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Performing Arts has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and arts in general is something I’m passionate about, more specifically: literature, theatre and film / television. However, the recent awards scandal with BAFTA is really just one more example of how institutional violence is something Britain refuses to come to terms with. Whether we’re talking the education sector, or policing (Macpherson 1999), criminal justice (Lammy 2017), or in government (Windrush Crisis), or Britain’s film and television industry.
There’s twelve and half years between me and my brother. Yet, ever since he was born he has shown an aptitude for the arts and great promise in both stage and screen, having done work with Screen Northants and Royal & Derngate, as well as with the Royal Shakespeare Company (The RSC).
He really is very good, but how the UK treats Black actors is atrocious. I know from discussions that he wants to be a serious actor and I wonder if he will have to fight the same racism and implicit bias that David Oyelowo and Idris Elba did. When will Black British actors stop having to prove themselves abroad before they are taken seriously in their own country?
“BAFTA stands for ‘Black actors fuck off to America'” joked comedian Gina Yashere in docuseries Black is the New Black
It’s funny because it’s true. And Britain’s close-minded attitudes towards race and diversity does not help the cause. Over the years, Black British actors, and even Black and brown Brits from other non-UK backgrounds have gone to America in hoards and made it. Whilst America is not famous for its racial harmony, it is at least thirty years ahead when it comes to race. And when it comes to diversity within acting and the performing arts industry, they are better off. If Ashton decided he wanted to jump ship and move to Los Angeles, or NYC (for theatre), I would help him pack!
We are losing talent because of Britain’s inability to change: Nathalie Emmanuel, Freeman Agyeman, Dev Patel, John Boyega, Riz Ahmed, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Daniel Kaluuya and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are just a handful of our great actors that followed the likes of Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, and Naomi Harris to the United States, a country that we criticise for its racism. But what of racism at home? Is Britain racist? “Definitely, 100%” said Stormzy. And I would argue his misquote was also true.
Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before the BBC picked him up for Luther and David Oyelowo has been in a number of high profile Hollywood films, including Last King of Scotland and Selma. Don’t misunderstand me, America is not perfect but at least it doesn’t put a blue plaster on a tumour and call it progress. Our diversity, the thing we boast about is leaving, meanwhile BAFTA celebrated its seventh consecutive year of no women in the Best Directors race, let alone nods to women of colour.
Black Americans make 13% of the US population (est. 48.4m), but Black Britons only make up 3% of the UK population (est. 1.9m), so I guess this shows why there’s more visibility for Black actors in the United States.
However, I’m by no means saying America is a utopia, I just believe America is better put-together where diversity is concerned. Hamilton, one of the biggest musicals ever is a global phenomenon made up of almost entirely Black and brown actors, as will be the new adaptation of In the Heights directed by American director Jon. M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), with songs written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the mastermind behind Hamilton.
And America’s many sub-genres; from Spike Lee creating the Blaxploitation genre from the mid-80s to the world of Tyler Perry with Madea, and “Black” comedies like Girls’ Trip and Little, Black cinema is massive in the States. Whilst I don’t believe you can allot race to film and call it a genre, I do believe you can make films about Black lives and celebrate it. Whilst there is Black cinema in the UK, it’s a drop in the ocean and not mainstream.
My father named me for Tre from the classic 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, out of this film the world was shown a plethora of Black characters, including the mild-mannered Tre, but also his father played by an early career Laurence Fishburne. Black-led Rom-Coms like Girls’ Trip, most recently but even historically, such as Love and Basketball or even something more serious like Juice, or Poetic Justice, with musician-actor Janet Jackson.
If my brother at seventeen or eighteen years old decided to try his luck in Los Angeles or New York, I wouldn’t blame him. Black British actors are making waves in America. Black Britain has faced criticism from the likes of Samuel. L Jackson, where he suggested Jordan Peele’s Get Out would have been better with a Black American lead. Yet, what both countries share is Black actors fighting for roles whilst their White colleagues (i.e Cumberbatch, Streep, Blunt, Fassbender) don’t have to, nor are their White colleagues under the same criticism from their peers and the establishment.
In the essay collection, The Good Immigrant, in his essay ‘Airports and Auditions’, actor-poet Riz Ahmed states “the reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies.” The period drama genre for example has been under scrutiny for being too white. The Britain we sell overseas is Jane Austen novels, The Crown and Middlemarch. It’s the stuff in canon literature, not Hollyoaks or our close to two thousand-year history of Black people in the British Isles.
The Britain we sell overseas is not the Britain my brother is growing up in. My generation, the Harry Potter Generation; we grew up with Hogwarts Tamagochis and Beyblade. I grew up with Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. And even in Harry Potter, in this diverse Britain we celebrate, the lack of Black characters or characters who weren’t White is blinding. And even the Dean Thomases and Cho Changs of that world have few lines between them.
And Ashton is growing up with more knowledge (and pride) around being a Black Briton, in the tint of great influences, incl. Stormzy, Afua Hirsch, Santan Dave, David Olusoga, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, all of whom speak truth to the power.
I don’t want him to feel low, but you must wonder if it was designed against people like him from the start? If #DecoloniseHE in the education sector is anything to go by, the answer is yes. Will he find roles for him, or will he be one of those Black British actors that effs off to America? Will he have to do what Noel Clarke (Kidulthood) did and write, direct and produce his own films because Britain’s film industry does not cater for its diverse talent?
And that is a sad state of affairs indeed. Tyler Perry being the first Black American to own a film production studio is a testament to what is possible in America. It’s not uncommon to see a Black professor in an American university. There are only 85 Black British professors in UK universities. It’s not rare to see Black lawyers or Black teachers in the US but there’s an over-representation of White British teachers in UK secondary schools and in HE.
