In the first part of her ancestral documentary, Empire’s Child, Charlene White explores how the British Empire impacted her family and traces her lineage in the process.
Esteemed journalist and presenter Charlene White had her documentary debut last night with the release of Empire’s Child on ITV. While ITV isn’t especially known for its in-depth explorations on race and identity, this documentary was a thoughtful and emotional insight into the impact of empire on the Caribbean diaspora.
Charlene, best known to many as the face of ITV news and Loose Women, traces her family history from some unlikely places and discovers surprising anecdotes in the process.
Travelling from Totnes, Devon, to the parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, Charlene uncovers some painful truths while also sharing in some happier moments throughout the documentary. Like the reunion between her aunt and Albert Johnson, an elderly man who helped Charlene’s family financially through managing a pardna so that they could eventually afford UK housing.
The hour-long special, (a second part will air next week) has been likened to BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and while they are similar, Charlene’s explorations are a little more specific. She purposefully traces her family history through the lens of the British Empire and how it shaped her history.
For any person with limited knowledge of their ancestry, this documentary was a pivotal and thought-provoking watch. After its debut, social media was awash with praise for the show’s management of such important themes and many felt as if their stories were being reflected accurately on television also.
Many people shared how the documentary hit them ‘close to home’:
In the documentary, Charlene explains that because of slavery, tracing her own family history can be difficult. She says, “Jamaica as a genetic sequence in itself, isn’t a thing.”
She finally found out her connection to slavery came in the form of her five-time-great-grandfather, John Stanbury. “He was a slave owner and that’s something – there’s no reading through the lines or investigating what that means. He owned people who looked like me. And that is in my bloodline, which is a weird thing to get my head around.”
“I’m lucky to have found that out but is it a nice history? No. But I still feel like it’s something I needed to know.”
The moment itself was a powerful one and others shared in its significance:
Eventually finding out that her four-times-great-grandparents were born into slavery but were among the first Jamaicans to be freed was an especially pivotal moment in the documentary. Breaking down at the end, Charlene describes how it was clear that they “wanted more for their children,” much like her grandparents and herself today.
Exploring the connection between identity and place shows that sometimes, going back to a location of such ancestral importance is something that resonates with many viewers.
“It’s not just a story about me or a story about my family, I think it’s a story about who we all are as British people in terms of our history with the empire irrespective of where we originate from.”
“Our shared history means we are forever, intertwined together.”
Charlene White: Empire’s Child is available to watch now on ITV Hub.