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If I had a time machine…which coronation would I see?
If I had a time machine…which coronation would I see?
If I had a time machine, I would most certainly travel back in time…to witness some great moments in history.
The birth of Jazz in Congo Square in New Orleans, or
Martin Luther King deliver that great speech in Memphis the eve of his assassination, or
The moment the first white man set shore upon the Niger Delta.
Would I go back and see
The crowing of King George, or
Queen Victoria’s coronation, or
Would I be wicked enough to sneak into the palace of the tiny Spanish queen Anne who gave permission and cash to ‘explorers’ who’d cast caste onto the dark skins of every ‘native’ they encountered.
Caste. And race.
Without imperialism, there’d be no black stain upon my skin against which my ancestors resisted.
Without the profit of human trafficking, there’d be no need for labels like Black or white, nor
Racism, nor patriarchy for that matter, a concept squarely meant to trace intergenerational wealth Black folks have been robbed in these United States and upon these British Isles.
See, my mother tongue is English –
The language my Black mother spoke to me came through colonialism.
We were enslaved and inherited names and customs that are easily recognizable to Brits today.
This language limits how I discuss these events, and
Unless I try really hard, and make concerted efforts,
This language limits how I think about these concepts.
You heard that? The English language limits places I take myself in my own mind!
These facts are maddening.
If I describe the Spanish explorers as conquerors, and
Tell you that virtually every pope was a sinner not a saint, and
If I could go back in time, I’d slit the throat of that young Spanish queen, and
If I admit that I have nothing but disdain for every English man, woman and child who’s held that orb Charlie held this past Saturday, then
Even by my own standards, I question if I’d be the hero of my own history.
If I were to go back in time and arm Nat Turner with weapons, or
Help Harriet Tubman guide folks along the underground railroad north to freedom, or
Go further back and try, try, try to stop the entire triangular slave trade altogether, then
I must accept that I’d be erasing myself.
I’d risk robbing Congo Square of its famed place in history, and
I might not be able to hear the pop, Rock, Hip-Hop and House music blasting out of this tawdry bar’s speakers right now.
I’d risk not even being me.
This does not make me grateful for the crown, nor
Does it reduce me to resentment and rage.
I’m proud of the New World cultures Africa and her Diaspora have made from our mangled past.
As layered and, again, as complicated as all the fates of all the peoples of the Commonwealth to whom I am now tied due to, dare I say, the golden and bejeweled crown
Carefully placed upon your king’s head.
Long may he reign.
We all want our histories repaired.
And an end to monarchy.
Dancing in Congo Square, AKA The Queens and Kings of Jazz
Remembering the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa, 27 Years After
– Ken Saro Wiwa
‘We are going to demand our rights peacefully, non-violently and we shall win’
The level of destruction and environmental damage caused to the people of Ogoni land remains one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Nigeria. This month, we remember and reflect on the plight of the renowned Lt. Ken Saro Wiwa, Nigeria’s pioneer environmentalist who fought vehemently against the incessant destruction of the Ogoni Land in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.
The history of Nigeria is heavily ingrained in the struggle for oil, and the Ogoni Land, which is located in the Niger – Delta region of the country houses one of the most sought-after and precious deposits of crude oil in the world. Although, with a very small ethnic population compared to the larger ethnic groups, the Ogoni people consider themselves as the marginalised groups who has consistently benefitted nothing but havoc and environmental destruction at the hands of the then Nigerian Military government and the Royal Dutch Shell petroleum corporation. Indeed, it can be argued that the inability of both the Nigerian government and Shell to devise appropriate measures to ensure the preservation of Ogoniland as well as the protection of locals contributed to the environmental destruction that the region encountered.
