“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Dostoevsky
And if you enter our prisons in the United Kingdom, you will see these places weren’t built for rehabilitation, but for degeneration. And American prisons are not any different. These places are designed, purpose-built to break people’s spirits, sapping its inmates of all hope. On entering HMP Onley, there was this almost dystopian tinge, and I was only there for a few hours.
So, when I went to watch Just Mercy on Thursday night, about convicted-then-acquitted murderer Walter McMillian, I went into that screening with a conscious bias of how prisons do not treat inmates like human beings and it was as if the entire Black population was on Death Row.
Moreover, how the US criminal justice system is a tool of institutional violence, if you happen to be Black / poor (State of Tennessee v. Cyntoia Brown), rather than White / rich (The People v. Turner). And this injustice is widespread across America; however, the same structural violence, often racism, is pertinent to the British criminal justice system too (Lammy 2017, Macpherson 1999), as well as institutional use of their privilege to blame The People rather than take responsibility (Grenfell, Hillsborough).
Just Mercy tells a story of Black insurrection against White authority. After graduating Harvard, a young lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), journeys to Alabama to represent those wrongly convicted or not given proper representation. In the tint of Jim Crow Laws, most of these men are Black, second-class citizens outside and then second-class prisoners inside.
One of his early cases was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is put on deathrow in 1987 for the murder of an eighteen year-old White girl, regardless of the evidence proving his innocence. Throughout the case, Stevenson battles political and legal maneuverings, as well as overt and institutional racism, all in the name of fighting for his client. A man who happened to be Black in the state of Alabama, easy pickings for a system that eats Black people (especially men), for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Meeting many people quickly, including Walter’s family, Bryan turns from naive boy out of law school into a man that soon sees the epidemic that’s festered in a post-Jim Crow South, venturing further into the case soon seeing how unwilling the State of Alabama is to release an innocent man.
The State knows he didn’t do it, but they’d rather lock up a Black man then one of their own. The cliché of “savage” Black men killing “fair” White girls and women goes back to slavery, including how D. W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation was responsible for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan.
The United States of America is supposed to be the “land of the free” but it is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s inmates (13th). What’s that about?
Just Mercy is a tear-jerker for sure, and begs the question, “Did Walter McMillian receive his just mercy?” This legal drama is an indictment on the racism you can’t see. It’s not about being called “nigger” in the street, but about policymakers who clearly have a conscious bias, who are consciously racist enforcing laws, and create a culture of racism among their colleagues. i.e prisons. A grim indictment on prisons but also the state of the American national memory that has never shaken its slave-trading history, as Stevenson witnesses images of cotton pickers that look exactly like him.
I cannot fault Michael B. Jordan’s stellar lead performance. The fact that this man hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar yet is criminal. First seeing him as Wallace in HBO’s The Wire (unarguably one of the greatest TV series ever made) to Creed, Fruitvale Station and Black Panther, Just Mercy is just his latest excellent performance. As Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan is a testament to Black men, as Sidney Poitier was in To Sir with Love and David Oyelowo in Queen of Katwe. He’s the do-gooder, activist, straight jacket.
This picture stands with Ava DuVernay’s Selma, When They See Us and 13th, all of which are sobering accounts of racism and bureaucratic White Power, and how it is used to step on poor people and people of colour, as well as the fiction of everyone is equal under the law. Seeing the over-policing of Black people in this film – from the nature of McMillian’s arrest to Stevenson being strip-searched on his way into prison, I couldn’t help getting caught up in its themes of social justice, equality and equity, especially after being stop and searched myself by police at fourteen.
“Children of immigrants are often assured by well-meaning parents that educational access to the middle classes can absolve them from racism. We are told to work hard, go to a good university, and get a good job.”
Reni Eddo-LodgeWhy I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Stevenson may not be a child of immigrants, but there is still this notion that even today being Black and wealthy can absolve you of racism. Stevenson went to Harvard but was still strip searched in a prison before going to meet clients. David Lammy and Diane Abbot, both MPs, face racism daily. As does journalist, former-barrister and Brit(ish) author Afua Hirsch. Meghan Markle married into one of the most elite families in the world, but still faces racism from the right-wing British press and was then forced to leave the UK. Black Britain understands Meghan. Point taken, Reni.
Whilst this film uses many clichés, including the broken prisoner trope, it is so well-acted. And this is not just a film, it’s a truth-to-power comment on laws as tools of institutional violence. Walter got his mercy, but I don’t think it was just. How many Walters are on death row because they’re at the mercy of a system still operating in a white supremacist power structure?
And really, violent crimes (i.e murder) are only given scope when a White person is involved. White empathy to Black insurrection is a tale that goes back to colonial times. The shock of White audiences to films like this is what separates them from us. People of colour expect to be unequal under the law (i.e Central Park 5) because that is our norm. But to White people, it’s in their norm to expect a fair trial because that’s their lived experience.
So, if we take history as a guide, can you really blame Black and brown communities for being critical (almost cynical) of a system that has done nothing but treat us with contempt?
13th. (2017). [Online]. Directed by Ava DuVernay. America: Kandoo Films [Viewed January 11, 2020]. Available from Netflix.
Birth of a Nation. (1915). [Online]. Directed by D. W. Griffith. America: David W. Griffith Corp [Viewed January 8, 2020]. Available from YouTube.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Hirsch, A (2018). Brit(ish). London: Vintage.
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chairperson: William Macpherson). London: TSO.
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO
Nashville-Davidson County’s Juvenile Court. (2004). The State of Tennessee vs Cyntoia Denise Brown. (Ruling Judge: Betty Adams Green).
Santa Clara County Superior Court (2016). The People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner. (Ruling Judge: Aaron Persky).
