Thinking English: Defining The Indigenous Briton
A week ago, I someone said to me “You don’t look British.” It’s not the first time this has happened but it made me think.
When I was a boy, going to school in Northamptonshire, I saw too much of white culture’s toxicities for someone of my age, a boy forced to look at the world through othered visions so young. I was raised by parents who were born in the late 1960s / early 1970s, growing up in the 1980s — children of the Windrush Generation made to feel as unwelcome as their parents. Their generation witnessed Apartheid through screens, bricks through windows, NF rallies, Handsworth Revolution and Brixton ablaze in the blur of Babylon.
Even today, I have found my rights to be contested by those who call themselves “English.” Those who claim they’re “pure English,” eulogising what I like to call Blyton’s Britain — afternoon tea, coastal wrecks and cucumber sandwiches. My right to call myself a British citizen is debated (and those of others that look like me as well), especially in a post-Brexit society. I am British — born in Newham, East London (in 1995) raised in Northamptonshire. I am as British as those who debate my right to be here.
Under the veil of British racism, this is the tenor and temper of the times many British people of colour are experiencing. I come from Caribbean grandparents who were at risk of being sent back to Grenada and Jamaica under the Windrush Scandal — created by Theresa May’s hostile environment. Rudd fell on her sword. Moreover, Britain First came to Northampton the other week and tried to give me a leaflet. I’m finding many former-friends follow these groups, including the EDL. They want to keep Britain English. They want to keep it White, English-speaking. Society has linked non-white skin with immigration, and whiteness with indigenousness.
I live in fear, in a land that condones neo-Nazis, hostile environments, and even political programmes like Question Time — coaching audience members to give BAME panellists a hard time. Brexit is a beacon of swaggering arrogance. It’s shouted loud and hard, “publicly” dividing a country and sparked enough talk to think of “immigration” as a dirty word. As if “sending them back to way they came from” is a viable option? If you want to send “them” back, you have to send their families back too, including me.
In this age of Brexit and Trump, we have forgotten about Enoch Powell’s ‘River of Blood’ and the race riots that burned brazen in most British cities throughout the 1980s. To thousands of young British people of colour like me, who did not live through those times, just the very idea of them is harrowing. The idea of repatriation is mental. Black, Asian and mixed-heritage Britons; we belong here, we are from here and we live here — same as any White.
“Go back to where you came from” I’ve been told. I come from Britain. Growing up in Northampton is a powerful memory for me; it gave me identity in the landscapes of black and white soldiers on Abington Street and the Market Square and The Drapery — where the “whip hand” is a figment.
I grew up learning about Roots and slavery, slaves turned pioneers — Mary Seacole, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Haitian Revolution. Walter Tull, even. Whose grandparents were slaves in Barbados. Whose father made the same journey my grandparents, simply in the 1870s, rather than the 1960s. And even my great-grandparents who moved here for a better life. Members of the Windrush, a generation told about English streets paved with gold. They saved this country from collapse.
And the late Andrea Levy gave a voice to Black Caribbean Britons — from the Windrush in Small Island, to slavery as a brutal blood sport in The Long Song. I remember my mom making me do a project on footballing pioneer Walter Tull. My great-grandfather Edison ‘Ben-Mark’ Noel worked on Northampton’s railway lines. I’m told stories about the West Indian clubs and parties in the front room. I remember great-grandmother telling me about the Morant Bay War (Massacre) in Jamaica — looting, burning house and the slaughter of children and pregnant mothers. The British Empire at its might.
But I also watch Hollywood Golden Age films that included blackface, such as The Jazz Singer and Birth of a Nation. Films that tell interesting stories but ones that informed modern white supremacist views on race. A double-edged sword. I grew up learning about the awful stereotypes of my people. I grew up in the noughties still being called wog and nigger. One of the worst parts of my schooling was in 2009 when I was confined to a make-shift cage when we were taught about slavery, in the name of historical accuracy. A lesson in pain, punishment and persecution— some of what my ancestors experienced.
In recent years, I have been told that “Britain is one of the least racist societies in the world.” It is difficult to comprehend such thoughts when I look back on my childhood and when I look at modern media, in which Islamaphobia is rampant. The Netherlands continue celebrate Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). But I have been assured by White people that racism is gone! And this ties into Britishness, to made to feel that you don’t belong goes back to the colonial. It goes back to how the BBC broadcasted minstrel shows on television until 1978. It goes back to how I was donned a slave at fourteen in that class.
Almost every British person of colour I know has a story to tell about belonging. Some involve racial violence, some are just comments. Some are crises of identity filling out that application form. African, Indian, Caribbean, British? Or are you Other? They are raw and don’t normally expand past the family unit, close friends at a stretch. We live in a darkness of non-identity.
