Even before the murder of George Floyd,America and the United Kingdom (where I live) were well versed in state sanctioned killings. Watching the daily news on American or British mainstream media, I can almost hear the sorry in the voice of some reporters, decrying that somehow ‘racism is going to tear this country to pieces’. I have heard these words from white people, on anti-racist demonstrations, especially when these have resulted in civil disturbances. What I have never heard is what those of us who organised in our communities against racism have been saying for decades: that ‘Racism is not going to tear this country to pieces, it cements it together.’ This is equally true for the US as for even most of Western Europe of today?
Whilst the killing of George Floyd in the US, as well as the continuous police killings of black people in the US and UK – where since 1969 around 3000 the people have died in police custody , and where police killers avoid prosecution even when a British court of law deems the deaths in custody to have been unlawful – has highlighted not only the central role of racism in these countries, it has also set the scene of a new and protracted struggle against modern day racist lynchings, and a system that holds millions of people in a marginalised existence, right in the heart of the richest countries in the world. What happens in the imperial metropolis has never been forgotten by those who have been resisting its oppressive tentacles.
In 1971, Mozambican poet, Marcelino Dos Santos, wrote a poem where he addressed a child in his native land, and drew parallels with what was happening in the US. Marcelino dos Santos narrated the story of the lynching of the 14 year old Emmit in the US in 1955, for the crime of offending a white woman. He wrote:
Child of my native land
just like you…
he took the moon in his arms…
he lies near the earth
that his forefathers quickened to life…his blood came to cement
The blood — tinted lake of the race.
In my own struggle against racism, the ‘tinted lake of race’ acted as a key that opened the door for understanding much of the world around me. I quickly learned that whilst some of my problems may have been due to the colour of my skin, racism was not just skin deep midst a world of privileged whiteness.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement has once again shown white privilege for what it is: a system of power built on the legacy of colonialism and slavery, which needs the ideology of racism as a living organism needs oxygen for its very survival, and especially for its reproduction. BLM has thrown up many old questions, ranging from what is racism; how race and class are intricately linked; to questions of defunding police forces. It has also raised the fundamental question of what is black-ness? Is it only a term relevant to people of African descent? The last two questions like the previous ones, have not just come into existence today – they have been part and parcel of the struggle against racism, over the past few decades. I have been a witness to these, and would like to share with you my own journey to the colour black.
Black in a White world
I was born in Pakistan in the late 1950s. Then I didn’t know I was a Pakistani. I certainly didn’t know I was a, ‘Paki’ or a ‘wog’ or a ‘black bastard’. I became all these things only when I came to England. This was also true of my newly made African friends, one of whom told me that he didn’t know he was black until he came to Britain. When I came here, I believed white people where omniscient. I was forced to go to schools, under a racist policy, where it was thought, too many children of colour, would lower the standard of education for white pupils. But then, I thought it was normal for children to go a long way from home to attend primary school.
It was when I realised that racism was not ‘normal’ that the normalcy of the life I found myself in England became abnormal; and I had no choice but to fight against it. And the fight against it not only gave me a sense of my own humanity, it acted as a key that unlocked a door not only to the horrors of history, but also to the heroes of history, who had stood up, and at times paid for this fight with their lives. My journey on this road was born out of the violence of the school playground.
At first when I used to get bullied by white boys, I thought it was OK. After all I had come to their country.
I was petrified of even the puny white boys, smaller than me. I had come to England aged around nine and had grown up on exaggerated stories of the power of the white man. Once, a white boy, who regularly taunted me and often hit me to the pleasure of his friends, attacked me as I was leaving school. I raised my hand to protect myself, not intending to hit him, but accidentally struck him on his nose. It sounds ridiculous now, but when I first saw the white boy bleed I had thought that this could not be a real white boy for surely his blood could not be red, like mine, or he feel pain like me.
By the time I got to secondary school, I had begun to understand that my pain was not mine alone; but other kids from South Asia were feeling it too. This forced us to organise ourselves at school, simply to survive the day, and when we left school, in the 1970s, I became one of the founding members of the Asian Youth Movement (AYM) and later the United Black Youth League (UBYL), whose membership was Afro-Asian. I was a member of UBYL when I was arrested and charged with terrorism offences, as part of a case which was popularly known as ‘the Bradford 12’. We had armed ourselves to defend our community against the possibility of an organised racist attack. Following a national and international campaign we were all acquitted.
Region and black identity
The AYM was geo-poltical in its make-up, and not one of any particular ethnicity or religion. Whilst individual members of the organisation were Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists or of no faith; our unity and purpose was based on the commonality of the problematic issues we faced. Furthermore, the AYM was very clear about being part and parcel of a broader black political movement.
We saw black and white as political colours, and we saw black as a political identity around which we could unite on the commonalities of our experiences not only of Racism, but also Empire and Imperialism. We were heavily influenced by the speeches of Malcolm X and by the writings of Sivanandan, through which we realised that Britain had not done us any favours by letting us come here. We were encouraged to migrate to the UK to do the dangerous and dirty jobs which the white workers were no longer willing to do and to live in the ghettos from which they had moved out. The British government managed to get adult workers, reared and nurtured by its former colonies, to operate its factories, especially those in its textile industry which was in its death throes.
We believed that black people, i.e. people of African and Asian descent, had a right to be in Britain by virtue of the colonial debt alone. Furthermore, that our movement was integrally linked not only to the Afro-Caribbean communities but to the struggles of the British working class. Whilst we had certain differences with people of the older generation; we saw them not as our enemies or ‘sell outs’ but as pillars of our communities: people whose sacrifices created us, as we would create the generations that follow us.