The Commonwealth, Colonialism and the Legacy of Homophobia

How are these three disparate entities connected? The answer is – very closely.

When is an appropriate time to review this subject? Any time is, but especially now as the UK hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) between 16 – 20 April 2018 in London and surrounding locations.

 

2.35490582 anti lgbti laws

The Commonwealth consists of 53 member states  and 80 organisations that exist in locations around the globe and work together to promote democracy and peace. Over 40% of the world’s young people (640 million out of 1.8 billion) are members of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth countries include 19 in the African continent, 7 in Asia, 3 in Europe, and 11 in the Pacific: these are all locations where the footprint of colonialism has been stamped, and where the legacy of the imperialist laws relating to same-sex relations, are still being experienced. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge, comments that colonialism is not historical, it is contemporary: the effects are present everyday. 

Of the 72 countries in the world where same-sex intimacy is categorised as a criminal offence, 36 of them are member states of the Commonwealth, and 9 of these have life imprisonment as a penalty, whilst in two there is risk of execution. The colonial legal legacy from the British Empire in 1860 criminalised ‘unnatural carnal desires’ under section 377 of many country’s penal systems. This conservative Victorian edict has remained entrenched in the legal structures of 36 Commonwealth member states.

In March 2018 there were 37 member states against equality for same-sex Commonwealth citizens. However, a recent challenge to these homophobic colonial laws, which deny a legal right to privacy, was made in 2017 in the High Courts of Trinidad and Tobago by the UK based LGBT activist Jason Jones. The pronouncement, on 12 April 2018, has become a landmark ruling as homosexuality has been decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago. Justice Devindra Rampersad, delivering his ruling from the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago agreed that Section 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalise anal sex, were unconstitutional and violate Jones’ right to privacy, liberty and freedom of expression – the colonial sodomy laws are an inbuilt Imperial homophobic threat carved into the common law of many countries.

The colonial ‘saving clause’ dictated that laws could not be changed after independence, yet the Government of Trinidad and Tobago have twice amended the Sexual Offences Act since the country’s independence from Britain in 1962: in 1986 the Trinidad and Tobago parliament increased the maximum sentence for sodomy to 10 years imprisonment, and in 2000 the penalty for ‘the offence of buggery’ was again increased to 25 years. The government changes to the law enabled Jason Jones to bring his case to the courts as the Government’s 1986 and 2000 Sexual Offences Act changes nullified the ‘saving clause’.

Following the April 2018 ruling, the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris al-Rawi, said “Our society has changed significantly in its view on tolerating homosexuality, and radically so within the last generation,” yet Stuart Young from the Ministry of the Attorney General, confirmed that the State will appeal Justice Rampersad’s decision.

The week of the CHOGM has seen protests outside of Commonwealth House in London, where activist groups such as African Equality Foundation, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation, along with members of the public have been lobbying the Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss LGBT issues at the meeting. This proposal has not been accepted in over 6 decades of meetings, with any discussions on LGBT matters being sidelined to NGOs.

There are some Commonwealth leaders who are supporters of equality, however these people, for example Desmond Tutu, Christopher Senyonjo, Festus Mogae, and Joaquin Chissano have historically not been given a voice in the global Commonwealth forum. A petition, by Edwin Sesange, of the African Equality Foundation, calling for an end to LGBT+ persecution in the Commonwealth, was delivered to the Commonwealth headquarters  with over 104,000 signatures the week before the summit began.  This petition appealed for all Commonwealth countries to:

  • Decriminalise same-sex relations
  • Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation & gender identity
  • Enforce laws against & violence, to protect LGBTI people from hate crime
  • Consult and dialogue with LGBTI organisation

At the start of the CHOGM Peter Tatchell, who has been campaigning against anti-gay laws for over 30 years, wrote a letter to Theresa May, as the British Head of State hosting the Commonwealth summit, asking her to apologise for imposing anti-gay laws – the full apology did not happen, although in a NGO Commonwealth Forum, that ran concurrently with the Heads of States meetings, the UK Prime Minister did express ‘deep regrets’ for Britain’s historical legacy of homophobic laws across the Commonwealth.

