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.
For the past few years it is telling to see the number of Black people the establishment co-opts into “unofficially” speaking for Black people – from Candace Owens in the United States to Trevor Phillips, and most recently in the UK Parliament’s Black History Month debate with Conservative MP and Under-Secretary for Equalities Kemi Badenoch. Whilst the title of this blog may be rather amusing, this is anything but that. The biggest opposition to racial equality movements in the Black Atlantic, more specifically the US and Britain is not just white racists but how the establishment uses Black and Brown people to reinforce ideas that negatively impact those same communities.
As Black women in Britain, are five times more likely to die from pregnancy, childbirth or in the postpartum period, compared to their white counterparts (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK, 2019) for example, in the next breath Badenoch says “the government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory.” Whether those are also her views or only that of her government, remains to be seen. Whether or not she agrees, she is an MP and has been co-opted by the establishment. People will think she believes those things because she is saying it on a platform. What’s worse, nobody will challenge her because she’s Black, as that means she’s “an expert”… doesn’t it?
For those that don’t know, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a body of scholarship based on the idea that race and racism are a product of social thought and understanding (we know race was socially constructed, and thus we have racism). CRT scholars hope to show the ways in which racism is embedded in society, in ways that have been normalised. Moreover, how it is maintained. So, when we see people like Badenoch, it does not take too long to realise the problems that this can create, pertinently in the middle of this perfect storm of Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic.
Critical Race Theory has its orgins in leftist legal movements of the 1970s. Yet, many Black and Brown scholars (including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others) primarily saw within the frameworks of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) that it failed to engage meaningfully with racism, as it [racism] was aligned it with class-based hate / discrimination. However, despite CRT starting in the legal world, it has since spread:
The use of the term Uncle Tom dates back to the 19th century with the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by white American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the 1850s, it was probably as famous as Disney is today. It was the bestselling novel of the Victorian era and the second bestselling book, only being outsold by the Bible. It outsold every major work by every major author, from Dickens and Thackeray to the Brontes and George Eliot. In Black and British, Prof. David Olusoga tells us Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “a book about Black people, it’s a book about slaves in the deep south of America” and an uncle Tom in its day was a Black man who was thought of as excessively obedient to white people, or someone betraying their cultural or social alleigance.
So, when I talk about Uncle Tom’s cabinet in accordance to the establishment, I extend that term to people of colour more widely, such as how the establishment co-opted Marcus Rashford (though unknowingly to him I think), in his acceptance as a Member of the British Empire [MBE] and when Kanye West said “slavery was a choice.” Also, how Boris Johnson continues to state how the current Tory cabinet is the most diverse it has ever been, very much co-opting people like Home Secretary Priti Patel and the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. Still, the hostile environment endures and most impacted by the Windrush Scandal, still have not properly compensated.
From Trevor Phillips’ comments on Islamaphobia to Baroness Lawrence on Grenfell to Candace Owens on literally anything, and Femi Oluwole on blackface (possibily a naive victim here), the establishment co-opts Black/Brown people to promote things that reinforce inequalities or to disrupt equality drives (pushes that were often spearheaded by the left). The establishment ranges from everything between inviting ‘acceptable’ Black people on mainstream media to Black/Brown MPs that don’t really challenge anything, to giving Black and Brown people Empire medals.
All these people at one point or other have been co-opted to “speak for Black / Brown people”, and because they are visibily not white, the public will take their opinons as gospel. Co-opted by white institutions they’re ticking diversity quotas and being ‘accepted’ into the establishment whilst at the same time harming the communities they are “speaking for”, often with little knowledge, especially historically. I can only speak for myself and they do not speak for me. How Black / Brown establishment types have been co-opted, (ironically incl. activists), is even more problematic when we encounter acronyms like BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic].
Not every Black or Brown person high in our institutions is [knowingly] an Uncle Tom but there are more Kemi Badenoch characters in our institutions dressed up in the guise of “diversity” and “representation” than we realise (not all skin folk are kinfolk), be aware!
The views of Black and Brown people that read from the hymn sheet of the Conservative Party need to be countered by opposing views from other Black and Brown people. Seemingly, in these talks, especially on TV shows, the viewpoints of Black/Brown activist-academics is missing, as it will most likely be a point of view that does not fit the narrative. The most vocal academic I see is Prof. Kehinde Andrews who brings a breath of fresh air to all these debates. However, we also need to see the view of young people and students, as well as the points of view of the Black working class. Despite there being lots of educated people on this shows, they are also very privileged, including Kehinde Andrews, a professor at Birmingham City.
