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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/
Dear Black People:
Remember, whiteness has been largely invisible to MANY folks for MANY generations. While one Corona-filled year can make a dent in it, these changes will hurt and will take time. For example, imagine waking up one day, seeing another Black body drop on the streets at the hands of the police, and you see the American president making mockery of it. Stereotypical “rednecks” are breaking open cans of (cheap) beer to celebrate the deaths and you suddenly realize that this – none of this – would NEVER happen to you because of the color of your skin, because your skin is white. That’s got a be an earth-shattering realization.
Dear Black people, can you remember learning something that totally shattered your world view? That’s what’s happening to the wider, whiter world right now. Like any humans, some embrace change, others retreat in defeat and plot retaliation, for Mr. Backlash is NEVER EVER late.
Dear Black people, take a deep breath. Step back and look at the arch of history. It’s a sheer miracle that you’re even here, that your ancestors survived (I’ll spare you the litany of atrocities). History shows you that these flaring moments are fleeting, that in fact, it gets better. So, keep your head to the sky! Strap up your boots, march for justice, speak up, fight for peace, raise your voices in solidarity with peace-loving people everywhere of every shape, size and color. Do these things at your own pace, in your own way, and in your own space, for every contribution towards world peace is needed. Be the change.
On the 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC)
They talked at length about their “God-given rights to bear arms,” yet were silent about what guns do to people like me. They have little to say about religious diversity, and are silent about the bountifully plenty o’ white-American churches rooted – deeply – in racism. Equally, and clearly by the very same measure, they’ve never stood for the legal rights of Blacks to defend ourselves from tyranny. The second amendment, they suggest by their consistent omissions, is for them – only! This is how they addressed me. Give them liberty or give them (my) death…as it were. They ignore the data confirming that their own kids are more likely to shoot them than any dangers posed by my kids.
At the 2020 RNC, they talked at length about protecting their suburbs from thugs and rioters, yet fell well short of acknowledging the terror people like me have learned to live with. They talk like nobody that looks like me lives in the suburbs, and I know all too well that eerie ‘Get Out’ feeling when cruising through virtually any suburb in America. Do I belong here? Their glares and stares, and random checks let me know, #Karen and her klan don’t believe we belong together. The RNC didn’t address people like me who believe in my own state’s motto inscribed right there on both our seal and flag – “United we stand. Divided we fall.”* All I could hear from the RNC were warnings towards people like me: STFU, we got guns. Their gun cult was the only sort of solidarity served up, and so all the speakers touted that singular party line.
My party’s lines are numerous, as we’ve been casting a wider and wider net of those disenfranchised by the conservatives. Dems are ‘the others’. This year’s DNC motto seems to be this oft repeated moniker, ‘strength in diversity, unity in solidarity’. Both in rhetoric and actions they are more open to accountability for and by these so-called others. We can think, talk, walk and chew gum at the same time. The RNC didn’t address these Others, but they certainly portrayed ‘us others as a clear and present threat to their (suburban) way of life. For them, I am pariah.
As for cities, this year’s RNC speakers talked about rioters, but never ever spoke about what the riots were about. They touted a very uncomplicated view of rioting, and even had the nerve to claim the oppressed are crying victimhood (you know that, ‘shut up while I press my hoof on your neck’ sort of way). These conservative folks need a reading from both Sigmund Freud and the House of Labeija. Despite knowing what I know, I am still shocked at their void of empathy and disinterest in empathetic communication. They never addressed the peaceful protests, not least of which the #TakeAKnee campaign for which their leaders black-balled those peaceful protestors. You saw how the monster of that party responded to several prominent sports figures’ form of non-violent protest. I walked away from watching the RNC feeling shame for them, for I know their hearts couldn’t possibly be that cold. What comes around goes around.
*Yes, I know my state seal shows two white men shaking hands over the destinies of entire populations of Black and brown people, which we’ll save for another discussion. Rest assured, the RNC klan would say I’m using political correctness to silence them.
My second grade teacher
Took us to her house.
It was the first time I’d been in a white, middle-class house.
In the East End.
Walking distance from the park!
We walked there from our field-trip to the zoo,
And I was aware that this was a white neighborhood.
