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Catalog of Negores, mules, carts and wagons to be sold

In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!

Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.

Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.

Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.

Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.

Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.

Mary Jane – about 11.

Martha – about 10.

Louisa – about 7.

Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.

His wife Judy, the same sort of character.

Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.

One of the humans being trafficked recounted:

“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.

The ebb and flow of freedom.

Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?

One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?

Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.

As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.

With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?

Lines of soldiers snaked around the airport departure area…

In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.

They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.

“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.

I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.

Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.

Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.

“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)

In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence.  It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!

There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.

What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.

So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.

Growth comes from discomfort

Getting closer to 30 has been really difficult. I had set goals for myself and I have not accomplished most of them. 

I thought I had everything all planned out and I knew what I wanted. However, life comes at you fast. I honestly wonder how our parents made this look so easy. 

The pandemic has also knocked us back a couple of years. Instead of focussing on goals and thinking about the future; we are simply trying our hardest to stay sane and survive each day. Remembering to breathe became the new main task. Making our  mental health a priority has become the most important thing.  

Trying to balance ‘living in the moment’ and thinking about the future is hard. My plans have changed so much over the last couple of years. I have more questions than answers. But I’m slowly learning not every question has to be answered straightaway. 

The pressure I feel being a first generation immigrant is enormous. I believe that every generation has to show a level of socioeconomic improvement. Finding a way to achieve this, whilst in a foreign land is extremely overwhelming. You are constantly reminded close to each day that you are an outsider and you do not belong here. 

Nonetheless, my mother did not work two jobs and not have any days off for me not to make it. This has always been my driving force. My mom always tells me I am being too hard on myself. She had the support from her relatives when she was home in our home country (Zimbabwe) and I don’t have the same luxury, as such I shouldn’t penalise myself for not achieving everything I want to achieve… yet. (The key word is ‘yet’). Just because it has not happened yet doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. Delay does not mean denial. 

Facing career challenges based on your race is a hard pill to swallow. Not knowing who to turn to for advice is even more frustrating. I used to think all women regardless of race would empathise and they would want to help. As we all have one struggle in common; being a woman.  At least that should unify us… (so you would think). However, I have realised at times your level of ambition can be deemed as a threat. The same people might have  experienced a glass ceiling can be the very same ones who add to your oppression because you are seen as ‘competition’.  One of my mentors recently told me to relax in relation to my job searching as all institutions are not used to “aggressive job searches”. I find it pretty funny that the term “aggressive” will always be the main word used to describe Black people. How can a job search ever be aggressive?! Unless I’m standing outside your office threatening you to give me a job then yes, that’s aggressive. However, sending an email reminding a company to send me the new job specification they stated over the phone is not aggressive. In that moment, I knew she is an enemy of my progress. 

I used to calculate my career progression based on if I have moved up to a certain level or my pay grade has increased. But I am starting to learn the skills I have acquired over the years are far more valuable. My confidence has grown incredibly. I have found my voice. That is something that cannot be taken from me. I am proud of my level of courage and perseverance. These are qualities not a lot of people have. 

I am excited to see what 30 has in store for me. I have learnt so much. But there are a lot of skills I look forward to gaining in the upcoming years. I am slowly learning not to be so hard on myself. 

Note to self – do not forget who you are… You are destined for greatness. Everything you want is coming. Do not compare your journey to others. Even if others are not willing to help you; there is always a way forward. Go back to the drawing board and restrategise. No one owes you anything. So do not expect anything from anyone.

“Remember diamonds are created under pressure so hold on, it will be your time to shine soon.” – Sope Agbelisi

Complaint! (For Sara Ahmed)

This poem comes inspired from the recent UCU strikes, and also the underpinning arguements of Complaint by Sara Ahmed. The institution protects itself, while removing those who complain (or in many cases, they remove themselves). It is also inspired by ‘Testimony’ by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


As higher education burns,
they blame white lecturers who picket,
and the Black and Brown lecturers
no longer willing to be ‘paid in exposure’
to the hull of slave ships. Colonialism’s hot mouth
at the nucleus of HE’s epistemes,
so senior leaders blame lecturers
for neglect. Meanwhile, the upper echelons
play Monopoly with staff pay checks
students left to grieve assignment
work revolving around conveyer belts
like undead corpses between indenture and slavery

it’s a Tuesday morning
a fever of claret runs riot
across picketing lines
turn cloaks to justice and equality,
there’s just ice behind the scab
where hearts used to beat. Back in the 80s,
gay and lesbian activists stood in solidarity
with the miners; and Arthur Scargill
and co scurried to Jayaben Desai at Grunwick
from the main road, you can still hear the screams
of comradery, and ‘we see yous’ …

yet behind picket tea and biscuits,
there are teary smiles –
death behind the bags,
and behind the pyre …
smoke could be seen for miles.

