At first, he would just smile at me from across the room.
During classes, if I rose my hand to answer the teacher, he’d just glare at me as if I were accepting the Miss America title, or giving a rousing speech.
I always felt stronger in class with him inside.
To be fair, I didn’t even know if he liked boys at first.
Or perhaps he was just grinning at me because I was foreign… exotic, and spoke English, the common tongue that everyone wanted to master.
Anyway, he was a foreigner, too, training to be a translator and interpreter and
Still had several languages to master; English was just one.
Our friend Sabine was pretty, blue-eyed, thin, buxom, wore form-fitting-flattering clothes, had long, flowing blond hair and was a native speaker of both French and Alsatian.
Surely, he’d go of someone like her.
Yeah, I threw in every doubt, but
I’d still wait outside for him before the one class we shared, International Relations and
All through the class he’d grin at me from across the room.
Or, I’d look for him when I knew his class was at the end of the hall.
Between classes, somehow, we’d find one another’s gaze.
I loved getting to go to class.
Twice a week, I even got to brush past him before the last period when it seemed that all the classes switched sides.
He’s taller than me, so as we brushed past one another.
Sometimes we would hold our heads up and catch each other’s gaze,
But initially this was too much for me,
I knew my knees would buckle if I stood that close to his deep brown eyes;
I doubted I could stop myself from reaching up and touching his dark curly hair.
I had to look away,
Or else I might just fall over and…
And he’d have to catch me.
Crap, then I’d surely faint!
So mostly I would look down as we passed in the hall between classes.
As he neared, he’d sigh heavily, and
So I could feel the heat of his breath on my neck.
He liked spearmint.
Then, as we reached the opposite ends of the hall, he’d turn back and smile, and
He knew I’d look back, that I’d be waiting to catch his gaze.
I’d smile back.
Then, he’d turn away – look down – as if grinning to himself about a secret that only he knew.
I found myself on the other end of the hall doing the same.
Then one day, a good friend of his invited me over for her birthday party, and
Somehow, he and I kept creeping closer to one another.
We hadn’t yet formally met, so
He kept talking to his friends, and I kept talking to mine, but
As we shifted around the room, we got nearer and nearer one another.
As the party dwindled and everyone started making arrangements to walk someone else home that night,
I could see him waiting idly, quietly, to the side, until the end.
I wanted him to walk me home, which I had every right to demand, because,
Because I was a foreigner, and couldn’t really even tell you what part of town I lived in.
So, he agreed to walk me home.
And we ended up at his house.
I spent the night in his arms.
I spent the next six years there.
Over the years, he’d mastered and prepared dishes for me from all of the cultures from all the languages he was mastering.
I loved our international relations.
There is expectation in hope that things will change. Every personal and social issue that is not going according to plan, all the adversities and the misfortunes, are placed on the anticipation that eventually, things will change. The conviction for the change is hope. Hope is a feeling based on emotions, irrational and inexplicable.
Hope is a refuge for those whose lives are wronged and feel unable to do anything but to hope. Millions of people hope for better days, better health, better relationships, better lives. This hope keeps expectations high even when you are told of the opposite.
Consider the following dialogues:
“The environment is changing, global warming, the pandemic and the economic recession. It looks like we’ve had it! We are one meteor away from a catastrophic event”. “I agree with what you say, but I hope that despite all these we will find a way out of all these.”
“Your crime is too serious; looks like you are going to jail”. “I hope the judge is lenient and maybe I will not go to prison”
“The tests indicate that your health has deteriorated, it is unlikely to change; I am afraid you have only a few months to live”. “I hope that God will listen to my prayer and cure me”.
“I do not love you anymore, I want to leave you! “Don’t break my heart; I hope you change your mind.”
All these have one thing in common. The respondent’s hope for something, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This unwavering conviction comes at a price! The entire world is built on an industry of hope. Institutions, systems, “experts” and many more who profit from the misfortune of others. One of the main benefactors in this industry is undoubtedly religious institutions and belief experts.
