I have just handed in my dissertation to complete my BA in English Literature. Choosing the topic wasn’t easy and I knew it would have to come to me in a moment of obvious inspiration, rather than hours spent toiling over texts, theories or literary movements I’d like to study. I thought briefly about what I had enjoyed writing about the most over my three years; I have always felt inclined to learn about feminist issues, even from a young age long before starting university. But the text I had most enjoyed writing about from a feminist perspective was Bernardine Evaristo’s Lara – here, I faltered. Could I write a whole dissertation about feminism that directly and specifically related to women of colour? Of course, I knew I wanted to learn about intersectional feminism as, coming from a mainly white, Conservative, small town in Surrey, ‘white feminism’ was the only side of feminism that I was exposed to and learned about before coming to university. This in itself I mainly learned about from my mum, the internet and several history lessons on the Suffragettes (which I now know were mostly against suffrage for women of colour). I hadn’t been wholly ignorant, but due to the demographic of my town and my schools, different issues relating specifically to POC had largely been outside of my peripheral. Because I cannot empathise with intersectional perspectives, I didn’t want to miss any crucial points or perspectives from texts that I might study and I also didn’t want to appear as though I was trying to become a spokesperson for POC as opposed to an ally. I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, nor did I want to misunderstand key messages and experiences represented within the literature. Despite this, I decided to go ahead with intersectional feminism – particularly the experiences of black, working-class, British women – as the focus for my dissertation. In hindsight, I could not have chosen a more invaluable and enriching topic to study.
The three core novels that I chose – Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other – were thoroughly enjoyable to analyse. I never struggled for material to explore and was continually surprised, but excited, at the many layers that the authors managed to envelop into their narratives. However, it was the contextual and theoretical texts that quenched a thirst I never knew I had for British history. Every day what I read shocked me; from the irremovable roots of slavery overseas that paved way for the Industrial Revolution, through hundreds of years of hardship in the Americas, to the appalling first-hand accounts of Commonwealth Citizens that emigrated to Britain from the 1950s throughout the 20th Century. Every few pages I had to stop and share with whoever was near me – my boyfriend, writing his essays; my friends via text; my mum on the phone – pieces of British history that shocked me. I was astounded that there was so much depth to colonial history, and subsequently postcolonial Britain, that was firstly, so intricately and painfully knotted into everyday life in England as I know it and secondly, that I would never have learned about had I not sought out the information myself. I had no idea that it was information I was even looking for, or lacking. I find it genuinely despicable that I can still name all six of Henry VIII’s wives, but I didn’t know that the oldest, and one of the most successful, insurance marketplaces in the world was founded in London and began by insuring marine cargo – i.e., slaves on ships. So much of the wealth that Britain used to fuel the Empire that built the cities, businesses and infrastructures that we know today was extracted directly from the transatlantic slave trade. Once I understood that the abolition of slavery was an economic decision as opposed to a moral paradigm shift, I could begin to understand the absolute impossibility that any racist or colonial attitudes that Britain maintained for centuries could be forgotten or overwritten within the last 150 years. I find it absurd that Britain as an entire nation have decided to brush centuries of our history, no matter how barbaric, under the rug. As a nation that is known to be comically preoccupied with manners, it is clear that those of us that were the perpetrating party felt embarrassed; or, perhaps, the first few generations following the abolition of the entire slave trade felt no need to begin to make amends, and those succeeding them felt too distant to be complicit. But this is not acceptable.
By beginning to learn about the true heritage of the United Kingdom, the emotion already stirred in me by the stories I felt drawn to grew deeper. I feel apologetic towards every migrant and every person of colour, whose history is such an integral part to British history that I have been (and still am) ignorant towards. Worse still, I wish I could apologise on behalf of our country for every citizen of the Commonwealth who has been mistreated – this, of course, is an impossible act and futile unless there will be change in the future.
Moreover, there have been problematic events in the past few weeks that have made me recognise the continuation of a postcolonial society. For example, the susceptibility of BAME people in catching the coronavirus, due to infrastructure of the British class system that forces immigrants into low-paying jobs, largely in healthcare or public transport sectors, who either serve our society or have to continue working in such dire times because they would otherwise not afford to live. Or George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minnesota that sparked six consecutive nights of protesting so far, which has been met with tear gas and rubber bullets; whereas the (largely white) protest a fortnight ago against the coronavirus lockdown in which groups of Americans marched into state buildings carrying arms was met with nothing but peace and tolerance from the police force. As an individual, I cannot do much more than spread awareness of these circumstances. I cannot fly to America to protest Floyd’s death, and I cannot provide better employment opportunities for people of colour. But as a student, I can work to decolonise the institution that I am a part of.
- The particularly enlightening contextual and theoretical texts I refer to that I used for my dissertation were Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe’s The Heart of the Race (1985), Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) (2018), Hazel V. Carby’s ‘White women listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood’ and ‘Schooling in Babylon’, along with Black British Feminism edited by Heidi Safia Mirza (1997).