If we could empathize with all life, we…         [fill in the blank]

In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).

Image: https://www.lionsroar.com/a-beacon-of-light-bell-hooks-on-thich-nhat-hanh/

If we could empathize with all life, we…        

… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.

… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.

…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.

…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.

…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.

…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.

…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.

…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.

…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.

… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.

…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.

… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.

Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.

If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.

If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.

Your turn.

Fill in the blank.

At The Mouth of ‘Bloody Sunday’ #Travel #Prose #History

At the Mouth of Bloody Sunday

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

Bloody Sunday in Selma only highlighted the bloody Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays that Black people in America have faced from the first time we laid eyes on these shores. It took people to gather and protest to change. In December ’64, the good Rev. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this movement. That spring in Selma, people marched across a bridge in order to highlight the normal voter suppression practices still happening throughout the south – and still in 2021. 

“If you can’t vote, you ain’t free. If you ain’t free, well then you a slave.” –Intro interview to Eyes on the Prize part 6/8.

According to the National Park Service, who oversees the important civic monument now:

“On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma.” 

From my 7th grade social studies class circa ‘87, I would also add: The good white citizens of Selma gathered at the mouth of the bridge for the spectacle, to witness or probably participate in the oppression. We see them in the footage, films, pictures and media coverage of the events, and we know many are likely still alive. Black-n-white news footage of the days leading to Bloody Sunday show the sheriff and his angry henchmen prodding people with their clubs, plenty of ‘regular’ people watching in joy.

The people prodded? Well-dressed and behaved Black citizens of Selma and activists who’d come to support them. According to the footage, white citizens came out in droves for what they knew would be a bloody suppression of simple voting rights. As spectators, their presence made the massacre spectacular.

Selfie @ the Mouth of the Bridge, Sept ’21

I’ve visited the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute at the mouth of the bridge, and there they have an actual jar of jellybeans used to test Black people coming to sign up to vote at the local government office. Yes, sitting behind that booth was a white man who demanded that a black person – any citizen of the darker complexion – accurately guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to be allowed – in order for him to allow them – to register to vote. I feel like I have to repeat that, or say it in different ways because it is so unbelievable.

This September, I visited a museum at the edge of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery, the state capital. This historical museum marks local efforts to contest voter restriction practices. These practices were heinous in tone and texture, yet creative and cringe-worthy in nurture and nature. For example, consider the ingenious of these jellybean-counting white men in DC who created the separate-n-unequal space to inspire a variety of voter suppression taxes, tests and clauses throughout the south. It is these sorts of mad men who make decisions that impact the entire world as we have come to know and understand it now. 

Yes, it is these sorts of men who send politicians to the state houses, and sent/send senators to Washington DC, to cajole politicians of every hue to compromise on their values. Now, we also know they send mobs to storm the capitol on the very day all the legislators gather to confirm the election results.

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

The jar of jellybeans at the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Al. Sept ’21

Imagine yourself standing there in a museum, looking at a shelf, and there is a jar of jellybeans. There’s nothing spectacular about the jar, nor its contents. For any of us have seen something like this in virtually any kitchen, or supermarket. My granny grew, harvested and canned vegetables, so growing up I got to handle many mason jars first hand. 

In fact, I love jellybeans. I used to visit the gourmet jellybeans shop in the mall after school when I was a kid. You could pick out any flavour that you liked, and I always went for blueberry, and cherry. I loved the contrast between the royal blue and Corvette red. It is a childhood fascination that my dentists still adore me for to this day. Naturally, these gourmet jellybeans were a little more expensive than the ones you get in the supermarkets, but I liked to save my money and treat myself sometimes. Plus, it felt very special being able to pick out the ones you like, and not have to discard the disgusting ones – who ever thought licorice or cola belonged on a jelly bean!?! 