The criminalisation of LGBT+ people is a clear breach of the human rights of the Commonwealth citizens and goes against the Section II on Human Rights as written in the Commonwealth Charter that starts with the words:

“We the people of the Commonwealth …”

We are committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights covenants and international instruments. We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies. We note that these rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively. We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds. (Section II on Human Rights)

The last sentence of this Human Rights section confirms that the member states of the Commonwealth are opposed “to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.” Unfortunately, by their continual refusal to openly discuss the matter of colonialism and the legacy of homophobia on the formal agenda, the Commonwealth Heads of Government are denying their commitment to equality and protection of civil, social, social and economic rights of the citizens of their individual nations.

The CHOGM sessions have concluded without LGBT+ rights being included on the agenda.

However, following the victory in the Trinidad and Tobago courts on 12 April 2018, Jason Jones said, “This victory is much more than just the legal challenge and constitutional reforms. It is a rallying cry for the LGBT community and our allies to stand up and be counted! This represents the first moment in the history of the English speaking Caribbean that we have become truly visible and in a populist and meaningful manner. Yes, there was pushback but we are pushing forward in ways never seen before. This is the Rosa Parks moment for LGBT people of the Caribbean and we shall NEVER sit in the back of the bus again.”

In Britain, UK Black Pride – led by Phyll Opoku-Gyimah – and the African Equality Foundation, continue to work alongside other LGBTI activists to campaign for full equality for all within the UK and the Commonwealth.

Opoku-Gyimah was widely reported for turning down a MBE in 2016, some of her reasons were relating to the toxic legacy of colonialism on LGBT+ people, she stated: “I don’t believe in, and actively resist, colonialism and its toxic and enduring legacy in the Commonwealth, where – among many other injustices – LGBTQI [lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) people are still being persecuted, tortured and even killed because of sodomy laws, including in Ghana, where I am from, that were put in place by British imperialists.

As the CHOGM 2018 closed in London on the 20 April 2018, the resistance that Opoku-Gyimah expressed in 2016 must be continued by all equality activists until there are full human rights for all Commonwealth citizens regardless of nationality or sexuality.

Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

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While the Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in London, former Commonwealth citizens are still being mistreated in the UK: Urgent Questions are asked in the House

As the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) starts in the UK today (16 April 2018) it is an ideal time to ask what will happen to the children of the Commonwealth who came here as British citizens over 70 years ago?

The infomercial promoting the CHOGM states “This is our Commonwealth” and “What’s agreed on this week matters to us all,” so it seems ironic that for weeks the British Government has refused to discuss a situation that affects such a large number of former Commonwealth citizens within its own borders. Amelia Gentleman, from the Guardian, tweeted that she contacted Downing Street on Friday (13 Apr 2018) about these cases that she has been reporting, yet the Prime Minister’s office have said that Theresa May “had only become aware of the request on Monday morning and confirmed that she would be holding a meeting ‘at the earliest possible opportunity’ with Caribbean leaders.”

At around 13:00 today, the Prime Minister, Theresa May tweeted, “The Commonwealth has never just been about heads of state and government. It has always been an organisation in which people and businesses from around the world can come together and work together to improve all our lives,” yet she initially refused to discuss the case of the ‘Windrush Generation’ at the CHOGM.

When asked last week to discuss what appears to be a travesty of justice, the Prime Minister rejected the formal diplomatic request leaving the Caribbean heads of government to conclude that the British government was not taking this matter seriously. 

Theresa May has also stated that the CHOGM is the “largest summit our country has ever hosted.” Apparently in the Commonwealth every country has a voice, yet the Caribbean people who migrated to Britain over half a century ago have so far remained voiceless and unrepresented by the British Government.

Following the publication of a letter signed by over 140 MPs from across the political parties, Theresa May has now agreed to meet with representatives from 12 Caribbean countries who are at the CHOGM in the UK. The immigration minister Caroline Noakes has also admitted that some Caribbean British citizens have been deported in error, although she would not qualify the amount of people that have been affected by the “terrible mistakes” in this way.

The Commonwealth had 2.4 billion citizens across 53 countries – many of them have requesteda discussion on this matter, yet the Tory led British Government will not agree to open the discussion on this abominable situation that is clearly a breach of the Commonwealth Charter.

