Enough pundits are trying their very best to understand and analyse what is currently happening with the polarisations, ineptitude and insularity around the Brexit debacle. There would be more to come on this in the years to. Those of us from the Caribbean and former colonies can only painfully watch things fall apart as all the many spun yarns/myths and lies told over the years about ‘great’ Britain unravel. Mind you, this is no to dismiss the many contributions of Britain to the world scene. And lots of it are by British people whose ancestry may tie them to other parts of the world: yes, these ‘bloody foreigners’ that we wish to close the gates on. Much more would have to fall apart for the United Kingdom to come to its senses about what really make her great.
Lest we miss it: Parliament is currently wrestling with the Brexit boil because of a Caribbean (Guyanese) British person (Gina Miller) hauling the UK government to the courts and having a ruling in favour of democracy. Despite the threats and consequent demonising of this British citizen, this is what makes a nation great: the democratic heart which is currently in extreme danger of being lost. Consider the gilet jaunes movement that is taking on not only the Macron government but the larger narrative of the continuing failure of the international neo-liberal economy to deliver equity and emancipation. How many of us are aware that it was a young business woman of French Caribbean ancestry (Priscillia Ludosky) who started a petition around the high cost of petrol and diesel that then saw people like Eric Drouet and many others coming on board to take-on the French establishment? Then there is that march of very young students across Europe, missing classes and taking to the streets for the sake of the environment (the accelerating impact of climate disruption) and to send a clear signal to the status quo. Things are falling apart and they need to, for the madness to be transformed.
My grandfather (George August Mars) was African Guyanese who ancestors were from Haiti. How he and my Indian grandmother came together in a racially charged community remains one of those rare transcending events. He was bright, kind and would only see goodness in the other. So, when he told me as a small boy that: ‘always mind these British’, I was curious to want to learn what he meant. I learnt that as excellent engineer he could have only reached the level of a foreman as the manager’s role was reserved for a white ‘Booker employee’ from one of the islands in the UK. He told me stories of how almost all of those who came were largely incompetent, would hijack his ideas of dealing with complex engineering solutions in a situation that demanded creativity, and would then proceed to take all the credit as if it were their ideas. Not one to hold malice, he said to me (referring to his experience with white expats): ‘never let anyone (especially these expats) tell you he or his culture is better than yours. That is their strategy to diminish what you are to make theirs exceptional. You though should read and study their history and you will find enough there to see that they are less than the myths they spin about themselves and their nation’. He then proceeded to say to me: France, Europe and Britain can claim they are great and that is only because of us. Their wealth has been built on our backs’. I have since learnt that is indeed the case.
What has changed – if any? Consider the observation of E. R. Brathwaithe (writer of To Sir with Love) about his experience in 1949. Brathwaite, with his service record of fighting for Britain and degrees in Physics, sought employment and was denied numerous times with what he termed: “with elaborate casualness and courtesy, for reasons which seemed to have nothing to do with my abilities or qualifications”. He surmised: “I was forced to confront the simple fact that, relieved of the threat of German invasion, the British had abandoned all pretence of hand-in-hand brotherliness and had reverted to type, demonstrating the same racism they had so roundly condemned in the Germans”.
Or consider the example of the late Philip Potter (first Black General Secretary of the World Council of Churches). His experience working with the Methodist Missionary Society (1961-1966) relates to the recent Windrush debacle. Though well-known and employed by the Methodist Church, he had to suffer the humiliation of being reminded that he was a black stranger in an exclusive white society. The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 meant that his passport and Commonwealth status were constantly challenged and questioned at British airports even though he was a resident of the UK and carried a British Passport (coming from Dominica). Responding to the interpretation of the Immigration Act as offered by a prominent lawyer, Potter wrote: “I quite understand that I am at the mercy of the British Government, being both a British subject and undesirable alien. Therefore, I, with thousands of others, must bear whatever humiliations are inflicted with such fortitude as one can muster”.
Let’s not fool ourselves; some things may have changed, but Britain has always been ‘a hostile environment’ for the ‘other’ of the Caribbean (in and outside of the Caribbean) and what is happening today in a wider and ongoing struggle around ‘brexit, borders and belonging’ has its roots in Britain’s history and role in ‘empire’. Exceptionalism of all sorts are soaked in the institutional edifices that constitute Britain. We need more than deep-cleaning to expunge this virus.
David Dabydeen once described the experience of newcomers from the former colonies to that of Dorothy arriving at the Castle of the Wizard of Oz. People came in awe and in search of a missing part of themselves journeying to that which they had imagined as this perfect place, only to discover that they had themselves changed beyond recognition. And peering further and closer come to realise that they have journeyed all this way only to find themselves. If, as is suggested, it is in contact with the stranger, someone different from you (who may even despise you), that we are released to find the treasure we embody, I hope that this can be a reciprocal encounter. And, that all can discover that treasure within themselves. Oppressed and oppressors, privileged and marginalised, together must imagine a different world for all, otherwise we will continue to live impoverished lives and transformation will not happen. We are all in need. History as John Agard pictures it will continue to be “a weight to break a back”, unless we can “create a crick or a crack”, that is a “crick of light – crack of hope”. I have no option, but to be hopeful.
©jagessar February 2019