As a writer in Northamptonshire, a county wrapped in classism, you also have to think about race’s impact on class. To enjoy theatre, but only on occasion seeing people and stories that reflect Britain’s diversity. Whilst my vocation is not reliant on looks, the struggle for Black actors is really a struggle. It was never meant to be easy. To live in a Britain that pushes images of us that can only succeed in entertainment and sports, but seem nonexistent when it comes to discussing Black intellect and political ideas.
And it’s really a solemn thought that this happy boy might one day be forced to go to America because in British style, like all our structures, it caters for the few, not the many.
Works of Note
Adegoke, Y and Uviebinené, E. (2019). Slay in Your Lane. London: 4th Estate
Advance HE (2018). ‘Equality in higher education: statistical report 2018,’ ecu.ac.uk, [online]. Available from: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2018/ [Last accessed 30 December 2019]
Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chairperson: William Macpherson). London: TSO
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO
Almost all the Best Picture nominees for BAFTA and the Oscars are about White men, existential angst in toe (à la Joker). The exceptions are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (on Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie) despite the mainly White-male-Cast, and Little Women. Whiteness prevails, irrespective of the gender, and intersectionality continues to be an inconvenient myth. Though, Cynthia Erivo picking up an acting nomination for Harriet has not gone unnoticed. But at this point, throughout the main categories, it just feels like Erivo being nominated is a “you should be grateful” tokenistic handout.” to the Black community “Yes, you can have this one.” One in, one out.
The Oscars did better than BAFTA, but by the skin of their teeth. Whilst BAFTA nominated Parasite for Best Picture, they also nominated Margot Robbie and Scarlett Johansson twice. And like the rest of Britain’s institutions, why shouldn’t BAFTA be bludgeoned with the tag of institutional violence? Why shouldn’t it be whacked with “racist”, “elitist” and “misogynistic?” In a year that gave us Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Atlantic and The Souvenir, there is really no excuse for this level of discrimination.
Racism to British culture is what to America is to apple pie. So, you really don’t have to think very hard why Black British and British Asian talented actors go to Hollywood for better opportunities when their own country treats them abominably. What’s more, Britain is miles behind the States as far as representation is concerned. And in a bold, almost-colonial move of Englishness, BAFTA asked Cynthia Ervio to perform, despite not being nominated for her performance as Harriet Tubman, nor any nominations going to Harriet director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou).
Though, not really impressed with Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and certainly letdown by Joker, I was impressed by The Irishman. Yet, when diversity does not directly impact you, it is possible to have a passive approach to it. i.e White, straight men. When most people in positions of power look like you (and you hire in your own image), it’s not something you notice, nor have to have an interest in. It in fact benefits your sociopolitical power and “whiteness” to not do diversity work.
Britain’s track record of stepping over minority groups is well-documented (i.e Grenfell) and as long BAFTA continues on this path, institutional violence will have a place in British society, no matter if we’re talking about screen media or criminal justice. When whiteness runs fluid, implicit bias cannot be denied and this goes to the very top of all of Britain’s institutions.
This being the seventh year in a row with no women (since Kathryn Bigelow, 2013) confirms that BAFTA is structurally misogynist and racist; and Britain’s national conscience’s denial of its historic and contemporary institutional violence, is just the latest example of why the decolonisation movement is bigger than just the education sector.
In the aftermath of the General Election, Britain continues to spiral with most of Europe down the hole of despair, into something that George Orwell wrote about in his 20th century novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And in this hysteria, imperial thinking is now back on the rise. But that’s not what this post is about. Well, not much.
Every year, the “best of the best” of this country are decorated by the Queen in what’s known as the Honours List. Knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs and CBEs. Nods to the British Empire, racism and colonialism. Watching debates on Sky News’ ‘The Pledge’ has shown me how resistant Britain is to talking about race, but deeper still, its ventures in colonialism overseas.
Amidst the Windrush Scandal and Brexit, that resistance was put onto the world stage. It got me to think about British history but also how specifically working-class people often defend the monarchy and patronage, an institution that despises them. Do people that have been honoured have a feeling of accomplishment by having those three letters after their name? Would their ancestors feel the same way? Or is it a feeling of “I’ve made it,” a ruse of passing from one class into another?
When people are named Member of the British Empire (MBE), it leaves me feeling icky inside. Seeing that after someone’s name, leaves me feeling sick. Order of the British Empire (OBE), Commander of the British Empire (CBE). It’s obsolete, drawing up thoughts of genocide, conquest and stolen land.
When I hear the word “empire,” especially in this country, I think about oppression of minority Britain in the jaws of Little England. It’s reminiscent of how my ancestors were slaves in the Caribbean. It’s Apartheid, the American Revolution, the Suez Crisis, Potato Famine, the Mau Mau, the Amritsar Massacre and so much more. To have that after your name is really to celebrate racism, classism, genocide, stolen land etc etc.
And it’s because of Britain’s nostalgia for this history that I grew up going to school being taught Black history as only slavery. We didn’t even get as far postwar immigration, as that’s the other common denominator of the Black British narrative. It’s because of that, why I don’t know my name.
Not Ventour, that’s a slave name. I don’t know the name my ancestors had before Ventour was forced upon them under the lynch and the lash of Caribbean plantation slavery.
My crisis of identity is not due to history, it’s more so due to the present day climate where British people of colour are routinely having their Britishness contested. I’m staunchly anti-monarchy and anti-empire. And there’s something weird about debating the concept of the Queen’s Honours with people who are either ambivalent to it or are so pro-monarchy that they can’t possibly acknowledge that there’s negative connotations with the Royal institution. I’ve been in quite a few discussions with people about the monarchy. Thankfully, none have gotten ugly and we’re still friends today.
