What has now been donned as the ‘mitten meme’ shows a different kind of politics is possible. The inaugarations and campaigns of the past portray a culture of Hollywood and slick photo-finishes. The rise of meme culture in the last decade shows that the things that go viral aren’t perfect, but genuine, catching moments and people at both their most vulnerable but also most relaxed. Moments in history of pure beauty. The recent Bernie Sanders ‘mittens meme’ that went viral is an indicator that the US’ Hollywood-esque nature of politics is fast ending, in the epilogue of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, and even the duke John Wayne when he used his stardom to support presidential candidates in the Golden Age of Hollywood up to the 1950s. Where once, nice photos and poetry would have been enough, they are now being dwarfed by meme culture.
Amanda Gorman’s poem will go down in history and the Obama-Harris fist bump was a nice touch, but memes have a wide-ranging universal appeal that the Dems need to use if they are to remain relevant and not get left behind, and perhaps lose re-election 2025
The American political left(ish) with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Rep. Cori Bush and The Squad, show the side of the Democratic Party that is forward-thinking and embracing of ideas that some would call radical, or simply ‘socialist’ putting people first. I mean, AOC is on Tik Tok, and engages with her base over videogames. With the exit of Donald Trump, the United States has been restored to its default settings. The more establishment side of the Democratic Party with Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama and their like need to embrace the changes that are fast coming whether they like it or not. This could start with welcoming those more progressive members of the Democrats in a Party that is violently split.
In the UK, Labour also have that split, with Starmer and company on one side and those that supported Corbyn on the other. If Labour is to be relevant, they need to embrace the progressives (like Zara Sultana for example), and be some sort of opposition to the Tories (one would hope). Labour may well be elected at the next election due to the draconian leadership of the Tories this past year, but will Labour keep power if they continue with their omerta? In 2020, Sultana brought her student finance statement into House of Commons, an allegory for a generation that have no problems in being critical of power in a very direct manner. Especially in a time where women, even in politics, are tone-policed for speaking their minds. Imagine being part of an institution, where you have to police outrage as people die by the day from this deadly contagion.
Speaking on things how you see it without repercussion has often always been a privilege exclusive to cishet White men. Progressives, pertinently those that are women of colour, continue to be policed by the Whiteness around them, and I would say Whiteness in this context has as much to do with skin colour as patriarchy has to do with men. In essence, the Whiteness presented by the Black and Brown Tories exhibits the spirit of empire and patriarchy can be reproduced by women as well. Simone de Beavoir (1947) wrote that “the oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed themselves.” When we talk about privilege, Senator Bernie Sanders scored the jackpot of white, straight man but he also marched with Dr. Martin Luther King on Washington in 1963. Sanders is nearly 80 years old and age is so often scapegoated as a block for doing equality, someone that’s dedicated their life to anti-discriminatory causes.
The Memeification of Bernie Sanders didn’t start with those mittens but earlier. The Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash is not just an honourific but a real Facebook group. I think one of the most forward-thinking things the Biden-Harris Administration could do is embrace the more progressive members of the Democratic Party. If they want to combat things like racism, this also means interrogating capitalism. But these interrogations of capitalism are also what ultimately ended Jimmy Carter’s career in his ‘crisis of confidence.’ If the Biden-Harris administration are serious about about making Black lives matter, perhaps they should take ‘Defund the Police’ more seriously (but Harris is the US’ top cop). Something Cori Bush ran a campaign rallied around. Obama criticised it as a “snappy slogan” but this is a demand to keep Black people alive.
There are many that want reform to policing and prisons, but isn’t reform what got us here? All it does is maintain the status quo. Angela Davis (2020) argues that “movements against racist police violence and against entrenched racial injustices in [America’s] jails and prisons can claim a history that is almost as old as the institutions themselves.” Davis one of the longest-standing advocates of prison abolition, is essentially saying that these movements are as long-standing as the histories of violence within these structures. She continues “…because opposition and protests calling for reform have played such a central role in shaping structures of policing and punishment, the notion of reform has superseded other paths toward change.”
Biden-Harris aren’t radical; yet, post-COVID, more left-leaning politics is going to be the difference between life and death, at least for the working-class and ethnic minorities. Moreover, the power of memes as a campaigning and propaganda tool is still being treated as a millenial/iGen fad, and the Dems/Labour are missing a trick here to assure their legacy for a generation or more, whilst also remaining grounded with the youth.
As someone that lives in the privilege of not actually had to experience Coronavirus (to my knowledge), I have spent a good portion of last year on the sidelines. Losing my auntie during my undergrad in January 2017, and then my cousin Steve at the start of 2020 (some of you may know him as the owner of Kettering Road’s Driver), I think many would agree with me when I say ‘grief makes you humble.’ In typical Caribbean fashion, Steve’s wake made me remember the importance of community and togetherness. He ran Drivers Menswear in Northampton and if you blinked you wouldn’t know it was there, a shop that had been there since the 1980s. With its closure in 2020, that marked the end of an era, and I will now have to find somewhere else to buy jeans!
