lancashire family’s prized piano, rather than respecting these communities for their own experiences and cultural forms (the show’s use of clog dancing is a notable exception). In so doing, even as it tries to escape them, I worry that the show falls into two tired and damaging narratives: that white British people cannot consider race except in a sanitized and whitewashed version of history that turns them into heroes, and that one of the only ways black people can be represented in popular culture is as violent or angry slaves.
Cotton Panic! makes some mention of how the white working class (in Manchester, specifically) stood in solidarity with the emancipatory struggles of chattel slaves in the United States. The show framed US President Abraham Lincoln as having begun the US Civil War in a courageous attempt to end slavery, but the reality is that Lincoln wanted to keep the country together and limit the growth of slavery rather than abolish it entirely.
Audiences should be wary of the narrative that Lincoln was a hero who stood against slavery. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ira Berlin, and Eric Foner have argued that Lincoln’s respect for the US Constitution, in which slavery was enshrined at the time, surpassed his moral belief that slavery was wrong. Indeed, it was only after slaves themselves escaped in large numbers from the South, and the North embraced their arrival, that Lincoln saw emancipation as a politically viable policy. These historical factors have contemporary ramifications for the relationship between black minority and white majority communities in the US today, reflecting Foner’s argument that 19th-century “hostility to slavery did not preclude deep prejudices against blacks.”
Cotton Panic! could do better than focusing on supposed past heroics as an uncritical indication of contemporary progress. Instead, what British society needs is a historically rigorous, socially aware, and honest conversation about how its privileging of Whiteness is predicated on a longstanding and continued oppression of political, racial, and ethnic Blackness.
- Asif Majid
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
On Hamstringing Working Classes - Open Democracy
Chattel Slavery and British Economies - Public Seminar
Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys - The Opportunity Agenda
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Britain - Revealing Histories
Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Presidential Administration: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7487969 http://www.npr.org/2010/10/11/130489804/lincolns-evolving-thoughts-on-slavery-and-freedom https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/12/27/how-the-slaves-freed-themselves/7d58b82c-3446-4f96-a07d-52fc868eb960/?utm_term=.9daccb73eb6a