These Honours awards are to people that have made significant contributions to society through their professions — from arts, including: theatre, literature and film — to everyday people doing great work in the community, to journalists. That last one, I don’t like. Should journalists really be accepting awards from people they’ve critiqued, or even vilified?
The Honours awards are a slap in the face of multiracial / working-class Britain. When it comes to the British Empire, many have asked “Does the end justify the means?” And my reply to that is, no. How much is life worth to you? You cannot justify torture and genocide. Life isn’t flesh for cash. It’s not a business. And those colonial statues littered throughout Britain, including London, Bristol and Glasgow; all those British streets named for slave traders; all those White imperialistic university module choices.
The concept of “Honours” feels like Britain clinging on to a past bygone. Given the chance, would Britain enslave its Black British population? Would it let three million Indians die in the Bengal Famine if the circumstances were to present themselves again? Would it commit to a Scramble for Africa and a starving Ireland? If these circumstances were to happen again?
Institutionally, The Monarchy sanctioned slavery, and yet, millions still defend it. Truth is, I don’t understand how anyone, regardless of their background can accept awards with attachments as deeply horrific as these ones.
They came out of a system that oppressed people of colour, women and the LGBTQ+ community. There are many Black and brown people that love those awards. It makes them feel accomplished, whilst simultaneously speaking out against racism. Whilst being part of the system they speak out against, they’re some of its proudest members. They are activists against the ruling class but then accept invitations to Buckingham Palace. In breaking their backs for babylon, are they willing to accept chains on their ankles?
These awards go to Joe and Jane Bloggs. They go to musicians, authors, poets, businesspeople, celebrities and more. These awards are given to people, irrespective of class or colour. Seeing those three letters after their name feels like betrayal. Should I bow to them? Do I have to act impressed?
I’m a poet before anything else and have recited my own work, unpicking British history, including empire and conquest, and how those things impact the present day.
I’ve been called racist and anti-White (I’m anti-White Supremacy). But really, I want to reach an audience of people that are willing to listen. That the history we’re taught at school is what my mother would call “chang-chang” — in bits and pieces. Did Christopher Columbus discover America or was he only the first White man to get there? Could the same be said for Captain Cook with Australia? Is explorer a synonym for coloniser?
I’m a storyteller. What in the old days people would call a bard. What the Celts called the Awen. I probably will never be offered one of those awards. And if I was — to accept one would be to lose my dignity. I wouldn’t be able to look my younger brother in the eye. I would lose all pride and respect for myself. Which is why I have so much respect for people that decline them and live their best life, doing what they do best, living livelihoods without want of incentive, be it an OBE or being named Poet Laureate.
Your Benjamin Zephaniahs and Ken Loaches. Who both showed me that art is more than the Tate, The National Gallery or arthouse cinema.That poetry is more than Tennyson, Blake and Wordsworth, that history is written in black and white. It’s poor people, LGBTQ+ and women and…
“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” — The Schuyler Sisters (Hamilton)
And anyone close to me will know why I despise January 1 and The Queen’s Birthday, since it’s the date the the Honours Lists are released. A better honour would be if the British Museum gave those stolen pieces back to places like Ghana and Greece. OBEs, CBEs, MBEs , knighthoods — genocide, slavery, torture, class oppression, massacres and more massacres, war and violence — and it’s 2020. When will the British Empire shut its mouth?
Let history be history. The British Empire is not cause for celebration. For every colonial statue in this land there should be a slave child next to it, or a starving woman, a symbol showing how the end doesn’t justify the means.
Let’s call the British Empire what it was: a business venture that consumed the lives of millions, not something to be worn like a badge of honour, because it is honourless.
George Bailey (James Stewart) spent his life giving to The People of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to begin with. As George morphs into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
Most people I know who watch this film every year love it for its warmth, and Victorian themes, what today we’d now call family values. Something that fits Christmas so well. However, my affinity to it is for it’s social commentary. For a Christmas film, it’s quite depressing – which is a contrary opinion to the many that have it as part of their annual traditions.
Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas cracker dropped right as America left one of the most difficult fifteen years (and a bit) of its history, from the Great Depression in 1929 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. George Bailey is part of “The Greatest Generation,” the millions that came of age during the Wall Street Crash which ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. The undertones of this film, to me, are in that ruthless Wall Street capitalism via characters like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Yet, the character of Mr Potter is a reminder for many people of what happened in 1929. Between The Crash and the end of The Second World War sat FDR’s New Deal. Within this time, we had The Banking Act of 1933, which is relevant to the characters of Frank Capra’s film, and the bank run. Whilst Capra’s film was released in 1946, Potter is a reminder of how it used to be before Roosevelt and the Democrats ushered through the New Deal.
Once, communism could have been called anti-greed, anti-corporations, anti-fat-businessmen-with-a-cigar-in-their-mouth-getting-rich off-poor-people-in-slums. It’s a Wonderful Life is a voice for the working classes. It’s the I, Daniel Blake of its time, a stark indictment of a system that eats people below the poverty line for dinner. It comments on class and family values, but also austerity in America. In its time, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover donned it, (what was the buzz term of the post-war years), “anti-American.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with modern Britain, in its themes of class and austerity that laid the backbone for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto. This is a film that cares about people, the individual working people of America – where the American Dream is just that. A dream. Echoing the thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Slumlord Potter (Barrymore) describes the poor as “A thrifty working class,” which shows you the measure of the man.
In wake of the recent General Election, I will watch this film once more at Christmas for its straight-at-the-jugular representation of working-class communities. Britain has voted for five more years of austerity (oppression), more likely another decade under the Conservatives. It’s a Wonderful Life shows what happens when the powerful do not care about powerless. But isn’t that how they became powerful in the first place?