Growing up here, many of the people I know in the community and work with have actually known me for years. And in some cases, have known me for all my life (basically), very much including staples of the West Indian community like at Inspiration FM
Some time after Steve’s funeral, we were thrust into Lockdown 1.0 by the Government and it was in those months between March and June that I saw that power of community again. Albeit a symbolic gesture, clapping for the National Health Service on Thursdays in some cases was the one thing keeping some people going. It was a recurrence that kept their mind at bay in the chaos of the pandemic. I ran events online too, and people were grateful. In that same breath, it is evident to see the number of people grassing up their neighbours for flouting the rules, or attacking people for criticising the police’s £10,000 fines for those that break the rules. Last year, I also watched a number of films, including a rewatch of Goodfellas. Even in a health crisis where people have broken the rules, Robert DeNiro’s voice as Jimmy Conway is in my head telling me “to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” When in doubt, listen to Scorsese!
These people may be rule-breakers but I know if it comes to the wire, these are also the same people (not government) that would put people ahead of profit. Fellow blogger @drkukustr8talk wrote a Facebook post saying “If anything, Corona taught us____” and I commented “There is more of a community than I thought there was”, to which he replied “NOW, dear Tre, THAT is a LOT coming from you.” Yes, I’m sure @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou will attest to that too, seeing from our number of conversations since meeting them in September 2019. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin and I grew up in The Commmunity. However, not like I have seen this past year. My work as an educator engaging with people inside and outside Northamptonshire’s borders tied, with the Murder of George Floyd/the protests and the pandemic, it’s left me thinking that when I gave humanity chance, locally, humanity actually delivered.
November came and I was awarded ‘Northampton’s Male Role Model of the Year.’ That was humbling. It wasn’t the award that really got to me. It’s the love and respect of your neighbours, and that’s not something one can articulate in words. I thought about this feeling again when I found myself watching the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children. Albert Perks has always been my favourite character, very much a man of his generation. Not taking charity but also respects his community. You do right to others, they do right to you. That sort of mentality. This is a character I came across at twelve years old and I have not been the same since. The award is second to the number of people that voted for me, and I will take that to my grave.
December came, and I bought Christmas presents. I am as surprised as you. For years, I have famously been a humbug inside and outside of my family. Forever anti-Christmas on the basis it was “a super-spreader of consumerism” (Ventour, 2010). My mother makes jokes about it, recalling to when I was kid walking around Abington Street in a hat with bah humbug on the side. The pandemic tied with BLM and meeting all the wonderful people at Amplified NN allowed me to break my “life rules.” Grief makes you humble. With the addition of Coronavirus, you could say it has made me soft (not that I was an awful person before). If the COVID pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that so many of us were living life on incompatible frequencies and were trying to make the parts fit. We also saw how kindness was a shock to the system, since in the words Tennessee Williams so few have ever “depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I bought presents for the first time in ten years; I have the love and respect of my neighbours and I started a Masters in September. I don’t spend my days waving at ‘kind old gentlemen’ on the trains going by, but I think in fifty years that there may be three children that may think of me as that old gentleman (but not that old of course), or by the time I’m forty-one… I’m not too different to Albert Perks and there is power in that.
Part 2 of a Two-Part Post
When I have had discussions with students and even academics about empire or the violence of the English state, it always interests me to hear the excuses as to why white people may have less of a reason to turn down a British Empire medal when it comes to the Queen’s Honours. There’s this idea that the violence of the British Empire only impacted those who were visibly not white. Whilst you cannot necessarily alot a skin colour to Ireland, it is a stereotypical white place, and hasn’t had Black populations for a long time (Dabiri, 2019). Ireland was also a testing ground for British colonialism. There is a very good reason why so many of my Irish colleagues are anti-imperialist. It’s almost as if, in discourses about not only the British Empire but the history of the English monarchy in relation to its neighbours (Scotland and Wales too), there is a historical amnesia, including the history in the title of the ‘ Prince of Wales’ dating back to the twelfth century.
In 2017 actor Michael Sheen quietly gave up his OBE so he could openly criticise the Royal Family without being labelled a hypocrite. Before the twelfth century, the title ‘Prince of Wales’ was held by native Welsh princes. Edward I, an English king, gave his son, Edward, the title, the first English prince of Wales in 1301. Sheen elected to give up his OBE after doing research for his 2017 Raymond Williams lecture. Learning about his native Welsh history, he saw he could not both do this lecture and hold on to his medal. In conversation with Owen Jones, Sheen talks about how in 2018 there was push to rename the second Severn Crossing the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’, later recieving a petition against it garnering over 30,000 signatures. History holds power and the reason why Edward made his son Prince of Wales was to help quash the Welsh ‘rebellion.’