Charter_of_the_Commonwealth_8548868771_l

The current Commonwealth Charter was signed by HM Queen Elizabeth II on Commonwealth Day 2013. Its firsts words are “We the people of the Commonwealth …” Section II on Human Rights is shown here in full:

We are committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights covenants and international instruments. We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies. We note that these rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated and cannot be implemented selectively. We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.

The last sentence of this Human Rights section confirms that the member states of the Commonwealth are opposed “to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.” Alas, by their continual refusal to discuss this matter openly, the British Government is following several other Commonwealth nations who disregard the commitment to equality and protection of civil, social, social and economic rights of the citizens of their individual nations.

Labour MP, David Lammy has secured an Urgent Question in the House of Commons at 15:30 on the immigration status of the Windrush Generation. This is following a letter signed by 140 cross party MPs urging Theresa May to take action, and correct this “historic wrong”. Lammy stated that having to raise this question in the house was indicative of a “national day of shame”.

In response to Lammy’s question the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP, read from a prepared statement. Her opening remarks asserted that, “there is absolutely no question about their right to remain,” and she confirmed that she will establish a new team of 20 people who will help these residents evidence their right to be in the UK, and to access the necessary services.

The Home Secretary suggested that with this dedicated team cases will take a maximum of two weeks to resolve, and she also assured members of the House that they would be no charges levied on applicants, as “no one should be left out of pocket”.

David Lammy noted that the relationship between the UK and the Caribbean is inextricable since the arrival of the first British ships in the area in 1623. Lammy reminded the house that the Nationality Act of 1948 ensured that Caribbean people migrating to the UK did so as British citizens. He continued that it is “inhumane and cruel for so many of that Windrush Generation to have suffered so long in this condition, and for the Secretary of State only to have made a statement today.”


Lammy also enquired if the Home Secretary could “tell the House how many have been detained as prisoners in their own country … how many have been denied help under the National Health Service, how many have been denied pensions and how many have lost their jobs?”

These questions were not directly answered.

With obvious emotional Lammy stated that having to raise this question in the house was indicative of a “national day of shame”  that “has come about because of a hostile environment policy that was begun under her prime minister.”

The only concession from Rudd was her concern that the Home Office “has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes lose sight of the individual.” Rudd asserted that she has acted now because she has seen the individual stories now and, “some of them have been terrible.” Following this statement she reasserted her commitment to ensuring that cross-departmental information is shared to verify the identity of these individuals and to protect the ‘Windrush cohorts’. Rudd repeated that she was not aware of any specific cases or deportation in these circumstance of lack of up-to-date documentation.

I believe this ‘Windrush Generation’ crisis is deliberate. It’s not an anomaly – it’s structural discrimination. The lives of these Caribbean British elders and their families was deemed collateral damage when the latest immigration laws were enacted. This is the result of systemic and discriminatory government behaviour.

Cross party members of the house raised several questions about individual cases of their own constituents as well as general queries relating to the status of Commonwealth citizens from countries such as India, Uganda, and Poland. The Home Secretary used her stock phrase to respond to these queries – she suggested that the Members contact the Home Office with details of each case so that they could look at them individually, because she repeatedly declared that the “Home Office will be more focused on individuals rather than policy.”

There were several questions from members across the floor including Simon Hoare, MP for North Devon, who asked if there would be a refund of the fees that Caribbean elders had already expense.

Anna Soubry, MP for Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire, was interested to know if this statement from the Home Secretary meant that the default Home Office response of saying, ‘No’ would now alter.

Mark Harper, MP for Forest of Dean, asked what proactive steps the Government would be making to communicate information to those British residents that might be affected by this institutional discrimination. While Joanne Cherry, SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, observed that this the Home Secretary was wrong that this issue “is not just about individuals it’s about a systemic policy put out by her (Home Secretary) department and it’s symptomatic of the politically driven hostile environment policy, and it’s a sign that it has to stop,” because according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford, there are up to 50,000 Commonwealth born people in this situation.

To many of these questions the Home Secretary responded that she would seek advice or data and get back to the individual Member because the ‘Windrush Generation’ “are here legally and we will help them.”

