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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.
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 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.