Shell entered Ogoniland in the 1950s with the approval of the Nigeria Government to exploit and extract oil. As Shell’s operations were ongoing, the Ogoni people started witnessing changes in their environment, something that drew attention to the series of environmental pollutions going on in that region. Due to the Ogoni land’s mangrove nature, the Ogoni people relied heavily on fishing and farming for trade and survival. However, Shell’s entry turned their livelihoods into a nightmare when the region began to experience massive oil spillage. Causing an unprecedented level of health hazard, their farmlands began soaking in crude oil, tonnes of fish were dying off due to the oil spillage, their drinking water became contaminated with Benzene, locals were dying due to inhaling toxins – all of which led to a complete destruction of the environment.
A man trying to separate crude oil from water in Rivers state, Nigeria. Via: https://www.newsweek.com/how-nigerias-buhari-can-clean-ogonilands-oil-spills-476654
In an attempt to challenge this devastation, Ken Saro Wiwa began his campaign by establishing the movement popularly known as MOSOP (Movement for the survival of the Ogoni People). This group engaged in a series of mass demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Shell’s operation, whilst challenging the incessant destruction of their precious land. Soon after, he developed the Ogoni bill of rights, a political document simply based on the principle of justice and morality, which demanded the protection of the Ogoni people against Shell’s operation on the Ogoni soil.
Ogoni Bill Of Rights – adapted from https://bebor.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ogoni-Bill-of-Rights.pdf
This movement engaged in a series of demonstrations and activism, both on the streets and in the national dailies. From such a small location, their voice and activism rapidly spread like wildfire, grabbing the attention of neighbouring communities, then neighbouring states, and then the entire country – to the point that there were now being recognised by international communities. Although, the periods between 1990 and 1992 were particularly difficult for the Ogoni people and the MOSOP because this was when many of their activities became proscribed – even though they adopted a nonviolent mode of engagement. Under the Military Decree, anyone engaging in activities capable of promoting ethnic nationalism risks the death penalty, and the Military government of Nigeria did not hesitate their assurance in following suit.
Ken continued to encourage resistance but their ranks, it is recorded, slowly began to fall apart as some supporters began to denounce Ken’s ‘radical’ forms of activism. These internal disputes meant that factions within the group will now begin to go against their official principles while engaging in sabotage. An example of this was when Ken was accused of orchestrating the killing of some Ogoni leaders in 1994. Eventually, the Nigerian government concluded that the chiefs were all critics of Ken’s activism and that he only could have orchestrated their killing. This case, coupled with the accusation of causing civil unrest in the Niger – Delta region later led to his arrest by the Military Government. His unjust imprisonment provoked international outrage with members of the African Union, European Union, and other pressure groups beginning to condemn this act. Protests erupted in several locations, activists began to call for his release and foreign leaders even advised the Abacha government to reconsider his actions and release Saro Wiwa unconditionally, but all of these fell on deaf ears.
Despite the public outcry and stern warnings from world Presidents, the military dictatorship of the Sani Abacha regime authorised the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa alongside 8 other Ogoni activists. They were sentenced to death by hanging on the 10th of November 1995 – with his last words recorded as:
'Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.'
Indeed, the struggle continues, and the spirits of these faithful departed live on. The story and execution of Ken Saro Wiwa remind us of the long history of pain that the Nigerian people have endured at the hands of their leaders. Apart from the fact that Ken Saro Wiwa stood for justice, Ken reminded us that the real victims of eco-crimes and state violence are often the last to realise their victimisation. He put the Ogoni people on the map for the world to see the damage and destruction that bad government policies can cause. He demonstrated to us in an exemplary fashion how we understand the illicit engagements at play, often stealth, between state representatives and cooperate establishments. And most importantly, he drew attention to the need for the protection of our environment and how we must defend it at all costs. 27 years after his death, it can be argued that the Niger – Delta region continues to feel the impact of the environmental damage, but his show of gallantry for the protection of our environment will continue to inspire many who continue to challenge and resist the various forms of ecological crimes in Africa – and elsewhere.