Selma. (2014). [Online]. Directed by Ava DuVernay. America: Pathé et al [Viewed January 10, 2020]. Available from Netflix.
When They See Us. (2019). Netflix Television, May 2019.
After reading a blog by History’s Drew Grey on ‘Racism, Diversity and Contested Histories: Some Reflection on Christmas Just Past’, I began to think about my favourite television genre (by some distance), the Period Costume Drama. Reading his post took me back to when I saw David Olusoga presenting Black and British for the first time on the BBC, but more specifically his monologues about mixed-race families in Georgian Britain. Whilst Drew’s post boasts diversity in the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol (based on the Charles Dickens story) by Peaky Blinders‘ Stephen Knight, diversity in the Period Drama fanbase is a contentious discussion.
His post reminded me of my dissertation where I was looking at my roots. Finding myself. Lost in my race-identity politics, it feels like a decade ago reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talk to White People About Race for the first time. A text that colleague and blogger @paulaabowles calls “a machine gun,” (with a smirk). It’s simply relentless. However, it was David Oyelowo’s quote in the Radio Times that’s stayed with me ever since.
“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never any black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience do not understand.” – David Oyelowo (in Eddo-Lodge, p55)
Oyelowo goes on to say “I thought – OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me.” So, is it any wonder why so many of our Black actors have gone to Hollywood and made it big? Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before we knew him as DCI John Luther. Oyelowo was Martin Luther King in Selma (as well as his British co-star Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), and has had roles in The Help, Queen of Katwe and Disney’s Star Wars Rebels. John Boyega was in Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya slayed as Chris Washington in Get Out.
Whilst many of these works aren’t all costume pieces, the fact that Black actors have to go overseas bothers me. Yet, Black History to British audiences has always been African-American history. To find Black British history, you really have to look for it. So, when we see characters like Kitty Despard (Poldark) or Miss Lambe (Sanditon) or even Dev Patel as David in the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield, it’s in opposition to the histories we think we know, the histories we were taught at school.
So, why is there such a backlash to non-White people in this genre? Is it one more example of Black and brown people being where they shouldn’t? You know Black faces in White spaces? From the streets of Georgian London to Walter Tull mobbed by 20,000 Bristol fans in 1909. Or is it a consequence of a population bludgeoned by historical misinformation? After all, isn’t the best way to have complacent people, to cut them off from knowledge? And if you don’t know your own history, do you know who you really are?
In the same century Charles Dickens was writing about Jacob Marley, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonnetta was growing up in England wondering the streets of London, as “part of Britain’s imperial project.” It’s the story of Black Victorians, many of which could “only be told through the words of others” (Olusoga, p331).
Whilst these discussion forums, are majorly female, they are some of the most misogynistic places I’ve seen on the internet. There’s one Facebook group where I have been labelled a “troublemaker” for calling out racism and homophobia, as many members are also American, card-carrying Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. And feminism is only White. They see intersectionality as an inconvenient myth and the stories of non-White women in history an afterthought. That’s how White Privilege works.
This culture of hate against non-normative voices is dominant in the Fandom Menace, as I like to call it. The online forums are infested with racism, misogyny and homophobia: from Gentleman Jack to Beecham House, Drew’s descriptions of the backlash to the mixed-race Cratchit family act as a metaphor for a toxic fanbase, and contesting these histories can often be a homophobic act, a racist act, even if it’s born from ignorance.
There is an endemic problem within society, where we allow older generations, including “sweet old ladies” in The Period Drama fanbase to get away with hate speech because that’s “how they are” and they “don’t really know any different.”
What’s more, and what was great about A Christmas Carol was how unapologetic the makers were about their diversity. This family were Black and they were White. This was mixed-race Britain in the 19th century. Moreover, Mary Cratchit and how Black women take on everyone’s emotional labour. Be it modern times or Victorian times, Black women are in the business of saving grown-ass men from their own emotional work!
Mixed-race inclusion is a testament to our history and a thumb bite to Englishness as a synonym for whiteness, and the colonised imperatives that continue to dominant storytelling, as said (but not so bluntly) by Darren Chetty in ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People‘. Due to the inherent whiteness of institutions, they recruit in their own image, and history is no different. What’s that saying about apples and trees?
Certain members of the Period Drama community would like to believe Britain was only White before the 1950s. No, it’s simply the establishment has done a grand job of writing us out of British history books, but Black people have been part of every era of British history. I can tell you that.
BBC’s A Christmas Carol shows why representation matters and that history is not only the responsibility of historians. Artists also carry the load of telling these social histories (that’s what Dickens is) accurately and they can do better when it comes to the spectrum of diversity in the Period Drama.
And due to how History has been taught to every generation at all levels of education, is it surprising I encounter “sweet old ladies” using “historical (in)accuracy,” as a conduit to enable their racist, homophobic and misogynistic views?
Chetty, D. (2017). You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People. In: Shukla, N (ed). The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound Publishing, pp. 96 – 107.
Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.
Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British. London: Macmillan.
In the aftermath of the General Election, Britain continues to spiral with most of Europe down the hole of despair, into something that George Orwell wrote about in his 20th century novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And in this hysteria, imperial thinking is now back on the rise. But that’s not what this post is about. Well, not much.
Every year, the “best of the best” of this country are decorated by the Queen in what’s known as the Honours List. Knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs and CBEs. Nods to the British Empire, racism and colonialism. Watching debates on Sky News’ ‘The Pledge’ has shown me how resistant Britain is to talking about race, but deeper still, its ventures in colonialism overseas.