Uncle Tom’s cabinet is something I thought about in relation to how specifically the Conservative Party has used Black / Brown MPs to reinforce damaging messages. But it’s something that can be extended to all of society. White supremacy doesn’t become less dangerous when the person that’s reinforcing it is not white. If anything, one could say it becomes more so. The words of MP Kemi Badenoch in that Black History Month debate about curriculum and more, make me ask questions about neo-colonialism and what epistemic violence could mean in the context of parliament and those that dictate what gets put on the national curriculum.
Listening to Kemi Badenoch, you see the caste of Eton rearing its head and it doesn’t change a shade in the colonised minds of Multiracial Britain. She may not have gone to Eton, but the Commons speaks to privilege of caste and class. And to keep a population compliant, you give them scraps and cut them off from knowledge and make them say thank you when you do give them something, oh so evident in many of the minds of former-colonial subjects and their descendants. If Critical Race Theory was to succeed, the building blocks of which society currently is built upon would tumble down. To be anti-racist, you really have to be anti-capitalist as well.
In watching Kemi Badenoch’s speech you begin to see she really believes what she’s saying; she doesn’t change a shade, no change in expression or volume, because the “House Negro” still has a place in the 21st century and the only colour the ominous “they” truly care about, is green.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2006). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York: NYU Press.
Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK (2019). Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care: Lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2015-17. Oxford: Oxuniprint.
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.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Sky Sports did a segment on racism, using testimony from veteran West Indies cricketer Michael Holding and former-England women’s cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent. Whilst the story of racism and West Indies cricket is known to me through films like Fire in Babylon, the inclusion of Brent, showed me how little media attention women’s sports receives, particularly cricket. This is still a man’s world, even when men and women have been victims of the same pandemic of racism.
When I look at the history of sports in England, the inclusion of women is presented as a new phenomenon, despite a 1921 ban on women’s football by the FA in England that lasted decades. A ban on women’s football matches taking places on pitches owned by the Football Association. Institutional violence in sports in the 1920s. Furthermore, is there a Black women’s history here too? I have heard whisperings of an Emma Clarke of the 1890s who may be the first Black woman footballer. Interesting indeed.
Men’s football (and sports), also however, go back over a hundred years. Football has been the go-to for stories of racism in sports and the story of Walter Tull has almost become folk tale and a token symbol of racism in football for Black History Month campaigns up and down the country. Walter was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1888 and went on to have a glowing career playing for both Tottenham Hotspurs and Northampton Town (Cobblers). Additionally, he was the first mixed-race officer of African heritage in the British Army. At Northampton in 1911, he would have
started under Herbert Chapman – “a manager sympathetic to the additional pressures faced by the few players of colour in the professional game” (Vasili, 2010: 102).
Whilst Walter Tull has been the token for examples of men of colour in team sports, historically, he by far wasn’t the only the Black or Brown player, in late Victorian early Edwardian Britain. Unknown to many, looking at how his story is told in popular consciousness, he was also an avid cricketer and was one of many men of colour that played during this time. One of the big fish of Victorian cricket was K. S Ranjitsinhji, “a thin-built Indian prince who used his willow bat and body to produce fleeting moments of wonder and lasting memories of beauty” (Vasili, 2010: 127).
Vasili also writes of English-speaking Caribbeans playing cricket in England. We must remember this contradicts populist memory of Caribbeans first coming to England in 1948. In early Edwardian Britain, there was a thriving population of Black middle-class doctors:
With the existence of other Black and Brown sports players, with their accomplishments, I would argue the constant parading of Walter Tull is problematic. His story is an achievement in the face of adversity but it offends me that our schools do not all look past his story at other Black/Brown sports players in late Victorian/Edwardian Britain. We also know of a Manchurian James Peters, playing rugby for the England team in 1907 and 1908. This narrative in Britain goes as far as there was enough for them to make an argument, the constant focus on Tull is without merit:
“African-American racing cyclist Marshall Taylor beat British and continental opponents in 1902; South African boxer Andrew Jeptha won a world title in 1907; and ex-slave Bobby Dobbs fought in Britain 1898, returned in 1902 […]” (Vasili, 2010: 129).
