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Reflections

Freeing Our Imagination: Remembering Binya and Life in Kwani

7 min read.

The Kenya I grew up in felt isolated from the rest of the continent and the world. Kenyan writers were dissidents who lived abroad. Art was something only weird people did. At Kwani, the people and the stories, all that is beautiful, strange, sad, ugly, brave, and exciting about us, things we should not forget, were kept alive.

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Freeing Our Imagination: Remembering Binya and Life in Kwani
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The last time I had a conversation with Binyavanga Wainaina was in 2011 at the Washington DC launch of his book One Day I Will Write About This Place. I had just started my first semester in a creative writing graduate programme. It was a dream that had come true, in big part because of Binyavanga. Just a few years prior to this, I had just about given up on this idea that I would ever be a writer.

In 2005, after completing my undergraduate studies I had started working at Kwani Trust, first as an informal internship that grew into a fulltime job. For a while, this was the most exciting thing to happen in my life. I was working around writers I admired. Before getting this job, I had been stalking Kwani, attending their readings at Yaya Centre and at Paa ya Paa Art gallery. By the time, I came looking for this job I had read Kwani? 01 maybe twice, and Kwani? 02.

The first time I met Binyavanga, I had just followed my friend into a meeting with him. I sat there wondering why everyone was talking in such loud voices.

Kwani was many things – a literary journal, a monthly open mic, a writers’ collective, a physical space for creative people from all backgrounds in Nairobi to think and dream together. The Kwani office, at Queensway House, in the middle of Nairobi City, was a sublet space. It was part of a cyber café with old furniture, the kind of chairs that had to be sat on with care because they were falling apart. For practical reasons, not everyone could be in the office at the same time – there just wasn’t enough room.

When a colleague needed to have a meeting, some of us would have to vacate the space – we would sometimes go on “unnecessary” errands around town. Other times the cyber café needed its chairs back to deal with customer overflow. Still, not all these inconveniences, including the fact that the office had only two computers and a landline that had to be loaded with airtime from those Telkom cards, discouraged me. I knew from the get go that I was taking part in something big.

I was thrilled to be taking part in putting together the Kwani? 03 edition which was a work in progress. I spent days at the Kenya National Archives reading through old articles and advertising copy, looking through images of old editions Viva and Drum magazines from the 1960s to the 1980s, to find and compile images that would be included in the publication. On some days, work involved collecting a CD-ROM with edited drafts from one reviewer at one end of Nairobi and then taking it to another reviewer on another side of Nairobi. Entire days went like this. Other times I could not work because a writer’s handwritten story needed to use one of the computers to type it out.

Kwani Open Mic was a space where college students, med reps, advertising executives, retirees, musicians, actors, artists, filmmakers, lawyers and accountants, people from all kinds of professions participated in the readings and regular open mics. I was often amazed seeing people show up in dull office-wear after work, with hand written poems, sometimes not so good poems, that they wanted to read out to an audience of strangers. Some of them even carried a change of clothes just to look appropriate for their performances. Some got standing ovations.

I could see people working on their craft, rewriting and improving their stage presence, growing. One of my favourite memories is an open mic event where someone did an acoustic rendition of Kalamashaka’s Tafsiri Hii and just about the entire audience at Club Soundd joined in singing all the lyrics word for word. It was wondrous. When “Tafsiri Hii” came out in 1997, singing or rapping in Swahili and Sheng was something that was just so strange, something that was rejected in the mainstream. Here we were, years later singing this anthem.

It was maybe in August 2006, we had this staff meeting, including some writers whose work had been featured Kwani?, where Binyavanga shared the idea to host a literary festival in December. I felt lost when he and others present at the meeting listed names of famous and other unknown writers and editors to be invited. As with everything Binyavanga, it was very urgent, we had less than four months to prepare.

Here’s the thing. The latest Kwani? and other new titles were in the production pipeline to be printed in India for the first time, and launched at this festival. No one in the office had the expertise to handle the many event and travel logistics. A team was assembled; many of the volunteers who showed up were writers or artists themselves, all wanting to make a success of this literary festival. We had people coming from India, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Angola, Cameroon, Canada, the US. It was hectic – frantically working on programmes, seeking event sponsorships, pitching and sounding slightly off kilter using terms like literary landscapes and literary tourism. There were days spent pleading with the immigration department to waive visa fees or make it less complicated for the Africans not arriving from their home countries to attend the festival.

We hardly slept and somehow pulled something off. The writers came, Nairobi’s audiences showed up. There were gatherings in different places in Nairobi, it was a celebration and also included writing workshops. Binyavanga made the strong case to have Jack Nyadundo performing at Club Afrique where Malindi-based artist Richard Onyango shared his story published in Kwani? 01.

Jack Nyadundo’s distinct ohangla style was so different from what I imagined was the aesthetic we were creating. I did not see how this could work, and yet it did. For me it was a lesson in not being stuck in ideas of what is cool or what forms of expression are important. Bring everything. We sold many Richard Onyango prints that day. Doreen Baingana and Chimamanda Adichie headlined a poorly attended event at University of Nairobi. M.G. Vassanji got interviewed on KBC radio. There were writing workshops. The final leg of the festival was in Lamu, and when we got there, things thankfully slowed down, and the whirlwind ended with a public reading at the Lamu Fort. My colleague Mike Mburu and I often joked that it was as if we had gone through all of that drama to organise a friends’ get together. This was the general feeling.