Diane Abbot, MP for Hackney, asked why in 2014 the Government, under the direction of the then Home Secretary Theresa May removed the protection for Commonwealth citizens without parliamentary debate or scrutiny. Much like Theresa May choosing to engage in air strike in Syria without parliamentary debate or scrutiny this week.

Abbott also requested a cessation on deportations of this groups of people aligned with an apology, and possible compensation, to those wrongfully deported in this immigration policy scandal.

Amber Rudd tried to reassure members of the House with her concluding remarks that indicated that the Government is regarding this situation seriously when she announced that the Prime Minister would be meeting with the Heads of Government on Tuesday 17 April 2018 while she, as Home Secretary, would be meeting with High Commissioners this week to discuss this issue “as a matter of urgency.”

The Home Secretary’s final words to the House were “what I am interested in is effective, sympathetic outcomes.”

Most people simply want justice for Caribbean British elders.

Well, we will have to wait and see what we get from this Home Secretary Amber Rudd and her dedicated team of 20.

A Home Office official stated that legislation “is complex and, when revising it, it is the normal process to simplify it where possible and remove duplications.” Laws are complicated, and anomalies occur, yet all available evidence seems to indicate that the Caribbean British elders were deliberately targeted by the removal of their protection in 2014.

The outcomes of the meetings arranged this week with the CHOGM and the Caribbean High Commissioners is eagerly awaited.

 

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Cruelty by design towards British Caribbean elders

windrush flags 70 years

 

Information about the cases of the Caribbean British elders being systematically targeted and often deported from their British homes has been widely circulated in the past few weeks. Many members of British society, included the affected British elders, were unaware that they were a part of a group of people who were not officially categorised as British until they tried to access health care or were required to provide additional documentation for their employers in line with the online Employers’ Checking Service for Biometric Residence Permits (BRP) that began in June 2012.

This anomaly has arisen because the Government system has failed to correctly file papers relating to the adults and children of Windrush generation – the British subjects who migrated to the UK from the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s and 1950s to help to rebuild the Mother Country.

As the shock of this situation reached across the British nation public figures such as David Lammy MP, and celebrities, including David Harewood, and Sir Lenny Henry – who is himself descended from Caribbean British parents – have called for the public to sign a petition created by Patrick Vernon OBE, requesting an amnesty for anyone who was a minor that arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971.

To be considered for a debate in parliament, petitions have to obtain at least 100,000 signatures, this petition, created on the 6 October 2018, has already exceeded this amount of signatories. The Government is also required to respond to all petitions once they obtain more than 10,000 signatures. As a response to this public outcry, the Government has finally, on 13 April 2018, published some guidance around this matter. This appears to be the first Government response to repeated requests for guidance and information around the process that has targeted this group of British citizens.

The information on the Government website has been produced by the UK Visas and Immigration department that is part of the Home Office. The Government provides information for this group of Caribbean British elders that they are now referring to as ‘Undocumented Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK.’ The page is careful to note that the information therein is not a substitute for immigration advice, although it does note that if “you entered the UK before 1 Jan 1973 then the chances are you are entitled to live here permanently. Your status is only broken following a long period outside of the UK (2 years).

There are a number of steps that these Caribbean British elders will now have to undertake in order to verify their status as British citizens and prove they have right of abode in the UK. The first step is to apply for a “no-time limit” biometric resident permit (BRP), followed by applying for British Citizenship if they are successful with the initial step.

The “no-time limit” biometric permit application is for someone who already has indefinite leave to enter or remain in the UK. There is a standard associated cost of £229 per person, and applications can also be made at Premium Service Centres for same day consideration of the application – at the premium cost of £610 per person. A mobile super premium service is also available at the cost of £10,500 per visit – this final service tier means that you will usually get your decision with 24 hours, as you can decided the location and time of the visit (between midday and 3pm, Monday to Friday) when the premium service staff will visit you to get your biometric information (fingerprint and photo), and your signature. This last service option may have to be used in a desperate final effort to stop impending deportation because the process of challenging the Home Office decisions increases in complexity and cost when a person has been forcibly removed from their British homes and relocated to a different country.

