Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Empire Strikes Black: Black People and OBE’s.

This week saw the publication of the Queens Honour’s list conferring royal patronage on those deemed to have made positive contributions to British society. I am not a fan of such things generally; I believe a more meritocratic system of civic recognition should be introduced.

Among those recognised were a variety of Black Britons of African, 
Order of British Empire.
Red for the blood of our people. Gold stolen from our lands.
Caribbean or Asian descent who were awarded OBE's MBE's and more besides.

In response and in line with my own politics, I published a tweet expressing my own view that I think that for Black people to be given and award associated with British Empire is an insult.

The authors Alex Wheetle and Roy Williams both recipients of Empire medals both objected to my tweet interventions. Roy so much so he wrote an article in the London Evening Standard defending his position as a recipient of an OBE and arguing that accepting such awards is part and parcel of being British.

I may be of British of African descent but to suggest, as Roy does, that simply because we have British passports, that all history is somehow expunged and historical injustices reconciled, strikes me as an infantile concept of citizenship that is almost Disneyesqe.

To believe that being ‘recognised’ by an ancient system of Royal patronage founded by white supremacists somehow advances our collective struggle for race equality is palpable nonsense.  
Greatest crime in human history. 

It is a self inflated ego that promotes the lie that being awarded an Empire medal and having a three-minute audience with the Queen represents real progress for black people. Such piffle demonstrates a degree of naivety and or arrogance that is beyond belief.

I would respect those who choose to accept the award if they were more up front and explained that they simply took the award to advance their careers rather than seek to justify their decision by arguing it represents our ‘successful arrival and integration into British society’.

Such a view is brutally undermined by the fact that we suffer more racial discrimination in terms of economic exclusion in 2013 than we did in 2003.

I think we all know the British honour’s system is corrupt as evidenced by the cash for honours scandals that exposed the establishment preference for giving these awards to high profile financial donors to their respective political parties.

In addition there are those so-called celebrities like Jimmy Saville and others who ruthlessly abused the prestige bestowed upon them and of foreign nationals some of who are willing to pay huge sums to be accorded royal recognition.

Add to these reprobates  a sprinkling of ordinary folk, doing great works who represent tokenistic inclusions that provide both cover and legitimacy to an outmoded awards ceremony whose main focus it to reward the rich and powerful.

Such scandal and cronyism is bad enough in itself and cause enough, I would have thought, for any reasonably conscious black person, to think twice in considering any such offer of recognition.

It is beyond my level of understanding that one would feel ‘proud’ of the great ignominy of being given an award that represents an Empire that is literally soaked in the blood of our ancestors, an Empire built upon slavery, exploitation and the enforced misery of millions. The recent compensation settlement by the British Government in relation to the Mau Mau demonstrates the realities of Empire that still haunt us today. 
Kenyan Mau Mau concentration camps 
 Any title with the word Empire attached is not an award that I could contemplate accepting, much less something that I could wear with pride. For the life of me I cannot conceive of any rationale that allows me to understand the minds of those who take pride in receiving such recognition. 

Ask the surviving Mau Mau to receive such an award and they will most likely spit in your face. Talk to the Chagos Islanders about Empire or an Aborigine in Australia, anyone from the Congo, talk to the Palestinians about the British Empire and the answer will be the same, hatred for crimes committed and a burning desire for jutice. 

Are we as Black Britons so cowed down and assimilated that we are prepared to have insults offered to us as reward? 

The old British Empire was racist to the core and was founded on the concept of white supremacy that was brutally enforced by the British military. Settler colonialism was responsible for literal murder of millions of African, Irish, Caribbean, Latin America, Aboriginal and Asian peoples. There response to White British Imperialism was “ One Settler One Bullet”.

Modern Britain still suffers from the legacy of Empire and the descendants of enslaved Africans still remain the victims of racism both at home and abroad.

However these are changing times and today in British black communities there are increasing number of what I have taken to calling ‘post modernist negroes’.

Most are a curious mix of black liberals and conservatives they share a distinctly neoliberal view of British society. Many are loyal supporters of the Queen and the Royal Family. Some tend to believe in the fallacy that Britain is a meritocratic; they tend to share the national consensus that Britain is more or less a post-racist society; some love to pathologies black communities discounting the reality of racism.

Most, not all distinguish themselves by their failure to condemn Government inaction in tackling racism in the UK.

This is not to belittle those have received an Empire medal whose tireless work in all our communities make unique and vital contributions to society at large.
Trevor Phillips represents the future devoid of its past

It is a political attack on the awards system that reinforces elitism and privilege and those who argue that, these medals of Empire are something we should aspire to and are awarded on merit, they are not.

There is no revisionist rehabilitation to be had for the notion of the British Empire despite the gargantuan efforts of the Education Secretary Michael Gove reshape British history and to amend the national curriculum to teach the ‘glories’ of Empire to schoolchildren.
Gove wants rewrite British history.

Black people in blithely accepting awards such as these lend great credence to idea that the British Empire was not that bad and its benefits outweigh its most heinous and tragic faults.  

Many of the past awardees are personal friends of mine and remain so to this day our difference on this issue overshadowed by our consensus on other issues, it would be point of disagreement but not of deep acrimony.

Lets not forget that this is an award from successive Governments and a Queen who has consistently refused to apologies for the bloody atrocities Empire and slavery.

Transatlantic slavery represents the greatest crime in human history and although the United Nations World Conference Against Racism has determined that slavery was a crime against humanity, Britain has consistently refused to apologies or offer reparations to the modern day descendants of enslaved Africans. Recipients tend not to be known for their campaigning work on seeking either apology or reparations for transatlantic slavery.

That having been said some Black and Asian recipients of the OBE's and MBE's etc are no doubt people whose work deserves recognition.

They and others do sterling work in the community and yes such work should be recognised, but I don't believe that that recognition comes for being given a title that represents a period of British history that witnessed the 'legal' murder millions of our ancestors. 

Could you really see Jewish people accepting an award from Germany that celebrated the Third Reich? Despite the effort of Government to redefine the idea of British Empire as being essentially benign, for African Latin American, the Middle East and Asians nations the British Empire was the equivalent of German fascism in every respect.

There are those whose understand this issue intuitively such as our brother in arms Benjamin Zephaniah whose public rejection of the OBE in 2003 is
A conscious man  man of principles. 
for me, in its own small way, is right up there with Muhammad Ali throwing his 1960 Olympic gold medal in the Ohio River in disgust at being refused service in a US restaurant.

Its not for me, so no I wont be on the list of many of the Black or Asian OBE party invites for this year or any other. I don’t say this is our most pressing issue, clearly it is not, but cultural symbolism is an important arena in the fight for race equality. The blood sodden weight of British Empire is to heavy a burden for Black people to bear in a misguided attempt to appear assimilated.

The BBC in 1978 produced a fine Black British comedic soap drama, Empire Road. The programme explored issues facing African, Caribbean and Asian settlement in Birmingham.

The opening title song Empire Road was written by the classic British reggae band Matumbi the opening line begins

“ Empire Road … we carry a heavy load. When will things get better… (better must come) … down Empire Road.”

The sentiment remains true today. For all conscious black people these medals carry a heavy load, that this offence remains unrecognised is a large part of the problem. 

That we like Pavlov’s dogs salivate at the prospect of being awarded these symbols of our oppression for recognition is a sign of neoliberal assimilationist desperation, not real progress for our people.