For families around the world, watching this film is a yearly tradition. But as long as the powerful step on the powerless, this film’s legacy will endure. Institutional violence plods on. Bailey runs a business that helps poor people onto the property ladder. Played to perfection by James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), this is a man who cares what happens to those around him. Potter is out for Bailey, wanting the company to close so he can swoop in, and coerce more residents into living in his slum-level housing.
Potter is a metaphor for power, the controlling state that denies people dignity in their own home. Call him Potter, or Boris, or Trump… every era has their tyrants who stop others from thriving, just because they can.
And as long as man is man, history is the last place he will look for his lessons, as history is written by the victors.
There’s something inspiring about seeing people that look like me speaking on something, in Britain, that’s been portrayed as a vocation for middle class White people (mainly men). Watching candidate for Tottenham David Lammy in the Commonwealth war graveyard in Voi (Kenya) talking about history took me back to when I first saw David Olusoga, a Black historian talking about history in a way that wasn’t detached in hope of being objective. Whilst Olusoga is a historian, Lammy is not. However, seeing Black people on British TV talking about history is not a narrative I’m familiar with.
In The Unremembered: Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes we are pushed to remember the two million Africans from British East Africa (now Kenya) dragged into the First World War, many of whom were press-ganged into service. One million joined the dead. In the Voi cemetery, we are witness to a site fitting for those who gave their lives for king, country and commonwealth. But they were White. Each decorated with a headstone, as written into the equalities policy by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. However, if you were a Black African, then your service was not seen as equal to that of a White person. You were nothing. Forgotten.
“The erection of memorials to the memory of native troops, carriers etc, depends upon local conditions,” wrote the colonial secretary in 1919. “In ordinary circumstances, the Commission would not erect individual headstones but a central memorial in some suitable locality to be selected by the Government concerned.” That colonial secretary’s name was Winston Churchill, who’d go on to be knighted and elected as Britain’s prime minister. In his view, Black Africans (who were British subjects) did not fit into the Commission’s frame of reference for equality.
“I hate Indians, they are beastly people with a beastly religion.” – Winston Churchill
A century on, this year, is the centenary of the first remembrance service. Is it time we confront this legacy of discrimination and institutional racism? The bodies of Black Africans were not in the Voi cemetery, but beyond a fence under canopies of bushes. Here, we see how much the colonial office cared. David Olusoga wrote “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” Their corpses were in a wasteland under bushes and litter. Here’s the opening of the documentary, and so the investigation begins.
Whilst it can be interpreted as a harmless doc, it follows in the footsteps of The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, as both show the institutional racism implemented by the British establishment against those of African heritage. Moreover, investigating how the imperial mindset and colonial-era racial thinking has been allowed to fester into modern Britain.
It’s no secret that British history is a study in erasure, and the stories of Black and brown people in our history books struggle to reach print. These stories really are scaling the walls to get noticed and the unmarked burial sites of hundreds of thousands of Black Africans, including women and children, is just one more example of structural racism. And that the only way to get these histories integrated, is to acknowledge that the establishment erased these stories because of its white supremacist thinking, evident in the heads of the gatekeepers, policy and colonial laws.
The Macpherson Report was in response to the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Its definition of institutional racism includes neglect and “failure to act.” His definition could as easily be applied to the plight of Black and brown colonial soldiers during the world wars, when they came home, and the Black war dead on the African continent.
“the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin” – Macpherson Report, 1999
Whilst MacPherson’s report is about the police, academic frameworks like Critical Race Theory argues that racism is ingrained in the fabrics of society, linking whiteness to power and blackness / brownness to social subordination, allowing White Privilege to thrive. CRT says it’s not about the individual racist, but the system as a collective. And is the system broken, if it was built “racistly” to benefit the White elite? Knowing this, in the mix of the colonial racial thinking in the system, is it really surprising that Black and brown soldiers were treated abominably, both in life and in death?
Channel 4’s documentary is riddled with devastating moments and really leaves no hope for the viewer. David Lammy meets Mwamkono Mwavaka, a man whose now dead grandfather was one of the Carrier Corps – men, women and children taken on to carry supplies on mules to the front lines. In Dar es Salaam sits a massive war cemetery, where British and Germans are buried side-by-side. Yet, no such love is given to the Native Africans who gave their lives. “Where do I go in my own country?” cries an interviewee.
The final act is a metaphor for talking about race in Britain – hostile and resistant to any critique. Lammy at the HQ of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in conversation with its director general is uncomfortable viewing. “Do we have the names? I don’t believe we do,” says Victoria Wallace, hostilely. Refusing to talk about race, historically, and how institutions like the CWGC were complicit in systemic racial inequality.
The story ends with no apology, just a few words on some money for a plaque on African soldiers. And yet, no comments on how someone voted the Best Briton by the British public (Churchill) was a racist and complicit in some of the worst crimes in human history – from the Bengal Famine in what was then British India (in 1943) to the Boer War Concentration Camps.
Reparations is faceless: to some its money, but to me it’s historical awareness, which begs the question why there’s so much resistance to teaching colonial history, or is the establishment scared of what it potentially might find?
In the autumn of 2004, my schoolteacher said: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” She made this man seem so likeable. If we played a little word association game with him, words like genocide, thief and coloniser come to mind. Murderer. Evil. Within a little rhyme, she had dressed him in innocence. By no fault of her own. I’m sure there are numerous schoolteachers up and down this island nation who really don’t have a clue about colonial history, and in sermonising this “explorer,” she was dismissing the individual who opened the doors to European colonisation of the Americas (what became the New World) and the Caribbean.