BRPs were introduced in the UK in 2008 and have automatically been distributed to members of the British public when they have replaced old documents; these cards are used to confirm identity, the right to work and study in the UK, and the entitlement to access any public services or benefits. The BRP is a card issued by the Home Office that contains evidence of immigration permissions (also known as leave to enter or remain), and includes a microchip with two of the resident’s fingerprints and a digital photograph. The BRP is required documentation if the resident does not have indefinite leave to remain (ILR) endorsed in a current passport.

The current procedure for obtaining permanent British residency dictates that once a resident gets ILR they cannot apply for British Citizenship for at least 12 months and have to have been in the UK for five years preceding application for citizenship. Therefore when these Caribbean British elders, who have been living and working in the UK for their entire lives, do obtain their official ILR they will still be faced with another delayed wait for a year before their British Citizenship is confirmed. British Citizenship is now dependent on where you were born (in the UK or a qualifying British overseas territory), when you were born (before or after 1 January 1983) and your parents’ circumstances at the time of your birth.

The Government website states that, “All citizens of Commonwealth countries were British subjects until January 1983,” therefore this should be a straightforward matter for those Caribbean British elders who have been subjected to extensive questioning regarding their status. Yet, a raft of recent cases have proved that this has not been the situation that many, like Elwaldo Romeo, Sarah O’Connor, and Albert Thompson have found themselves in.

The Home Office have also published a blog to say that Government policy around the rights of Commonwealth citizens has not changed, however because of the introduction of the hostile environment towards migrants in the UK who wish to work, live and use public services, there have been new laws implemented to ensure that these migrants have the correct documents to demonstrate their right to be in the UK and entitlement to use public services.

On the same fact sheet page the Home Office claims that there are existing solutions available to obtain the correct documentation for settled status, and that they “have no intention of making people leave who have the right to remain here.” These solutions all involve hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pounds in application fees, forms and tests for people who have been British citizens for their entire adult lives.

The facts of the cases already listed above and in previous posts seem to contradict the statement that the Government made saying it has no intention of making people leave because many Caribbean British elders have already been detained, deported or refused entry back into the country after a lifetime’s work here.

The Home Office also states that the government makes “no apologies for our commitment to build an immigration system which works in the best interest of the country and prevents vulnerable people from finding themselves at risk of exploitation.”

These newly implemented laws have highlighted an error in the Government system relating to the right of abode for long-term British residents from the Commonwealth. These people, have somehow mysteriously remained undocumented and ignored in central government systems – despite paying taxes, having National Insurance numbers, and decades of employment records – and they are now being unfairly treated and labeled as people with ‘no status’ and therefore categorised as not being the British Citizens the 1983 law identifies them as.

As Gary Younge, from the Guardian newspaper, succinctly states, this is cruelty by design as people like Michael Braithwaite have violated no law; it’s the law that is violating themTherefore  all financial charges relating to proving British citizenship should be waived for Caribbean British elders who have been long term residents in the UK – that’s justice. They should not have to pay for an error that has been created by the Government systems that are supposed to be in place to protect them.

National Geographic continues to fail

Nat Geo cover 1

April 2018 cover – “Black and White: These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race”  – the National Geographic (Nat Geo) says it’s covering and addressing its past racist coverage, yet in the article associated with the cover photo of the April 2018 issue, Patricia Edmonds continues the form of reporting that Nat Geo says it’s moving away from.

The fraternal twin girls shown on the cover, Millie and Marcia Biggs, are described thus: “From a young age the girls had similar features but very different color schemes. Marcia had light brown hair and fair skin like her English-born mother. Millie had black hair and brown skin like her father, who’s of Jamaican descent.” Therein lies the continuing problem of discriminatory reporting.

“English-born mother … and … father, who’s of Jamaican descent.”

As an English-born person who is of Jamaican descent this description is problematic for me because Edmonds’ article insinuates, in standard Nat Geo racist tones, that the white mother equates to the English-born descriptor and the Jamaican descent father is the black hair and brown skin ‘other’ in the equation.