Amidst the Windrush Scandal and Brexit, that resistance was put onto the world stage. It got me to think about British history but also how specifically working-class people often defend the monarchy and patronage, an institution that despises them. Do people that have been honoured have a feeling of accomplishment by having those three letters after their name? Would their ancestors feel the same way? Or is it a feeling of “I’ve made it,” a ruse of passing from one class into another?
When people are named Member of the British Empire (MBE), it leaves me feeling icky inside. Seeing that after someone’s name, leaves me feeling sick. Order of the British Empire (OBE), Commander of the British Empire (CBE). It’s obsolete, drawing up thoughts of genocide, conquest and stolen land.
When I hear the word “empire,” especially in this country, I think about oppression of minority Britain in the jaws of Little England. It’s reminiscent of how my ancestors were slaves in the Caribbean. It’s Apartheid, the American Revolution, the Suez Crisis, Potato Famine, the Mau Mau, the Amritsar Massacre and so much more. To have that after your name is really to celebrate racism, classism, genocide, stolen land etc etc.
And it’s because of Britain’s nostalgia for this history that I grew up going to school being taught Black history as only slavery. We didn’t even get as far postwar immigration, as that’s the other common denominator of the Black British narrative. It’s because of that, why I don’t know my name.
Not Ventour, that’s a slave name. I don’t know the name my ancestors had before Ventour was forced upon them under the lynch and the lash of Caribbean plantation slavery.
My crisis of identity is not due to history, it’s more so due to the present day climate where British people of colour are routinely having their Britishness contested. I’m staunchly anti-monarchy and anti-empire. And there’s something weird about debating the concept of the Queen’s Honours with people who are either ambivalent to it or are so pro-monarchy that they can’t possibly acknowledge that there’s negative connotations with the Royal institution. I’ve been in quite a few discussions with people about the monarchy. Thankfully, none have gotten ugly and we’re still friends today.
These Honours awards are to people that have made significant contributions to society through their professions — from arts, including: theatre, literature and film — to everyday people doing great work in the community, to journalists. That last one, I don’t like. Should journalists really be accepting awards from people they’ve critiqued, or even vilified?
The Honours awards are a slap in the face of multiracial / working-class Britain. When it comes to the British Empire, many have asked “Does the end justify the means?” And my reply to that is, no. How much is life worth to you? You cannot justify torture and genocide. Life isn’t flesh for cash. It’s not a business. And those colonial statues littered throughout Britain, including London, Bristol and Glasgow; all those British streets named for slave traders; all those White imperialistic university module choices.
The concept of “Honours” feels like Britain clinging on to a past bygone. Given the chance, would Britain enslave its Black British population? Would it let three million Indians die in the Bengal Famine if the circumstances were to present themselves again? Would it commit to a Scramble for Africa and a starving Ireland? If these circumstances were to happen again?
Institutionally, The Monarchy sanctioned slavery, and yet, millions still defend it. Truth is, I don’t understand how anyone, regardless of their background can accept awards with attachments as deeply horrific as these ones.
They came out of a system that oppressed people of colour, women and the LGBTQ+ community. There are many Black and brown people that love those awards. It makes them feel accomplished, whilst simultaneously speaking out against racism. Whilst being part of the system they speak out against, they’re some of its proudest members. They are activists against the ruling class but then accept invitations to Buckingham Palace. In breaking their backs for babylon, are they willing to accept chains on their ankles?
These awards go to Joe and Jane Bloggs. They go to musicians, authors, poets, businesspeople, celebrities and more. These awards are given to people, irrespective of class or colour. Seeing those three letters after their name feels like betrayal. Should I bow to them? Do I have to act impressed?
I’m a poet before anything else and have recited my own work, unpicking British history, including empire and conquest, and how those things impact the present day.
I’ve been called racist and anti-White (I’m anti-White Supremacy). But really, I want to reach an audience of people that are willing to listen. That the history we’re taught at school is what my mother would call “chang-chang” — in bits and pieces. Did Christopher Columbus discover America or was he only the first White man to get there? Could the same be said for Captain Cook with Australia? Is explorer a synonym for coloniser?
I’m a storyteller. What in the old days people would call a bard. What the Celts called the Awen. I probably will never be offered one of those awards. And if I was — to accept one would be to lose my dignity. I wouldn’t be able to look my younger brother in the eye. I would lose all pride and respect for myself. Which is why I have so much respect for people that decline them and live their best life, doing what they do best, living livelihoods without want of incentive, be it an OBE or being named Poet Laureate.
Your Benjamin Zephaniahs and Ken Loaches. Who both showed me that art is more than the Tate, The National Gallery or arthouse cinema.That poetry is more than Tennyson, Blake and Wordsworth, that history is written in black and white. It’s poor people, LGBTQ+ and women and…
“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” — The Schuyler Sisters (Hamilton)
And anyone close to me will know why I despise January 1 and The Queen’s Birthday, since it’s the date the the Honours Lists are released. A better honour would be if the British Museum gave those stolen pieces back to places like Ghana and Greece. OBEs, CBEs, MBEs , knighthoods — genocide, slavery, torture, class oppression, massacres and more massacres, war and violence — and it’s 2020. When will the British Empire shut its mouth?
Let history be history. The British Empire is not cause for celebration. For every colonial statue in this land there should be a slave child next to it, or a starving woman, a symbol showing how the end doesn’t justify the means.
Let’s call the British Empire what it was: a business venture that consumed the lives of millions, not something to be worn like a badge of honour, because it is honourless.
In a society that defines you by race (through othering of non-whiteness), it wasn’t until I was five I realised I was Black. This was the first time I was called nigger. It was in the school playground and I was a little youth. You will notice that I call it by its name, and not “The N-Word.” And to call it by its name, I believe, strips it of the fear attached to it. Though, made popular by mainstream rap music, including artists I appreciate like N. W. A and Public Enemy, when I think of the word, I envisage scenes of burning crosses, the KKK, and chattel slavery.