As a candy, jellybeans are so visually enticing. As you enter the shop, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with all sorts of bright neon colors. Every shade of the rainbow grabs your eyes, calls to you. Between stacks of plastic bags and scoops, you are awed by the massive jars of each individual jellybean color ready for you to pick-and-mix. There are also tables with stacks of both empty and pre-filled jars. There are jars of all sizes filled with colorful patterns of jellybeans with matching ribbons tied in bows around the lids. Of course, the entire shop smells like fruit, all kinds of fruits, sweet, succulent fruits that you cannot even imagine. You are the customer, you are king. By virtue of entering the fancy shop, this is your kingdom.

Now take all of that and put it in a jar. To get to this jar, you have to enter an official government building in the town center. Next to the entrance stands an armed, uniformed white man who gives you a disgruntled look as you enter, signaling that he’s not there for your safety but aggravation. Now, as you approach, you see the jar, sitting on a counter, and behind it sits another white man. Try to imagine this white man, probably with a gun next to him or somewhere nearby, with nothing better to do than to threaten your life. Because the town is so small, he knows your last name, and may know of your family. 

Since this is a small town, he knows your employer, he knows where you live as you’ve just written this down. He may even know your family, as the local history is so insidious, his family may have even owned or overseen yours at one time. Or, at that very moment, you or a family member may work for him or his kin. Your kids might play together. You may have played with him as a kid when, for example, your mother was his nanny (read-and-said-in-the-south: Mammy). Yet now, here in a free democracy, it is his job to register citizens to vote. 

It is his prerogative, the birthright of this individual, plain (white) man on the other side of the glass to demand that you count the number of jellybeans in the goddamn jar. It is a privilege that no one anywhere near here has ever questioned. So, with a smile, he plops a big red “DENIED” stamp on your registration form. Of course yo’cain’t! A “killing rage” surges. Be glad you don’t have a gun with you.

My First Foreign Friend #ShortStory #BlackAsiaWithLove

I love school.

In the third grade, we had a foreign student named Graham. His parents had come over to our hometown from England with a job, and his family was to stay in our town for a year or two.

Other than Graham’s accent, at first he didn’t in anyway appear, or feel different.

The only time that Graham’s difference mattered , or that I knew Graham’s difference mattered, was on the spelling test. We had moved far away from three letter words, to larger words and sentences, and by fourth grade we were writing our own books.

But in the third grade, there was Graham on our first spelling test, and our teacher drilling words like color.

The teacher made it fun by using word association to aid in memory. Then, he paused to explain that Graham would be excused if he misspelled certain words because where he’s from, they spelt (spelled) things differently. Spell “color” differently, we all wondered? 

Our teacher explained that there are many words where they add the letter U, that are pronounced in the same way. Anyway we have different accents in our own country. Heck, we had different ways of saying the word “colour” in our own city. Where does the extra-U go? Then of course, the teacher spelled out the word. He could not write it on the chalkboard because we were sitting in a circle on the area rug, on the library side of the classroom. It is then that I also realized that I had a visual memory, even visualizing words audible words, both the letters and images representing the meaning. I wanted to know why people in England spelled things differently than in America. Despite Graham’s interesting accent, and easy nature which got him along fine with everyone, he was going to have to answer some questions.

Though our teacher did not write the letters, in hearing them I could see them in my mind moving around. I started imagining how moving the different letters shifted – or did not shift – differences in sound, across distances, borders, and cultures. I started imagining how the sounds moved with the people. Irish? Scottish? People in our city claimed these origins, and they talk funny on TV. Britain has many accents, our teacher explained. “I’m English,” blurted Graham. 

We didn’t know much, but we knew that except for our Jewish classmates, everyone in that room had a last name from the British Isles, which we took a few moments to discuss. Most our last names were English, like my maternal side. A few kids had heard family tales of Scottish or Irish backgrounds, German, too. One girl had relatives in Ireland. And wherever the McConnell’s are from, please come get Mitch. Hurry up! 

How did we Blacks get our Anglicized names? Ask Kunta Kinte! And how did this shape Black thought/conscience, or the way we talk? I wanted to know MORE. I thought Jewish people were lucky: At least they knew who they were, and they were spoken of with respect. Since my dad is Nigerian, (and my name identifiably African) I had a slight glimpse of this. I knew I had a history, tied to people and places beyond the plantation, and outside of any textbook I’ve ever had (until now where I get to pick the texts and select the books).