These linkages had always existed but the Kenya I grew up in felt isolated from the rest of the continent and the world. Kenyan writers were dissidents who lived abroad. Art was something only weird people did. It certainly was not real work. Moi’s propaganda and my 8-4-4 education had been effective. Perhaps Binyavanga’s insistence that each individual had to be included showed us that Kwani Trust was not so much a pioneer, but another writing collective, maybe creating its own niche, maybe looking to be included in a much longer literary lineage. Femrite in Uganda, Chimurenga in South Africa and Farafina in Nigeria were also doing something similar. Transition started in Uganda and Black Orpheus in Nigeria, though now defunct, was a predecessor.

Before Kwani?, Pan Africanism in my mind had been something people had done to end colonialism on the continent. It was a weekly URTNA broadcast on KBC TV and serious meetings at the African Union Headquarters in Ethiopia. These gatherings, helped many artists who had been working in isolation find community both in Kenya and around the world, and people who could support and encourage them. I certainly found my people.

For me, a lot of it was the learning. The cover of Kwani? 03 has a quote from Shuka Mistari by the rapper Kitu Sewer,

Badala ya aerial, ekeni sufuria niwapee food ya ubongo”.

I won’t translate this phrase from Sheng to English – it will lose the whole vibe. Suffice it to say, it is about food for the mind. This was true about Binyavanga as it was true about any edition of Kwani? You were going to learn something. I learnt about what Nyayo House torture chambers – not as a rumour, but as very recent Kenyan history of people with ordinary names and faces. I learned about David Sadera Munyakei, about Ukoo Flani’s work at Maono, about Enoch Ondego, about Jogga’s murals, about Joseph Muthee, about Bessie Smith, about Brenda Fassie, about St Kizito High school.

Here, the people and the stories, all that is beautiful, strange, sad, ugly, brave, and exciting about us, things we should not forget, were kept alive.

With Binyavanga, everything was urgent. Even when he was teaching in the US, his Kwani-related email correspondence often had the word URGENT in the first paragraph. I would know that Binya was back in Kenya not because he had been in touch but because of the surging phone calls, or people who came to the office looking for him. It was futile explaining that I didn’t know where he was or that Kwani Trust the organisation and Binya were separate entities. I probably came off sounding territorial or like a gatekeeper. Anyway, I probably suffered from this same affliction – the organisation and the individual had happened at the same time for me.

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Leaving Kwani in late 2008, it felt like I had done three years of nonstop running. There had been many successes and loads of disappointment. I did not think I would ever write – having witnessed different cycles of the ever unpredictable and sometimes-brutal publishing process, I never wanted to risk sharing my messy first drafts. Or maybe this work had become my biggest excuse for not writing. In 2010 after lots of nudging, I emailed a draft of something I had written to Binyavanga. On the day he called with feedback, I was having one of those “Where are you nowadays?” conversations with an acquaintance at the car park in church. On the phone, Binyavanga was laughing that big laugh and sounded happy about what I had sent him. He said I needed to work on the edits. It was, of course, urgent. I hang up the phone and told the person I was talking to, feeling quite smug, that my editor had called and I needed to leave immediately. The piece was later published in Kwani? 06.

When I told him I wanted to go to graduate school, Binyavanga went the extra mile. He, alongside other writers I had met or worked with at Kwani helped me work on my applications. The support was overwhelming. Over the years I had seen Binyavanga link other writers with similar opportunities. If I had ever doubted it, in this instant I knew I was valued and cared for. This was the fresh start I needed.

I’m not sure why I never reached out to catch up with Binyavanga when I got back to Kenya in 2014. Parts of me wanted to make something of myself apart from my identity as of Kwani. Parts of me just never got over the ways I had felt swallowed at Kwani and the multiple ways we in this now much bigger vibrant writing community that nurtured my dreams have wounded and continue to harm each other. I want something else, not this.

When I think about Binyavanga’s YouTube series, “We must free our imagination”, I recognise how many of the responses to his public life, his homosexuality, and his death, are the same demonology he talks about in this series.

Binyavanga Wainaina set us on a path to do some very necessary and vital work. We have to free our imaginations.

Thank you Binya.

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Lutivini Majanja is a fiction writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry

Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.

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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
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Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.

Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!

Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.

Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.

There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.

Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.

And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?

I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.

And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.

Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.

You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?

And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.

We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.

But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.

Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.

Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!

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Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)

They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)

Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.

Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day.  Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?

The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.

It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.

What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.

A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.

I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.

The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `

The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.

But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.

What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.

I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.

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Someone's Grandmother Just Died!
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Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.

As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.  

At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.

My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old.  I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”

Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.

As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation:  You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.

The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen.  All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and  Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.

While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door.  The first exchange took place in a cafe.

I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.”  I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?”  I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)

Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop  on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.

The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”

Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days.  The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.

I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand.  And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.

Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief.  My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen.  I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this:  it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.  Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us? 

When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?

Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”

Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.

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