Growing up, I saw Black people hating themselves. That level of self-loathing is something I’ve seen in different characters throughout my life. Women that grew being told their hair was “wild” and “unruly.” Questions like “how can you tame such a wild thing?” bring me back to slave markets – the prodding and poking of the Black torso. Descriptions of the Black body, including “savage” and “animalistic,” and that includes hair, and those are connotations of The Word rappers love to use in lyrics. And how do Black rappers use the word, despite the rise of White nationalism worldwide?
I have seen men like Chiron and Kevin from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight thinking they have to assert themselves because that’s what the environment demands. I see it on campus, Black students from London. But you don’t have to do that in Northampton. And these people all have stories of racism. Racism is trauma and I can bet you any money that most of our Black population (including mixed-race) have stories about the first time they were called nigger, be it from strangers or their family members.
Finding out you’re Black is not always something so hard-hitting as being called “nigger” in the street. Sometimes, it’s being the go-to in conversations about race. When and if you learn about slavery at school or university, it’s everyone staring at you when the discussions occur. It’s being told in not so many words by White people to “know your place” and “be grateful.”
However, hate crime has seen a spike under Brexit. We have a prime minister that’s comfortable comparing Muslim women to “bankrobbers,” and Black people to “piccaninnies.” But you know, the UK is one of the least racist societies in Europe, or so I’m told by White British people who do not have to have to choose carefully where they holiday, in case of any (specifically) anti-Black racism they may encounter. If you’re White British, you can realistically go to any country and be okay. That’s White Privilege.
My race is part of my identity because my environment made it so. From eight years old, I was told by my parents that you’ll have to work twice as hard for half as much … because you’re Black … just like they did, and their parents did, who are Windrush Generation migrants. I was born Tré Ventour – who liked to read, and play in the park and watch films and collect Pokémon cards and do all the dumb stuff children like to do.
But until I was five, I didn’t think of myself in regards to my race. But “nigger” is in the Queen’s Honours. It’s in knighthoods, OBEs, MBEs (etc) and Empire. It’s in UKIP and the Daily Mail. It’s in the structures. It’s in colonial statues and The Academy. It comes from slavery, Jim Crow Laws and Apartheid. It’s in art, culture, literature and the social fabrics that make up this country, which is institutionally, structurally, and “100% racist,” as Stormzy was misquoted. And, I’d argue there are flowers in his misquote.
Is Britain 100% racist? Definitely, 100%, it’s beyond the individual racist, it’s in the institutions; from Macpherson to the Lammy Report, Britain has a serious problem.
At five years old, in the bloom of childhood innocence, being called “nigger” and “wog” by other children set me up for life as a person of colour in Britain. That’s when I found out what racism was, in the prologue of Enid Blyton novels – learning how great Columbus was, not how he opened the doors to the European pillage and plunder of the American continent.
Yet our structures continue to show how it doesn’t trust us or want us, unless you’re grateful, “a good nigger” scaling apartment blocks or bowing to babylon, being named in the Queen’s Honours and OBEying come New Years Day.
George Bailey (James Stewart) spent his life giving to The People of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to begin with. As George morphs into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
Most people I know who watch this film every year love it for its warmth, and Victorian themes, what today we’d now call family values. Something that fits Christmas so well. However, my affinity to it is for it’s social commentary. For a Christmas film, it’s quite depressing – which is a contrary opinion to the many that have it as part of their annual traditions.
Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas cracker dropped right as America left one of the most difficult fifteen years (and a bit) of its history, from the Great Depression in 1929 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. George Bailey is part of “The Greatest Generation,” the millions that came of age during the Wall Street Crash which ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. The undertones of this film, to me, are in that ruthless Wall Street capitalism via characters like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Yet, the character of Mr Potter is a reminder for many people of what happened in 1929. Between The Crash and the end of The Second World War sat FDR’s New Deal. Within this time, we had The Banking Act of 1933, which is relevant to the characters of Frank Capra’s film, and the bank run. Whilst Capra’s film was released in 1946, Potter is a reminder of how it used to be before Roosevelt and the Democrats ushered through the New Deal.
Once, communism could have been called anti-greed, anti-corporations, anti-fat-businessmen-with-a-cigar-in-their-mouth-getting-rich off-poor-people-in-slums. It’s a Wonderful Life is a voice for the working classes. It’s the I, Daniel Blake of its time, a stark indictment of a system that eats people below the poverty line for dinner. It comments on class and family values, but also austerity in America. In its time, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover donned it, (what was the buzz term of the post-war years), “anti-American.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with modern Britain, in its themes of class and austerity that laid the backbone for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto. This is a film that cares about people, the individual working people of America – where the American Dream is just that. A dream. Echoing the thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Slumlord Potter (Barrymore) describes the poor as “A thrifty working class,” which shows you the measure of the man.
In wake of the recent General Election, I will watch this film once more at Christmas for its straight-at-the-jugular representation of working-class communities. Britain has voted for five more years of austerity (oppression), more likely another decade under the Conservatives. It’s a Wonderful Life shows what happens when the powerful do not care about powerless. But isn’t that how they became powerful in the first place?
For families around the world, watching this film is a yearly tradition. But as long as the powerful step on the powerless, this film’s legacy will endure. Institutional violence plods on. Bailey runs a business that helps poor people onto the property ladder. Played to perfection by James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), this is a man who cares what happens to those around him. Potter is out for Bailey, wanting the company to close so he can swoop in, and coerce more residents into living in his slum-level housing.