The reasons why some reject Honours are in many cases much ado with the British Empire but the violence committed by the Royal Family to its neighbours far predates our contemporary views of what defined the colonial project. Robert van Krieken (2011) states that looking at Irish history “makes it possible to see the extent to which the English conception of ‘the savage’ and indeed of the whole colonial project was anchored in the perception of the Irish and ‘Irishness’.” This dates back to the twelfth century and English encounters with the Irish, Welsh and Scots “constituted an important watershed in the development of what both civilization and barbarianism were…” So concepts that were donned on Black and Brown people during colonialism through racist science, actually originated with the othering of those also racialised as white.
In November 2020, activist Gina Martin declined an OBE concerned about its ties to oppression and the British Empire. She was being honoured for her activist work, namely the anti-upskirting campaign that lead to the construction of the Voyerusim (Offences) Act 2019. Over the years, many have declined honours, from Ken Loach and Nigella Lawson to Benjamin Zephaniah and Howard Gayle. Today, when ethnic minorities more generally accept or decline these awards, it is deeply politicised. In accepting one, you will be judged as ‘selling out’ to the establishment and in declining one, there is a possible interpretation of you being ‘too angry’ or ‘political’, and the worst of all ‘ungrateful’ to the country you live in. And the connotations of gratefulness in the context of Black people, Brown people and immigrants is a story also worth telling.
A good portion of the people I would call role models (to varying degrees) have them, from some of my favourite actors to empire historians, filmmakers and activists. In the New Year, Lewis Hamilton is set to add a knighthood to his MBE. Both my grandfather and Lewis Hamitlon’s grandfather grew up on the same hill in Grenada. As children, they would race carts down the hill together. Seeing Lewis Hamilton come out for the Black lives matter movement as he did during the summer was a positive. He already had an MBE at that point. However, now in seemingly accepting a knighthood as well for contributions to sport, I am asking more quesitons. Perhaps he’s virtue signalling off the back of this new pro-Black consciousness. In his knighthood, I am reminded of the stories of how Leapers’ Hill in Grenada gained its name… how the First People jumped from the hills to their deaths to avoid capture and/or enslavement. Or that’s the European version… seemingly if we knew the real details, this would be a gross understatement of what actually happened!
The Honours list raises more concerns for me about the face of Black activism in Britain, very much one that is establishment. Despite the success of Small Axe, Steve McQueen like Lewis, has two honours, a knighthood and a CBE. During the summer, we saw David Olusoga OBE deliver a brilliant MacTaggart lecture on race and representation in the media, and a video on white privilege by John Amaechi OBE went viral. I have also seen people awarded honours for contributions to equality, diversity and inclusion… oxymoron much? In Marcus Rashford, I see someone that was a victim of his MBE, with possible pressure from his family to accept at such a young age. Would he have had to campaign for free school meal vouchers for children, had it not been for the Government’s 19th century policies and ideologies? The answers I get to my dislike of the Honours system is that it allows change from within. But I wonder, how can you put a fire out from inside the house?
In the face of Black activism and those speaking out on television, there is a large whiff of Black exceptionalism and unsaid thoughts of them being “some of the good ones”… the voices of the Black working-class are lost, and a few Guardian articles isn’t enough.
The fact ‘British Empire’ is also in the title is another problem, linked to the idea that the Royal Family hand out these medals based on recommendations from Government. The most ironic one of late being Marcus Rashford, it almost feels like the powers that be had the last laugh. In discussions about the Honours system and change from within, I would ask you to think about Audre Lorde’s ideas about power as “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The tools of colonisers were not designed to liberate the colonised; Whiteness cannot be used to dismantle White supremacy; “this fact is only threatening to [those] who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” (Lorde, continued). There is an African proverb that states “the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
Those three letters after your name are one problem, historical amnesia is another; however, the biggest one of all is how activists and community campaigners still take emblems to empire undermining the integrity of all activist movements. Not every activist/campaigner with Honours feels disowned by their community, but we need to be careful in what local leaders accept from the local/national ivory towers, so those working to tackle inequalities in our communities do not end up looking like hypocrites.
