I am grateful to Georgina who, over the past week, has written this heartfelt guest post for my blog.
Who am I to write this piece, when I am sure that hundreds of thousands of words have been eloquently and emotionally written since the very public murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day/Bank Holiday Monday propelled the systemic injustices that permeate the life of black people into the public consciousness and forced the powers that be to take notice. Who I am is a first generation Black Briton, whose parents arrived on the shores of their Mother Country sixty years ago expecting maybe not quite streets paved with gold, but at least not what would become known eight years later as rivers of blood.
Who I am is a black woman who withstands the drip, drip effect of death by a thousand cuts of daily micro-aggressions, who frequently avoids playing into the narrative of the few tropes available for a black woman (loud, late, licentious and of course angry!) Yet, who I am is also someone who has learned to navigate the hate, maintain hope and to paraphrase Maya Angelou, still rise.
Until the age of four, my parents and my sisters and I lived – like many black people at the time – in one rented room in a house of rented rooms. We shared a bathroom and toilet down the landing and punched the light switch to turn on the dim overhead bulb timed for a period not quite long enough to reach wherever you were trying to get to. When we moved to the place we would spend our formative years, we were the only black family on the street, but also one of only three families that owned a car. The nearest school was five minutes away but when my sister and I tried to enrol, we were told there was no space. Funnily enough, when our white neighbour also approached, space was found. So each day we trod on little legs the half an hour to the school that did allow us in, the school where you could count the number of black children on one, maybe two hands.
I was acutely aware of my differences to my white school friends. Not least because when the dinner lady called me the ‘N’ word and I told the teacher on playground duty, she looked me up and down and said well you are aren’t you. Even at five, I knew that was wrong. And not only because of the inane and insulting questions fielded with a smile, but consumed with rising bile – is your uncle called Sambo? Is there something living in your hair? Why do you eat green bananas and what is yam? Epithets were unimaginative but cruel – ‘rubber lips’, ‘blackie’ and the like, and ‘is that your brother, you lot all look alike’. But mainly because what was obvious all around me, in TV programmes, on advertising hoardings, in books, comics and magazines, was nobody who looked like me did anything good.
They say what does not kill you makes you stronger, but I am not sure. I think that often you just learn to internalise the pain. I chose to become a chameleon, fitting into whatever situation I found myself and for a long while carrying a self-appointed mantle of being an exemplary representative of all black people to all white people. But that role was suffocating, because I needed to be all of me, not just the bits that were palatable to whoever I was with. I could not breathe for fear of not being accepted, for the fear of being pre-judged, for the fear of being too black for white people’s comfort, too … [loud, late, licentious, angry].
Fortunately, my parents gave us roots and wings and exposed us to a variety of activities that would cast my sight-line to horizons far beyond what would be expected for a girl like me. It was an education that knitted together our rich history with our then present reality and one which fostered a sense in me that in my future anything was possible, despite the stranglehold black people often faced: we saw Tommy Steele in Hans Christian Andersen at the London Palladium and countless other theatre productions, we listened to Reggae Time on Radio London on Sunday afternoons after singing Canticles in our Methodist Church on Sunday morning, we got lost and found in Hampton Court Maze, we loaded up the car and visited coastal resorts near and far, we climbed Box Hill and celebrated Jamaican Independence Day at St Martin’s-in-the-Field, then tentatively held out our hands to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. We learned about Marcus Garvey and read Macbeth, we read Black Beauty and learned about Nanny of the Maroons. I grew to love Beethoven and Bob Marley, we watched Benny Hill and Benny in Crossroads Motel, I could sing by heart two verses of God Save The Queen and quote Martin Luther King Jr. I had a sleeve full of badges from Girl Guides and learned Morris Dancing, Maypole Dancing and Maori Dancing too thanks to my supply teacher from New Zealand. I loved Ackee and Saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica, and every Friday we had Fish & Chips from the local chippie. We were hybrids, but always implicitly aware that to be good was not good enough. There was never enough knowledge, or wealth that could cover the colour of our skin.
