It is unlike me to write a post like this, about something as politically and emotionally charged as “#BlackLivesMatter”. I rarely make direct political or heartfelt current affairs commentary. I don’t consider myself to be particularly well informed in a lot of cases and often feel that given this, it’s not my place to make comment.
But a couple of days ago, I put out a graphic novel page that depicted the result of lethal racist brutality from authority figures towards a black man. The timing was not deliberate but suddenly I felt it was too on the nose for me to just put that out there without acknowledging and commenting on the current situation.
I’ve also been talking to certain people over the last few months and making an effort to be more connected to global issues. I’ve been guilty of being a bit insular and apathetic until recently and I don’t want to be any more.
I’m writing this on the fly and I’m probably not going to edit it once I’m done so I apologise if it’s a bit rambling and ineloquent.
Am I Black? Does it Matter?
I am mixed race. This is me:
My mother and her side of the family are all white as far as I know, and mostly centred around Warwickshire. My father is black. His parents are from the Caribbean, and his blood relatives are all black or mixed-race as far as I know, with members all over the world.
My half-sister, my dad’s daughter, is also mixed-race. Her mother is white too and she posted her own reaction to events here, on her Facebook, and her comment about people who say they “don’t see colour” is exactly what I’ve been saying for years:
“…that is a fallacy. We all “see” colour. It is how people react to that colour that is the problem.”
I don’t feel particularly “black”. I went to a secondary school where all of the teachers and a majority of the students were white. Most of the friends I made there are white. I became a part of the rock and alternative community as I got older and that community is heavily white too. Most people I know that I’m not related to are white. Until recently, because of this, I’d always said I felt more white than black. I’ve been lucky to not experience (or at least not notice) much racism directed towards me. It is a source of amusement to some of my close friends that I am “so white for a black man”. I don’t mind that. Maybe I should. I’m easy-going and I know it’s not meant with malice. I know there are those that would argue that this is a micro-abuse and my tolerating of it is a symptom of my oppression. Maybe they are right, but for now, I’m ok with it from those that I’m ok with it from. People I know have sometimes accidentally referred to me as white before remembering I’m not and correcting themselves.
Prompted by recent conversations I’ve been having with a friend recently, I’ve been thinking about my self-perception over the last few weeks and I don’t think I do necessarily feel more white than black because I don’t feel particularly white either. I have coloured skin. No stranger would ever refer to me as “white”, despite me technically being as white as I am black. I am aware I’m coloured. I am sometimes very aware of being one of the only, if not the only black person in a place I am choosing to frequent. I am often spoken to by people of all colours who don’t know me very well with a clear understanding that I am black, and sometimes an amusing assumption that I am far more “black” than I am.
I started this graphic novel about Robert Smalls; a black or mixed-race (his paternity is unknown) slave who freed himself from a regime that sought to keep him enslaved not out of an overt feeling of wanting to promote black issues, or to make a point of some sort about black people and their treatment. I never meant for it to be politically charged, while I also acknowledged that some degree of that is unavoidable.
The Unsung Superheroes project came about from me stumbling upon Smalls’ story and wanting to further knowledge about it. Had I discovered someone else’s story at the same time, I could just as easily be creating a story about a white Russian woman or a Chinese boy at the moment. I don’t have what could be called a chip on my shoulder about my blackness or anyone else’s. That isn’t what this project is. I am not writing it as, what common parlance might refer to, “a militant black man”.
I feel affected by what is happening in America, partly because my blackness responds to it. I feel an empathy with those people protesting and rioting because I am part-black. But that is not the only reason. Like I have said, I don’t feel that my blackness is a constant or even often conscious motivator for me. I feel affected by it because more than I am black, I am human too and I feel empathy with those humans.
The Brutish Black
What happened to George Floyd is appalling. It is intolerable. It should not be let to stand. Thankfully it is not being.
The system in America seems to me to be incredibly messed up. While researching and writing the Robert Smalls graphic novel, I learnt a lot about how perceptions of black people in America have been shaped over the last couple of hundred years. After the American Civil War and after those states that wanted to retain slavery were forced to abolish it, President Lincoln was assassinated, President Johnson took the presidency and a period of “Reconstruction” began, during which many states enacted “Black Codes” that were laws applied to the newly freed black population.
Here are some of South Carolina’s which are fairly typical:
X. A person of color who is in the employment of a master engaged in husbandry shall not have the right to sell any corn, rice, peas, wheat, or other grain, any flour, cotton, fodder, hay, bacon, fresh meat of any kind, poultry of any kind, animal of any kind, or any other product of a farm, without having written evidence from such master that he has the right to sell such product. . . .