Potter is a metaphor for power, the controlling state that denies people dignity in their own home. Call him Potter, or Boris, or Trump… every era has their tyrants who stop others from thriving, just because they can.
And as long as man is man, history is the last place he will look for his lessons, as history is written by the victors.
Is it wishful thinking to have wanted some ethnic diversity in those that taught me at school? I never had a Black or brown teacher. And the data around diversity in management in primary-secondary ed is damning. Whilst I despise BAME, it’s really a sad indictment on the system that diversity in teaching staff is a massive issue.
At the Students’ Union, almost every Friday during term time, I’ve shown a number of films that push audiences to think, but also sometimes to show role models that students can look up to. One Friday in October, we watched To Sir, with Love starring the great Sidney Poitier, met with a positive reception from staff, students and members of the public, including children. Perhaps in watching that film, these children and university students may think about being teachers. I want to show films with people that look like them, and for a Black man to be in a role like that. Epic.
Mark Thackeray is an anomaly to me. This character’s not something that’s familiar. Sidney Poitier is famous for playing the straight jacket and Mark Thackeray is symbolic of what Black men can represent, something other than what numerous screen representations show us to be. No matter if that’s the funny man, or some drug dealer on the streets of London in Top Boy. Sidney Poitier, the man that was loved by everyone in his day. White people. Black people. Good-looking … well-dressed … and got the best lines.
Whilst the narratives shown in Top Boy, for example, are very real, it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. Those types of stories sell and make headlines. Whether we’re talking about Top Boy or taking a trip back to the 1980s and 1990s with those Hollywood thug films and Blaxploitation – from Boyz n the Hood to Do the Right Thing and Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Or if you want something more in the now, what about Blue Story? We continue to push these kind of stories and these images travel all round the world.
Mark Thackeray teaching poor East London children showed an image of a Black man I’d ever only seen in my own family unit. The self-sacrificing father figure, but more importantly, a highly elevated image of a Black male who did not fit the stereotypes of the British establishment. He showed them, that despite their backgrounds, they could have dignity and values. And what’s more, there is nothing wrong with being working class.
To see someone that looked like me that wasn’t violent, a rapist, or a thief, and so on, brings me joy. Whilst characters in shows like The Wire contradict stereotypes, they still look (stereotypically) like thugs. Growing up, and now today, to tell people I did not grow up by Grenfell Tower or in Handsworth, in socio-economically deprived areas still shocks them.
Diversity in teaching is a must; the closest I’ve had to a Black teacher is @drkukustr8talk. Though, he was a lecturer at the University of Northampton where I studied, he wasn’t my lecturer. Not even the same course. Let alone same faculty. He’s a family friend. Yet, he’s been a mentor to me for many years, and have developed more of a comfort for literature because of him. I didn’t feel like I was scaling the walls into somewhere I didn’t belong. He helped me, to, navigate inside my own head, and decolonise my degree. By mentally dismantling race and class inside the academy, I was then able to confidently push boundaries on my course.
Sidney Poitier is a conduit for millions of little Black boys to more positive images of themselves. A contemporary comparison would be the Hollywood actor David Oyelowo, specifically in Queen of Katwe, where he mentors a number Black children in learning how to play chess and in the process, helps them along into finding their identity, self-worth and pride.
In his last post, Dr. Diepiriye quotes bell hooks: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” and this is entwined with how Black and brown teachers can aid Black and brown students into finding themselves at school and at universities. When students see themselves in the classroom, that’s an element of safety, the second rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in a person’s quest for self-actualisation.
To Sir, with Love is one of the most important films ever made, as it still has relevance today, whilst our education system is still underrepresented, and yet to break the colour bar. What of the emotional labour Black and brown teachers take on within these structures? What about institutional racism in the education sector? What about the schools’ prison pipeline of exclusion that disproportionately impacts children from an ethnic minority background? Exclusion from class only to be excluded from society later on.
Whilst To Sir, with Love reached its 50th anniversary in 2017, education continues to face cuts, and diversity continues to be a tertiary issue, as universities are run like corporations: ID cards, data crunching, and how much? James Clavell’s classic brings us back to focus on the student. What about the individual needs? What makes each student tick? What’s going on in their lives apart from study? What about community and inclusion?
Race matters, but why do we continue to pigeon-hole Black and brown educators in a system that refuses to change?
Works of Note
Coard, Bernard. How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System. London: Unknown, 1971. Print.
Richardson, Brian. Tell it Like it Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children. London: Bookmarks, 2005. Print.
There’s something inspiring about seeing people that look like me speaking on something, in Britain, that’s been portrayed as a vocation for middle class White people (mainly men). Watching candidate for Tottenham David Lammy in the Commonwealth war graveyard in Voi (Kenya) talking about history took me back to when I first saw David Olusoga, a Black historian talking about history in a way that wasn’t detached in hope of being objective. Whilst Olusoga is a historian, Lammy is not. However, seeing Black people on British TV talking about history is not a narrative I’m familiar with.
In The Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes we are pushed to remember the two million Africans from British East Africa (now Kenya) dragged into the First World War, many of whom were press-ganged into service. One million joined the dead. In the Voi cemetery, we are witness to a site fitting for those who gave their lives for king, country and commonwealth. But they were White. Each decorated with a headstone, as written into the equalities policy by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. However, if you were a Black African, then your service was not seen as equal to that of a White person. You were nothing. Forgotten.
“The erection of memorials to the memory of native troops, carriers etc, depends upon local conditions,” wrote the colonial secretary in 1919. “In ordinary circumstances, the Commission would not erect individual headstones but a central memorial in some suitable locality to be selected by the Government concerned.” That colonial secretary’s name was Winston Churchill, who’d go on to be knighted and elected as Britain’s prime minister. In his view, Black Africans (who were British subjects) did not fit into the Commission’s frame of reference for equality.