While today we have Black boxing champions like Anthony Joshua, the legacy of Black pugilists goes back to the 18th century in Georgian Britain, where men like Bill Richmond would be enticed by Britain’s boxing culture, not before “he began his independent life in Britain serving as an apprenticed cabinet maker” (Olusoga, 2017: 98). It was later in life he starts his rivalry with Tom Cribb. In a sport that made the careers of Black activists such as Muhammad Ali, “not only did early pugilists fight without gloves, but practices outlawed in modern boxing, such as shoulder-charging […] were all regarded as legitimate tactics” (Williams, 2015: 63).
Now, in this time where many celebrate Black excellence, the common argument is there are not enough positive Black male role models in history for young Black boys today because Black British history is one enveloped by slavery and immigration. But the existence of Black sports players – those that came here and those that were born here – tell stories of free Blacks, ex-slaves and their descendants that are part of British history and succeeded, from football and rugby to athletics, cricket and cycling.
Positive Black role models for Black men today are there in British history books. Simply, they are needles in haystacks, on the outside of the frame as something “other” or “different – not seen as worthy of academic scholarship or interrogation. However, those interested only need to make the effort and look for it. We cannot be what we cannot see and my references also speak to a profession (History) that is dominated by (white) men and in its lack of diversity is an indictment on the industry at large.
Black men’s (hi)stories in sports go back 150 years. Yet, what about the Emma Clarke and Rainford-Brent characters of today, for young Black girls that want to see themselves? History is written by the conquerors, not the conquered, and the conquerors, even in sports, are almost always men.
Olusoga, D (2017). Black and British. London: Pan Books.
Vasili, P (2010). Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918: Officer, Footballer. London: Raw Press.
Williams, L (2015). Richmond Unchained. London: Amberley.
These same individuals, women that are smart and innovative are told by authority figures, including academics, that they are lazy and don’t apply themselves – are running businesses out of their halls. Black women sent white male astronauts into space in 1969; Black women also invented CCTV and laser cataract treatment. Knowing this, in the face of a double-figure Black awarding gap at UK universities (Barradale, 2020), I was not surprised to see they were running businesses out of their halls, with online shops – cake businesses, clothing alterations, and the big one – wigs and weave, and hair products.
Currently, I know a good many Black women turning lemons into lemonade. Through the Coronavirus pandemic there are Black entrepreneurs, like their white counterparts, trying to make a living, make money and get ahead. Yet, their white colleagues won’t be judged for it. However, the “motivation to create a business can spring from the most interesting of places, and for a variety of reasons” (Uviebinené, 2019: 157).
For the women I met when I was an undergraduate student and then as a member of university staff, it was a way to escape the colonising imperatives of whiteness within the institutional frameworks of Britain. Moreover, that despite historic stereotypes of laziness still being on the ascent for Black people, Black women “are achieving additional qualifications and gaining work experience” (ibid). The students I knew were driven and inspiring, graduating and then going on to run businesses, using Instagram and social media as a tool for economic prosperity.
Seeing many Black women in business it looks incredibly strenusous, as systemic misogynoir permeates all of society – a form of discrimination specific to Black women where race and gender both play roles of bias (Bailey, 2010).
The concept of Black successes of both women and men in a society that is institutionally racist is an achievement of monumental proportions, as neoliberalism runs rampant. Bhopal (2019) argues that “within a neoliberal context, policy making has failed in its attempts to champion inclusion and social justice, and in doing so has further marginalised the positions of black and minority ethnic groups.” She discusses that policy making in its current form affirms the position of white people at the expense of those from various Black and Brown backgrounds, in a society where individuals are privileged for being white over those who are not.
White privilege exists and the fact there are successful Black female businesspeople shows the system designed to subjugate the Black race’s success and humanity has failed. In these still very white spaces, do the Black entrepreneurs that break the glass ceiling allow people up behind them, or do they rescind the ladder?
Do they put their money where their mouth is to help their people? Stormzy heads publishing house #MerkyBooks, priding itself on platforming Black authors. Additionally, he funds Black students to go to Cambridge every year. Do those “allowed” to enter Buckingham Palace to be named Member of the British Empire [MBE] see themselves as Black, or does the “acceptance” of the establishment allow them to forget where they came from? I wonder if money and fortune give some Black business-owners a blinkered mindset to concepts like community and togetherness.