Whilst the rest of the United States of America breaks bread on their annual day of thanks, Natives see this day as a day of mourning. Like an armistice, in remembrance of their ancestors, and a people that were erased through genocide committed by White Europeans in the prologue of colonialism. It is often noted that the first Thanksgiving was in 1621, but really it could be argued that day belongs in 1637 when puritan Governor Winthrop decided he would give thanks for the safe return of those who went to Mystic, Connecticut and participated in the Massacre of the Peqout.
Like a lot of the history I thought I knew, it seems more of a taking than anything else. Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, but the story behind it feels more like a thanks-taking. Do they teach this in American schools? Something tells me, no.
The late great Malcolm X said “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.” And in Britain, the voyage that led the British into slavery was by an ambitious man from Plymouth (UK) called (Sir) John Hawkins, as in 1562/1563 he hijacked a Portuguese vessel, sailed to the new world and sold his cargo into slavery, making a small fortune. Not to be confused with Plymouth in the US, often labelled as America’s hometown.
However, growing up in Britain, as I did, the story of Christopher Columbus “discovering America” is one that’s been told so many times that it’s now begun to feel like folklore. Not once, as a child, did I hear anything about the native peoples living in America and the West Indies before he came.
What they mean when Columbus discovered America, is he was the first White man to discover it. Because achievements (historically) like this are only valid in western society when a White person does it. From Cook to Columbus, White explorers who went to “new places” to “find” peoples and cultures different from their own only to react with savagery and violence.
Not once in my school classes did I get stories from the perspectives of the oppressed. Whether we’re talking about slaves during the 200+ years of British colonial ambition, or the world wars, as at war the ones that suffered most were the working classes. What happened after? If I was to go by what I was taught at school, I’d live life believing everything was rosy.
At school, the sermons my teachers had for Columbus now make my skin crawl. Lorded as one of the great European heroes, turning up in Hispaniola in 1492, native to Amerindians prior to colonisation. The majority of the people there did die of European diseases but nothing could prepare them for the monumental onslaught that came from Columbus’ soldiers. And when any country invades another, rape is always a feature.
“His soldiers snatched babies from the breasts of their mothers and dashed their heads against the rocks. Children were fed alive to his dogs. Women’s breasts were cut off. He decided to hang thirteen of the Native Americans in Hispaniola to recreate the crucifixion of Jesus, plus the apostles.”
George Monbiot (writer, journalist, activist)
What Columbus’ soldiers did in Hispaniola set the precedent for what happened next, the eventual genocide that erased almost all of the Native peoples of America from existence. However, when I think about Native people, as much as screen representation is concerned, I think to Old Hollywood. John Wayne in The Searchers being one of the most horrific films I’ve ever watched and this is what Said means by orientalism. Though, I believe his theory can be applied to any non-White oppressed group.
And when we think about colonial statues, we really need to think about the character of the people we are building monuments to. From Barcelona to New York, Columbus is known all over the world. And I think due to how we teach history in schools, we blindly celebrate people we really know nothing about. From Churchill in India to Columbus and Captain Cook.
And both George Washington (first US President) and Thomas Jefferson (third US President) endorsed Columbus’ actions, and what’s more, both these men owned slaves. Who really are we celebrating? Who are we honouring with statues, plaques and awards? Who are we putting on our money? Great leaders aren’t always great people, and how did they treat others? What about their morality, equity, and values as public figures?
In Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, the US establishment does not recognise its history of genocide. The fact that we have Natives with us today is nothing short of a miracle. That their ancestors managed to survive: disease, Catholicism, and settler colonialism; telling their stories to preserve their culture and identity is activism. Their existence is resistance.
Columbus is a symbol of conquest and privilege. How can we condemn Hitler and Stalin but not Columbus? Simple. When non-White history is told from the perspective of the oppressor, the lack of White empathy is obvious. In colonialists Cecil Rhodes and former-PM Winston Churchill the British establishment honours White supremacists and mass murderers, united in their pursuits for either one, two or all of the three: gold, glory or God.
And in Christopher Columbus, the American establishment honours a White supremacist, a mass murderer and a slave trader; and under the administration of President Trump, I believe it’s safe to say it ain’t changing any time soon.
When we think about race: the narratives, stories and experiences of people of colour are raised. And to be “of colour,” is essentially tied to anything from Black to Polynesian, Middle Eastern and Asian, including mixed-race. The perception of whiteness is the absence of blackness / brownness, that makes people that look like me up to nine times more likely to be stop and searched by police in Northamptonshire than a White person. But white is a colour too, is it not? When it comes to talks about “whiteness,” not a peep is to be heard from the people it impacts most, White European-looking people. Shocked? Not really! It can’t just be up to people of colour to talk to about whiteness. White people need to be talking about whiteness!
In the conversations about unconscious bias, as far as race is concerned, too often the focus is on the prejudice and discrimination that’s inherently built into the system. That’s fine and all, but unconscious bias also impacts White people. Whilst it’s a tool of institutional violence to working-class people, irrespective of race, bias also favours those born into the hue of lighter skin.
Look at drugs, for example; Black people are routinely stereotyped as drug dealers. However, going to private schools for twelve years in my youth showed me that the worst consumers and dealers of drugs were middle-class White people. The ones whose parents were lawyers and judges or rich landowners with reputations to uphold. And when you watch shows like The Wire or Toy Boy, which shows Black people a certain way, you begin to see how these racial stereotypes have taken root in people’s minds.
Whilst working-class White people will struggle, their struggles won’t be because they are White.