“I hate Indians, they are beastly people with a beastly religion.” – Winston Churchill
A century on, this year, is the centenary of the first remembrance service. Is it time we confront this legacy of discrimination and institutional racism? The bodies of Black Africans were not in the Voi cemetery, but beyond a fence under canopies of bushes. Here, we see how much the colonial office cared. David Olusoga wrote “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” Their corpses were in a wasteland under bushes and litter. Here’s the opening of the documentary, and so the investigation begins.
Whilst it can be interpreted as a harmless doc, it follows in the footsteps of The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, as both show the institutional racism implemented by the British establishment against those of African heritage. Moreover, investigating how the imperial mindset and colonial-era racial thinking has been allowed to fester into modern Britain.
It’s no secret that British history is a study in erasure, and the stories of Black and brown people in our history books struggle to reach print. These stories really are scaling the walls to get noticed and the unmarked burial sites of hundreds of thousands of Black Africans, including women and children, is just one more example of structural racism. And that the only way to get these histories integrated, is to acknowledge that the establishment erased these stories because of its white supremacist thinking, evident in the heads of the gatekeepers, policy and colonial laws.
The Macpherson Report was in response to the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Its definition of institutional racism includes neglect and “failure to act.” His definition could as easily be applied to the plight of Black and brown colonial soldiers during the world wars, when they came home, and the Black war dead on the African continent.
“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin” – Macpherson Report, 1999
Whilst MacPherson’s report is about the police, academic frameworks like Critical Race Theory argues that racism is ingrained in the fabrics of society, linking whiteness to power and blackness / brownness to social subordination, allowing White Privilege to thrive. CRT says it’s not about the individual racist, but the system as a collective. And is the system broken, if it was built “racistly” to benefit the White elite? Knowing this, in the mix of the colonial racial thinking in the system, is it really surprising that Black and brown soldiers were treated abominably, both in life and in death?
Channel 4’s documentary is riddled with devastating moments and really leaves no hope for the viewer. David Lammy meets Mwamkono Mwavaka, a man whose now dead grandfather was one of the Carrier Corps – men, women and children taken on to carry supplies on mules to the front lines. In Dar es Salaam sits a massive war cemetery, where British and Germans are buried side-by-side. Yet, no such love is given to the Native Africans who gave their lives. “Where do I go in my own country?” cries an interviewee.
The final act is a metaphor for talking about race in Britain – hostile and resistant to any critique. Lammy at the HQ of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in conversation with its director general is uncomfortable viewing. “Do we have the names? I don’t believe we do,” says Victoria Wallace, hostilely. Refusing to talk about race, historically, and how institutions like the CWGC were complicit in systemic racial inequality.
The story ends with no apology, just a few words on some money for a plaque on African soldiers. And yet, no comments on how someone voted the Best Briton by the British public (Churchill) was a racist and complicit in some of the worst crimes in human history – from the Bengal Famine in what was then British India (in 1943) to the Boer War Concentration Camps.
Reparations is faceless: to some its money, but to me it’s historical awareness, which begs the question why there’s so much resistance to teaching colonial history, or is the establishment scared of what it potentially might find?
As someone who has loved the art of storytelling for all his short twenty-four years, on characters you are often told “it’s not about the colour of a their skin, but the content of their character” that keeps you engaged. Growing up I struggled to find characters like me in the stories I committed to. Malorie Blackman has been fighting the good fight for the best part of twenty years, but in one of my favourite literary genres, YA Fiction (Young Adults) , Black men are not a commonality. And that’s just the first layer. What about characters in coming-of-age stories for little Black girls? What about those children with non-White skin who happened to be dyslexic, dyspraxic, or even on the autistic spectrum? And this was one of the reasons I read Creative Writing. There were no characters like me growing up, so I started to write my own.
But reading young adults fiction, still even today, I see nothing much has changed. I’m still making the same comments I made when I was ten and twelve years old. Are there fewer authors of colour writing young adults fiction? Are there fewer Black and brown filmmakers wanting to make these films? Or is there a culture in the industry that what sells is “stale” and “pale.” And, you know, Wakanda and all that… but a Black Brit from Peckham has carried a trilogy of films in that little franchise called Star Wars. When John Boyega’s big Black face popped up in the first trailer for The Force Awakens, I cried. Diversity sells, but statistics in YA fiction are dire, whether we’re talking about the number of non-White lead characters or the lack of Black or brown authors getting published in this genre.
At its bones, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a young adults drama but it was pushed as art house / drama / LGBT Cinema… to sell tickets. And LGBT Cinema is not a genre. YA comes in many forms. YA is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti, a film that’s so good that I forgave him for the prequel trilogy. But these films are still very White. Mean Girls, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Carrie Pilby, The Fault in Our Stars, Call Me By Your Name, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid – the list goes on.
YA is whitewashed. When it comes to LGBT representation, we don’t see the intersectionality. Moonlight has become the go-to film for representation of gay Black men. And even there, “gay Black men” are not the focus. It’s more about class, race, and gender than sexuality. Internalised rage from repressed emotions. Its depictions of masculinity, whilst sexuality is marginalised. And as a straight ally who loves films, I struggle to name (mainstream) films about LGBT identity that include Black / brown people.
Moonlight and Tangerine come to mind but you do end up having to look outside of British film and Hollywood; there’s a plethora in non-English speaking cinema – I think of South Africa’s The Wound and it’s really something special.