Modern questions of success and business aside, let’s take a step back and reflect on the past. Black success in business or any other industry is not a new concept. Simply, it is treated as a new phenomenon within the colonial gaze of the white western world:
Whilst the students I met as an undergrad and then as a staff member were anomalies in accordance to Eurocentric stereotypes of Africans, when you look into the depths of African history one will find that people of the continent are smart and hardworking and innovative and gracious and protective, and so much more, and always have been. In this history, we will begin to understand how Black British people today relate to themselves. This first begins with gaining “a clearer understanding” of other cultures “that is not warped through the biases of colonial documentation” (Dabiri, 2019: 36).
As seemingly corporations want to diversify their workforce and more Black and Brown people seek to go into business, this means having conversations of race and culture away from the proximity of whiteness. When businesses take an anti-racist approach to their everyday, including culture and history, they will see their income increased tenfold.
Bailey, M. (2010). They aren’t talking about me… — the crunk feminist collection. Available from: http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2010/03/14/they-arent-talking-about-me/
Barradale, G. (2020). Revealed: New stats show how wide the black attainment gap is at your uni. Available from: https://thetab.com/uk/2020/06/17/revealed-new-stats-show-how-wide-the-black-attainment-gap-is-at-your-uni-162142
Bhopal, K. (2018) White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society. Bristol: Policy Press.
Dabiri, E (2019). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane.
Uviebinené, E and Adegoke, Y (2019). Slay in Your Lane. London: 4th Estate
In July 2020 I was fortunate enough to be part of a project with The Guardian newspaper on fifty varied young, Black, British perspectives on Black Lives Matter – fifty Black Britons from across the country – from the Shetland Islands to Sunderland; from Northampton to Norfolk; from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The inclusion of Scotland in particularly, fascinates me, because I know if you ever call the Scots, English (or British), many will have your head. That whilst Scotland is part of Britain, it has its own culture and history, including a Black history. Though, to this day I have not been to Scotland and all the Scots I have met have been white. I know the first time I meet and hear a Black person with a Scottish accent will be a special day indeed.
When people talk about Scottish history, it is often one of fighting off English invaders. I think of films such as Outlaw King or even the not-so-historically-accurate Braveheart. Moreover, depictions of highland culture in Outlander, including the Jacobite cause being quashed at Culloden in 1745. However, whilst Scotland was oppressed by the English (British), they were also, like the English, complicit in slavery. Today, Glasgow is called the Merchant City, for the tobacco merchants. If you had a tobacco addiction in the 1700s (puffing away), your smoking habit was made in Glasgow and it was tainted with the violence of slave plantations across the Atlantic.
And yet, whilst Scotland was complicit in the Slave Trade, Black Scottish history goes back to Roman times. The Afro-Romans in Scotland “defending Hadrian’s wall in the third century AD was a ‘division of Moors’ (numerous Maurorum Aurelianorum) named after Marcus Aurelius or a later emperor known officially by the same name” (Fryer, 1984: 1). Today there is a small but thriving population of Black people in Scotland, one of Glasgow’s most famous being Ugandan-born poet Tawona Sithole. His poem ‘Good English’ resonates with me as a Black Briton of Caribbean heritage. And I expect it would resonate with many Black Scottish youth coming through now too, also at the mercy of micro-aggressive behaviours from the white population including the constant where are you froms?
In Ireland, additionally, there are communities of Irish people of African and Caribbean heritage. At University, a white Irish friend spoke to me about the number of Black African clergy in the Irish Catholic church. However, screen depictions of the Irish have often perpetuated stereotypes of alcoholism and violence. In screen media, both Northern Ireland and the Republic, are represented as white countries, with their own histories of conflict with English colonisers, including the famines, the Easter Risings (1916) and the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.
Furthermore, like the Scottish, the Irish have their own connections with slavery, especially as overseers on the plantations. Whilst the myth of Irish slaves has been debunked many times, there is a history of indentured labour on islands like Jamaica and Barbados. Black and Irish are often seen as juxtaposed but they needn’t be. Historian Peter Fryer talks about an African presence in the British isles “some 400 or 500 years after the Romans left” (Fryer, 1984: 2) and “an ancient Irish chronicle records that ‘blue men’ (fir gorma) were seized by Vikings in Morocco in the ninth century and carried off to Ireland, where they stayed for a long time” (ibis).
