When exactly did harpsichords become racist?

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

It’s a dangerous thing when you import the worst aspects of another culture. And an even worse thing when you import the worst interpretation of that worst aspect of another culture.

This week marked a year since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minnesota. Since that time, Derek Chauvin, the policeman who killed Mr Floyd, has been tried, convicted of causing his death and is currently awaiting sentence. Around the world, the actions of this one awful policeman have been extrapolated out beyond endurance. It has been claimed that they revealed the truth about race relations in America. They have been used to claim that race relations around the world are the same as they are in America. And they have been used to claim that absolutely every-thing from the past in countries like our own must be reinterpreted, ‘decolonised’ and much more.

That ongoing process looks as though it may well be endless. Each week brings ever more ridiculous examples. For instance, last Saturday, to commemorate the anniversary of Floyd’s death, Norwich city council announced that it was lighting up its town hall. So last weekend the building was lit up in yellow, pink and turquoise. I don’t know why these colours were chosen. Perhaps turquoise and pink were among Mr Floyd’s favourites. Or perhaps they had some other significance.

When I read that Norwich town hall was doing this, my first thought was not ‘How beautiful’, but simply ‘Why?’ What did Norwich town hall have to do with it? It is the sort of thing a guilty party might do, certainly. But what in the world is the linkage between the citizens of Norwich, or even its council, and the actions of Derek Chauvin?

Sadly Norwich was not the strangest such offender this week. That prize must surely go to the Royal Academy of Music in London, which confirmed that it was intending to ‘decolonise’ its collection of rare instruments. The conservatoire claims that it is necessary to look at its world-class collection, built up over two centuries, ‘through a decolonisation lens’. And so the juggernaut rolls on. It is understood that there are a number of instruments which the academy holds which are connected to George Frideric Handel, who is now most famous for having invested in the transatlantic slave trade. But it is also believed that there are a number of historic keyboard instruments held by the academy which have links to the trade in colonial ivory.

Unlike Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats in America, I would not presume to know what was going through George Floyd’s mind in the last terrible minutes of his life. Nonetheless I think he would have been surprised to learn that his killing was going to lead to a purge of historic harpsichords at London’s premier conservatoire.

But that is the thing with the weird juggernaut of the last year. It seems able to career absolutely everywhere. And it is able to do so in part because of one particular, gigantic misunderstanding that almost no one has yet pointed out.

It is perfectly possible that Derek Chauvin harbours some special animus against black people. But it is also possible that he does not. In 2016 an American policeman performed precisely the same terrible — and fatal — detention procedure on a white man in Dallas called Tony Timpa. The footage of Timpa’s death is equally harrowing, but a worldwide movement did not kick off after his death. That’s because nobody was primed to use it in that way.

From last year to this, no one has been able to produce evidence that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd because Floyd was a black man. If they could, then they would have done so at the trial. They would have shown that Chauvin left his home that morning intent on finding a black man he could throttle under his knee.

I admit that this is an unpopular point to make. Yet it is a rather important one, is it not? Especially if the whole of American history, culture and current events — and by extension those of the entire western world — are to be reinterpreted through the actions of this one damned Minnesotan cop. It’s the sort of thing that might be worth getting right, isn’t it? If you are going to savagely rewrite everything from race relations in our society all the way through to which harpsichords have a guilty look about them, it’s worth getting the fons et origo exactly correct. Something we seem to have entirely failed to do.

And such failure has consequences. As I write, a young woman called Sasha Johnson is lying in hospital in a serious condition having been shot in the head. When news of this came out on Sunday, prominent Labour politicians and most of the UK’s broadcast and print media all followed the line of Johnson’s militant allies. Which was that Johnson had been shot in the head in Peckham at three o’clock in the morning because of her ‘activism’ on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Sky ran with ‘Black equal rights activist shot’. Anyone who has ever heard one of Ms Johnson’s incendiary interventions into race relations (such as ‘the white man will not be our equal but our slave’) will know that equal rights aren’t remotely on her horizon.

In any case, thanks to this portrayal by the British press, other media from around the world have now spread the idea that a prominent BLM activist was last weekend the subject of an assassination attempt in London, most likely carried out by the UK branch of the KKK.

We shall see precisely what happened. But as I write, the British police have said that they are looking for four black men who turned up at the party that Johnson was at. It appears that — as so often in the US — this was a black-on-black attack, most likely stemming from a gang-related dispute.

I wish Johnson well, not least in the hope that when she comes out of hospital she might have a greater understanding of the importance of the police in our society. But it is also a reminder — if reminder were needed — that these imported culture wars have consequences. They don’t accurately fit America. And they certainly don’t accurately fit here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments