This Babylonian letter from the Manchester University Museum includes the injunction: “… don’t be negligent! Cultivate the field … and use (its harvest). Or give it over to other hands, in order that it may be cultivated!”
Whose field are we on? Who gets to cultivate it, and how, and for whose benefit?
What have we sown? What have we grown?
I proudly sang the National Anthem at a Silver Jubilee party in 1977. As the ‘final’ line of God Save the Queen ended I drew a deep breath and launched into the second verse — including the lines ’Scatter her enemies / and make them fall /Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks’. And then the third verse, too before they put a stop to me and awarded me the prize cake with its silver fondant crown. I gleefully chanted, “Who won the war? Who won the war?” at my classmate Stefan, whose dad was a German emigré jeweller, with a group of fellow pupils in our primary school playground. I decorated a polystyrene straw boater and a piece of dowelling with red white and blue ribbon as part of my outfit for the Royal Wedding garden party we held in 1981. My mum sang me to sleep each night with a lullaby that ended ‘it is time for picanninies to go to sleep’, and I went on to sing the same words to my own children decades later. One of the books mum read to me had a refrain that I remember to this day: ‘Epaminondas, you ain’t got the sense you was born with!” At school, Mrs Wellington read us the ‘Little Black Sambo’ stories. At church we had little booklets of tear-out photos of babies and children – Sunny Smiles they were called, and we would ‘sell’ the photos to raise money for National Children’s Home. People would flick through and choose their favoured picture, leaving a booklet of stubs and the final unsold few: the ones who looked as though they might be a bit disabled or, of course, black. But we learned to love and care about the poor African children in those far away lands who were being won for Jesus (and being educated, and having wells dug for them, and being taught improved farming methods) by brave missionaries funded by the JMA (Junior Missionary Association). For collecting over £5 a year for them I was awarded the ‘JMC DSO’ – a medal looking like the Victoria Cross, and in subsequent years a ‘bar’ to add to the medal ribbon. I referred along with everyone else to ‘the paki shop’ and casually used terms like ‘wog’ and ‘coon’ and the N-word for black people, and laughed at jokes with punchlines like ‘Alcock and Brown – that’s my Rastus’. I remember a black cricketer, I think he was called Lloyd, coming from the West Indies to play for our local cricket club and him being a warmly welcomed and much loved character. He is the only black person I remember from my childhood. Of course, I had a spell collecting Robertson’s golly badges. I stood in genuinely awed and respectful silence at the parade of veterans on Remembrance Day as it made its way to the cenotaph on the park next to our house. Back then, it was a long procession, with plenty who had seen active service in both world wars. I was outraged when, occasionally, the wreaths that had been laid and remained there all year had been thrown about the place, and I remember me and a couple of friends putting them back and re-erecting all the little wooden poppy-crosses that had been trampled down in the flower beds around the memorial. I remember learning (or rather failing to learn) to drive in Nelson and my instructor directing me through ‘Little Bangladesh’ and joking he’d prefer it if I kept my speed up. I laughed along, of course.
Getting on for half a century after many of these childhood memories, I currently have 298 ‘friends’ on Facebook. I’ve done a quick audit and as far as I can see, four are people of colour: one is black (mixed, I believe) and I think three are of South Asian ethnicity. Apologies to anyone if I’ve got that wrong or missed you out.
I have made several attempts to continue writing this piece over the course of several days, taking it in various directions, wondering where best to place my focus, but I have concluded that, for the time being at least, I should pause and think and try to engage more and posture (‘virtue signalling’ anyone?) less, apart from one thing I really wanted to include — and that is an apology to that lone black voice on my timeline for not doing more to amplify that perspective more before Black Lives Matter blew up in our timelines and on our news screens and, yes, I jumped on the bandwagon. I have previously ‘liked’ a number of her posts and comments that have dealt with issues around race, and have several times composed responses to people who have presented on her timeline arguments that display the (usually unwittingly) racist perspectives that she has to deal with on a daily basis throughout her life, but have always drawn back and not sent them, because I really don’t like an argument. Before I’d even heard of George Floyd, on the morning of 27th May (he was killed on 25th May) she posted:
“Seeing a different black man everyday killed by the police is so traumatic. It makes me scared for my family and makes me scared about the thought of raising a son 😖”
Well, I can imagine some people thinking this is hyperbole: a different black man every day? Really? Here, perhaps, is somebody who has been radicalised to unreasonably fear every policeman in the same way that we lefty snowflakes claim people have been radicalised to fear every muslim or black kid in a hoodie. And anyway, all of that is happening in America, and we’re better than that here.
Then the first comment below that post was from a white woman whose profile says she works at a bar in Doncaster. She has a son who, in his profile pic is a black kid wearing a reversed baseball cap. Her comment was “Shaqs been stopped by police 4 times these last two weeks. Twice when I sent him to the shop. Asking him his name or where he lives. I’ve been to the shop too many times to count & not been stopped once 🤔 xx”
Many of us – especially those of us who are white, even more so who are also male, even more so who are also economically comfortable (middle class, if you like) really haven’t much of a clue about all this, and about the history that has led to it, or certainly not what it actually feels like to live with those experiences. Unless we make the effort to find out. And people like Lauren are, understandably, fed up of doing the emotional hard work of telling us and continually being ignored, rebuffed, marginalised, and patronised by those who claim to be ‘colour blind’ or insist that ‘all lives matter’ – never mind the explicit and overt racism on the one hand, and unconscious, internalised and structural racism on the other, that are still deeply ingrained in our culture.
So, I will end here by saying that although Lauren is a former student of mine, I am quite certain I have learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and I will leave anyone reading this to think about the conclusions that can be drawn from my experiences in childhood and beyond: they certainly don’t inevitably lead in the direction of anti-racism, so if you have some unease about what’s going on, think I’m a woke SJW who needs to get real, or just don’t know how best to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, well, join the club. Let’s talk.