Whilst both Northern Ireland and the Republic are incredibly white nations now, especially in the rural areas, there is still a Black Irish history worthy of scholarship.
Black Irish history is something I hope to see more of in academia. SOAS academic Emma Dabiri growing up in 1980s inner-city Dublin is a start with her text Don’t Touch My Hair and quite an act to follow in the mainstream. Yet, there has not been a significant Black population in Ireland for long. Following the previous comment about African immigrant clergy in Ireland, however, many of the mixed-race children Dabiri came into contact with as a mixed-race Irish girl, in the 1980s were institutionalised:
The arrival of mixed-race Black-racialised children in Ireland that grew up with single white mothers holds a similar sentiment to one case study in Wales. There were more Black people in Britain in 1944 than in 1948 (before the arrival of the Empire Windrush) – simply because of the influx of African-American soldiers, as “on the eve of D-Day, in June 1944, there was a hundred and thirty thousand African-American GIs, both army and air force, stationed in Britain” (Olusoga, 2017: 467).
In 1942, the segregated United States sent a racially-segreated force to Britain. During the war years, Black American soldiers were also deployed to Wales. In the last episode of Black and British, ‘Homecoming’, Prof. David Olusoga meets with members of a Welsh village called Abersychan, including the descendants that came out of the unions between the Black men and white women – unknowingly participating in a social experiment.
What the experiences of Black and mixed-race Black-racialised communities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales show us, is that Britain is not post-racial and that race matters, both in 2020 and during the war years.
And more importantly, to forget the history we think we know, as seemingly white villages like Abersychan, have diverse histories worth talking and shouting about.
Dabiri, E (2018). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane
Fryer, P (1984/2018). Staying Power. London: Pluto
Olusoga, D (2017). Black and British. London: Pan Books.
I like to think I have been doing anti-racist work since I was a child — from the days when I telling my schoolmates about slavery to my teen years where I was educating my peers on the connotations of the N-Word and why it is wrong. I remember a few years ago my editor at The Nenequirer Steve was interviewing me for a piece and he made a passing statement about me being an “equality activist.” He meant it lovingly and in good faith. I laughed, jokingly — thinking that equality wasn’t a political issue, so how could it be activism? Now, even more cynical than I was in in 2017, but grown, equality is very much a political issue, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and I now carry the label of “anti-racism activist”, a job I have been doing for nearly 20 years, in a professional and non-professional capacity.
The fact I never regarded equality as a political issue is something I have thought about time and time again. Building my name as a poet in my community, much of my work being on race and nation, I have been called all types of things. Being called “anti-Britain” is not an accolade I thought I would recieve, as anyone that knows me knows I am more British than Queenie herself — from custard creams to Doctor Who, The Crown and test match cricket, there are few people alive who can out-Britain me.
So, to be called “anti-Britain” is insulting really. And, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, lately, I have been asked to answer all sorts of questions on race / racism by friends and colleagues, unknowing that what all Black people are going through now, as we have always done, is traumatic.
I hear a lot of my Black colleagues saying “it’s not the job of Black people to teach white people about racism, (and Black history.)” I heartily agree, but I also question the place this statement comes from in the first place. Lots of my colleagues have been asking me about the Black History and what they should be reading and I am quite fortunate in the sense that I know where to send them for information because I have spent nearly fifteen out of twenty-four years doing the reading and learning (outside of the system).
However, most Black people, really do not know their own history because they came through the same education system as white people, with its blinkered curriculum!
So, whilst we are Black, we, too, are disillusioned. We cannot teach you about our history because we do not know it ourselves. Those that do know it have taught themselves it. The reason I can challenge the Wilberforce narrative on slavery is because I have made efforts to find the other stories around that narrative. I have made efforts to look at the centuries before the fifty years of Wilberforce — centuries of rebellions and dissent from the first abolitionists, the slaves themselves, on the ships and the plantations.
