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.
In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life. We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place. Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen. That is life as it is.
Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one! On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled. Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip! At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip.
I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side. The track is leading up and down the mountainous path. The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it. The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance. Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell. The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.
As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change. On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out. Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead. Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus. According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”. I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware. The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable. “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims! Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did. Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading. The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop.
Finally, more signs. On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries. One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin). Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer. Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road! At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone. It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles. Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about. This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.
At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road. To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching. At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move. The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road. I briefly evoke the Saint. Nothing. I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing. After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort. I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism. Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her. This is when nature retaliates. A flock of goats join the cow. They meander around me and the stubborn bovine. The road is now akin to a petting zoo.
I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films. I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds. The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back. After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road. That’s my opportunity to leave. As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry. The road is clear, and I am on my way.
The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea. I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park. One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”. The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor. The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular. There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough. After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable. Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew! I think the Saint is testing me!
On the way back, the road is empty. The cows rest on the side of the road. I slow down, I look out…they look away. At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee. I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind. He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”. I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow. The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips. There was nothing spectacular about it. There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own. It is what we remember of them that matters. In the last months millions of people went into lockdown. Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.
My second grade teacher
Took us to her house.
It was the first time I’d been in a white, middle-class house.
In the East End.
Walking distance from the park!
We walked there from our field-trip to the zoo,
And I was aware that this was a white neighborhood.
I was aware that some of my classmates lived nearby –
They pointed it out along the way: “Oh, there’s my bus.”
Some of my white classmates lived in the East End.
I was also aware that most-if-not all of the black people lived on the other side of town –
we caught the same bus home.
Separate, but equal.
And unlike our days spent at school,
The bus was either black or white.
This was all of our first chance to meet outside the classroom, in a home.
We were six and seven years old.
My second-grade teacher took us to her house.
She wasn’t bragging about her gigantic house.
No, she wasn’t trying to show off to us.
Even at that age I could tell that she just wanted to expose us,
To help us get to know how everyone in our city lived,
And that every part of town was ours.
And that we should expect to be in each other’s house.
And that even teachers have a life.
(BTW, I am suggesting that us educators are essential workers).
My second-grade teacher took us to her house.
She’s a white woman, and I was a black boy.
She lived in the white part of town, and I in the black.
Our worlds were different,
Yet we were one, under her care.
Momma taught me that she could trust different people with my care.
I learned that I could care about all different people.
Suddenly instead of her students she treated us like guests.
She respected us and we respected her home.
She told us about the people in the pictures on the walls,
And the places she’d been to collect all those interesting things.
(I wanted to go places, too.)
We knew the profundity of the experience.
Even at that age we knew that race and class should have kept us apart,
At least according to the world outside our class.
And we quickly learned that everyone knew THAT skewl was kewl.*
It’s been over half a year since the bulk of the world began dealing with Corona. With that, neither everyday movements nor international travel has not been the same. Now, we’re midway through summer. School terms have been extended globally, altered drastically from any norm. While some are staggering their re-openings, there is no settle new way of doing old things. Educating youth may never be the same. Students are in a unique position to reform education from the ground up. This is my prayer for youth: Stand courageously as we ride these waves of change.
Travel and tourism. While could spew a bunch of statistics about this fallen industry, any of us can go through the tediousness of searching and scrolling through the numbers. It’s been over six months, so many numbers are rolling in: There are masses of jobs that may never recover. By the time people figure out what to do during this unending period of lockdowns, lock-ins, closings, shut-downs, downscales, too many bellies will have gone unfed, too many months’ rent gone unpaid. A tsunami of bills threatens to drown a plenty. My prayer is that your creativity prevails. There is no apparent swift solution to these current ills, nor can we predict any end with any confidence. My prayer for you is that you rise like the phoenix.
Essential workers. From corner shop-keepers to grocery workers, from fast-food workers to farmers, from cleaners to manufacturers, from bank workers to customer services worldwide, to all the delivery folk, sanitation folk, safety and security folk, healthcare folk, please know our eternal indebtedness to you. Your lives matter. Each one of you. You are often poorly paid, regularly poorly treated, and certainly too frequently mis-regarded. You supply the gloved hands that handle our goods, provide our services, scrape up the crap we leave on the streets … even get our bodies into beds when we’re no longer able. It is true that many societies have tended to severely undervalue you. My prayer is that essential workers be better respected, compensated and protected.
May our common, global experience of living with Corona provide us all some well-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday-life-as-usual to truly appreciate the many lives that make our own lives possible. There was something eerily usual about the way emergency-care worker Breonna Taylor died in her home at the hands of the police. My prayer is that such knowledge sits less comfortably with us all, and that we seek change, no matter where we are. Witnessing the risks peaceful protestors take to bring about change, and seeing the propaganda that plays out in the news vilifying them along caste lines, my prayer is that empathy prevails.
May we all know better and do better. Do right.
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.
A good few years ago a senior colleague asked me that very question. It was more of a statement, than a question and it was designed to make me think about how I approached work and perhaps more importantly how others saw me in the workplace. It fits very nicely with another saying, ‘if you want the job done, give it to a busy person’. It seems there are those in the workplace that get the job done and those that don’t. There are those that always say ‘yes’ and others that often say ‘no’. There are those that solve problems and those that don’t. Another saying from a senior manager, ‘don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions’ sums up the majority of relationships in organisations.
My experience of managers (both middle and upper) has been varied, but unfortunately most have fallen into the category of poor, bordering on awful. Perhaps that colours my judgement, but I do know that I’ve also had some very good managers. The good managers always made me feel like I was working in partnership with them and, yet I knew who was the boss. I always tried to find a solution to a problem but if I couldn’t then the boss knew that it was a problem he or she needed to deal with, they trusted my judgement. Often what appears to be the most trivial of problems can be a show stopper, a good boss knows this. If I said ‘no’ to a piece of work, then the boss negotiated which other piece of work would be set to one side for now. Sometimes everything is a priority, and everything is important, it is for those at the most senior level to make the decisions about what will or will not get done. Making no choice is an abrogation of responsibility, suggesting it is another person’s problem is just as bad if not worse.
Good managers understand how much work people are doing and trust their workers to get on with the job in hand. A good manager knows that even the most menial of tasks takes more time than might be imagined and that things rarely go exactly to plan. There is always an element of redundancy. When someone says ‘no’ to a piece of work they understand that there is a reason for that ‘no’ and rather than simply seeing that person as being difficult or lazy, they listen and seek solutions. More importantly, they take responsibility for the problem, ‘bring me the problem and I’ll help you find the solution’.
As we move into a summer of uncertainty where the ‘new normal’ is an anxious time for most, where the ‘yes’ people are needed more than ever, and the managers need to lead from the front, if you are a manager, what will you response be when your undervalued ‘yes’ person says ‘no’?