I was aware that some of my classmates lived nearby –
They pointed it out along the way: “Oh, there’s my bus.”
Some of my white classmates lived in the East End.
I was also aware that most-if-not all of the black people lived on the other side of town –
we caught the same bus home.
Separate, but equal.
And unlike our days spent at school,
The bus was either black or white.
This was all of our first chance to meet outside the classroom, in a home.
We were six and seven years old.
My second-grade teacher took us to her house.
She wasn’t bragging about her gigantic house.
No, she wasn’t trying to show off to us.
Even at that age I could tell that she just wanted to expose us,
To help us get to know how everyone in our city lived,
And that every part of town was ours.
And that we should expect to be in each other’s house.
And that even teachers have a life.
(BTW, I am suggesting that us educators are essential workers).
My second-grade teacher took us to her house.
She’s a white woman, and I was a black boy.
She lived in the white part of town, and I in the black.
Our worlds were different,
Yet we were one, under her care.
Momma taught me that she could trust different people with my care.
I learned that I could care about all different people.
Suddenly instead of her students she treated us like guests.
She respected us and we respected her home.
She told us about the people in the pictures on the walls,
And the places she’d been to collect all those interesting things.
(I wanted to go places, too.)
We knew the profundity of the experience.
Even at that age we knew that race and class should have kept us apart,
At least according to the world outside our class.
And we quickly learned that everyone knew THAT skewl was kewl.*
It’s been over half a year since the bulk of the world began dealing with Corona. With that, neither everyday movements nor international travel has not been the same. Now, we’re midway through summer. School terms have been extended globally, altered drastically from any norm. While some are staggering their re-openings, there is no settle new way of doing old things. Educating youth may never be the same. Students are in a unique position to reform education from the ground up. This is my prayer for youth: Stand courageously as we ride these waves of change.
Travel and tourism. While could spew a bunch of statistics about this fallen industry, any of us can go through the tediousness of searching and scrolling through the numbers. It’s been over six months, so many numbers are rolling in: There are masses of jobs that may never recover. By the time people figure out what to do during this unending period of lockdowns, lock-ins, closings, shut-downs, downscales, too many bellies will have gone unfed, too many months’ rent gone unpaid. A tsunami of bills threatens to drown a plenty. My prayer is that your creativity prevails. There is no apparent swift solution to these current ills, nor can we predict any end with any confidence. My prayer for you is that you rise like the phoenix.
Essential workers. From corner shop-keepers to grocery workers, from fast-food workers to farmers, from cleaners to manufacturers, from bank workers to customer services worldwide, to all the delivery folk, sanitation folk, safety and security folk, healthcare folk, please know our eternal indebtedness to you. Your lives matter. Each one of you. You are often poorly paid, regularly poorly treated, and certainly too frequently mis-regarded. You supply the gloved hands that handle our goods, provide our services, scrape up the crap we leave on the streets … even get our bodies into beds when we’re no longer able. It is true that many societies have tended to severely undervalue you. My prayer is that essential workers be better respected, compensated and protected.
May our common, global experience of living with Corona provide us all some well-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday-life-as-usual to truly appreciate the many lives that make our own lives possible. There was something eerily usual about the way emergency-care worker Breonna Taylor died in her home at the hands of the police. My prayer is that such knowledge sits less comfortably with us all, and that we seek change, no matter where we are. Witnessing the risks peaceful protestors take to bring about change, and seeing the propaganda that plays out in the news vilifying them along caste lines, my prayer is that empathy prevails.
May we all know better and do better. Do right.
After reading a blog by History’s Drew Grey on ‘Racism, Diversity and Contested Histories: Some Reflection on Christmas Just Past’, I began to think about my favourite television genre (by some distance), the Period Costume Drama. Reading his post took me back to when I saw David Olusoga presenting Black and British for the first time on the BBC, but more specifically his monologues about mixed-race families in Georgian Britain. Whilst Drew’s post boasts diversity in the latest adaptation of A Christmas Carol (based on the Charles Dickens story) by Peaky Blinders‘ Stephen Knight, diversity in the Period Drama fanbase is a contentious discussion.