XIII. Persons of color constitute no part of the militia of the State, and no one of them, without permission in writing from the district judge, or a magistrate, shall be allowed to keep a fire-arm, sword, or other military weapon. . . .
XIV. It shall not be lawful for a person of color to be owner, in whole or in part, of any distiller where spirituous liquors, or in retailing the same, in a shop or elsewhere. . . .
XXII. No person of color shall migrate into and reside in this State unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond, with two freeholders as sureties, to be approved by the judge of the district court or a magistrate, in a penalty of one thousand dollars, conditioned for his good behavior and for his support, if he should become unable to support himself. . . .
XXXV. All persons of color who make contracts for service or labor shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract shall be known as masters. . . .
XLV. On farms, or in out-door service, the hours of labor, except on Sunday, shall be from sunrise to sunset, with a reasonable interval for breakfast and dinner. Servants shall rise at the dawn in the morning, feed, water, and care for the animals on the farm, do the usual and needful work about the premises, prepare their meals for the day, if required by their master, and begin the farm work or other work by sunrise. The servant shall be careful of all the animals and property of the master, and especially of the animals and implements used by him; shall protect the same from injury by other persons, and shall be answerable for all property lost, destroyed, or injured by his negligence, dishonesty, or bad faith. . . .
XLVI. Servants shall be quiet and orderly in their quarters, at their work, and on the premises; shall extinguish their lights and fires, and retire to rest at reasonable hours. . . .
LXXII. No person of color shall pursue or practice the art, trade, or business of an artisan, mechanic, or shop-keeper, or any other trade, employment, or business (besides that of husbandry or that of a servant under a contract for service or labor) on his own account for his own benefit, or in partnership with a white person, or an agent or servant of any person, until he shall have obtained a license therefore from the judge of the district court, which license shall be good for one year only. . . .
Curfews were set on blacks. Black farm workers had to carry passes from their “masters”. Meetings of blacks, even in church, had to be overseen by a white. If a black wanted to live in town, they had to have a white sponsor. Blacks without jobs could be arrested for vagrancy – a situation they often all to easily found themselves in as they had been freed from a system that was inhumane, but freed to a system that didn’t know what to do with them at best, and didn’t want them at worst, making it hard for them to find work to pay for housing. In some states, blacks could be penalised for being “wanton in conduct or speech, neglect[ing] job or family, handl[ing] money carelessly”.
Breaking a code resulted in a fine. Most blacks were paid low wages or were denied work at all as the Black Codes made it very difficult for blacks to hold certain skilled jobs and planters refused to sell or rent land to blacks hoping to force them to work for low wages. If a black broke a code, he was often unable to pay this fine due to the low wages he was paid, so would be ordered by the courts to work in legally sanctioned slavery under terms outlined by the Black Codes, and for a duration decided by the court.
These codes led to the easy and unfair criminalisation of black people in America and some of this lingers.
After the Civil War, there was a period of Reconstruction as America suddenly had to adjust to the reality of thousands of newly freed black people. There was tension between those trying to enact laws to start to enshrine the rights of black citizens as well as white ones, and those that sought to limit them. Progress in favour of black rights was being made. But by 1877, with the seating of a Democratic government, Reconstruction collapsed and Black Codes began being reenacted again. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and again black people were unfairly criminalised. In 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama and was arrested and tried for it. Jim Crow laws were enforced until 1965. That is in living memory. That is just 17 years before I was born!
It doesn’t take more than a cursory look to see that still, in America, black people are disproportionately criminalised. Arrest and conviction rates tend to be far higher among blacks than whites for crimes with similar actual incidence rates between blacks and whites. Black people are far more often treated with a great deal more suspicion than white people by the populace and authorities, are treated with heavier hands, and the idea of black people as brutes, intellectually inferior, more prone to violence, and more prone to criminality still lingers. More than 150 years after Black Codes were enacted, the ideas and attitudes they enshrined seem hard to shake off in some areas of American society.
Enough is Enough.
The case of George Floyd is that lastest in a long line of incidents where this entrenched issue seems to have caused an horrific failing of justice. That an unarmed black man ended up murdered over the mere suspicion of a non-violent crime he may not have even been aware of – the handing over of a counterfeit note is appalling.
Throw into the pot a national leader that seems disconcertingly unsympathetic at best, and keen to add to the violence at worst, allowing rubber bullets to be used to disperse peaceful protests so he can easily attend a problematic photo op, and I understand why black people in America are angry and scared and lashing out.
They’ve had enough and the very systems they should be able to appeal to for help are the problem. When peaceful protests are swept aside by violence from the authorities, it is not surprising that violent protests follow. It’s unfortunate that it has come to this… but it has been noticed and it is impossible to ignore and it can jumpstart change. (Think of the Stonewall riots for gay rights or the Black Friday riot during campaigns for female suffrage). There are those that say that the officers involved in the arrest and death of George Floyd would not have been facing the charges they now are had riots not occurred.