Watching last night’s finale to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe took me back to when I was at school. Unknown to many, I was a student that was considered Special Educational Needs [SEN]. Today, as a Black Caribbean SEN boy I would be 168 times more likely than my white counterpart to be excluded (Crenna-Jennings, 2017). I had extra classes and was in the minds of the white education system “educationally subnormal” [ESN]. How my experience of school differs to a good many Black students in this country though, in that I was at private school. Being the only Black student in the school to then need extra classes to keep up has a specific set of connotations. Looking back on this part of my personal history now, shows me that did I really need extra classes, or does education still not know how to treat students as individals? Moreover, is the system not designed for such an endeavour? The added invisible disability of dyspraxia also brought its own challenges. So, last night, I know if I was a boy in the 1970s, I would have been put in an ESN. No doubt about it.
McQueen’s picture has also cast my mind back to earlier on in the summer, when the cancelling of A-Level and GCSE examinations saw a resurgence of discussion about the embedded racism in the education system… when Race Equality specialist Sofia Akel wrote “predicted grades are a lottery of privilege where Black students almost always lose.” Unlike me, many Black students in this country, just like Kingsley go / went through the state system, just like my parents did during the 1980s. And I know my grandparents, also from Grenada, would remember the publication of Grenadian politician Bernard Coard’s seminal pamphlet How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System (1971).
Those schools no longer exist as those schools, they’re simply called “Pupil Referral Units”, or the same students that would be put into an ESN are today now excluded, Black Caribbeans disproportionately (Department of Education), along with Irish Traveller and Roma students, respectively… however, stats do not give you context.
Roma and Irish Traveller communities in Wales, for example, do not typically engage in the mainstream school system to the same levels as other ethnic groups (Fensham-Smith, 2014) and in the UK at large, we are some way from removing those barriers to this community (Hamilton, 2017). So, to see the data to also include this community despite so few of them in mainstream education, is a damning indictment as a whole. However, exclusion/isolation data for Black Caribbeans is also shocking and it has precedent going back 50 years.
Growing up, my mother and godmother started the Garvey Saturday School (2010) to combat the barriers facing Black Caribbean students in Northamptonshire. Amongst Caribbean communities, especially women in my experience, education is thought of as vital part of life, much alike breathing. Especially being around my mother’s friends, my aunties, grandmothers, women cousins… the passion about education was at the centre of Caribbean matriarchs and I hold fond memories of them telling me to study. But above that, learn, and to find something I was passionate about. Akel goes on to discuss the long-held idea that Black people must “work twice as hard to get half as far, an adage that has very real implications in 21st century UK schooling.”
At the higher end of the educational chain at universities; as a sabbatical officer it was evident to see the number of Black students being pulled through disciplinary panels in both housing misdemeanors but also assessment offenses (academic misconduct). What were then called ESNs in the school system are now Pupil Referral Units that set up Black students for jail, whilst simultaneously those university disciplinary panels feeling a lot like what I believe a police custody interrogation to feel like. Schools set students up for prison, especially Black students, and higher education is simply another violent institution should that student avoid the jail cell schools set them up for. And the hegemonic processes at schools (and universities) “are based in assumption about what embodied discipline looks like” (Graham, 2019: 132).
By showing the trajectory that Black students go, from the moment they enter the education system, private included (it just has differences), we are able to see the nature of the beast of racism in the education sector to the point that my colleague Liz Pemberton AKA The Black Nursery Manager runs an establishment in Birmingham that prides itself around issues of race and culture, very much catering for Afro-Caribbean children. You would think there isn’t racism in Early Years, right? Wrong. Liz has been doing some sterling work and I recommend you all follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn, and it truly shows to critique racism in education we also need to look at Early Years.
Presented by David Harewood, in 2017, the BBC aired the documentary Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? (above). It explored the chances of a Black British child progressing through life via the education system, from the biased marking of in-school test scores to university chances and independently-marked GCSEs (where markers don’t know the student’s ethnicity). This was backed by research from Professor Simon Burgess that shows teachers that know their students, have a clear bias (not that unconscious). The finale to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe makes me think to education and COVID and looking at the impact that predicted grades have on Black students in a system that is already rigged against them, even outside of the grades part.
Even after Black students slog through school fighting off all numbers of barriers, they then come to the ivory towers of academia and UCAS, very much following the tradition of structural racism entrenched in the education system, as Black students are also twenty-two times more likely to face investigation by UCAS’ verification services compared to their white counterparts (Busby, 2018). Despite slogging through Britain’s education system as I have, my struggle was less so without the added layer of class. Even in my experience, at that time, I drew the golden ticket of privilege of private education where my only challenge was racism. Classism was there, not in the barriers to access but more the prejudice because I came from that background.
Bernard Coard’s seminal pamphlet is as relevant now as it was in 1971; the ESNs have changed their face but Black students continue to be failed by the education system at every level, from Early Years and Primary, to Secondary, Further Education [FE] and universities, don’t even get me started on the experiences of Black educators in schools and higher education… that’s for another blog for another Monday. Indeed!