My family is full of migrants, both geographically and socially, so homelife was riddled with a variety of accents. Despite migrating north, my grandparents’ generation carried their melodic Alabama accents with them their whole lives. Their kids exceeded them in education, further distancing our kin from cotton farming, both in tone and texture. This meant that my generation was the first raised by city-folk, and all the more distant from our roots since we came of age in the early days of Hip-Hop. At home, there were so many different kinds of sounds, music, talk and accents. Fascinating we can understand done another.

Our teacher also told us that Americans also used some of the same words differently. Now, I’ve lived here in the UK for a decade and I can’t be bothered to call my own car’s trunk a boot. Toilet or loo? Everybody here gets it. Unfortunately, Graham explained that he knew the British term for what we call ‘eraser’, which the teacher couldn’t gloss over because we each had one stashed in our desks, and he knew we’d have the giggles each time the word was mentioned.

I was still struck by the fact that in spite of all these differences and changes, meanings of words could shift or be retained, both in written and spoken forms. I wanted to know more about these words – which words had an extra U – and where had the British got their languages and accents. For me, Graham represented the right to know and experience different people, that this was what was meant by different cultures coming together.

“Here I am just drownin’ in the rain/With a ticket for a runaway train…” – Soul Asylum, 1992, senior year.

In retrospect it’s weird that Graham’s my first foreign friend. Both my father and godmother immigrated to America – initially to attend my hometown university. They’d come from Nigeria and China, respectively, and I’d always assumed that I’d eventually visit both places, which I have. Perhaps this particular friendship sticks with me because Graham’s the first foreign kid I got to know. 

Through knowing Graham, I could for the first time imagine myself, in my own shoes, living in another part of the world, not as a young adult like my folks, but in my 8-year-old body. What interested me more was that I could also see Graham was not invested in the macho culture into which we were slowly being indoctrinated (bludgeoned). For example, Graham had no interest in basketball, which is big as sh*t in Kentucky. Nor did I. “Soccer is more popular over there,” our teacher explained, deflecting from Graham’s oddness. “But they call it football.” Who cares! I’d also seen Graham sit with his legs crossed, which was fully emasculating as far as I knew back then. The teacher defended him, saying that this also was different where Graham came from. I definitely knew I wanted to go there, and sit anyway I wanted to sit.

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: #MakeSomeSpace

When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.

My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.      

Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.

This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.

There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.

With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?

The UK is not Innocent: “Babylon, for True” #SubnormalABritishScandal

Last December I watched the final entry of Small Axe entitled ‘Education‘, the best entry in my opinion and thus I delivered a blog on the film too. The finale articulated the history behind the schools for the ‘Educationally Subnormal’ [ESN] or ‘special schools’, and it took me back to when I was a nine year-old boy being treated as if I was intellectually inferior or incapable, by my White teachers in comparison to the White children. It turns out I was dyspraxic. The story of Maisie Barrett, however, in the recent documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal resonated. My schooling experience differs from most Black children in Britain today (since I was at private, not state) but the story of Maisie Barrett resonates because she was dyslexic (word blindness in the 1960s/1970s) and simply, like my teachers with my dyspraxia, they did not know how to teach her or me. She was placed in one of those ‘special schools’ really because she happened to be Black and her dyslexia translated as “difficult” to the teachers of the time.

In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Black children in Britain were caught in an education scandal where many were sent to schools designed for the ‘educationally subnormal’. Some children were labelled as “subnormal” by the state, as they were seen to have low intelligence and not fit for the mainstream school system. A decision by the state that would see many (if not all) of these children to grow into adults traumatised by their experience with that childhood trauma impacting their adult lives. What happened in the 1960s and 1970s disproportionately to Black British children of Caribbean descent has an enduring legacy today, where battles are still being fought in the name of race and racism, from Early Years all the way up to higher education [HE] in universities. In the 1944 Education Act, the term “educationally subnormal” entered British lexicon to describe children that the state deemed intellectually deficient.

Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021)

The people that we now know in the colloquial sense as the Windrush Generation (Caribbeans that came here between 1948-1970), came here to work. This scandal impacted their children and is really an aftershock of the hostility to Caribbean arrival in 1948. My own great-grandparents themselves came to this country from the Caribbean in the late 1950s, early 1960s with some of their children (including my grandmother) coming on her parents’ passports. And I know my maternal great-grandparents were factory workers when they first came. I’m told they went to work at Long and Hambly, a Northamptonshire-based plastics manufacturer. However, these ESN schools should not be relegated to history as the education sector continues to fail Black and Brown students at every level. Whilst back then the state called them ‘special schools’, now we have Pupil Referral Units [PRU] where Black students in schools continue to be placed when they become “too difficult” for the mainstream system of education.

