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On finding out I was Black: I was five years old

Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

In a society that defines you by race (through othering of non-whiteness), it wasn’t until I was five I realised I was Black. This was the first time I was called nigger. It was in the school playground and I was a little youth. You will notice that I call it by its name, and not “The N-Word.” And to call it by its name, I believe, strips it of the fear attached to it. Though, made popular by mainstream rap music, including artists I appreciate like N. W. A and Public Enemy, when I think of the word, I envisage scenes of burning crosses, the KKK, and chattel slavery.

Talk to any Black person, and they will have stories about racism, both structural and overt, but every Black person remembers the first time they were called “nigger.”

Growing up, I saw Black people hating themselves. That level of self-loathing is something I’ve seen in different characters throughout my life. Women that grew being told their hair was “wild” and “unruly.” Questions like “how can you tame such a wild thing?” bring me back to slave markets – the prodding and poking of the Black torso. Descriptions of the Black body, including “savage” and “animalistic,” and that includes hair, and those are connotations of The Word rappers love to use in lyrics. And how do Black rappers use the word, despite the rise of White nationalism worldwide?

I have seen men like Chiron and Kevin from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight thinking they have to assert themselves because that’s what the environment demands. I see it on campus, Black students from London. But you don’t have to do that in Northampton. And these people all have stories of racism. Racism is trauma and I can bet you any money that most of our Black population (including mixed-race) have stories about the first time they were called nigger, be it from strangers or their family members.

Me, Tré Ventour, at 4 – 5 years old (est. 1999-2000)

Finding out you’re Black is not always something so hard-hitting as being called “nigger” in the street. Sometimes, it’s being the go-to in conversations about race. When and if you learn about slavery at school or university, it’s everyone staring at you when the discussions occur. It’s being told in not so many words by White people to “know your place” and “be grateful.”

However, hate crime has seen a spike under Brexit. We have a prime minister that’s comfortable comparing Muslim women to “bankrobbers,” and Black people to “piccaninnies.” But you know, the UK is one of the least racist societies in Europe, or so I’m told by White British people who do not have to have to choose carefully where they holiday, in case of any (specifically) anti-Black racism they may encounter. If you’re White British, you can realistically go to any country and be okay. That’s White Privilege.

My race is part of my identity because my environment made it so. From eight years old, I was told by my parents that you’ll have to work twice as hard for half as much … because you’re Black … just like they did, and their parents did, who are Windrush Generation migrants. I was born Tré Ventour – who liked to read, and play in the park and watch films and collect Pokémon cards and do all the dumb stuff children like to do.

But until I was five, I didn’t think of myself in regards to my race. But “nigger” is in the Queen’s Honours. It’s in knighthoods, OBEs, MBEs (etc) and Empire. It’s in UKIP and the Daily Mail. It’s in the structures. It’s in colonial statues and The Academy. It comes from slavery, Jim Crow Laws and Apartheid. It’s in art, culture, literature and the social fabrics that make up this country, which is institutionally, structurally, and “100% racist,” as Stormzy was misquoted. And, I’d argue there are flowers in his misquote.

Is Britain 100% racist? Definitely, 100%, it’s beyond the individual racist, it’s in the institutions; from Macpherson to the Lammy Report, Britain has a serious problem.

At five years old, in the bloom of childhood innocence, being called “nigger” and “wog” by other children set me up for life as a person of colour in Britain. That’s when I found out what racism was, in the prologue of Enid Blyton novels – learning how great Columbus was, not how he opened the doors to the European pillage and plunder of the American continent.

Yet our structures continue to show how it doesn’t trust us or want us, unless you’re grateful, “a good nigger” scaling apartment blocks or bowing to babylon, being named in the Queen’s Honours and OBEying come New Years Day.

In Armistice, do Black lives matter?

In our popular memory of Winston Churchill, we honour a White supremacist

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.

Ulric Cross was a WW2 Trinidadian RAF pilot
who went onto to be lawyer and instrumental
in Ghanaian independence in 1957

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.

“Black men who wanted to serve for Canada in the First World War were able to form their own battalion, but segregation and a non-combat construction role were conditions they agreed to after being prevented from enlisting at all originally.” – Globe and Mail
(The Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia)

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

AND:

“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.

Piece from German satire magazine condemning French use of Black soldiers

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.

Charles Wotten survived the war only to be killed by racism, the racial thinking he would have seen at war, and ideologies that were born out of colonial values

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

Works Mentioned

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.

Those kinde of people

Staying Power by Peter Fryer is not only an important when it comes to history and identity, but it also dispels the idea that White writers can’t talk about race!

This poem is named for the first chapter of the iconic book Staying Power (1984) by historian and academic Peter Fryer. A book that talks about the history of Black people in Britain, from Roman times up to his modern-day. It’s also inspired by ‘Mathematics’ by British poet and author Hollie McNish.

Hollie McNish recites her poem ‘Mathematics’

Adam said:

those goddamn universities
and their goddamn books
learned people, crippling egos
with nothing but a look
he says those goddamn historians
and their god damn history
I tell them they worked hard
to get there, can’t you see?

I ask him what
he expects British history to be
he says he remembers
the land of Blyton and Christie
coastal wrecks, greenery
and a good wage before those people came
where people went to work, pot-bellied
national pride, stood proud before they came
now no British jobs, their kinde are to blame

Photo Credit: Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

I ask how he knows this to be true
he said he saw it on BBC News
every time a Pole takes a job from us
each time he hears a different language
whilst riding the bus
this divide and conquer, them and us
to me just does not add up
he makes a brew, two sugars in his tea
I say didn’t you know those granules
came from the sugar economy

he grunts, goddamn Blacks came and took our stuff
I tell him about sugar and cotton, you know
how slaves gave us indigo and tobacco – hot air to puff

I show him Brixton Road and Portobello Market
I show him rock n roll, Network Rail and the NHS
I show him the immigrant-built west
I show him straight roads and pictures of my Gran
how the Jamaican ackee comes from the Ghanaian Akan

He’s sick of history and social science
sitting all sad and smug on his island

I spent three years on a degree
did a dissertation on British identity
I geek over John Blanke
renaissance trumpeter who was Black
Oh and Ann Lister, call her Gentleman Jack
and Afro-Romans and The Slave Trade
Black Georgians, Saxons and Viking Raids
and I so want to scream when I hear folks say
goddamn immigrants taking our jobs
but how we teach history – we don’t talk
of Mrs Shah’s shop employing Bill and Bob
where people with money love to spend
employing women and men in tens,
her gift for business is self-taught
all her plans meticulously well-thought

Second Lieutenant, Walter Daniel Tull – one of the first (Black) mixed-race footballers in England and the first (Black) mixed-race officer in the British Army

and all your prejudice talk
forgets the soldiers the colonies pledged
forgets the men left for dead
in Tangiers, Dunkirk and at the Somme
as the world wars went on and on
from Mr Smith to Mr Wong
and I know people love to complain
but England our name
the land of Angles is all that remains
from Saxons to Jutes
stories of migration since before WW2

and often, those kind of people
are more native than the locals.

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