Nat Geo is still reinforcing the idea that to be English-born you are automatically viewed as white, whilst Jamaicans are generalised as black; this diametric opposition is what was the root of Nat Geo’s historical reporting, and this issue, as well meaning as it is supposed to be, has failed to reposition itself away from stereotypical statements, photographs and phrases like ‘very different color schemes’.

Some of the questions that arose for me when reading this article were: from what nationality does the English-born mother, Amanda Wanklin, descend? Where was the black hair and brown skin father, Michael Biggs, born? If it is important to describe the birth place of one parent and the descent of the other parent, then in an effort to reduce racial stereotypes and promote equality surely the same conditions should be applied to both parents?

Isn’t the tone of this article reinforcing the same stereotypes ingrained in white American culture that the editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, suggests that this issue is supposed to be pushing its readers beyond? To me, this article resets the tone as one of continued racial divisions based on both birth location and heritage.

Or have I completely missed the point?

In the Nat Geo “Black and White” essay Alicia Martin, a statistical geneticist is referenced as stating that the traits of fraternal twins that emerge in each child depends on numerous variables, including “where the parents’ ancestors are from and complex pigment genetics.” As this article does not directly address where the twins’ maternal ancestors are from, the reader of the article is left with the assumption that ‘English-born’ relates to an unending line of similarly born ancestors who will be categorised as white and therefore quintessentially British.

Afua Hirsch has an essay in the same issue that continues the analysis on what it means to be British – Hirsch investigated this concept in her recent book: Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Hirsch notes that, “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imagination of people of all races to the concept of whiteness.”

Nat Geo may have had good intentions, but from my reading of this issue they have faltered and failed on the first steps to explore race and diversity in America. I know that many people have lauded the publication of this issue as a wonderful event, yet I still see it as a P.R. exercise to excuse a back catalogue of discriminatory reporting, and to feed the American white supremacist’s and far-right’s angst about them again becoming a minority in the country they invaded: “In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white.” (From the editorial by Susan Goldberg).

National Geographic, you cannot correct past mistakes by perpetuating them.

Maybe Marcia and Millie should be left to define themselves in line with the Nat Geo’s hashtag: #IDefineMe

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Travelling while Black

Travelling while Black N'shire

I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.

I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.

Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.

“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.

“I stopped you …”

“Yes?”

“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”

“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.

“What are you doing in this area?”

This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK.  I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.

“I’m going home.”

“Where do you live?”

“Why do you want to know that?

“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”

“Is there something wrong?”

“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”

“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.

“Please confirm where you live.”

“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”

“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.

I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”

“Whose vehicle is this?

“Mine.”

“Oh. Do you have the papers?”

“Of course.”

“Alright then. Carry on.”

“So what did you stop me for?”

“You can go now.”

Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.

First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses to trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.

I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.

However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.

I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.

If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue. 

“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Oh, Wiltshire.”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you come from.”

“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”

“You don’t get me … “

(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)

“What precisely do you want to know?”

“What nationality are you?”

“English.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”

“Can’t you just answer the question …”

“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”

“What are your parents?”

“British.”

“This is silly.”

“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”

“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”

“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”

“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”

“Yes, they are British citizens.”

“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”

“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”

“Yes, where are you from?”

“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”

“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”

“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”

“Here.”

“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”

“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”

“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”

So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,”  to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.

I’m English and I’m Black. It’s not unusual.

Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

Breaking the silence surrounding Black female infertility


Diagnosis - Infertility. Medical Concept. 3D Render.by Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

How often have you had a conversation about infertility amongst Black women? Not very often, I would suspect. Or never. There appears to be a silence surrounding Black female infertility, although white female infertility is frequently discussed and treated. Infertility is often viewed through a colour-coded prism.

Historically myths surrounding Black women, and the image of the Black female body, are associated with constant reproduction, so when a Black woman realises she is not able to conceive there are usually feelings of inadequacy and failure. In many cultures motherhood is associated with social status, therefore being childless can mean that a woman feels shame to be seen as barren.

Since the start of recorded time there has been infertility amongst women, it is not new. The Bible refers to Sarah and Rebekah who remained ‘childless’ for decades. Many contemporary Black women resort to religious behaviour when they believe they are cursed by God, and some women may implement acts of superstition, like sleeping with baby clothes under their pillows, to increase their chances of conception. The National Health Statistics Reports (2006-2010) show that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to experience infertility than their white counterparts. So, why the silence?