Some years ago, in one of my trips, in found myself in a monastery that has a tradition of snakes appearing on the day of the ascension of the Virgin Mary. The revellers regard it as a sign of good fortune and favour from her grace. I was in the monastery on a different day, when a group of boisterous Russian tourists were trying to buy some grace. The lady in the church was clear; a small bottle of holy water 3 euros, a small bottle of oil 5 euros. There were bigger sizes and of course for more certainty of hope, a purchase of both is indicated. Since then, it got me thinking; what is the price of hope?
Faced with a terminal disease, how much would any of us will pay to live a little bit longer? The question is merely rhetorical, because each of us is likely to pay according to what they can afford. There are those who may care less for themselves, but are willing to sacrifice anything for someone special; or a great idea.
Since the discovery of electricity, Victorian scientists dispelled the expertise of those charlatans that spoke with the dead and commuted with the spirits. Even though there have been mounting evidence against them, their industry of hope is still booming. People like to hope. They embrace its positive message. After all Dum Spiro Spero.*
There is of course the other side; Nikos Kazantzakis famously said; “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” It is liberating not to hope, but it is very difficult to achieve. Personally, despite experiencing negative situations, and even after meeting some naysayers armed with a sour face in life, I will never stop hoping that people are better inside and they can change and embrace their better selves. My hope, I fear, is incurable.
*While I breathe, I hope
I first began to respect solitude in Bankass, the village on the edge of the Sahara, in central Mali, in which I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, there were no wireless anythings – no WiFi, no, tablets, no Bluetooth, and certainly no smartphones. This was the late 90’s, well when that technology was just growing among consumers.
Early in the morning, just after morning prayer, you could hear radios in the distance, men roaming around in the dark with their personal transistors. AM, FM and shortwaves, men would just go for a morning constitution. In case you’re unaware, outside of the light pollution of cities, the world can be pitch-dark. Yet even then, the fuzzy buzz of short-waves roamed around in the pre-dawn.
I had one, too, a rather swanky, handheld short-wave radio, the final gift from my godfather as I left America. That’s how I got hooked on BBC Worldservice. Outside of music, short-wave BBC was the only English I’d hear in any given day. Plus, I had my own CD player and a portable-enough collection of favorites. There I was, alone in my hut with the bootleg CD’s of the latest hits I’d obtained in shops in the regional capital, Mopti, half-a-day away by bush taxi. Janet’s Velvet Rope and Madonna’s Ray of Light; in my solitude.
Luckily, music was everywhere. It was young people wanting to understand Hip-Hop that got me to teaching English in the village school. Even back in training camp, boys my age called on me to translate and explain the poetic lyricism of Bob Marley, and I was only a nascent fan back then. Still, young people there fully expected me to speak knowingly about that music, first in French, then in Bambara, too. To help my own French, I got my friend Ali to break down Black So Man to me man to man, line by line, and eventually graduated to singing in Bambara.
As I am not Muslim, I did not rise with the pre-dawn call to prayer; this mesmerizing chant soothed me into a morning daze. What an awakening! And then I’d drift off back to sleep. Shortly thereafter, I’d hear the men roaming around the village with their radios. Then after that, I knew the kids would show up.
Just after morning prayer and breakfast, a group of boys – aged around 6-8 – would show up at my doorstep, knocking on my window, unable to conceive that any adult would sleep past morning prayer. “Moussa, Moussa,” they’d call out to me, using the name I’d been given by my host family in our training village. Enjoying the company and not wanting to disappoint, I would rise to their calls like clockwork. What would be this morning’s adventure before the kids were off to school? Could we tend to my meager garden which paled in comparison to the crops of millet their parents grew? Or perhaps, we could go fetch a few buckets of water at the local robinet, faucets of underground water, pumped into a tower, and sold for cheap in every neighborhood, compliments of the German government. Being the godson of Dan Massie, anyone who came around me had to be put to work – we could support each other in whatever needed to be done. Mind you, this was Dogon country, and so all the kids spoke Fulani and a few local Dogon dialects. Like me, they mostly learned Bambara in a classroom, not at home, so we were on the same level. Communication was fluid. Plenty of solitude, but I was never lonely.