Frensham-Smith, Amber (2014) Gypsy and Traveller Education: Engaging Families – A Research Report. Cardiff: Welsh Government. Available: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/21443/1/141125-gypsy-traveller-education-engaging-families-en.pdf
Graham, Karen (2019) The British School-to-Prison Pipeline. In: Andrews, K and Palmer, Lisa Amanda. Blackness in Britain. London: Routledge. pp.130-142.
Hamilton, Paula (2017) Engaging Gypsy and Traveller pupils in secondary education in Wales: tensions and dilemmas of addressing difference. International Studies in Sociology of Education. 27(1). pp. 4-22. Available: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09620214.2017.1377100?needAccess=true
As vaccines are now being rolled out across the UK, Black people are questioning not only whether they should take it, but also the intergity of the vaccine. Does it have their welfare at heart? Whilst vaccines historically have done a lot of good for communities in battling against disease, it cannot be forgotten that science and medical trials under the umbrella of “colonial medicine” do not have a flattering past in the context of Black Atlantic diasporic peoples. However, we also know that for the vaccine to have maximum impact Black and Brown communities need to take part as well. We are the global majority and the vaccine will essentially fail without us. Coronavirus disproportionately impacts Black Africans and Caribbeans but also South Asians. Without everyone’s participation, there could come a day when people are laying blame for the continuation of Coronavirus in the UK on ethnic minority groups that don’t trust it.
Despite being tagged to a YouTube video (urgh), an ill-thoughtout tweet that went viral by Small Axe star Letitia Wright asked questions about the integrity of a vaccine, only for her to later delete the tweet/her account when the torrents of abuse came.
The disproportionate outcomes with the Coronavirus show Black people in the UK and the United States as part of the groups most likely to die from the disease. In Britain, a Channel 4 documentary entitled Is COVID Racist? shows that it’s not the disease as a singular entity that is killing us off at a disproportionate rate, but entrenched inequality, including poverty and structural racism. The first ten NHS staff to die from COVID-related afflictions were from a Black, Brown or ethnic minority background. A 100% death rate is unheard of and now two thirds of NHS deaths from the virus are from a Black, Brown or ethnic minority background.
By itself, Coronavirus is not racist but the environmental factors that plague Black and Brown people are, which then adds to the biological weathering: from nearly 3 in 5 ethnic minority UK households in poverty, to being stopped and searched on the way to work, these are the sorts of things that consistently add to the biological weathering.
When we look at the history of science in the West in the context of the Black Atlantic diaspora, it is not pleasant reading. Surveys done in both the United States and England show a mistrust in this vaccine with Black and Brown groups, whilst white people seem more likely to get the vaccine at large. With specifically Black communities, why they are less likely to get the vaccine could be a whole number of factors: from the history of experimentation on Black people throughout the colonial era to how Black people have been treated during the pandemic and lockdowns by society as a whole. Really, to think (all) institutions have your best interest at heart comes with degrees of privilege. In this case, one could conclude, a white privilege.
Growing up as I have, around Caribbeans who have a very real experience of white supremacy on those islands, but also when they came to this country as immigrants, it’s not really surprising to see scepticism. Caribbean interraction with white public bodies has rarely been positive. But vaccines have been one of the most effective things to help communities in the last century. However, there have been mistakes; and for Black communities, there have been outright acts of violence committed against us in the name of science. Despite a good safety record, there is a history of untold untaught horrors committed against Black people in the name of science and public good. It would do us well to not lump their scepticism of vaccinations with the anti-vaxxers that get their info from YouTube hacks. Black people asking questions about vaccines can be viewed as a Black lives matter issue, since there is a legacy of poor medical treatment and dubious practices.
To understand the roots of why there are activist movements to make Black lives matter, we need to understand the racial pseudoscience that underpinned colonial racial thinking. Even prior to colonialism as we know it, contempt for Black dignity is beyond reasonable doubt. Bristol University professor Olivette Otele writes about how European fourteenth century medical scholars drew on Aristotle’s ideas about blood and heat, arriving at the conclusion “that the milk of black women had more nutrients… the body heat of dark and dusky women rendered their milk more digestible and therefore better quality for the child” (2020: 28).
However, the thinker that has done untold damage to how Africans are seen was Edward Long, a slaveowner and the son of a slaveowner, with his ideas about Black people and Africa widely accepted as scientific fact in his day, even though he was not even a scientist. His book The History of Jamaica donned the African continent as “the parent of everything that is monstrous in nature” (Long, 1744: 383) with many sections denouncing Blackness and Africanness as inferior and less than human. The fact he spent twelve years in the Caribbean gave the audiences of the 18th century some “certainty” he was credible. Echoes of his work can be seen in novels that came after him by writers, including Joseph Conrad, H.G Wells and Bram Stoker. Poisonous racist science was also perpetuated by medical professionals. In the late 1700s, an English physician by the name of Charles White (1799) provided empirical science for the hierachies of race, claiming Black people had a seperate origin to white people, namely Black people came from primates and white people did not.