Watching Subnormal, it struck me that whilst it claims this scandal started in the 1960s with the arrival of the Windrush Generation and whilst I earlier claimed it as an aftershock of 1948, I would take this back further. Why were / are Black students being treated as if they were / are less intelligent? In the documentary, Prof. Gus John states “there were many academics who were equating race with lack of intellectual ability [with] the reason for Black underachievement as those children were Black” … academics like Professor Hans Eysenck, a key figure in discourses around race and intelligence in the 1970s. He believed genetics played a role in influenceing intelligence and that “entire racial groups might be genetically condemned to lower intelligence” (Subnormal). These ideas lead to beliefs that Black children were not as capable of academic success as White children. With people like Prof. Eysenck leading on this, it made ESNs not really a national scandal but justifiable … essentially justifying racism with “science.”

Yet, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries we also know that similar ‘race science’ was used to used to justify colonialisms and also enslavement as well as the subjugation of Black people in the Caribbean and the African continent. In her book Superior, Angela Saini traces the origins of race really showing the racial hierachies that existed in that era with White European people at the top and Black people of African descent at the bottom and “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11). So-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical differences to emphasise us and them and I believe the ideas perpetuated by the Government in constructing the ESNs do not sound too far from the pseudoscientific racial theories that underpinned colonial racial thinking of the 18th and 19th century. Very much followed by the Nazis themselves, inspired by UK-US eugenics creating policies also discriminating based on disabilities, that would have included neurodivergent conditions like dyslexia (or as they called it in the 1970s … word blindness).

Bernard Coard’s seminal 1971 text that hasn’t aged a day

Black people being seen as intellectually inferior is a stereotype that goes back to the days of White masters and Black enslaved people. The justifications made for the ESNs were simply an afterthought of the “academic reasonings” made to subjugate Black people on slave plantations. Simply, the UK government were standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes created in the slave polity. When you link this with the hostility to Caribbean arrival, we can then see that the conditions of anti-Blackness have been in Britain since the 16th century. In watching the film, what we saw is ‘race science’ playing out in a contemporary context, as well as eugenics, which was also pioneered by men like Winston Churchill, who the British public saw fit to vote as the Best Briton in 2002, and then have on the £5-note in 2016.

In British schools and universities, we continue to see these same stereotypes playing out (the return of race science, to put it bluntly) but more importantly, this is White supremacy in action. Whilst I enjoyed (if that’s the term), the documentary as it had lots to take away, I felt it was not critical enough. Much alike lots of the documentaries we have received from especially the BBC since the George Floyd killing, they go as far as to say ‘racism is bad and we need to talk about it’ but fall short in naming White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2004). Further to the fact of how institutional Whiteness (White Spaces) allows our structures to continue to centre and frame the emotions of White people in dealing with racist incidents. The scandal that culminated in Bernard Coard’s book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, was well articulated by the BBC as well as showing the role of Black parents, community leaders and activists, but falls short at showing the overarching system leading us to believe this as an isolated tragedy and not part of complex system that was orchestrated from dot.

We had lots of testimony from the victims as well as parents, community leaders, activists and the like but much akin to so much of the trauma narratives of late, the people that helped facilitate these crimes are nowhere to be seen … we have a victim-focussed narrative with no analysis on the mechanics of the oppression itself. 50 years on, more awareness for sure … but no accountability. The BBC is the establishment broadcaster and it shows. Babylon, for true!


References

Coard, B. (1971) How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System. In: Richardson, B. Tell it like it is: How our schools fail Black children. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.  

Mills, C (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed). What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Saini, Angela (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science. London: 4th Estate.

Ventour, T (2021) The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal. Medium [online]

White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces [online].

The 7 shots of Isaiah Brown (April, post-George Floyd murder case) #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Isaiah Brown was shot by the policeman who’d given him a ride home less than an hour earlier, after his car had broken down at a gas station. He was shot 3 minutes into his 9-1-1 call. The cop mistook the cordless phone Isaiah was holding for a gun. This was the very phone he’d mentioned to the 9-11 dispatcher, using the very same cordless phone from his home. On the 9-1-1 call, Isaiah is explicitly asked, and confirms that he is unarmed, also that he was walking down the street on the phone, escaping a volatile situation. 