Well-meaning White people say “it’s not about the colour of their skin [yap yap yap],” and to say that comes from a vantage point of privilege. Most people look like you, since society was built in your image. When you look at the history of Black actors in Hollywood, at how much they had to fight –from Diahann Carroll (Claudine) to Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), to Denzel Washington (Training Day), Spike Lee (School Daze) and John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), look how much it took to get Malcolm X made!
All this said, most of my favourite story characters have been White. In Carrie, from Caren Lissner’s Carrie Pilby I saw a version of myself. Hopelessly introverted with a love of literature and a realist approach to life. Blind faith? “Just go with it?” What the eff’s that? In Charlie, from Perks of Being a Wallflower, there were elements of child me. But neither Charlie nor Carrie had to contend with the first time they were called nigger when they were five years old, or being told “they were pretty for a Black girl,” as numerous Black women I know have been told time and time again.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is vital, and whilst we endlessly debate why we need to decolonise the curriculum, can we have a look at how media has often depicted African hair? And why we live in a society where texts like Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri are necessary into understanding the nuances of race. Or if you want something less academic, there’s My Hair by Hannah Lee. “Unruly” and “like weeds” are only two of the phrases I’ve heard Black people’s hair described as. How do you think these comments and perceptions impact teenagers and children?
These experiences are YA (including children’s literature), as are the ones in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or any John Hughes film or an Enid Blyton novel. Whilst here I am discussing young adult stories, this European-centric hetero-normative culture is rampant in almost every industry. From education to journalism, and especially publishing and arts.
Seeing yourself reflected in your environment is necessary. And to White people, it may seem trivial. But really, most people look like you. I never had a teacher that wasn’t White British. The stats in our schools are damning. The closest thing I had to a teacher that looked like me was Diepirye @drkukustr8talk – who’s a family friend. He was a lecturer at the University, just not my lecturer, yet, still gave me a leg-up in my reading, via a number of authors through debate, conversations and critical thought.
When we are small, we often have our imaginations and dreams bludgeoned out of us by teachers who have lost the ability to dream. To draw a picture, to write a story, to act and express yourself, is no match for science, mathematics, history, geography, foreign languages or “proper subjects.” And retconning a nice shiny A into S. T. E. A. M is not a good look.
It’s a big old world; and it’s cruel enough as it is, but if our children and young people can’t find themselves in stories, how will they ever be able to find themselves in society?
In its long, eventful history, the town that I grew up in has been home to theatre proprietors like John Franklin. It’s also been home to Thomas Beckett, Charles Bradlaugh, and partook in the Wars of the Roses. What’s now Delapré acted as the stage for the Battle of Northampton in 1475. Northamptonshire housed slaves from the era of Britain’s colonial ambition. It was the muse of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and sporting legends, including Mobbs’ Own battalion of rugby players during the First World War, as well as Walter Tull, who went on to be the first Black (mixed-race) officer in the British Army. But now embarking on a general election before entering 2020, we are in a homelessness epidemic, rivalling the plot of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. These are austere times.
Whilst Walter Tull and his siblings feared the workhouse in the epilogue of Victorian Britain, our buzz terms in 2019 are “austerity” and “universal credit,” essentially prisons of the poor. Growing up in the county, with all its beauty and brutality, it’s now a much changed environment. Its landscape has much changed from the one I remember as a youth. It’s not identifiable to my seven-year-old self climbing trees in Abington Park and Salsey Forest, Charlie B standing menacingly in Abington Square, whilst the Doddridge Centre played host to many a community event by Jimmy’s End.
On the brink of one of the most important elections since forever, “He who rules Northampton, rules England,” stated All Saints’ Father Oliver Cross. I look at the town I grew up in and I want to weep. Walking through Town Centre and into the outer rim, you can see how austerity has ravaged communities. How community spirit has rotted from the inside, as apathy and hopelessness can be tasted and sweated, foaming at the mouth – from blood in the River Nene to knife crime, and bus stops stood like cenotaphs.
Walking through London’s southwest last Wednesday to see homelessness brushing shoulders with the Ritz reminded me of the some 14,000 children in poverty in the shoe town. Austerity is a scouring pad to these brittle streets, orchestrated by a system that eats people below the poverty line for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The release of I, Daniel Blake in 2016 and Sorry We Missed You in 2019 are prime examples of how institutional violence has been used to rip gaping holes through working-class Britain.
On exiting MK Central, it’s a sight that leaves a lump in your throat. Milton Keynes has been nicknamed “Tent City” purely for its massive street-sleeping population. And the grass patch near the site of Northampton’s old bus station has been nicknamed “Rat Island.” I think that speaks for itself.
Seeing how the Government has operated these last ten(ish) years, it’s a migraine to the soul, temporarily broken by fireworks at New Year and the gong of church bells at Christmas. But the heart-shattering discordant noise of “spare some change, sir” on Abington Street and The Market is enough to make this Northamptonian cry. From childhood to being a student at the university, the homeless population here and I are acquainted – as I walked to catch my school bus in the morning, as I now walk to Waterside Campus.
Suddenly, Northampton has shrunk to a few miles of boarded up buildings, shivering hands, defaced shoes, and fleeting images of a hollowed-out shell of what used to be a thriving high street. A thriving community. Businesses come and go, and the street-dwellers, students and members of the public alike I’ve seen, to be devoid of all expression. I watch their writhing white eyes, looking into this winter of discontent – as the consumer capitalist culture of Christmas sneaks up on us like a gentle hand out of a grave.
When I see a homeless person, I greet them like I would anyone else. “Good morning, sir (or ma’am).” And I give them some change if I have it. But what else can I say? What else do I do? I walk through the underpass behind Boots. I see wrapped up bodies on the ground. They look dead. Cold corpses, but the system sheds no tears for them. Forgotten in a split second of time. They shiver, freshly alive. And now they are footnotes to history.