And the decades passed, punctuated by atrocities and enquiries but never permanent change. From the New Cross Fire to the Brixton Riots to the asphyxiation in custody of Joy Gardner and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it seemed lip-service was paid to justice when the victims were black and the perpetrators were not. Trevor McDonald read the news, but the measure of the Britishness of immigrants was in which cricket team they supported and the question ‘but where are you from?’ did not refer to which part of the Capital you hailed from, because blackness and Britishness could not be equated. And me and my peers saw our lives mirrored in that of our American cousins – Rodney King, LA riots: we did not have to go back to Emmet Till or Medgar Evers, but viscerally recognised the lack of value placed on black lives, everywhere.
So for a few hours, I am sad to say, George Floyd’s name was just exasperatingly added to the long list of black men and women whose lives had been snuffed out either at the hands of those appointed (and self-appointed) to uphold justice and peace or eradicated by a system that was set up to fail them. At a moment in time when COVID-19 ravaged the lungs of hundreds of thousands and took away the very breath of its victims, at a time when it was acknowledged that this novel virus, as if though a cliché, disproportionately affected black people, a black man lay prostrate on the ground under the knee of a white man, who saw fit to take his breath away. Permanently. As if a cliché. As if the hundreds of years of black bodies being publicly abused and cast aside like mere chattels, of black bodies worth solely their weight in labour, being afforded only the status of sideshow, sexual object or slave was not enough – we were all, the privileged and the dispossessed, witness to what black people have systematically endured for so long.
White privilege suffocates black lives. But privilege is myopic, so there are those who refuse to believe that they benefit in any way from their colour, or that others face a disbenefit because of theirs. There are those who refuse to see that when we tacitly acknowledge but do nothing to change a situation, we become complicit in perpetuating that situation. And suddenly George Floyd’s name became synonymous with struggle and resistance, and the ironic need to fight for justice, because George Floyd’s compliance did not serve to save his life. Frederick Douglas, the renowned abolitionist, social reformer and former slave, said “Power concedes nothing without a demand”, and the demand now is for all to see and act, because Black lives matter.
But you’re a Christian, I hear people cry, so surely you believe all lives matter? Of course all lives matter, but denying the lived experience of a people and dismissing their pain does not speak to all lives mattering equally. Black lives have not mattered, they have been undervalued: under-represented in the powerful and over-represented in the persecuted. It is not an either or, it is saying black lives matter too.
What I do believe is that Jesus Christ was a disturber, counter-cultural and not one to uphold the status quo. His righteous anger was frequently aimed at those who wielded power unfairly, and he often stood up and stood in for those who were voiceless, disenfranchised and othered. The gift that Jesus left us after His Ascension was the Spirit, ruach, pneuma, breath. So surely until we can all breathe equally, there is no equity, there is no justice, and that should not be seen as the cross black people have to bear. Our faith is not to be used as a promissory note to be cashed in heaven and not before.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination wrote “Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion… On the other hand, hope is subversive…daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”.
I remain embarrassingly and subversively hopeful. Why? Because after the fury and the grief have subsided, the world will have shifted a little, and the trajectory must be shalom – a universal flourishing, a return to wholeness, inclusiveness and restoration – when the image of God is identified, protected and cultivated in every person or situation. We will not achieve this by being colour-blind, but by being compassionate, recognising our differences, naming and deconstructing our privilege wherever on that continuum we stand and then changing the behaviours that fossilise and normalise injustice. Yet no one group ‘owns’ righteousness or can always claim the high moral ground.
Brueggemann also spoke of compassion as a radical form of criticism, one which “announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness”. So with compassion in our hearts let us remain hopeful as we model justice, which as Dr Cornel West, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and author of Race Matters, says justice is what love looks like in public. With compassion, justice and love we can all breathe, we can all rise.