I don’t trust your god
Your god is cruel
Your god is mean
Your god allowed generations of your people to enslave mine
Your god made it okay to look into the Bible and see white power.
You prayed to your god with every slave you took.
You prayed that your catch would be bountiful, and
Your enslavers safe.
You’ve prayed that you would gain money, and fame, and power.
And you did.
Your god gave you everything.
Thanks to your god-given wealth,
You built church after church, and
Cathedral after cathedral, all around the globe,
So that everyone could worship your god.
You prayed that we’d all pay homage to a mean and cruel god.
Your god’s played a trick on you,
Convincing you slavery was god-like, that white was right!
That dark was evil, and so
Your god’s given you moral dominion over the darker peoples of the world.
You and your god dominate.
Don’t you know,
Your god’s cross was used to conquer the Americas, and
A church sits smack in the middle of west Africa’s biggest, extant slave castle!?!
Yes, your god was right there with you as you captured human cargo, and
Stored them right next to your church so they could hear you pray, and
Marched them out of the door of no return, onto feed your greed that your god sanctioned.
You grew fat, bloated with power,
Thanks to your god.
I don’t trust your god.
Nor should you.
Now, with every attempt we have to take back our humanity, you resist.
We say “Black Lives Matter,” and you pray they don’t.
You pray for a champion – a big man – to come down from above and save you.
And when that big, rich, powerful man does descend,
And threatens to shore off all apologists for your god’s cruel past,
You treat him as heaven-sent!
And call out all defectors from your church,
All those so-called Liberals who’ve turned away from your god.
You pray that this big man and his family will bask in the gains of your god’s glory.
That somehow this big man’s glory attests to your god’s power.
You cheer when that big man waves a bible at you, in front of any church, and
You tell yourself: “My God is good,” and
You run-n-fetch your god every time the big man blows the dog-whistle,
Which you hear clear as day.
Run. Stay. Sit.
You follow your god’s orders.
Free yourself from your old god.
To erase that history, to look away from those facts, you must also erase yourself…
Because slavery, and continued subjugation is not just my problem, it’s…
The Problem We All Live With.
It’s in you, too.
Part 1 of a two-part post on the Honours System
Growing up Black, being told Black people are criminals, lazy, stupid, thieves, rapists, illiteratre, how do you think society rewards those that exceed white expectations? When I see people that look like me accepting Honours from the establishment, I wonder what they are thinking. That when I see them with those three letters after their name, I remember the stories I read – about Nanny and the Maroons; and those about Morant Bay, where red-coated soldiers slaughtered children and pregnant mothers where they stood – and how the Arawaks jumped from Grenadine hills to avoid enslavement; how my ancestors were confined to those death camps we call slave plantations, where they were raped, tortured, killed… what I call a Black Holocaust.
The same system of oppression that kidnapped us from the African continent, forced Black people to endure Middle Passage and be thrown from the Zong, is a version of the system that orchestrated the Windrush Scandal, treats the Grenfell victims with contempt, and allowed London Met’s racial bias to run brigand throughout the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (1993/94). That while we have been the victims of institutional violence throughout history from the establishment, we are also some of its proudest members, particularly with activists, academics and community workers.
There are people in my own community who have these awards; Black people and white people, in addition to people who are women and working class. This award carries with it a jingoism I saw in [hard] Brexit fever, harking back to the days of Suez, slavery and the Potato Famine. This insistence that Britons from Black and Brown backgrounds should be the diversity in a society that has shunned us since the days of Granville Sharp and the Black Poor. That in having Black and Brown people accepting Honours, it makes them okay for everyone else, because diversity:
To honour Black Britain in this way is a dishonour (especially during Black History Month and post-George Floyd). To honour people who are working class, women, gay, trans… in this way is a dishonour – since colonialism discriminated on more grounds than just race. That deserving people, especially still during Coronavirus, have been honoured – NHS staff, educators, and more – but when British history holds so much violence, how can one in good conscience accept that on the shoulders of your name?