There are many health and genetic reasons for this higher level of infertility in Black women, including the prevalence of fibroids, dysfunctional ovaries, endometriosis, and PCOS. Premature ovarian failure is also a condition that affects the infertility of Black women: this is also known as primary ovarian insufficiency and it is a condition where ovulation times are uncertain because there is a loss of eggs associated with premature menopause. A woman’s ability to conceive naturally each month declines as she gets older.

According to the WHO (1993) the clinical definition of infertility is the absence of conception after 24 months of regular unprotected intercourse. For many women the realisation that they may be infertile is a shock that may lead to isolation and embarrassment.

In 2016 a study into the experiences of nine Black and minority ethnic women living in Wales was undertaken at Cardiff University; this study shares the views and experience of this group who had current or previous experiences of infertility. The women talked about the pressure they felt to become mothers, the negative impact of not being able to conceive, and their ongoing concerns and hope for the future.

When any woman who wants to reproduce finds that her personal biology has denied her the opportunity to do so, there are often feelings of failure because fertility is frequently equated to womanhood in pronatalist societies. Each time the conception cycle passes unfulfilled the potential mothers may enter into a pattern of grief for the loss of the unborn, unknown child they were preparing for, and grief for their own body’s inability to conceive; this is often repeated for months and years.

When personal reproduction proves impossible some Black women may choose to foster or adopt to experience motherhood. This can occur after the high costs and expenses of many rounds of IVF, artificial insemination, and possibly miscarriages and recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL).

Between the moment that a Black woman discovers she is infertile, and the time she chooses to either embrace the state of childlessness or to foster or adopt, there is the desert time when she is alone with her body. During these stages, women can undergo a wide rage of emotions directly related to the cycle of procreation; this may include self imposed isolation from family and friends because she may feel ostracised from the normality of their worlds, and periods where she may spend much time crying in silence behind closed doors. This  can be a time when some women may find themselves experiencing suicidal thoughts and episodes of mental illness because of the social stigma and the stress of repeated failures to conceive.

Infertility can remain undiscussed in the wider community unless there is more publicity around the issue. It has helped when people like Beyoncé, Tyra Banks and Chrissy Tiegen also raise the emotional aspect of the issue.

It is important to get more Black women to talk about infertility to demystify it and to break the silence and isolation of those who experience involuntary childlessness. 

Figures show that nearly 60% of people in America do not undertake fertility treatment because they are unaware of the options available. It is vital that Black women realise that infertility is a common problem experienced by 1 in 6 women between the ages of 15 and 44, in Britain these women should have full access to the NHS fertility treatment which, according to a 2006 survey, shows that there was unequal access to treatment and no clear criteria for who should receive this NHS-funded fertility treatment.

  

It’s time to talk.

Useful links:

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Fertility/Pages/Fertilityhome.aspx

https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/

http://www.nfaw.org.uk/raising-awareness/

https://infertilityawareness.org/

WHO – World Health Organisation (Rowe et al., 1993)

http://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/36983

https://resolve.org/

https://www.bwhi.org/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150604162636.htm

Objectification and sexualisation of the Black female body – from Sara Baartman to Beyoncé

Beyonce Yoruba

by Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

Since the 15th century – in the Americas and the colonised world – the Black female body has been seen as a product to be used to produce more products in the same image; this has some parallels with the Black African tradition where the Black female body was viewed as a source of social success and family wealth, the commonality between these two views is patriarchy.

Objectification of the Black female body renders the black woman a commodity that others can enact their will upon, e.g. rage, lust, anger, disgust, desire.  Therefore Black women need to regain control of the image that they project of their own bodies. Beyoncé is one Black woman who appears to be controlling the representation and reflection of her concept of the Black female body.

During her performances Beyoncé often uses her body in a sexualised manner as a signifier of her own feminism. Her stage and public appearances contest the whiteness of mainstream feminism,

although Dr bell hooks, a black academic feminist, described Beyoncé as a ‘terrorist’ who potentially harms black girls with her sexualised performances (2014).