A friend of mine makes an emphatic point explaining this on this post.
The looters are low, though. That’s base opportunism and seriously harms any kind of message that the genuinely disenfranchised are trying to make.
#All Lives Matter
Yes – of course all lives matter, and the point of #BlackLivesMatter is not to say they don’t, but it seems fairly clear that to some degree, it has been institutionalised in so many areas of American life that black lives don’t matter so much. This is why the slogan is “Black Lives Matter”. If it’s problematic for you, see it as “Black Lives Matter too!”.
It’s not a call for black supremacy!
If I see a house on fire at the end of my street, it would be ridiculous of me to call the fire brigade to my house because “All Houses Matter”.
If my house were on fire, I’d hope someone would call the fire brigade to it because “My House Matters”. And if the house across the road is on fire “Their House Matters” so I would call the fire brigade there. But right now, the house on the end is on fire. “That House Matters”. American citizens are hurting over the treatment and ending of black lives. Right now, Black Lives Matter.
There is a peaceful protest happening in my city’s centre tomorrow. I would like to attend, but in a time where there’s a rampant virus outbreak and only a tentative relaxation of lockdown rules, and when I am residing with my vulnerable parents for the time being due to said virus, I think it would actually be dangerous to myself and others for me to attend a large meeting of people. Based on footage I’ve seen of similar protests in London, I suspect social distancing may not be maintained with all the best will in the world. I’m not getting into the finer points of that here or now., but I am frustrated that with an issue I actually feel moved to protest about, I feel thwarted because of wider safety concerns.
However, I’ve seen some people criticising those that want to protest for the reason that it’s an American issue and so people here in Britain shouldn’t be getting involved, and also that it’s a black issue and they don’t need non-black people riding in as white saviours.
To that I say; what a crock! The systematic abuse and discrimination of people, no matter where it occurs, is a global issue. We are all humans. Why shouldn’t we all stand for each other? From the abject mishandling of the Stephen Lawrence murder case in England in the 1990s, to George Floyd in America last week, this sort of institutional discrimination is a global issue.
As for it not being a non-black issue: of course the black people don’t like being discriminated against, so when non-black people also stand up and say it’s unacceptable, it sends a much louder message than just the black folks doing it.
I was a lot angrier about these last few points when I started this post, and I still am angry, but now I don’t want this to be an angry post. Please just understand, and show some basic human compassion. I wouldn’t deign to say which issues you should or shouldn’t feel moved to act on; you do you – if this isn’t an issue that compels you, stay out of it by all means… but please don’t discourage others from trying to support their fellow humans.
I’m not going to be going out protesting tomorrow for reasons I’ve mentioned, but I do want to feel like I’m doing something. I’m going to look into what I could do tonight. Here are some suggestions:
You can find out who your MP is and write to them at this address: https://www.writetothem.com
Here’s a suggested template for a letter to a British MP. Feel free to use it as a basis, but consider rewording it as writetothem.com screens for copied and pasted text:
Dear (MP),I hope this email finds you well.
My name is (NAME) and I’m emailing you as a (X) constituent from (ADDRESS).
Undeniably there’s a lot going on right now but I have specific concerns regarding the treatment of black people and other POC in regards to COVID-19 and the recent protests. The main things that I feel need to be addressed are as follows.
Immediate suspension of UK sales of teargas, riot shields and rubber bullets to the US. It doesn’t need to be said that profiting off the suffering of minorities is morally contemptuous, these sales need to be stopped. Amnesty International has already made a similar request, and I add my voice to theirs.
Trump’s use of brutal force against his own citizens. It’s abhorrent, fascistic, and undemocratic to use violence to control your own citizens, not challenging this behaviour sets a dangerous precedent and it is wrong to not speak out against it.
Responding to the delayed report into BAME deaths due to COVID-19 and doing more to tackle the death rate. It’s unacceptable that the disparities report was hidden in the first place but following its release, it’s important to challenge the causes of these needless deaths of BAME people. Collecting statistics about inequality is not the same as actively fighting to end inequality, and the government must step up to protect the communities being hit hardest by this pandemic both now and in the future.
As a voter, I’m willing to vote on these issues in the future, so please know that you will have my support. I’m sure this isn’t the only email like this you would have received today and I hope that your team will do their best to fight the instances of injustice we are all currently facing.
I will be.
Whatever you do or don’t do, stay safe.
Unsung Superheroes is an ongoing project, creating graphic novels based on the stories of real-life historical figures whose stories may not be as well-known as they could be.
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