What does it mean to be a conscious citizen? In her new monthly column, senior strategic leader in sustainable and international development, Natasha Hafez, explores and expounds on precisely that. Join in her journey towards humanity with purpose.
The events of the past year have been momentous, with many historic firsts particularly unique to, and within, the Black American community. From COVID-19-related struggles of disproportionate job losses and deaths, to the collective and international response to police brutality that prompted a reckoning for racial injustice and a force for human rights, America transcended its limitations as Black women organised, leading to record-breaking voter turnout and the election of its first Black (female) Vice President, Kamala Harris.
In order to understand where we are today, and how we got here, it is helpful to understand our history. This includes educating ourselves on the contribution of Africans, and their descendants, to the story of our world. Because it is exactly that – an understanding of our past and legacy – which provides us with the ability to dismantle societal complexities and enduring forms of structural racism that have shaped our implicit or unconscious bias from many years back.
As Americans commemorate Black History this month, Google data trends reveal that in the last year Americans have searched for Black artists and leaders more than ever before. Black, world-shaping leaders and artists help inspire and support the next generation of innovators, revolutionists, and change-makers.
I recently caught up with Juliet Gilkes Romero, the award-winning BBC World journalist, distinguished playwright, and recipient of the 2020 Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play, The Whip. The Whip examines the fight to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act in Britain and the cost of freedom – a multi-billion pound payoff made to British slave owners (not the victims and slaves themselves) during an economic downfall. “I wrote this because the transatlantic slave trade was the biggest deportation in history, it was a determining factor of the world economy in the 18th century. Millions of Africans were torn from their homes, deported to the American continent, and sold as slaves.” As a descendant of these slaves, Romero shares her story to fight racism in the world. “I am passionate about history and education. As a journalist and playwright, I believe you have to know the past to understand the present. Education is definitely the key to fighting racism,” she adds, before giving the nod to a shared favourite political leader of ours, Nelson Mandela, who once said: “Education is the most powerful way to change the world”.
Romero’s career and expertise in investigative journalism may have helped her discover and reveal a less-told but monumental moment in our history that we can all gain from. When it comes to slavery, the spotlight often shines on America’s connection to the slave trade. However, Romero’s intensive research and fact-based writing of The Whip shines an even brighter light for a change on one of the imperial states that actually started this whole legacy in the first place!
David Olusoga, historian and presenter with the BBC, highlights the shocking aspects of Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act in his documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slaves. In 1833, Britain used 40% of its national budget, or £20 million (the equivalent of £17 billion today), to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount borrowed was so large that it was not paid off until 2015. The shocking and disturbing truth that many still do not realise is that up until 2015, all British taxpayers (including descendants of the slaves themselves) paid out this massive debt to the 46,000 slave owners, compensating them for the loss of their human property – not as reparations to the victims of slavery, but rather a payout to the families that perpetuated this problem.
I spoke with The Royal Shakespeare Company’s rising star and lead of The Whip, Debbie Korley, whose performance in The Whip received rave reviews for her portrayal of Mercy Pryce, a Black female slave and activist. Mercy Pryce’s character is based upon the real-life story of Mary Prince – a runaway-slave turned abolitionist from the early 1800s who challenged Members of Parliament and political leaders who dare denied her a say. This historical heroine became the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament, securing freedom for nearly one million Caribbean slaves, finally putting an end to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Mary Prince was essentially the Harriet Tubman of the UK’s Abolitionist Movement.
Romero compares the Abolitionist Movement and the historical facts and inspiration behind her character, Mercy Pryce, to today: “The global protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were unique as they were truly diverse in a way not witnessed before… they demonstrated that a contemporary, multiracial coalition can support a racial justice agenda, in much the same way that Black and White abolitionists fought together for the end of British slavery.” Korley thoughtfully adds, “I remember being so scared but so moved at the global response. It was like a page in the play. There were Whites in Parliament who were trying to fight for justice, and at the same time that was exactly what we saw happening as we watched live on our TVs across the globe.” How can we keep this fragile momentum alive? That will be our challenge.
The three of us touched upon the political and historical significance of the play with its profound parallels to intersectionality, racism, and fake news today. “The last words of George Floyd before he was murdered were, ‘I can’t breathe,’” says Korley, adding sagely, “I don’t think any of these Black abolitionists could breathe at any point, even in the privacy of their own bed.” She adds, “They had no voice. This palpable fear and worry followed them everywhere because that was all they were accustomed to. This is all a lot of Blacks are still accustomed to today.”
I learned how the recent events, protests, and movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo bear an all-too familiar and striking resemblance with the times and trajectory of our past. I listened to all they had to share and learned a great deal – not just about our history and their unique experiences, but I became more conscious of my own unconscious bias and white privilege, and the responsibilities and role that comes with it.
After all this, I find myself feeling perplexed, wondering ‘why is ending racism a debate’ still? From his extraordinary imagery capturing hope and solidarity, documenting last summer’s civil rights activism and the BLM Movement, to becoming the first Black man ever to shoot the cover of British VOGUE, Misan Harriman has been all over the internet lately. Outside the US Embassy in London, he photographs an elite athlete, Darcy Bourne, who makes a poignant statement by posing this very question. In a thought-provoking interview, Harriman explains, “The why is a question with many answers, but my observation: through my lens, I have seen the beating heart of London. I have seen young boys, young girls, all races, all religions, stand in solidarity. People that didn’t understand that there was any kind of racism are educating themselves. People that have lived the experience, like myself, are not alone in licking our open wounds. And I feel that’s a movement that can now never go backwards.” He adds, “It’s such a simple question. And I think that’s why that image has resonated with millions and millions of people.”
Thank you Juliet Gilkes Romero, Debbie Korley, Misan Harriman, and the many guiding lights in the Black community, for truthfully and trenchantly transcending the way the world can look at itself through your art and storytelling.
Black History Month celebrates and recognises the power of community, education, culture, and the trailblazers that contribute to rebuilding institutions, structures, or policies that release confinements and break down barriers that inhibit civilisation. It is world-changing individuals like Mary Prince and Mercy Pryce, who inspire and reunite one divided race – the human race.
In America, Black History is American History. Generation after generation, Blacks have paved the path of history by pushing society forward. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, “America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us.” Today, we seem to be at this similar juncture.
Down one road, society stands still in silence, neglecting its problems with systemic inequities, racism, and the oppressive systems that perpetuate both. Down the other, we swiftly move forward, examining everything we have done wrong, united with boldness, hope, and faith. So, where do we go from here? The choice is yours.
The (un)Conscious(ly) (biased) Citizen