How whiteness is peddled can be both positive and negative. There are examples of White people using their privilege for great good, and great evil: from the White clergy that marched at Selma, to groups like Extinction Rebellion, slammed for being a White middle-class movement that glamourises arrest. Arrest is racialised and a White encounter with the police is not the same for a person who is not White, loaded with history: from Brixton to Emmett Till, lynchings and slave plantations. Call it stop and search, call it police brutality; call it the Southampton Insurrection, same symbols, different uniform, be it with blue sirens or burning crosses.
Looking at XR, Brock Turner and the Selma peace march, here lies a spectrum of White privilege: from the freedom to protest (without thinking of the consequence of arrest) – all the way up to rape and sexual assault on university campuses, with The People v. Turner.
White Privilege is existing in society without the consequences of racism, as discussed by Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Whiteness is living in a postcolonial world, disregarding the impact colonialism has in how race (historically), and the racial neo-politic continues to permeate society: from racism on university campuses to the legacy of colonialism, stop and search and the ongoing Windrush crisis.
Whiteness is cultural appropriation and the loots in the V&A / the British Museum. It’s White British academics having more authority on racism than academics of colour, even when it’s their lived experience. Stories lodged in their throats. It’s teaching children that Christopher Columbus was an explorer, finder – not invader, rapist, coloniser, thief, slaver.
What can White (British) academics tell you about racism other than what’s in theories and articles? Whilst White British people can experience prejudice, I believe racism is about power, and when you look at who holds the social power in society (in this country), it’s Whites, British or otherwise.
And you can bet that employer is second guessing the CVs with names like Muhammad or Asante, not Smith and Jones or even Lowell or Roberts (though those last ones could just as well be a Black person too). The legacy of colonialism in our names. The legacy of whiteness is in Tré Ventour, from the slaves of the Fontenoy Estate in St. George, Grenada. And if you want to get that loan, or that promotion, “Debroah, you should be less confrontational.” Why do Black people have to censor their mannerisms for their White colleagues? Laugh quieter. Walk slower. Breathe lighter.
I write this blog in a language I didn’t get to choose. It was given to my ancestors at the end of the sword, along with the songs of Solomon, bibles and this name that I carry. White Privilege is the freedom to choose – your language, beliefs, name, your essence of being. But you call us stupid.
Whiteness walks into a bar like he owns it. The bar is any institution. Any industry. Any topic of discussion. Brexit. Black History Month. Diwali. Whiteness is an authority because whiteness built the bar for himself.
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?”
“Do you hate White people? Why do you talk about slavery? It’s long lost, in the past
Explain to me how I can be a better person
Critical Race Pedagogy (Theory) tells us that it’s deeper than the individual racist. It’s the system. How do you fight an abstraction? How do you get more Black and brown people into policing? Into academia or education?
However, if you don’t address the violence already in those spaces, what you’re doing is sending people of colour (unarmed) into a conflict, POWs with no hope of escape.
Works of Interest
Legacies of British slave-ownership – LBS, University College London.
Top Boy (2011 – 2013) – Channel 4 (Netflix)
People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner
People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (O. J Simpson)
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) – FX (Netflix)
‘The True Legacy of Christopher Columbus’ – George Monbiot (YouTube)
‘Whiteness Walks into a Bar’ – by Franny Choi (Button Poetry, YouTube)
‘White Privilege’ – by Kyla Jenée Lacey (WAN Poetry, YouTube)
The Wire (2002 – 2008) – HBO
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
Over a century ago in Sarajevo (Serbia), an Austrian archduke was shot. And next, millions more non-archdukes were shot, faffing about at The Front. And for what? And to me, learning about this war at school, it seemed more of a class war than anything else. Kaiser Wilhelm II being the grandson of Queen Victoria and his cousins being the monarchs of Britain and its vast empire, from India, to the Caribbean and bits of Africa.
And I never saw anyone that looked like me; I thought this war was for White people. And, I know now over four million non-Whites contributed, giving their lives, but that’s not the narrative I was sold at school. And at eleven o’clock on the 11th November 1918, screams sang into silence.
Knowing what I know now about history, even if it is just a basic knowledge (I’m no historian) Armistice Day does not mark peacetime. The fallout of the war to end all wars was a Pandora’s Box no signed treaty could contain. And in all conflicts it’s always the working-class who suffer most.
And it would be the archdukes of that world who would be having a jolly old time as if nothing had happened. But 1919 ushered in a wind of change: mass unemployment and uncertainty followed working-class communities from France and Belgium onto the streets of London, Cardiff and Liverpool.
When I think Armistice, I’m scratching my head as to when peacetime really does begin. 1919 brought in the Liverpool Race Riots where a one Charles Wotten was lynched at Albert Dock. Films like Doctor Zhivago depicting the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1922) remind me of the violence that occurred outside of the main narrative of the war (during and after). What of those calls for independence, Easter Risings on streets of Dublin?
HBO’s Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore comic – a vivid depiction of Tulsa, a section of American history most people haven’t heard of, including Black people. Why would people have heard of it? Vital parts of our own history have been erased, (I think) because it makes “the victors” look bad.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921:
Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot), this was when a White mob attacked the residents, livelihoods, homes and businesses of the majorly Black Greenwood area of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma. This was what we’d now call a White supremacist attack and an act of domestic terrorism, or even genocide. Hundreds killed and thousands displaced.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released and has often been blamed for the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan. After The War, there was a spike in racial tension in America, and Tulsa was basically Black Wall Street. The U. S Army was racially segregated in itself too. 1921 Greenwood was booming, a success story for Black business owners, despite high crime rates and racial segregation. However, history is a hotbed for Black excellence, but when Black people gain momentum, the establishment shoots them down, literally – from Fred Hampton to Medgar Evers.