For me, the British Empire is more than a historical footnote to a darker time in British history. It’s inside my identity: my ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears, which is my blood, sweat and tears. My last name, my slave name is the crime scene. My being, is an everlasting symbol of trauma and violence in this winter of our discontent that I cannot walk away from. When I think how both Benjamin Zephaniah and Ken Loach declined Honours, it gives me hope. But when I see Labour MPs with honours, it’s a disrespect to how the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street; it’s also in contempt of how Rochdale millworkers stood in solidarity with enslaved African-American during the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
Yet, in the 21st century, where more people that look like me are writing books and speaking out, could it be down to empire not being taught on curricula to the reason why so many accept these awards? Is there an “I’ve made it” attitude from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation? Do my generation simply not know their history, so do not understand the significance? Though, I wonder if people that look like me think about the history when they accept these awards. That while they are “honoured”, I can hear the establishment cackling in the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough, Jamaica 50, Grenfell and the trauma of stop and search.
In closing, how can anyone know the history and accept the (dis)honour, in the strong arms of colonial laws that stopped people who were Black / Brown, working class, women, gay, trans or had disabilities from realising themselves? And while Black and Brown activists are some of the establishment’s proudest members, they are overrepresented in the morgue, because of inequalities enabled by murderous policies that disproportionately impact people of colour. Evident now in COVID-19. And in the language of today, these are “unprecedented times”, or so they say.
Growing up British-Caribbean, it’s safe to say that I feel like an alien among my own people. That my relatives would accept an honour on the basis, that “they’ve made it” in the “Motherland.” I know them and many of their friends would go to stately homes unhindered by the qualms of colonialism. To dine in halls that would have hosted slave traders like John Locke, Sir John Hawkins, George Washington and members of the Royal African Company. Do I judge those that accept Honours? Not all of them. I have bigger issues with the system, and the educated – activists and historians,
the politicians… who should know better. Many of whom, whose work I have an enormous respect for. Which begs the question, did the sun ever really set on the British Empire?
A sissy works at the beer garden I pass on the way home. In Vietnam, these common watering holes are called “Bia Hoi,” and this one sits at the intersection of two major roads, across from one of the city’s largest parks, on a corner adjacent to one edge of a university campus. To say that this place is a sausage fest would be an understatement. Like drinking holes in so many parts of the world, this is a space for men.
Men come here. Me, too. Although I stick out as a visible foreigner, I am part of the crowd of men. In every part of the world I’ve encountered, there’s nothing weird about a guy sitting around having a beer. Hence, it’s not uncommon for local groups of men to send one over, or invite me to their table for a drink. This has drastically different implications than men in pubs buying drinks for women, especially a woman sitting alone in a drinking hole, which is the LEAST likely thing to see here, despite the number of Bia Hoi’s owned and run by women in Vietnam. The majority here are either men in starched shirts and slacks stepping out, or other groups of guys crossing from the park to gather here for a post-match drink. I started coming here years ago with a man I met through work, and stop by every now and again. As compared to other masculinized spaces, there’s no competition here, and the primary resource – beer – flows freely.
The sissy wears an apron to serve the food and beer. He ties his apron tightly over the same loose orange T-shirt all the other guys wear to serve. This, of course accentuates his curves. While the others walk around baggy, clothes hanging loosely like a barrel sac, with this apron, the sissy has seriously upgraded the uniform with color, shape and flare. What’s more, his hips switch back-n-forth, too quick to be a pendulum. Naw, he switches like nobody’s business, and you really see this the way the beer garden is set-up with several rows of long tables. This is his cat walk. While the other servers seem to be drudging through the labor, the sissy flutters around like a butterfly. And he always looks at each customer, takes time to chat, and seems to have the patience of Job when it comes to their eventual drunkenness. Beer loosens tongues.