After the release of Lemonade (2017) hooks also suggested that Beyoncé used that opportunity to exploit “images of Black female bodies” in a way that was neither “radical nor revolutionary” and that it glamorised the gendered dichotomy and “glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction.

Black female bodies have historically had repeated collisions with masculinity, power, and whiteness; these bodies constantly exhibit strength beyond the imposed theories as they continue to disrupt the masculine narrative of superiority, because without them Black life does not continue.

When Black bodies were viewed as products they were also categorised as sexual and economic property where the sexuality and reproduction were strictly controlled; in this manner they are systematically dehumanised and positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. A prime example of this occurred in 1814 when Sara (aka Sarah or Saartjie) Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was displayed in a cage, and objectified as a deviant savage who was an inferior being. Baartman was described has having “abnormal sexuality and genitalia”. 

Sara Baartman was in fact a Khoikhoi woman – an aboriginal South African – who became a domestic servant to Dutch coloniser Pieter Willem Cezar in Cape Town, South Africa, before she was employed by English ship surgeon William Dunlop and Cezar’s brother Hendrik.

Apparently Sara Baartman signed a contract on 29 October 1810 with the terms stipulating that she would be a domestic servant in England and Ireland for Dunlop and Hendrik Cezar in addition to being exhibited for entertainment purposes. The contract allegedly stated that Baartman would receive a portion of the earnings and would also be allowed to return to South Africa after five years. However, after four years in England Baartman was sold to Reaux, a showman in France, who showcased her alongside his animals.

Baartman died in France in 1815 after being exhibited and studied as a science specimen by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Baartman was used to emphasise the theory that Black Africans were hyper sexual and less human than Europeans. It was through this initial commodification process that black bodies were positioned to be subject to the white patriarchal system. As Iman Cooper (2015) says essentially “the humanity of the black body was ruptured into an object to be bought and sold, in order to satisfy the economic desires of the white slave owners.”

Baartman is symbolic because her Black African female body was used as imagery to represent, reflect and affect the nascent European held opinions of ‘savage sexuality and racial inferiority’ of the time. The physical presence of Black bodies in the world is undeniable, however the concept of racism made the power and self-agency of those bodies incomprehensible and refutable in the eyes of white colonisers, but the black body has always remained self-defining and disruptive to global theories of cultural being.

This originally European social conceptualisation of the black body has remained widely unchallenged by mainstream society, especially in media outlets that are controlled by heteronormative white men. Therein femininity is also codified as Christian, white, docile, chase and pure, while Black women’s religious characteristics are not viewed in the same way as their white counterparts they have historically been viewed as uncontrolled, loud, wild, lewd and evil. Both black and white female bodies have been regulated according to the diametrically opposed assumptions held about each other, largely based on the overriding global standard rooted in racism.

With the exception of talk show hosts such as American Oprah Winfrey and British Trisha Goddard, Black women on television have mainly been represented as “crude stereotypes of exotic animalistic hypersexuality (black women) … or sexual submissiveness (Asian women)” – this is often represented as lacking in ‘feminine’ behaviour. Sexualised women are also frequently depicted as working class – all is dependent on the ‘viewer’s’ gaze. In this instance who is the viewer? Male, white, middle class.

Black women performers like Beyoncé often use their bodies as a means to reclaim and contest the control of the image of the Black female body from their personal perspective: powerful, sexual, self-regulating.

Who is right, Beyoncé or bell hooks? Can’t they both be correct? Black women have a right to control their own image and decide on the sexualisation of their individual bodies – that is their agency and feminist right of self determination.

Bodies will always be sexualised and objectified by the gaze of the ‘other’ be it the gaze of a man or another woman (Black or white). Therefore Black women are justified in deciding their own degree of visual sexualisation according to the pervading and overarching social mores, nevertheless I do not believe sexualisation can be ignored or viewed in isolation without considering the history of objectification and sexualisation of the female body, specifically the Black female body.

As Nora Chipaumire suggested in 2014, the Black female body can acknowledge her own power and presence, and negotiate the way others look at it or see it in her own way, on her own terms.

Black female bodies are engaging in the freedom of expression as their own subjects, they are no longer mere objects.