At school, I was not taught, not once, about the four million non-Whites non-European that fought and laboured in those four years. I think if I was able to see myself in this history from when I was a child, I would have more time for Armistice. The great stage of the First and Second World War is tied up in Britain’s popular memory / national identity, and British identity is in crisis. Still, today, I’ve found to be British, is to be White.
The yearly cycle of remembrance; from the procession in Northampton to interviews on BBC with veterans of the Second World War, I’ve always found it’s the voices of White British people. But there was racism at the front. The imperial mindset of European colonialism ran rampant in the British and German armies, tools of institutional racism, and by extension an instrument to whip up hate and institutional violence against colonial servicemen from places that included Senegal, China and the West Indies.
“Troops formed of coloured individuals belonging to savage tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in a war between civilised states. The enrolling, however, of individuals belonging to civilised coloured races and the employment of whole regiments of disciplined coloured soldiers is not forbidden.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
“Commissions in the special reserves of officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural-born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent.”
1914 Manual of Military Law
Where are those stories of race at war? To be a soldier of colour, British-born or otherwise would not be the same as being a White (European) soldier, soldiers that toiled in France but also in the skirmishes of the African continent, Asia and the Middle East – erased out of our nationhood.
Over a million soldiers from what was then British India (pre-1947) fought for the allies, along with over two million from French Indo-China, as well as 100,000 Chinese labourers. But I did not have this on my history curriculum, when we looked at the stories between 1914 – 1918. But I was bludgeoned with images of White European soldiers having a great time.
To me, Armistice Day is in remembrance of a White Man’s war. And to (begrudgingly) mimic poet, colonialist and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, it feels like a “White man’s burden,” even if people of colour fought too. In seeing how Britain portrays those wars in schools but also how they are represented in popular memory, can you blame activists and academics looking at the stories of race and racism on the front lines under a microscope?
Race / racial identity are massive factors in these conflicts, as historian David Olusoga talks about in his article. We would not need to keep talking about race if race wasn’t treated like a minor inconvenience and those often treating it like an that are White people, refusing to acknowledge their own whiteness and White Privilege.
However, if we really are serious about Armistice, we have to acknowledge that working-class people yet again were at the whim of the titled and the entitled. We remember the soldiers but never their victims, portraying death (murder) as honorable, as said in Wilfred Owen’s (from Horace) Dulce et Decorum Est “pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”). What is sweet about sending good men to the slaughterhouse?
Both wars are riddled with nationalism, and portray patriotism with grandeur. Great Britain raised at half-mast, celebrating Britain’s militarism –from Churchill to the Dreadnought (but no love for Bengal or Dresden). In how the wars are taught (popular nationalism), we encourage the living to join the dead, an ode to the Union Jack, even today in a postcolonial world.
“The colour bar on non-regular officers in the armed forces, designed and imposed by the political and military, is explicitly in the Short Guide to Observing a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by His Majesty’s Stationary Office in 1912.” – Phil Vasili
The world wars are full of people that are products of empire, in the ruins of class but also race. An archduke gets shot and millions of non-archdukes pay the price. Millions dead. After the war – widespread unemployment, uncertainty, race riots, class divides, The Depression, a grim state of affairs.
When you add the layer of race into that, it makes it more complex. Colonial soldiers coming to Britain after the First World War who were left out of the victory parades. Charles Wotten’s lynching in Liverpool. Men from British colonies who came here after the Second World War – to fill in labour shortages – White Supremacist fever and contested Britishness.
The narrative of Black soldiers goes all the way back to Roman Britain. Olusoga stated “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgotten” and I agree. In erasing Black and brown soldiers from the narrative, it’s a declaration of White lives being worth more than Black / brown lives.
And yes, we have the red poppy which is supposed to include everyone but it feels very exclusionary; and Britain’s popular memory is selective and needs to explore its colonial legacy – how imperial racial thinking played a role in both wars, otherwise we are continuing to tell stories that only include the experiences and memories of a White European majority.
“Black subjects had their actions during the war written out of history.” – Emma Dabiri
1914 Manual of Military Law
BBC Stories. “Alt History: White-washing black soldiers from WW1- BBC Stories.” YouTube. 27/06/19. Online. 10/11/19.
BBC Stories. “Alt History: A British lynching – BBC Stories.” YouTube. 13/07/19. Online. 10/11/19/
Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1915, Epoch Producing Company. YouTube.
Channel 4 Documentary. “Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen: Read by Christopher Eccleston | Remembering World War 1 | C4”. Youtube. 07/11/13. Online. 08/09/19.
Doctor Zhivago. Dir. David Lean. 1965, MGM. DVD
History.com Editors. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” History.com. 2019. Web. Accessed: 10/11/19.
Lindeloff, Damien, creator. Watchmen. White Rabbit, Paramount Television, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television, 2019.
Olusoga, David. “Black soldiers were expendable – then forgettable.” theguardian.com. 2018. Web. Accessed: 09/11/19
Vasili, Phil. Walter Tull, 1888 – 1918 Officer, Footballer […] Surrey: Raw Pres, 2010. Print.
When we look at Selma through the lens of class, we are looking at a tale as old as time, Black criminality in the face of institutional violence. Black people wanting to vote and being told no. To be Black is to be criminal – savage – beast. From slavery to Selma, DuVernay’s film lays it all out for us.
Last month, as part of Freshers’ fortnight, the Students’ Union screened Ava DuVernay’s Selma – based on the true story of that three-month period in 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement before the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was a part of history when Black people were not afforded their basic human rights. Like the vote, being systematically stopped from reaching the polls. And the same sort of voting fraud still happens today.
Following Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and this all-star cast (including Common (The Hate U Give) and Tessa Thompson (Creed) in support) we are taken on a journey showing what institutional discrimination does to communities, including the covert racism that made voting harder for a Black person than a White person – the systematic use of legal innovations to strip Black people of their rights, (and dignity).