His post reminded me of my dissertation where I was looking at my roots. Finding myself. Lost in my race-identity politics, it feels like a decade ago reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talk to White People About Race for the first time. A text that colleague and blogger @paulaabowles calls “a machine gun,” (with a smirk). It’s simply relentless. However, it was David Oyelowo’s quote in the Radio Times that’s stayed with me ever since.
“We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never any black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience do not understand.” – David Oyelowo (in Eddo-Lodge, p55)
Oyelowo goes on to say “I thought – OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me.” So, is it any wonder why so many of our Black actors have gone to Hollywood and made it big? Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before we knew him as DCI John Luther. Oyelowo was Martin Luther King in Selma (as well as his British co-star Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King), and has had roles in The Help, Queen of Katwe and Disney’s Star Wars Rebels. John Boyega was in Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya slayed as Chris Washington in Get Out.
Whilst many of these works aren’t all costume pieces, the fact that Black actors have to go overseas bothers me. Yet, Black History to British audiences has always been African-American history. To find Black British history, you really have to look for it. So, when we see characters like Kitty Despard (Poldark) or Miss Lambe (Sanditon) or even Dev Patel as David in the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield, it’s in opposition to the histories we think we know, the histories we were taught at school.
So, why is there such a backlash to non-White people in this genre? Is it one more example of Black and brown people being where they shouldn’t? You know Black faces in White spaces? From the streets of Georgian London to Walter Tull mobbed by 20,000 Bristol fans in 1909. Or is it a consequence of a population bludgeoned by historical misinformation? After all, isn’t the best way to have complacent people, to cut them off from knowledge? And if you don’t know your own history, do you know who you really are?
In the same century Charles Dickens was writing about Jacob Marley, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonnetta was growing up in England wondering the streets of London, as “part of Britain’s imperial project.” It’s the story of Black Victorians, many of which could “only be told through the words of others” (Olusoga, p331).
Whilst these discussion forums, are majorly female, they are some of the most misogynistic places I’ve seen on the internet. There’s one Facebook group where I have been labelled a “troublemaker” for calling out racism and homophobia, as many members are also American, card-carrying Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. And feminism is only White. They see intersectionality as an inconvenient myth and the stories of non-White women in history an afterthought. That’s how White Privilege works.
This culture of hate against non-normative voices is dominant in the Fandom Menace, as I like to call it. The online forums are infested with racism, misogyny and homophobia: from Gentleman Jack to Beecham House, Drew’s descriptions of the backlash to the mixed-race Cratchit family act as a metaphor for a toxic fanbase, and contesting these histories can often be a homophobic act, a racist act, even if it’s born from ignorance.
There is an endemic problem within society, where we allow older generations, including “sweet old ladies” in The Period Drama fanbase to get away with hate speech because that’s “how they are” and they “don’t really know any different.”
What’s more, and what was great about A Christmas Carol was how unapologetic the makers were about their diversity. This family were Black and they were White. This was mixed-race Britain in the 19th century. Moreover, Mary Cratchit and how Black women take on everyone’s emotional labour. Be it modern times or Victorian times, Black women are in the business of saving grown-ass men from their own emotional work!
Mixed-race inclusion is a testament to our history and a thumb bite to Englishness as a synonym for whiteness, and the colonised imperatives that continue to dominant storytelling, as said (but not so bluntly) by Darren Chetty in ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People‘. Due to the inherent whiteness of institutions, they recruit in their own image, and history is no different. What’s that saying about apples and trees?
Certain members of the Period Drama community would like to believe Britain was only White before the 1950s. No, it’s simply the establishment has done a grand job of writing us out of British history books, but Black people have been part of every era of British history. I can tell you that.
BBC’s A Christmas Carol shows why representation matters and that history is not only the responsibility of historians. Artists also carry the load of telling these social histories (that’s what Dickens is) accurately and they can do better when it comes to the spectrum of diversity in the Period Drama.
And due to how History has been taught to every generation at all levels of education, is it surprising I encounter “sweet old ladies” using “historical (in)accuracy,” as a conduit to enable their racist, homophobic and misogynistic views?
Chetty, D. (2017). You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to Be About White People. In: Shukla, N (ed). The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound Publishing, pp. 96 – 107.
Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.
Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British. London: Macmillan.
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.
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?