The sissy has to march back and forth the serve the orders like a busy bee. It’s hot, so the sissy fans himself with the menu, like it’s a prop, as he prances up-n-down the rows as if it’s his own stage. Everyone else pales in comparison, they’re just there to work. The sissy is there to ‘work’, or as Fergie says: “Make YOU work!” Life’s a stage, they say, and er’body gotta play they part.
The sissy stands at each table like a tea-cup, grinning, weight shifted to one leg, hips leaning to the side, back arched, hand on his hip, holding a pen waiting for the men to call out their food orders. Unlike the other servers who seem to just stand there bluntly to take orders, the sissy acts like a host, and actively shows folks their seats, offers that they take a look at the menu, and genuinely makes sure they are all satisfied.
This sissy has mad flavor, even in this part of his career – of which I know nothing – save for what I’ve seen of him serving beer in a local Bia Hoi. He makes such a flutter when he moves around, just doing his job, that I too, see him on stage, among peers, not drowning in this mundanity. I almost wish he would bring some Hot Lunch from Fame, for those hips are already singing the body electric. Those shoulders practically shimmering as he walks friskily across the pavement, arms stretched open, elbows squeezed, holding a beer in each hand – swish, swish, swish. I can see the musical notes floating around him as he makes his way, doing his job dutifully, albeit with Glee. “Just do it,” I want to say to the sissy. Free us from these seats.
In some places, even today, our existence is a crime.
Since children have gone back to school, there’s been a lot of umming and arghing about whether it’s safe to go back. Having lived with my younger brother more closely these last six months since the lockdown, I have seen him become more in tune with himself. What I have also seen is a shift in what it could possibly mean to be a child in this world, as the gap widens between innocence and experience. When I was a boy, for me, innocence was Winnie the Pooh and the 100-Acre Wood and reading Enid Blyton novels. My brother is twelve years my junior and is really the first generation to grow up with the internet. There are a few saying that the Coronavirus pandemic has taken away this generation of children’s innocence.
However, I am not sure if there was any innocence there to begin with — growing up with the internet, social media and influencers alike.
At twelve, I had MSN and Myspace but his peers have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and more, and are more exposed to the ills of the world than I was. I’m not saying today’s 20-somethings grew up without the internet. Simply, we were on the margins of both worlds. Born in 2008, he will never know a world before YouTube. In April, an article entitled ‘Coronavirus isn’t the end of ‘childhood innocence,’ but an opportunity to rethink children’s rights’ was published by The Conversation. Not only is this the time to rethink their rights but also what it means to be a child in the twenty-first century. As despite there being just over 10 years between us, that is long enough to entertain a sort of generation gap.
Whilst I was born in 1995, growing up in the 2000s, he will never understand why Pokémon was all the rage. That despite Pokémon still being around now (like Pokemon Go), it’s not what it was. When I was ten and twelve, Pokémon was it, including those Game Boy cartridges. What about Tamogotchi, Jetix and Toonatic? Despite being an active user of social media now, this is a new feeling for me, since this stuff wasn’t a dominant when I was younger. To put into context, I was eight when Facebook (2004) was launched, nine with YouTube (2005), and ten with Twitter (2006). And I was sort of banned from social media until I left school.
At fourteen (2010), Instagram was launched. Social media is not something I was born into but it’s something that just arrived as I progressed through my formative years.
In 2017, Simon Curtis’ film Goodbye Christopher Robin was released. A film about children’s author A. A. Milne, with Domhnall Gleeson in the lead role. It follows Milne and his relationship with his son, Christopher Robin Milne. His son went on to inspire Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Here was a film that shows childhood innocence being stripped away with both Billy (as he was known) becoming a child celebrity, and growing up under a father with shellshock from war (today, PTSD). This picture shows the life of a child that carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and came through it “okayish” in the end. However, did it have to be that way?