Since Selma was released in 2014, Ava DuVernay has since made the documentary 13th showing the history behind mass incarceration in American prisons, including slavery and convict leasing. Additionally, she has made the miniseries When They See Us – looking at the story behind the Central Park Five and how the small print (in the US legal system) described in 13th was used to incarcerate these young Black and Hispanic boys.
What got to me in rewatching Selma is how important the racial thinking that (mostly) came out colonialism / slavery is in how we think about race today. The fact discrimination only became a crime in the UK in 1965 (with the Race Relations Act), and the idea we still endorsed blackface minstrelsy until the late 1970s. BBC television still had blackface as entertainment until 1978. However, slavery was outlawed in the USA in 1865 but the slave-owning class won the war on race, as Blacks continued to be treated like slaves even though they weren’t – from convict leasing to Jim Crow Laws.
One hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, like-racism (from slave days) continued. The Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965 and Jim Crow Laws were abolished as well, but those ideologies are what built America from the days of slavery, in both the North and the South. Seldom is it acknowledged that slavery existed in some northern states too.
We don’t talk about slave codes in places like Virginia, where it was stated within the law that if an altercation occurred between slave and master, and the slave died, it would not be a felony. In the slave codes for Virginia of the 1660s, it states within the laws that it was legal to kill a Black person. This was systematic use of the law to deny Black people their rights. Whether this was Virginia 1660 or Virginia 1960, not a lot had changed.
When Rosa Parkes sat down, she stood up to the establishment and unjust laws. And before Rosa Parkes, we had Collette Colvin. Moreover, when Black people boycotted the buses, they almost bankrupted the bus companies. They were seen as a nuisance. People thought they should stay in line. This old tale of Black resistance against White authority can be traced back to master, mistress, stately homes, cotton, cane and king sugar.
From the get-go, Ava DuVernay is at your throat, with her depiction of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. This film was not made to score political points but it’s a film that tells it how it is, with vivid imagery of attack dogs, tear gas and police on horseback. Very much like the Klu Klux Klan killing defenseless people on the basis of race. Brutal. From Sandra Bland to Treyvon Martin, those stories of police brutality still ring true today. The history of disdain from Black communities to the police in Britain and America is one we’ve all heard, and it’s one that I think is in-part at least responsible for the lack people of colour joining up.
Why would Black, Asian and ethnic minority members of our society want to join an institution that has a historic pattern of discrimination? Why would they want to join an institution that talks about recruiting more BAME people, but still treats the ones they have already abominably?
Despite being a British viewer, there are many things I took away from this film, especially the subjectivity of the law. How White people in authority expect people of colour to be objective in the face of racism. The recent Naga Munchetty debacle with the BBC comes to mind. “You’ve got one big issue,” states LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to King (Oyelowo). “I’ve got one hundred and one.” For most of the film, he does not appear to be taking the Black vote seriously, until it directly impacts him and what he’s trying to do.
Tim Roth as Governor Wallace (Alabama) is brilliant – spewing hate, hate and more hate with such venom. You hate him from the second his face appears on screen, and his scenes with Dylan Baker’s J. Edgar Hoover are brilliant. There is no love for Wallace. He is a White supremacist and director Ava DuVernay makes sure we know that. However, it got me asking questions about how we depict White supremacists in Britain. Mainly, with statues dotted around the country, including Parliament Square!
Is Selma a controversial film or is it simply no-nonsense and very American? It talks about things people feel uncomfortable talking about. In Britain, that includes anything remotely sounding like race, racism, colonialism or its role in Slavery. But critique Churchill or Nelson in anyway and you’re the enemy? But it does a great job recreating moments like Bloody Sunday, as state troops and local police let rip on the marchers.
“The whole nation was sickened by the pictures of that wild melee.”Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo)
From tear gas to men on horses with whips, it was riddled with symbolism, as well as truly fantastic cinematography, sound mixing and musical score. Oprah (one of the producers) was great in her role, and David Oyelowo is one of the most underrated actors working today, and a testament to an alternative image of Black men on screen. Whilst my grandparents’ generation had Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) and Sidney Poitier (To Sir, with Love), this current generation of Black people have David Oyelowo.
This film is rough when it needs to be but delicate when it needs to be. It’s engaging, emotional, and leaves a lump in your throat right up to and through the credits. It’s also very funny – “that White boy can hit” says Dr King after being decked by a racist local. All the speeches, all the symbols, all the nods to America’s history of slavery and oppression – it’s intertwined with how the US is today – Trump’s Twitter tantrums and all that jazz.
“We must march! We must stand up! […] it is unacceptable that they use their power and keep us voiceless.”Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo)
Ava lingers on faces (especially eyes) in scenarios of extreme violence longer than what is humanly comfortable, much alike to Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit and what Steve McQueen did with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 12 Years a Slave. From cinematography to acting, music, and sound, I have no complaints. And at moments, it was like documentary.
And nearly everyday, I’m hearing people say the system is broken; is it broken, or was it built this way, fit for purpose – for the use and upliftment of a White, male, patriarchal, able-bodied, hetero-normative society?
Dorsey, Bruce. “Virginian Slave Laws, 1660s”. History 41. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
Fryer, Peter and Gary Young et al. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2018. Print.
“Moral Mission.” Black and British: A Forgotten History, written by David Olusoga, directed by Naomi Austin, BBC, 2016.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Books, 2017. Print.
Selma. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Pathé, Paramount. 2014, Netflix.
n.d. “Slavery and the Law in Virginia”. history.org. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.
n.d. “Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline”. shsu.edu. n.p. n.d. Online. Access: 19th October, 2019.