On the call, it’s clear that Isaiah was reaching out for a lifeline – calling out from hell in sheer crisis. It wasn’t that he was in danger, he had the emotional maturity to call for help when he felt himself at risk of endangering another. “I’m about to kill my brother,” he calmly tells the dispatcher, who by now can start to hear him panting from walking. 

“Do you understand that you just threatened to kill your brother on a recorded line on 9-1-1,” she asks calmly. “Mmm Hmm,” he confirms casually. He was calling her for help, and by now it’s clear that she’s attempting to keep him talking, i.e. redirect his attention from his crisis by having him describe the crisis.  She’s helping Isaiah to look at his situation objectively, and it’s working. This is a classic de-escalation tool that anyone who has ever taken care of a toddler knows. Isaiah calmly and rationally confirmed that he knew the implications of his words, and he kept pleading for help. 

This was a call about a domestic dispute and there was talk of a gun, which never materialized, neither did the caller nor his brother in the background suggest the actual presence of a gun. Isaiah can be heard twice ushering someone out with him, and by his tone it seemed that he was speaking to a child, using a Black girl’s name. None of Isaiah’s ushering is noted in the transcript. In hearing so many keystrokes, one wonders which parts of this is being taken down. Again, she asked him to confirm that he was unarmed. In fact, she seemed bewildered that he was using a house phone, yet still able to walk down the street, again, evidently attempting to de-escalate the situation. How many times have you told some to “take a walk!”

“How are you walking down the road with the house phone,” she asks. “because I can,” he says, and leaves it at that. 

In the background of the call, we hear police sirens approaching. “You need to hold your hands up,” she says. “Huh,” he asks. “Hold your hands up,” she says sharply, as if anticipating the coming agitation. It’s interesting to note here that we, too, know that despite the casual nature of this distress call, despite all clear and explicit confirmation that the gentleman was unarmed, and regardless of the fact that the dispatcher knew that Isaiah would be in the street when officers approached, the raising in alarm in her voice betrayed the fact that she knew the officer would escalate the situation. 

“Why would you want to do something like that,” she calmly asks, he calmly answers. She engages him in this topic for a while, and we can hear the background become quieter. His explanations are patchy and make little sense, yet he remains calm. By now, it’s clear that the caller is of danger to no one else but his brother, and that he’d managed to create some physical distance between the two. So far, nothing suggests anyone is about to die. Yet, the officer arrives, and within 30 seconds, 7 shots are fired, Isaiah is down.

After the 7 shots are fired, you can hear someone moaning in pain, and you can’t exactly tell if it’s Isaiah or the dispatcher; the dispatcher’s recording continues.  After the shots are fired, and it’s clear from the audio that the victim is moaning in pain, the cop continues to bark out orders: “Drop the gun” and so forth. He’s just 7 times, we hear a fallen man, and the cop is still barking in anger and anguish. Is he saying “drop the gun” to Isaiah, or performing for the record, as Black twitter has suggested? Confusingly, moments later the officer is heard playing Florence Nightingale, complete with gentle bedside manner. We hope Isaiah survives; issuing aid at this moment is life-saving.

“He just shot ‘em, the dispatcher says to someone off call, who can now be heard on another dispatch call regarding the incident.  “I got you man” the policeman says to Isaiah moments after shooting him, then mercifully: “I’m here for you, ok.”

Now, in the distance, we hear the familiar voice of Isaiah’s brother calling out, “Hey, what’s going on, bro?” “It’s ok” the officer calls out quickly. He never says what’s just happened. Then, “Go to my car, grab the medical kit,” he calls out to the brother.  “You shot ‘em,” the brother asks.  The cop says nothing.

The previous news report on the network nightly news was about Merrick Garland launching a civil rights investigation into my hometown’s police force, just over a year after the police murdered Breonna Taylor on my mother’s birthday. “It’s necessary because, police reform quite honestly, is needed, in nearly every agency across the country” says Louisville Metro Police Chief, Erika Shields. On that area’s local news website reporting this story, the next news story bleeds reads: “ Black gun ownership on the rise,” on no one should wonder why. But, this is America, so the headline finishes with: “But Black gun store owners are rare.” The all-American solution – more peace-makers!

Please stop ignoring our distress, or minimizing our pain with your calls to “go slow.” How slow did Isaiah have to move to avoid getting shot 7 times by a cop who’d just shown him an act of kindness and mercy!?! #BLM #BlackLivesMatter #Seriously #Nokidding

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