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In America, and most certainly in the land of Dixie and cotillions, at the end of junior high school year we have a tradition of getting our senior class rings. By “getting,” I mean individually buying a ring from the same one or two companies in our city who cash in on this ritual annually. We knew that many of us had to foot the bill with our own after-school jobs, while others’ parents could virtually write a blank check! (Hopefully, at least, or perhaps most assuredly, somebody in the school system gets a kickback from all this cash flow.)
While class rings appeared personalized, the rings – and the ritual – were effectively mass manufactured, complete with standardized shapes and design features: school’s name and mascot – in our case a bear – class year (1993!), and maybe our initials inscribed inside. Oh, and a heteronormative adolescent sexualized ritual to which I shall return shortly.
Rings are generally presented at a school ceremony. Until graduation, class rings are worn facing the wearer as motivation towards the ultimate achievement, after which it is worn outward as a badge of pride and honor. A graduating class could all agree to the same design – usually the school colors – which I believe the majority of my class did. While I prefer the look of silver against my dark skin, our school colors were royal blue and gold, so classes at our school often got blue sapphire set in the lowest Karat gold available that didn’t look cheap. For such a notoriously liberal school (i.e., gender and racially/geographically* integrated by design), this was one of the few explicit acts of conformity.
The next part of the tradition is having 100 different people turn the ring, as sort of an acknowledgement of becoming a senior. The first 99 turn it in one direction, while the final person reverses the order. This clockwise/counter-clockwise turn seals the deal. Yet get this, you’re supposed to kiss the hundredth person who turns the ring. You say the word “kiss” in front of most any group of adolescents and they’ll giggle. We knew what kind of kiss was meant. FRENCH like fries! Somehow becoming a senior in high school had been coopted by this hetero-ritual, a hetero-rite of passage (het-or-no-rites!).
I am troubled that this academic milestone is linked to gender. Worse, the ritual is predictably a performance act that fixes gender to normative sexual roles; yes, heteropatriarchy. Worse still, this binary gender performance is discrete, couched in achieving a basic education.
The ring dealer comes to school and makes a sales pitch to the class, and sets up a booth in the lobby after school. In his pitch, he promises a ‘free’ glossy little form to collect all the signatures. It was a bait and switch. These dealers sold us the rings but gave us the forms, the evidence we needed to prove we’d passed another stage towards adulthood. And what were we supposed to do with the blank glossy forms? Come back to school and boast?
The first 50 or so signatures were just us. Our own schoolmates turning each other’s rings, filling in each other’s forms on the very day the rings arrived. Family filled in a lot, too. I distinctly remember a teacher or two requesting to be excluded from the tradition, or take part in the ring ritual of becoming a senior, else we whittle their fingers away.
We all know everybody only wanted to see who signed the final line – a prompt to incite heteronormalizing speech-acts. Well, a few folks weren’t single and already had that 100th spot reserved and filled by sundown. Needless to say, kisses from granny don’t count! I’m pretty sure this wasn’t written on the dealer’s well-crafted sheet. Our market dominated, heteronormative introduction to adulthood for all to see.
I’d attended the same school since second grade so I’d seen people celebrate this class ring ritual for years, and even attended several graduations. I’d watched the “Senior run” year after year – a day at the end of school, when the graduating class runs through all the halls, cheering, banging on lockers as all the kids in all the classes rush out to line the hallways and egg them on. I loved school, adored our school, adored my classmates, and even looked forward to our turn, though parting so bittersweet.
At 16, I was only starting to be able to fully disidentify with the barrage of heterosexualized norms that engulfed me. I had to disentangle heterosexuality from virtually every facet of life – even finishing high school, a normal step we’re all expected to take. It’s as if to gain access to what bell hooks calls ‘the good life’ one had to signify alignment with compulsory heterosexuality.
I knew that I could not even turn my ring 100 times without kissing a girl. No way I’d risk putting a guy’s name at the end of that glossy list – someone I’d actually dreamt of French-kissing. Not like I knew any guy who’d be game. Damn. This was a lot of pressure. This junior prom was forcing me to make all kinds of adult decisions.
“The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…”
I was 16, and wasn’t out yet. Unlike at twelve when these feelings first bubbled over, by 16 I was on the cusp of self-acceptance, and preparing to face this possibility that I was gay. Perhaps it was pure timing. By the 11thgrade I knew for sure I’d be leaving home months after graduation, which was suddenly within reach. I could chart my own homo path. But still, at that age, I had doubts. I tried seriously dating a young woman as my last-ditch effort to see if I was straight or (at least) bisexual.
Kaye wasn’t a classmate, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because in retrospect all my classmates already knew, and had decided to accept me without question. Kaye attended an all-girls’ school, so we’d met through an extracurricular, Black youth empowerment program. Kaye was clearly college bound. She had her own dreams and ambitions, and pursued them – an ideal mate for me. She was the most attractive woman I knew, both inside and out, both to me and others. Yes, THAT sister who is not invulnerable, but has it all together. If she didn’t do, then dammit I was gay!
Fortunately, my girl was smart. And by smart, I mean that she was intelligent, real smart as in NOT clueless at all. We agreed to a kiss on the cheek, and she’d sign the last line on my glossy form. And by ‘agreed to’, I mean that this is what Kaye put on the table as her firm and final offer. She also had the good sense to let me turn her ring, too, but she reserved the 100th signature for someone special. I respected that. This clarified our plutonic status – no Facebook updates needed: I’m gay.
“Gotta find out what I meant to you…You were sweet as cheery pie/ Wild as Friday night”
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.