Hardworking people going to food banks because their wages do not cover the basics. Working students that have student finance at food banks because it does not cover the basics. Austerity’s mortar fire. Machine gun fire. Austerity grinds on the bones. Austerity chases you down river rapids, collecting fallen objects from your pockets, taking from the mouths of your children. It’s zero-hour contracts and six-days of fourteen hour shifts p/w.
Northampton is a zombie. Sheep Street’s boarded-up buildings and how the Hope Centre which was once a charity for the homeless, is now one that supports austerity-stricken communities and families and people that are deprived and have fallen on hard times too. Hope saves lives. Having spoken to CEO Robin Burgess a number of times, he highlighted to me how a number of the rough sleepers are citizens from mainland Europe. The EU.
Oliver Twist, Les Mis, Poldark – texts on poverty. When we think about poverty, it’s always the third world. In places like India, where I visited in 2016: amputees on the streets and children on the precipice of death. I look into their eyes. I wasn’t the same after that. I think I cried for a fortnight when I returned. Our public services are in a state of disarray – social care, the NHS, the police, education – this is Britain, in 2019, as the idea of Brexit has split families and friends, as it eats away at the national consciousness.
This is a parable of biblical proportions: Northampton won’t survive another decade of this, and we have not even begun to talk about austerity through the lens of minority Britain, where gender, race and sexuality all play roles of bias.
What does it say about the education sector that we don’t say what we mean? What does it say that I attended a conference on racism at universities that didn’t have racism in the title? “Racial harassment” is what they called it, as in Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment & Improving the BAME Experience in HE. Racial harassment? Racism. Name it. Own it. We’re nearly in 2020 and we’re still wrapping these issues in bubblewrap to make it more palatable for, dare I say, senior management at UK universities (overwhelmingly White). Should we draw a nail? Pop. Pop. Pop.
Arising from my bed at 5:45am to make a 7:30am(ish) train, only to arrive at this conference feeling a bit awkward. The whole delivery felt “preachy” from the get-go. Being lectured on race by mainly White middle class people brought me back to first year on my Creative Writing degree where I did a number of literature modules, delivered by a lecturer who talked about slavery like a trivial matter. That’s my family history you’re talking there!
As Vice President BME at Northampton, I’m facing more and more problems with the language and rhetoric we use around race. The sector lumps all Black and brown students together and calls them BME / BAME. What about the term people of colour? I, too, am guilty of using “people of colour” and do myself have issues with it. It’s probably the best of the worst.
The term B(A)ME is not homogeneous. Even among Black people, there is differences. i.e between African and Caribbean, as well as Black British people whose families come from those places. Even to call someone African; there are fifty-four different nations in Africa, each with their own languages, culture, traditions and so on. Nigeria alone has over 250 different languages. But we continue with BME and BAME. Racial / cultural identity matters. Do we lump all White people together? No. And I bet if you called someone from Belfast, English, they’d have something to say!
Watching Dr. Zainab Khan (Assoc. Pro-Vice Chancellor at London Met) speak was a breath of fresh air, telling it like it is. And having been to a few conferences like this, it seems to me that the sector is more set on managing racism than taking to steps to eradicate it. Both Dr. Khan, and Fope Olaleye (Black Students’ Officer at NUS) brought a much needed clarity to racism (not racial harassment) at our universities, as well as institutional racism. It was great to hear comments on Macpherson and Critical Race Theory too.
And in my opinion, best practice is the brutal, honest truth. Not statistics, but qualitative data. Real life experiences and true stories by people on the ground experiencing this on a day-to-day.
The Royal Over-Seas League private members club was our host. Plaques to Britain’s colonial past in what was then British India hung on the wall. Staff meandered in capes and gowns, and plums in their mouths. What’s more, it was six speakers before a Black or brown person came to the floor. As a Students’ Union, we did not have to pay to attend. But others did pay the three-figure entrance fee. And there sat problem number one, why do these conferences seek money for attendance? Are they cashing in on Black and brown trauma? Is there an argument of ethics to be had here?
During the half-day conference there were four non-White speakers. This did not occur until towards the end of proceedings, in what felt like a very shoehorned state of affairs. Again, I felt that I was being preached at on my own narrative of racism in higher education. Whitesplaining is very real, when White British people talk about racism like its their lived experience.
At an event, wherein, we discussed things like the ethnicity award gap, decolonising the curriculum and anti-racist learning, to have a conference of this matter in a place that was overtly classist and elitist with nods to a system which in itself was built of white supremacy, it’s quite difficult to not see the irony in it all. We also discussed institutional racism in the same breath as decolonial thinking. Ha! And really, all you can do is laugh.
White British people organising events on behalf of Black / brown people on themes that impact us more than them, on symptoms that were originally created by the White elite – in the jaws of colonisation and the whims of European empires. The times that made Britain “great” – imperialism in the tint of gold, glory and god, eclipsed by the Ritz in London’s southwest as I bump into austerity and homelessness, like cold corpses by Green Park.
In the making of Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for Tackling Racial Harassment, the White middle class stands tall as colonialism walks with us in the present. The bellowing voice of White privilege. I know plenty of students that would have come to this. Alas, this forum fell into the trap that many discussions have fallen into. Well-meaning White people telling us what we ought to do about racism.
Whilst I made some valuable connections, the wider narrative of whitesplaining ran riot, like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep spread-eagled across the plains in Out of Africa. Diversity in panel discussions is a must. It was functional in concept, but the swaggering thoughtlessness in venue, entry fee and panellists left for a very awkward-feeling in the audience.
If these types of conferences aren’t done properly (from diverse panels to organisational competence), are we not just feeding the racist systems we want to deconstruct?