In Black and British, Professor David Olusoga says that the first user of Victorian “new racism” (2017: 349) was an essayist and critic called Thomas Carlyle. In 1849, he pens an essay called ‘The Negro Problem’.
See this extract:
“…till the European white man first saw them, some three short centuries ago, those islands had produced mere jungle, savagery, poison reptiles and swamp malaria till the white European first saw them, they were, as if not yet created; their noble elements of cinnamon — sugar, coffee, pepper, black and gray, lying all asleep, waiting the white Enchanter, who should say to them, awake!” (Carlyle, 1849)
Another thinker in this field was French novelist Arthur de Gobineau (1853), writing “… the Polynesian negroes, the Samoyedes and others in the far north, and the majority of the African races, have never been able to shake themselves free from their impotence.”
According to Emma Dabiri (2019), he was famous for his views on Aryanism and the concept that Black people were privileged for being allowed to exist on the lowest rungs of the racial order. Additionally, he was an aristocrat most famous for helping to legitamise racism through the use of scientific theory and “racial demography”, moreover, developing the theory of the Aryan master race.
The ideas perpetuated by these academics, medical experts and so forth underpinned colonialism and enslavement. It put Black life at the bottom of the pile. We are still living with this legacy today… from overpolicing Black communities, to low expectations of Black students (Busby, 2018). This is what allowed J. Marion Simms to experiment on enslaved Black women in pursuit of what today is called gynaecology, with his unethical torturous practices. Yet, since there were intellectual justifications made by academics prior, these acts could be carried out without a thought. In the eyes of the law and in public consciousness, Black people were subhuman in colony and metropole. And when the US Public Health Service gave a number Black Americans syphilis (1932-1970) in the Tuskegee Study, the pseudoscience that permeated through enslavement ran rampant, pertinently in the thick of Jim Crow Laws that weren’t abolished until 1965.
The case of Henrietta Lacks and her family in the United States is another example of contempt for Black life; where her cells were taken from her before she died. They were used to study diseases without her permission and shared around the world. Moreover, in the years of French colonialism in Africa, what about the horrific experimentations carried out on Black African people? There is a precedent behind current mistrust.
Black Atlantic diasporic vaccine scepticism may be inspired by the trend set by history but it also may have something to do with the present, where Black people continue to be treated with contempt by healthcare and medical services. Disproportionate deaths from Coronavirus is just one example. In the UK, Black people are four times more likely to be detained under The Mental Health Act (DoH, 2019/20) and Black women are five times more likely to die from childbirth or related complications (MBRRACE UK, 2019). Additionally, on the African continent itself, there has been discussion around concerns about a number of clinical trials such as the malaria trial by World Health Organization [WHO]. Furthermore, a legal battle between Pfizer, and Kano in Nigeria over the tests being done on Trovan, a drug to combat meningitis.
There is a Black history to clinical trials and science that isn’t being taught or widely known. This is the irony that the people disproportionately impacted by Coronavirus (significantly helped along by systemic inequality) are also the same people that need to take it. However, these same communities don’t trust the system because of history and a contemporary where the system has not worked for them. If the UK government wants Black people to take a vaccine (not necessarily this current one), they need to change the messaging around COVID, like government aides and advisors saying institutional racism doesn’t exist. Whilst the history articulated so far is damaging on racial grounds, there are also scientific histories written in violence in the context of gender, class, sexuality and disability as well – from electrock therapy to eugenics.
The story of Black communities’ historic interactions with western science/scientists is damning; the present contemporary narrative of healthcare’s interactions with Black UK and Black American communities is also damning and both are well evidenced, there’s lots of improvements to made on both sides of the pond and we can do better.
Carlyle, T (1849) “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (London, Vol. XL., February 1849). Available from:
Dabiri, Emma (2019) Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane.
De Gobineau, J, A (1853) The Inequality of Human Races. London: William Heinemann. Available: https://ia800501.us.archive.org/27/items/inequalityofhuma00gobi/inequalityofhuma00gobi.pdf
Long, E (1774/2002). The History of Jamaica, Volume 2: Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. London: Ian Randle.
Olusoga, D (2017) Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Macmillan.
Otelle, Olivette (2020) African European. London: Hurst and Company, London.