It’s a story that shows children at their most innocent — from the direct approach of asking questions to their frankness, to loving-nature and playfulness, and jolly humour. And despite COVID, which has impacted everyone to varying degrees, children continue to show their resilience. The pandemic may have interrupted their childhood but their innocence to some extent has not been lost because it wasn’t there to begin with — in a society that is global and information has never been so accessible, the ability for children to be naive has fast slipped away, unlike when my parents were kids. My parents protected me from a lot when I was ten and twelve (2005–2007) which is not as easy over a decade later for my brother — a time where information is more accessible and where trauma can be streamed onto a smartphone or tablet.
What I admire most about parents today is how they parent between the wide-reaching spectrum of innocence and experience. Now having to discuss Black Lives Matter and racism with their children, not just in reaction to societal trauma, but because it is right. From discussing police violence to the slow ‘drip-drip’ of racial microaggressions and the legacy colonialism left behind. Being a parent in 2020 in this “perfect storm”of Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter… it looks tough, but children are often more open than grownups and are constantly full of surprises.
On what would become Winnie the Pooh, Domhnall Gleeson’s Milne says “the creatures in the story are toys — they’re toys but the woods are real.” The days of my early years are gone now, playing in the woods of Salcey Forest without a care in the world. The winds have changed. I grew up on the margins — on the faultlines of a new world. To my brother, as there is over a decade between us, I am a relic to a bygone era. I am a person that does not remember 9/11 outright but also someone that remembers how it made other people feel. I am someone that remembers how the world wasn’t the same after that, and then the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, trauma porn on BBC News at Ten.
When I watch him online with his friends playing videogames, am I seeing innocence, an innocene applicable for his generation and generations to come? When he’s at drama engaged in theatrics and dance, am I seeing it again? Childhood innocence is ineffable and it alters from generation to generation. Do children his age have more in common with the children that lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918) than they do with me? Maybe that’s a stretch. Where is the line between innocence, ignorance and experience? To no longer believe in Father Christmas or the Boogie Man, or the Tooth Fairy, creatures and monsters in the closet. And to not see the sadness behind your parents’ eyes when they pick you up from school.
He (my brother) is often asking me if I am okay. “Are you okay, Tré?” he says. “Are you okay?”
Innocence is more than ignorance and / or lack of experience. I suppose it can often feel like magic — going to the cinema and shutting off for two hours, excluding yourself from the society outside. Maybe this is why I associate popular culture so heavily with feelings of innocence — Paddington Bear and his marmalade sandwiches included. And other things, like Christmas; and Easter eggs; and stories of seagods and mythical beasts — things so divorced from this war-torn world of rationality, as if that is all there is to hang on to.
Childhood innocence is a myth but the perception of it is clung to. Yet, we cannot deny the fact children all experience sadness and grief, pandemic or no. And for children that have experienced disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, poverty, and traumas — but also the children that experience racism and xenophobia — COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter will not be the first time they are faced with reliving those traumas. Yet, in the West, where concepts of “childhood innocence” are most dominant, this may be a chance to decolonise these concepts, which really are only most prevalent when you walk through halls of middle-upper class straight, cis, white, male privilege — somewhat very 19th/ early 20th Century — from Victorian novels to Disney princess films.
I remember when he was born and I often have to stop myself thinking about him as a small child when he will be man before long. What the pandemic is also showing is that children still need to be allowed to be children. Most of us are taking precautions to protect ourselves and our families (quite rightly) but like many diseases, I am thinking Coronavirus is simply one more that we will all have to grow accustomed to, following our ancestors that lived in a world post-Spanish Flu which was then followed by an economic crisis (1929) and the Second World War. Despite COVID and the biggest anti-racist movement in history, as well as a tattered economy, children will still find ways to be children and they must always find ways.
And whilst this concept of “childhood innocence” is mythic, that does not make it negative. That spirit that comes so naturally to children should not be stifled with excuses like “it’s time to grow up now” (there’s plenty of time to adult later). Despite the myth of innocence, children will be children only once. Like the Spanish Flu (1918) and The Bubonic Plague (1665) before COVID, children must be allowed to exist in their ‘100-Acre Paradise’, whatever that looks like. No matter our locale, children have always found ways to express themselves in the ways that come most naturally to them.