The Black Country: Flags, Identity, and Race

The newly-elected MP for Wolverhampton South West has called for the flag of the Black Country to be abolished because it is racist.

Some context:

  • Wolverhampton South West was Enoch Powell’s constituency at the time he made his Birmingham Speech. Enoch Powell was a Brummie representing this Black Country seat. The current MP is also a Brummie, so this isn’t the first time a Brummie has caused racial controversy in the area.
  • The Black Country is a loosely-defined area of the West Midlands, to the immediate north-west of Birmingham and with a population of around million depending on where its boundaries are drawn.
  • In this post, I am defining the Black Country to be the area covered by the Metropolitan Boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, and Walsall, together with the City of Wolverhampton. Other definitions are available.

This is the flag of the Black Country:

The flag represents the industrial heritage of the many towns and villages that comprise the Black Country. The Black Country had abundant coal deposits (the Thirty-Foot Seam) that put it at the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution. It was said by American diplomat Elihu Burritt to be “Black by day and red by night” due to the smoke and fires from the factories and furnaces. Hence the colours of the flag. The black also represents the coal outcroppings of the Thirty Foot Seam (and the name “Black Country” itself), whilst the red also symbolises the Red House Cone glassworks in Stourbridge.

The white section depicts the glasshouse; the chains represent the village of Netherton, which was famed for its chainmakers.

Eleanor Smith MP has refused to stand in front of the flag due to its “racist connotations” and has called for it to be changed. The Wolverhampton branch of Momentum agree.

One of the areas for concern is the the “white on black imagery”. It would be hard not to use the colour black on a flag for the Black Country. White is a pretty standard colour to use on flags. Given that the colours that are being used to represent the Black Country are black and red, it is natural to use white as a neutral colour that does not distract from these.

The chains are the other apparently problematic piece of imagery, as they invoke the North Atlantic Slave Trade. I can kind of understand this one — were I designing a flag for the Black Country I would probably include saddles or nails. The current flag is a bit too Dudley-centric (both Netherton and Stourbridge are in Dudley), but it still reasonably represents our collective industrial heritage. This isn’t the first time that the chains have been flagged as examples of racism, but chains had a variety of applications beyond shackling slaves. They were used in industry, and in shipping (for some reason, we are proud that we made the chains for the Titanic’s anchor). But it’s difficult to find imagery that represents the entirety of the Black Country’s manufacturing heritage. A chain may even be the best way of highlighting the linkages between the people and places of the Black Country.

Saddles, nails and locks would represent some of the areas of Walsall, but they could also arguably be offensive as items used in war and oppression.

An image of coal may seem innocuous, but that would not be inclusive of much of Wolverhampton and Walsall, which despite not being geologically part of the Black Country, they are definitely so in cultural, linguistic and economic terms.

Faggots would be nice to include on a flag, but may also be problematic and whilst us Black Country folk love some faggots and pays, they don’t represent our shared economic history.

So any flag that attempted to represent the Black Country would have its problems. So, I think the current flag, whilst imperfect, is something to rally behind — just like Brits can see the Union Jack as representative, notwithstanding that a more inclusive flag would explicitly depict the nation of Wales, rather than feature it only as a territory annexed by England.

Where Ms Smith jumps the shark is when she asks: “Why can’t we have a flag that represents all of us united as a collective rainbow of people?”

I had to read this several times when I first saw it. I could not believe that this was a quote given by a Member of Parliament and not a line from Mean Girls.

She also says: “In my constituency there are 130 different languages spoken. Let’s get a flag that actually says we are proud of where we come from.”

This fundamentally fails to understand the concept of the Black Country identity and why we have recently created the Black Country flag and started celebrating Black Country Day.

In any large conurbation in Britain, there will be many languages spoken. Wolverhampton is not special in that respect. But what we do seek to celebrate is our beautiful dialect — the oldest remaining form of English, spoken by Black Country folk of all skin colours, distinct from the nearby Brummie — which, despite surviving 1,500 years — resisting Viking invasion, William The Bastard’s Frenchification of Old English, and even the Great Vowel Shift that separated Shakespeare from Chaucer — is facing extinction.

This is also where Momentum fail in their statement. The ties that bind Black Country folk together were forged in the fires of the Industrial Revolution. The myriad towns and villages coalesced during this time, creating this shared identity. To ignore our founding story is to undermine the very legitimacy and existence of our distinctive culture and identity. A flag makes no value judgement about such a founding story; it does not say that the treatment of workers in the early days of the Industrial Revolution is something to celebrate. But it does recognise the events that shaped the economy, human geography and language that we see in our area today.

Maybe it’s irrational to have such affection for some 300-million-year-old rocks, a mystifyingly-unique grammar and vocabulary, or the ingenuity and hard graft of people 300 years ago. Maybe it’s irrational to swim against the tide of history and attempt to keep ourselves distinct from adjacent Birmingham. Maybe it’s irrational to get angry when someone criticises a flag. Maybe.

But our heritage, culture and identity are important parts of who we are. It’s not for a Brummie to decide how Black Country folk should recognise this.

Finally, whilst I think that the abuse that MPs receive nowadays is sick and unacceptable, the comments on social media show how much progress has been made in race relations over the last 50 years:

A black MP representing Enoch Powell’s old constituency criticises the local culture and is told to go back to where she came from. Birmingham.

Before anyone asks me to check my privilege about commenting on race issues:

  • I am half-Pakistani. Presumably, Black Country-made goods were used by the East India Company and the Empire in the subjugation of the subcontinent
  • I have Australian-Irish ancestry. Presumably Black Country-made chains were used as restraints and ship anchors for the transportation of my ancestors
  • My parents were raised as Brummies, but born in Merseyside and the Potteries. The Black Country identity is open to all, regardless of heritage