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
For the past few years it is telling to see the number of Black people the establishment co-opts into “unofficially” speaking for Black people – from Candace Owens in the United States to Trevor Phillips, and most recently in the UK Parliament’s Black History Month debate with Conservative MP and Under-Secretary for Equalities Kemi Badenoch. Whilst the title of this blog may be rather amusing, this is anything but that. The biggest opposition to racial equality movements in the Black Atlantic, more specifically the US and Britain is not just white racists but how the establishment uses Black and Brown people to reinforce ideas that negatively impact those same communities.
As Black women in Britain, are five times more likely to die from pregnancy, childbirth or in the postpartum period, compared to their white counterparts (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK, 2019) for example, in the next breath Badenoch says “the government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory.” Whether those are also her views or only that of her government, remains to be seen. Whether or not she agrees, she is an MP and has been co-opted by the establishment. People will think she believes those things because she is saying it on a platform. What’s worse, nobody will challenge her because she’s Black, as that means she’s “an expert”… doesn’t it?
For those that don’t know, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a body of scholarship based on the idea that race and racism are a product of social thought and understanding (we know race was socially constructed, and thus we have racism). CRT scholars hope to show the ways in which racism is embedded in society, in ways that have been normalised. Moreover, how it is maintained. So, when we see people like Badenoch, it does not take too long to realise the problems that this can create, pertinently in the middle of this perfect storm of Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic.
Critical Race Theory has its orgins in leftist legal movements of the 1970s. Yet, many Black and Brown scholars (including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others) primarily saw within the frameworks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) that it failed to engage meaningfully with racism, as it [racism] was aligned it with class-based hate / discrimination. However, despite CRT starting in the legal world, it has since spread:
The use of the term Uncle Tom dates back to the 19th century with the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by white American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1850s, it was probably as famous as Disney is today. It was the bestselling novel of the Victorian era and the second bestselling book, only being outsold by the Bible. It outsold every major work by every major author, from Dickens and Thackeray to the Brontes and George Eliot. In Black and British, Prof. David Olusoga tells us Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “a book about Black people, it’s a book about slaves in the deep south of America” and an uncle Tom in its day was a Black man who was thought of as excessively obedient to white people, or someone betraying their cultural or social alleigance.
So, when I talk about Uncle Tom’s cabinet in accordance to the establishment, I extend that term to people of colour more widely, such as how the establishment co-opted Marcus Rashford (though unknowingly to him I think), in his acceptance as a Member of the British Empire [MBE] and when Kanye West said “slavery was a choice.” Also, how Boris Johnson continues to state how the current Tory cabinet is the most diverse it has ever been, very much co-opting people like Home Secretary Priti Patel and the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Still, the hostile environment endures and most impacted by the Windrush Scandal, still have not properly compensated.
From Trevor Phillips’ comments on Islamaphobia to Baroness Lawrence on Grenfell to Candace Owens on literally anything, and Femi Oluwole on blackface (possibily a naive victim here), the establishment co-opts Black/Brown people to promote things that reinforce inequalities or to disrupt equality drives (pushes that were often spearheaded by the left). The establishment ranges from everything between inviting ‘acceptable’ Black people on mainstream media to Black/Brown MPs that don’t really challenge anything, to giving Black and Brown people Empire medals.
All these people at one point or other have been co-opted to “speak for Black / Brown people”, and because they are visibily not white, the public will take their opinons as gospel. Co-opted by white institutions they’re ticking diversity quotas and being ‘accepted’ into the establishment whilst at the same time harming the communities they are “speaking for”, often with little knowledge, especially historically. I can only speak for myself and they do not speak for me. How Black / Brown establishment types have been co-opted, (ironically incl. activists), is even more problematic when we encounter acronyms like BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic].
Not every Black or Brown person high in our institutions is [knowingly] an Uncle Tom but there are more Kemi Badenoch characters in our institutions dressed up in the guise of “diversity” and “representation” than we realise (not all skin folk are kinfolk), be aware!
The views of Black and Brown people that read from the hymn sheet of the Conservative Party need to be countered by opposing views from other Black and Brown people. Seemingly, in these talks, especially on TV shows, the viewpoints of Black/Brown activist-academics is missing, as it will most likely be a point of view that does not fit the narrative. The most vocal academic I see is Prof. Kehinde Andrews who brings a breath of fresh air to all these debates. However, we also need to see the view of young people and students, as well as the points of view of the Black working class. Despite there being lots of educated people on this shows, they are also very privileged, including Kehinde Andrews, a professor at Birmingham City.
Uncle Tom’s cabinet is something I thought about in relation to how specifically the Conservative Party has used Black / Brown MPs to reinforce damaging messages. But it’s something that can be extended to all of society. White supremacy doesn’t become less dangerous when the person that’s reinforcing it is not white. If anything, one could say it becomes more so. The words of MP Kemi Badenoch in that Black History Month debate about curriculum and more, make me ask questions about neo-colonialism and what epistemic violence could mean in the context of parliament and those that dictate what gets put on the national curriculum.
Listening to Kemi Badenoch, you see the caste of Eton rearing its head and it doesn’t change a shade in the colonised minds of Multiracial Britain. She may not have gone to Eton, but the Commons speaks to privilege of caste and class. And to keep a population compliant, you give them scraps and cut them off from knowledge and make them say thank you when you do give them something, oh so evident in many of the minds of former-colonial subjects and their descendants. If Critical Race Theory was to succeed, the building blocks of which society currently is built upon would tumble down. To be anti-racist, you really have to be anti-capitalist as well.
In watching Kemi Badenoch’s speech you begin to see she really believes what she’s saying; she doesn’t change a shade, no change in expression or volume, because the “House Negro” still has a place in the 21st century and the only colour the ominous “they” truly care about, is green.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2006). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York: NYU Press.
Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK (2019). Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care: Lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2015-17. Oxford: Oxuniprint.
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.