I have found that Black teachers are really struggling because they also came through the same system. So, if teachers don’t know, (let alone Black teachers) how can they teach it to students? What really needs to happen, in addition to decolonising curricula is decolonise initial teacher education [ITE]. When our teachers are being taught about race and Black history, and the contributions of ethnic minorities to Britain, then we might get somewhere, because it’s being taught to the grownups… not just the youth.
I am fortunate to have parents that have degrees in Law and Internation Studies, fortunate to have parents that were part of their African-Caribbean Society at UEL and took part in anti-apartheid marches. Very politicised students who then became politicised parents and professionals, and now I am politicised too. I learned a bit from my parents and some stuff from my Windrush grandparents (that lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s) and then more stuff from different family members about all sorts of things.
But most of all, from doing the reading:
Akala, Malorie Blackman, bell hooks, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince, Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Frantz Fanon, Dean Atta, Roger Robinson, Miranda Kaufmann, John Agard, Reni Eddo Lodge, Afua Hirsch, James Baldwin, Peter Fryer, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Benjamin, Olivette Otele, Beverly Tatum, Maya Goodfellow, Paul Gilroy, Gary Younge, Kehinde Andrews, Hakim Adi, Bernadine Evaristo, Eric Williams, Andrea Levy et al…
I did the reading. Learned. Challenged. It’s no overnight success and I am still learning. The BBC had a whole season on Black Britishness, including documetaries Black is the New Black, Black and British: A Forgotten History and other bits. Yet, don’t be conned that more Black faces in the mainstream means Black people have made it and racism is over. The fact there are more Black people on TV has opened the floodgates for more debate on whether racism actually exists, if the likes of (Professor) David Olusoga can make it — or Afua Hirsch; or Reni Eddo-Lodge and many more.
Heck, Meghan Markle being “accepted” into the most elitist institution in Britain. That whilst we have books like Black and British by David Olusoga showing how far Black British history goes and showing the good things we have contributed, there are also texts like Slay in Your Lane by Elizabeth Ubivenne and Yomi Adegoke and Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, both just so raw and unflinching, straight at the jugular.
“Black Lives Matter; no justice, no peace; Black power” — chanted at the Northampton protest in July by nearly one thousand protesters. A moment in Black history we are living together but still some of us not really getting it. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the others sparked outrage across the world. But I would emphasise to the white masses, this has been happening since 1619 (US) and at least 1562 (Britain), when John Hakwins, from Plymouth, hijacked a Portegeuse slave ship and made a small fortune in the Spanish Caribbean, with further voyages that decade funded by Elizabeth I. This Black history I only know about from reading Staying Power by Peter Fryer, a white male author. Read. Research.
I wonder if the next generations of Black people to come in the future will know about Black Lives Matter, (because it’ll be taught in the schools), or will they have strangers and relatives telling them about their history just like I did?
I expect it is rather horrifying for Black people that do not know their history being asked by white people and other non-Black people about it, like being Black is a pass to knowing. Education is the pass and the education system doesn’t teach it but I can say we represent “3% of the [British] population but account for 13% of the prison inmates. Black people also represent 9% of deaths after police contact that were independently investigated” (Andrews, 2018: xxiii). We do not know our history but we are living it now, including our disproportionate overrepresentation in police and prison statistics.
When it comes educating ourselves on Black history, in my opinion, it follows a coalition of learning together. That whilst it looks semantically questionable having white academics being the main leads on subjects like slavery and Black Tudors (nationally), their knowledge is valuable, and so are the contributions in academia made by Black academics in history (what few that exist), as well as other subjects like sociology and criminology.
White people, stop burdening your Black friends and colleagues with teaching you about Black history; the likelihood is they do not know it in enough volume to teach you it. However, the literature is there, in volume, teach yourselves and grow, otherwise you are simply adding to the “drip drip” sensation of the tap we call emotional labour.
Andrews, Kehinde (2018). Back to Black: Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: ZED. Print.
See my reading and film resource, made in reply to Black Lives Matter. It’s public and for the benefit of all — from small children to adults: on race and Black history. This is an ongoing project and will continue long after anti-racism stops being sexy. This is always being updated, check it out.
Two months ago, London-born author-journalist and activist Reni Eddo-Lodge was the first Black British author to top the UK book charts. In addition to her being well-known for her book Why I’m No Longer Talking White People About Race, it was this text among others that inspired my dissertation on race-identity politics. I have reread the chapter ‘Histories’ countless times and come to the idea that current discourse on race and Black history is not as intersectional as it could be. Historically, I have seen Black History Month celebrations where women that do not fit into the cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, and / or heterosexual norms of society get side-lined.