Vanguard 2018, ‘Inside Ogoni village where oil spill wipes off ’10 persons every week’, The Vanguard, December 23, 2018, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2018/12/inside-ogoni-village-where-oil-spill-wipes-off-10-persons-every-week/
It’s summer in America. #BlackenAsiaWithLove
It’s summer. I’ve returned to the UK, got vaccinated, continued to work online, kept calm and carried on. Away for nearly 2 years and so much has changed. Many have spent months on lockdown, clicking-n-collecting everything they need, when what they crave is companionship – non-digital human interaction. And fresh air. Worse, for many, pandemic-induced fear and social-distancing routines have festered into genuine social isolation and alienation. Here, please be mindful that social media cannot replace what we do IRL. A comment or thumbs-up cannot replace a real conversation (surprise!?!). Besides, life is short, speak to folks directly!
Across the pond, there are hundreds of prosecutions underway against individual January 6th insurrectionists. Plus, there’s a new congressional investigation into the the insurgency; the police officers’ testimonies are damning, exposing the ugliness of white supremacy and violence at the core. One particular insurgent’s hate crime against a Black Capitol Police officer really cuts to the core. Officer Harry A. Dunn said in interviews in the days after the attack, and repeatedly in his written and oral congressional testimonies:
One woman in a pink “MAGA” shirt yelled, “You hear that, guys, this nigger voted for Joe Biden!” Then the crowd … joined in screaming…”
At the same time, the traditional celebration of Emancipation is now a national holiday. All this during global outbreaks of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, dramatizing both all our humanity and all our interconnectedness – irregardless of any social and political/politicized divisions. Diseases, like storms, don’t respect maps. All this, and still Mr. Backlash is right on time, thus Nina penned-n-crooned:
So, Mr. Backlash, Backlash
Who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
Send my son to Vietnam
It’s summertime, and the livin’ ain’t easy. CONservatives have set their sights (of their guns) on continuing to serve a bleached version of our history next to their bleached burgers in schools. Taken right out of the Jim Crow playbook, they’re not only suppressing votes by stoking fear of foreigners, CONservatives sit in congress and call the events of January 6th “peaceful protests” to the faces of officers giving testimony, who barely survived that day.
True to Jim Crow, they keep the masses ignorant by reducing Intersectionality to ‘Critical Race Theory’, and pitting that as the enemy of America. Yet, when you present them with the facts of our collective history, say, by simply acknowledging that many “founding fathers” were slave-owners-boasting-bout-freedom, they’re as silent as an electric car (shhhhhh).
Like zombies, CONservatives silently retreat to their narrow view of their Bible “and their bombs, and their guns.” It’s as if they don’t know we can learn how to have better conversations. To be sure, Intersectionality and CRT are inter-related enemies of fear, ignorance and therefore, crucially, white supremacy. It’s not in your head, they are fighting.
It’s now summer in America and three multi-billionaires are racing to go to space. At the same time, so much about our nation is broken: outdated and decaying schools, policing, healthcare and infrastructure… and now both our spirits and democracy are threatened. Insurrection betrays the very spirit of democracy – let’s not act new! Coupled with the empty shop shelves in a post-Brexit/mid-Covid Britain, this moment reminds me of something seminal spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron spat in 1970:
The man just upped my rent last night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s upping me?
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I wuz already paying him fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes taking my whole damn check…
It’s summer, summer, summertime 2021 in America and we’re still asking, “what did it cost our nation to put whitey on the moon?” Is it summer in America, or is it winter? Can’t be, there ain’t no more glaciers. Happy MF’ing New Year. Have a great summer. See you on ‘the other side of the moon’.
Did you catch all those space-billionaire and musical references? Despite all this sickness-n-division, near-n-far, yet-n-still, “music makes the people come together… yeah.”
Gil Scott-Heron: https://genius.com/Gil-scott-heron-whitey-on-the-moon-annotated
Whitewash History, adapted from: https://www.evanstonian.net/archived-opinion/2014/10/05/history-lessons-whitewash-history/
“BAFTA stands for ‘Black actors fuck off to America'” – Gina Yashere
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
Fifty Shades of Beige: On BAFTA, yes I’m bitter
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.
Should we be impressed by those who OBEy?
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.
Is it a wonderful life?
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.