White, C (1799) An account of the regular gradation in man, and in different animals and vegetables. Edinburgh: C, Dilly. Available: https://archive.org/details/b24924507/page/n3/mode/2up
I think I speak for most people when I say, nobody expected 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic tied with the murder of George Floyd by American police officers and the subsequent anti-racism protests across the UK, the US and the rest of the world has created what one would call a perfect storm. 2020 has allowed Northampton and the county as a whole to show us who it is, who the people are in their hearts and real the definition of community. I started this year thinking about the Windrush Scandal, as that injustice has continued through the pandemic with the prolonging of the government’s hostile environment policies.
Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned report published in March (just as we went into the first lockdown) struck a note for me, as members of that Windrush Generation would also have been caught up in the Coronavirus pandemic, a contagion that has disproportionate outcomes against Black, Brown and ethnic minority communities. Being nominated for this award really took me by surprise, as it was totally unexpected. I have come to realise that what people and in some cases me myself have defined as activism, is simply doing what I think to be right. The moral thing.
Pushes for equal rights like Black lives matter shouldn’t be political but they are by their nature. Whether we’re talking about Votes for Women in the early 20th century to workers’ rights with the Miners Strikes in the Thatcher era as well as the Poll Tax Riots… or even the narrative around race with Stephen Lawrence. All movements for equality have inspired me and continue to do today, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the pushes for gay rights and trans rights both now in the 21st century but also the movements from which it started dating back to Stonewall in 1969.
International Men’s Day encompasses men from all parts of society, an intersectionality of experiences: Black men, white men; gay men, straight men; trans, autistic, working-class, middle-class, immigrants, refugees… an intersectionality of experiences all worth exploring and celebrating. In the process of my activism if you want to call it that, and pushing for equality; especially in the buzzword of 2020 ‘anti-racism’, many have come to see me as a role model. First and foremost, I would like to thank my parents for showing me what activism looks like.
My parents that survived the 1980s for me to be here (not everyone was so lucky. That decade is the closest this country has to a Civil Rights-era level event. My mother growing up in Northamptonshire which back then was its own battleground in terms of racism, and also my father from Lichfield, Staffordshire having numerous experiences of racism in Birmingham and Handsworth.
They lived and survived, so I could live and survive, and my grandparents for making that trip from the West Indies… members of that Windrush Generation that give so much and take so little. People like me are my ancestors’ wildest dreams but we also have much farther to go.
So, thanks to them. I want to thank Hannah Litt, Emma Shane, Josh West and the members of Amplified NN who have come out for their community, also as activists in their own right. I want to thank Paula Bowles and Manos Daskalou, the senior lecturers of University of Northampton’s criminology department, for standing by me and supporting my work during my time at Waterside and still continueing to do so now, as colleagues and my friends.
I also want to than Anjona Roy and the team at Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council for supporting things I have done, both as a director at NREC but also when I was at the university, and prior. I would also like to thank Rebecca Clark, Karen Adams and team at Black Lives Matter Buckingham for welcoming me into their ranks and really for allowing me to push for change in that community as well. If this pandemic has shown us anything, I think it’s that we need to stand by our words and principles.
We all need to be leaders in our communities. Too many leaders and authority figures are the embodiment of “do as I say, not say as I do.” In this award, I have tried to encompass the opposite. Stand with your community where possible and I will end with a quote from the famous slave abolitionist and human rights campaigner Frederick Douglass…
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And as Douglass said again, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I graciously accept this award but we need to keep it pushing.
Thanks very much.
As President-elect Joe Biden has seen off Donald Trump, the one people are talking about is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In her appointment, and even throughout this whole campaign, it is evident that race and America are like two peas in a pod; yin and yang; ice and fire… and Biden choosing her as his Vice President provokes America’s underbelly to show its teeth. Born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, in Britain Kamala is someone that we would call Multiracial or Mixed-Race. However, in America, they still practice the one-drop rule where one Black ancestor makes a person Black.
And you only have to look at the media headlines as well as the rhetoric on Twitter to see how she, like many Black women in past and present is a victim of misogynoir
Being celebrated in numerous places as the first Black, first Asian, first Indian, first woman Vice President; of course there were flare ups on social media and it really makes me think about identity, pertinently for people that do not fit into monracial boxes. Mixed-Race is the fastest growing racial group but it’s also the one where important conversations are not being had. Like Kamala Harris, former-President Barack Obama is Mixed-Race, raised by his white mother but he is racialised as Black. Harris’ Jamaican and Indian heritage means she is also from a Multiracial background.
Moreover, Jamaica: a place that has been home to Africans, Jews, Lebanese, white European, Indians, Chinese, white creoles and more. What happened in Jamaica is also indicative of what happened on other islands, including Trinidad, Grenada and St. Kitts & Nevis. The Caribbean by its history of migration is Mixed-Race. Blackness has a Mixed-Race history. As far as race is concerned, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown me that Black is more of a political stance and identity, than a race. Race is a construct but if we take that construct at face value, there’s millions of people like me that “look Black” (darker skin / tighter hair) who are actually Multiracial.