Additionally, how we as a society oversimplify the Black Lives Matter movement as just a race issue baffles me.
In 2010, Black queer feminist Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir – phrase denoting discrimination against Black-racialised women where both race and gender play roles of bias. Reni Eddo-Lodge becoming the first Black British author to top the UK book charts is an indictment in two ways:
- It took this long for a Black British author to reach the top
- It took this long for a Black British woman to reach the top
Even ahead of Malorie Blackman, Bernadine Evaristo, Zadie Smith, and the late Small Island writer-author Andrea Levy.
Are not enough people buying books by Black British (female) authors or are they simply being denied access to publishing houses? Systemic discrimination in publishing is a criticism blessed by history, where English literature in the 18th, 19th and the 20th centuries was dominated by white men. At this time, many women wrote under pseudonyms, as the system would not take their authentic voices and selves seriously, as women.
Whilst I am a man, my mother is a woman and so are my grandmothers. My godmother is a Black female academic with stories of her own about misogynoir in higher education and the British school system. My late aunt was an actor-singer. I have female cousins who also have stories about misogynoir in arts, corporate, healthcare and other parts of society. I know, having been raised by Black women that this discrimination is endemic and I know Black men are complicit in as well – from hearing Black men labelling Black women as “high maintenace” to perpetuating colourism.
Does Black History Month and how Black history is taught play a role? Is the way we study Black history inclusive, or, despite ticking the race box, does it follow cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, heterosexual (very always male) norms? Are we doing everything we can in the narrative of Black historical scholarship to implement intersectionality?
In her essay (1989: 140), Kimberlé Crenshaw coins that buzzterm of today intersectionality. She writes “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.” Today, we can read this to the experiences of Black women on the autism spectrum; Black women who are transgender; Black women who are working class with disabilities.
How we view Black women’s history is troubling, as diversities of their experiences are being excluded from the story for “a more comfortable” cisgender, straight, male and / or able-bodied norm. Whilst we criticise white institutions for not doing diversity work, we must be careful as to not look like hypocrites, embodying our very own Prof. Coupland. One example is the slave narrative. In the teaching of the Slave Trade (when it’s actually taught), are we pushing for the inclusion of Black women experiences?
Despite learning of the Underground Railroad, I would also have liked to have learned about slavery’s darker side, including rape on the plantations and the histories of enslaved mothers as wet nurses for white children, often at the expense of their own. Moreover, slavery as an economics system, and “Black women’s reproductive systems were industrialised. Children born into slavery were the default property of slaveowners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 4). A system where they were exploited on the basis of their race and sex.
Whilst, I would caution educators about relegating Black women’s histories during the years of slavery into narratives of sexual violence with no counter balance (i.e female empowerment), these are also stories pertinent to the lives of women today, not just Black women. In light of #MeToo, would it be so wrong to investigate human history of sexual violence? If we did that, we would then be forced to interrogate women’s history at war, for example. What about sex workers during the World War One? Today, intersectionality may bend to age’s links with race, sex and “the adultification of Black girls” (Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017).
Using Reni Eddo-Lodge’s achievement as a conduit, I would argue there is no way we can achieve lasting change without the inclusion and amplification of Black women voices, who are themselves constantly hitting glass ceilings across all of society. This must include intersectional approaches to the Black past and anti-racist work. Whilst as a Black man I hit the glass ceiling, I can see through it. However, I know for my Black female colleagues this is a bleak look into the opaque.
The spine of the Black Lives Matter movement is unarguably kept together by Black, female leadership, as is the bulk of equalities work in academia with Black and brown academics. In revealing how Black women were agents in key moments of British history, including immeasurable contributions to civil rights movements and politics, we will understand
the history Black women are making now, truly embodying Black Britain and reimagining Black liberation. And it is in this train of thought, I believe when Black women matter, everyone will matter; when they win, everyone wins.
Center on Poverty and Inequality (2017). Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl’s Childhood. Washington D.C: Georgetown Law.
Crenshaw, K (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1(8), pp. 139-167.
Eddo-Lodge, R (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury. Print.