In 2016, I watched Black and British — a four-part documentary series by historian and filmmaker David Olusoga. In 2017, I read his book of the same name, detailing the black presence in Britain. The story of the black presence in my country really struck a chord with me. It gave me a sense of belonging — that, we, the Other, belong here as much as the White British people who tell us to go home. I am home. It allowed me to put the stories of Tré Ventour to a longer narrative. Olusoga introduces his readers to a thread of Black characters, some of whom I knew very little about, and about some, I knew nothing. And I have even started to visit the sites where he erected plaques.
In February, I visited the final resting place of Charles Wotton — Liverpool Docks. A Black solider who just wanted to live in peace. The stories of Black soldiers in conflict is one of looking over your shoulder. Liverpool’s Black population swelled after the First World War, in a howl of labour shortages. Racial tension foamed like a bubble bath. People of colour were thrown from their jobs and Wotton was murdered, thrown into the water, chased from his home on Upper Pit Street to the Docks —a frenzy of flames and fists chasing him. “Let him drown,” they said. Rest in Power, Charles. Rest in Power.
I live in a commuter town, Northampton, where many migrate to. The combination of the university and other factors (like cheaper housing) draws people from London and Birmingham. Here, there is a significant British BAME population, as well as that of the EU and further afield. And “diversity” has become this buzz word. Is it okay for people to ask me this question? Even though I’ve lived in England for all my twenty-three years of my life. Born in London, raised in Northampton, I reply to this question with the latter. I was raised in Northampton. I identify with Northampton. I will graduate from the university here. My parents and my grandparents live here as well. It’s home.
But I am from many places. My heritage is Caribbean. I was raised in Northampton, the place I’ve grown to love, even with its faults. All these places are home. But when people question my Britishness, that’s not what they mean. When they ask “where are you from?” and I reply “Northampton,” there is always a look of annoyance. A flash of anger passes their face. It’s one of those times when people need to vet your genealogy, your family history.
“Where are you from?”
“I mean, where were you born?”
“I mean where you grew up.”
“I went to school in Northamptonshire.”
“I mean where your parents live.”
Then they say “you know what I mean, stop being difficult.” I know exactly where they’re going with this. I know what they mean. It hasn’t got lost in the semantics of the situation. They mean “You’re brown, so you must be foreign. What poor country of brown / Black people far far away do your family come from?” Society has tied different coloured skin with immigrant, like “immigration” is some kind of dirty word. They think I’m not from around here. I learned that as a child, when the Tesco shop assistant called me “Boy” like it was a Jim Crow South, like I was slave, like I was a nigger.
However, when a White British person gets asked this question, it’s very different. The question is asking about local geography. “What city are you from?” Town even. When people of colour are asked, the frame of the narrative is different because we are different. People hear my accent, isn’t it English? I’ve been told time and time again that I’m not British. But the sounds that ricochet within the walls of my mouth tell a different story.
My accent is Big Ben and the Thames. But my skin colour screams Elmina Castle and Trenchtown. It screams slave plantations, Cecil Rhodes and Apartheid. You can’t really be British, so where am I from? A Black or brown person can’t be indigenous to this land. Please help me choose a box to put you in because we can’t fathom that British includes Black and brown people as well. In doing this, certain people have invalidated someone’s existence. This broadens to our diction and vocabulary, especially because I don’t “talk Black” I don’t call people “nigger.” I use their name. Even my schoolteachers comment me on how well I speak English, the language I was born into.
There is an predetermined idea that “brown people can’t speak well, or even be witty or intelligent.” I smile at the speaker, painfully, sweat on my brow. I say “Thank you.” This is the subtlety of British racism. There are times when we meet people with another accent — an East Londoner talking in Cockney rhyming slang, a Scouser with the drawls of Liverpool, or even the gentle almost musicality of Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset in the West Country.
“Where are you from?” I am asked, on a regular basis. “No, where are you really from?” They proceed to ask about my parents and grandparents. For immigrants / people of colour — this is not about having different coloured skin or a Jamaican accent. It’s about Britain built in the ruins of race and empire. It’s about whitewashed history and how there’s been Black and brown people here for nearly 2000 years. Yet, we’re the ones to be questioned.
In the UK, if you are a Black and British, many define you on the origins of your parents and / or grandparents. i.e if you are like me, the grandchild of Windrush grandparents, you are Caribbean by default. If you are British, you should be British. We are as much of this country as the White. It should be of the notion that British means British, regardless of the hue of our melanin.
“Where am I from?” I am from here and I am also from there. I am from the lands of reggae, calypso and steel drums and the hills of Grenada, the magic of the Maroons and the Caribs and the Arawak tribes; but I also love custard creams and music by The Clash and watching test match cricket.
My life is part of a longer social experiment. British looks like me but it also looks like Riz Ahmed and Reni Eddo-Lodge and Daniel Craig. This is multiracial Britain but it’s also Jeremy Paxman, Akala and Jameela Jamil. Britishness is changing. The country is changing. It’s time we did too.