Kneeling has become a widespread global gesture against racism, but scholars now say its origins date back to the Mesopotamian era.
Researchers are studying the history of this gesture following the protests for racial equality since the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Dr Nick Evans of the University of Hull said kneeling thousands of years ago was “a sign of deference”.
Their findings were exhibited at the Streetlife Museum in Hull.
Diaspora history lecturer Dr Evans said the British Museum antiquities showed how ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and India all adopted the gesture for different reasons ranging from power and respect to political protest.
Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, this movement was symbolic in showing its support and solidarity with the British abolitionist movement of the slave trade, launched in the 1770s and led by William Wilberforce.
“A lot of people don’t know that kneeling has any real historical significance,” Dr Evans said.
“Over time people generally took a knee before 1787 as a sign of deference, they defer to a political elite, someone perceived to be more powerful – normally a political leader, monarch, knight , a noble.
“Since 1787 people have taken a knee in solidarity in the face of racial inequity at home and abroad. The campaign to end the British slave trade used an African slave kneeling as a tool to mobilize popular support for the anti-slavery campaign.”
Dr Evans said the modern use of the gesture ranged from proposing to a partner and receiving an honor from the monarchy to raising awareness of racial injustice.
“Kneeling as a symbolic movement has a global resonance in all societies, in all cultures and that is why it has become even more perplexing to us that people are surprised today when people kneel and oppose it.”
Since May, the academic has been leading a team of researchers from the Wilberforce Institute and the university’s Hull Museums, alongside volunteers from community groups, to explore “this forgotten history of how putting oneself at knees was a worldwide protest movement with a very rich history”.
Karen Okra, an activist who was among the researchers, said she knelt during anti-racism protests and as a symbol of challenging societal injustices.
“For me, it’s personal and it’s emotional because I’m a person of color who isn’t always accepted within the wider community and within my own people, whether it’s in terms of social class, sex or in different situations.
“If getting down on one knee saves lives and makes people feel like they are literally equal, that for me is a movement that I think could best contribute.”
Stella Munthali, founder and director of The Black Heritage of Hull, said she also saw the gesture as a “symbol of community healing and anti-racism”.
“Getting down on one knee is a very important symbol and act for me,” the 35-year-old said.
“I think knowing that there’s such a rich history about it and knowing that people are still uncomfortable when others get down on their knees, I think that shows that we still have a major problem. and that we still have a long way to go.”
Among the images on display in the exhibit is a photograph of protesters taking a knee alongside an active police officer.
Ms. Munthali said: “The fight against racism is not a political program.
“Combating racism is a human right and everyone deserves to be treated equally. It has nothing to do with politics and should not be used as a weapon.”
The Taking the Knee exhibition runs at the Streetlife Museum in Hull until November 1st.