This Thursday, 4 million people in Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether to end its 307-year political union with England. Final opinion polls show the result on a knife edge, with a remarkable 97 percent of the electorate registered to vote.
Among the many communities energized by the debate are 37,000 Scottish residents of African descent. In such a close election, when every vote counts, they may even tip the balance in favor of yes.
Most Afro-Scots were born on the continent of Africa, but they also include black North Americans and Caribbeans, like Graham Campbell, a poet and community activist who leads Africans for an Independent Scotland. Born in Jamaica to a Grenadian mother and Jamaican father, Campbell moved to Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, in 2002, having lived and worked in Canada and London in his 20s. Campbell explains many Afro-Scots’ support for independence: “Our countries left Britain’s control and understood the challenges that meant, but in this instance, Scotland will have all the advantages we didn’t have.”
By “advantages,” Campbell means a modern, diverse economy, boosted by oil: Sixty percent of the European Union’s oil reserves lie in Scottish waters. Indeed, many recent African migrants have come to work in Scotland’s oil and gas industries, while others have come to study at the country’s universities.
Another prominent Afro-Scot for independence is the Vogue model, designer and hip-hop artist Eunice Olumide. Olumide won a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania. In the U.S., she met up with Naughty by Nature and toured with them before returning to Scotland, where, along with her brother, Ibrahim, she launched Northern Xposure, the first hip-hop band to rap in the Scots dialect.
For Olumide, the “referendum is the single most exciting thing to happen within my lifetime and might be the only chance that this will ever happen in this generation.”
Decisions about the economy, jobs and welfare, Olumide argues, should be made by a Scottish government, which supports free university tuition and health care to all citizens, in contrast with the privatization agenda of London.
For other Afro-Scots, including those seeking political asylum from African war zones, a yes vote is seen as a break from the restrictive immigration policies of London’s Conservative and Liberal coalition.
“Independence would mean a better life for Africans in Scotland mainly because of the restrictions around student visas and the lack of a post-study work visa, which the Scottish government has promised to reintroduce,” says Campbell.
Africans for independence are clear that Scotland is not a racism-free paradise, but as Campbell notes, “Society in Scotland is a bit more egalitarian, more to my liking … more friendly, more civil and social in their attitudes. That comes from a sense of social solidarity, which is still very strong in Scotland.”
Campbell’s reference to “egalitarian” and “social solidarity” echo the views of two 19th-century African-American civil rights giants who had deep, intimate and transformative experiences in Scotland: James McCune Smith, who studied at the University of Glasgow in the 1830s and was the pre-eminent black intellectual prior to W.E.B. Du Bois; and Frederick Douglass, who in 1846 launched Scotland’s first human rights crusade.
Douglass took his name from “the Black Douglas,” a fugitive in a poem by the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was also influenced by the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns; the first book Douglass bought after escaping slavery in 1838 was a collection of Burns’ poems.
Ten years later, in 1846, Douglass was at the heart of a campaign to force the Presbyterian Free Church in Scotland to return money sent by American slaveholders to the church’s mission to the Scottish poor. Douglass traveled the length and breadth of Scotland, lecturing in packed churches and street corners. His slogan, “Send back the money,” was chanted in the streets, sung in ballads, and even carved onto the turf of an Edinburgh city park by Douglass and two Scottish female abolitionists.
Although the campaign failed in its immediate objective of forcing the Free Church to send back the slaveholders’ money, it inspired a transatlantic abolitionist movement and undoubtedly transformed Douglass’ own sense of purpose.
McCune Smith, a 19th-century black New Yorker whose achievements and writing are finally getting their due recognition, had a very similar experience. Between 1832 and 1837 he earned three degrees at the University of Glasgow, including the first medical degree earned by an African American. During his time in the “Second City” of the British Empire, Smith helped establish the Glasgow Emancipation Society, which was concerned with ending slavery in the British West Indies and Africa, as well as the United States.
If McCune Smith and Douglass were able to view the current political debate in Scotland—perhaps over a cappuccino at the recently opened McCune Smith Café in Glasgow—there would be much for them to admire in a referendum that has engaged people of all classes and backgrounds. That debate has been about taking greater political responsibility in the present. It has also spurred a growing scholarly and popular debate about Scotland taking greater historical responsibility for its role in Caribbean slavery.
As for the future, and regardless of the referendum result, Africans for an Independent Scotland has made it clear that it will continue to seek an expanded role for Afro-Scots in the political process.
Steven J. Niven is a native of Scotland and the executive editor of three biographical projects at Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research: the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography and the African American National Biography. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.
Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.