The Black Lives Matter movement also is making me think about how much we don’t know about Blackness, Black identity, heritage and history; furthermore, how in Black communities, this is still an uncomfortable conversation
Barack Obama was celebrated as the first Black president of the United States but his mother was white. Both Harris’ Black and Indian identities are being celebrated, as well as being the first woman Vice President. In this reflection, it can be noted what identities are being used in political football and which ones aren’t. Using Obama and Harris as a conduit, it is a reminder of the monoracial boxes that Black history is being seen through. What we also have to realise is that Black has changed meaning over time and Black is not a monolith, and neither is Mixed-Race. Blackness is fluid.
Whether we agree with her politics is another conversation entirely, and whether Harris claimed her Black ancestry prior is another discussion; we don’t know what her relationship is like with her Blackness, as the road to being one with your own racial identity is a long one… I am not sure anyone’s in a place to judge – Black, white or otherwise.
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?
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.
What I do know is that he is very happy to be back at school seeing his friends and teachers, despite the measures; the classroom can be a 100-Acre Paradise and the world my parents are raising him in is not the same as the one in which they raised me.
Ignorance, thoughtlessness and apathy are only three of the terms that come to mind when I think about the implementation of the Black postboxes, four across the country: in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively. However, in the past few years, particularly, the last few months since the pandemic, I think many of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds have had enough symbolic gestures to last a lifetime – from ‘clap for our carers’ (albeit enjoyed by some but really of no real substance) to those female traffic lights. In this epilogue of George Floyd, with a resurgence to decolonise the curriculum, some brightspark thought four Black postboxes would be a good idea to commemorate Black History Month this year.
Postboxes aside, those that they are commemorating have a right to be remembered, though “a bit of copout” in my opinion, and a very easy escape from using these postboxes to discuss any of the less ‘acceptable’ histories… i.e the Cardiff Race Riots (1919) or the Bechuanaland Chiefs (1895)
Black Lives Matter has left many of us in our communities nationwide in deep reflection and introspection, that we really do not know the legacy of Black contributions to the world, particularly to Britain. Walter Tull and Mary Seacole are known, particularly the latter. (Sir) Lenny Henry (CBE) is very safe and indicative of the “good Black British history” that is easy (not too political, not too angry). What these three have in common is their seemingly “non-threateningness”, which fits patrial British depictions of Black people, as if it was pulled from the reels of one of those Old Hollywood films – versions of Black ‘tolerated’ by the ‘great and the good.’
In the thick of the biggest anti-Black racism movement in history, rallied behind the message of “stop killing Black people”, we are subject to more nonsensical symbolic gestures, virtue signalling and performative allyship.
Embedded in the recommendations made in the Wendy Williams Windrush Lessons Learned review (2020) into the Windrush Scandal, included a critique on the lack of institutional memory pertaining to the British Empire, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of Black Britons. She further talks about an unwillingness to learn from the past, utilise experts, or engage communities. These postboxes are indicative of institutions that think they know it all, and is reminiscent of the Home Office’s blunder with the chicken boxes raising awareness of knife crime.
In Alt History, Professor David Olusoga says “Black people have been living in this country for centuries and the story of the Black presence in the United Kingdom goes all the way back to Roman times.” There are over 100,000 postboxes in the UK and the use of just four is really a tokenistic handout at best. Imagine commemorating the entirity of Black British history like that when this history goes back to Roman times – from Ivory Bangle Lady (middle-class Black woman living in 4th century York) to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, Governor of Britain in 139-142 CE suprervising the construction of the Antonine Wall in Scotland (Adi, 2019: 4).
In four postboxes, the ominous “they” are telling us that Black lives still don’t matter and they are happy with that. The Black nurses that saved the NHS post-WW2; Black soldiers that fought in WW1/WW2 and at Trafalgar; the Black enslaved that died on plantations to give Britain the British Museum and many national trust homes; the lawyers, doctors and civil servants during the interwar years; the Black people that resisted and rebelled against colonial power at every chance; the Black Tudors in the time of Henry VIII; and the Afro-Romans in Beachy Head and South Shields, and those that stood vigil atop Hadrian’s Wall for the best part of 350 years.
In a country where Black people have been present and contributed to some of the most significant parts in British history… let’s give them four postboxes and pat ourselves on the back… I guess you can say I am fuming and I am bitter.
Adi, H. (2019) In: Adi, H (ed.) Black British History: New Perspectives. London: ZED Books, pp. 1-14.
Home Office. (2020). Windrush Lessons Learned. (Chair: Wendy Williams). London: TSO.