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?