Following the death of George Floyd guest writer Chine McDonald reflects on why we must remember the past. 02/06/2020
Over the past week, I’ve heard the question: why should black Britons care so much about the death of George Floyd in America? Aside from quoting the oft–used words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, to understand just why we care so much involves first opening yourself up to a better understanding of the notions of community within Afro–Caribbean culture, alongside the ideas of collective memory and trauma. And of course, it involves the recognition that this issue is not only limited to one country, but is experienced, directly, by people in the UK too.
I grew up in south–east London, but my sense of identity was formed in the US. I learned about aspiration from The Cosby Show, I learned about relationships from Love & Basketball, I learned about American black history from watching Roots and reading Martin Luther King biographies when I was eight years old. To see myself, I had to look across the Atlantic where it seemed that life was better for black people; where despite living in the shadow of the Transatlantic slave trade, they seemed to be more accepted, more prominent, more visible. They were represented on TV screens in a way that I just didn’t see growing up in the 1990s.
I know now that their visibility masked a dark reality at the heart of their nation; America’s “original sin”, as theologian and activist Jim Wallis describes it; and as we have seen over the past few days, America has not fully repented of it.
In the commentary from fellow black Britons this week, I’ve noticed a common theme. When we watched George Floyd being murdered as a white police officer knelt on him for 8 minutes, we saw our own necks on the line. We see ourselves in our American brothers and sisters because we see ourselves in other black people everywhere – close bonds form between oppressed groups in a way that can’t be understood outside those groups. Where I’m from in Nigeria, there is a strong sense of being part of a community whose ties cannot be broken; in the Zulu language many of us have heard of the term Ubuntu: “I am because we are”. Or, as Desmond Tutu (the chairman of the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post–apartheid South Africa) has written in his Christian reflection on Ubuntu:
We belong in a bundle of life. We say a person is a person through other persons. It is not I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self–assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
African cultures celebrate this idea of connectedness and when we see others who look like us we recognise each other as having a shared experience, a collective memory. Our lives are intertwined even though we may never have met.
So we suffer because we see people who look like us suffer. We care because it is as if the injustice is being done to us. As we watch the brutal and ugly crime of George Floyd’s murder unfolding, we’re propelled back to this fear that we have always held – that perhaps the deep–seated ideas we thought progress had eradicated still exist. Perhaps black people are in fact seen as inferior, less than, unhuman. Our minds are cast back to the US Constitution of 1787 in which African Americans’ votes counted for three–fifths of a white US citizen and before that when our people were taken from their homes and trafficked to other parts of the world to be met with servitude and unimaginable violence.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that life would be simpler and more joyful for all if we engaged in “active forgetting”.
He writes: “In the smallest as in the greatest happiness, it is something that happiness is happiness: the ability to forget, or to put it in terms most learned, the ability to feel things, as long as happiness lasts, without any historical perspective.”
Of course, there would be no protests or Black Lives Matter movements if we could simply forget the centuries of injustice as Nietzsche implies, but when I see yet another black person killed I remember all of those who have been treated so inhumanely because of the colour of their skin. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin and countless others in the US. Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh, Joy Gardner and many more in the UK. It is why many of us become so enraged at the whitewashing of our nations’ histories, the attempt to rewrite the past or simply forgive and forget.
The problem is we can’t. Because we are ‘diminished when others are… diminished’ and the injustice continues, not only across the Atlantic. And unless there is a collective acknowledgment of the place of white power and its effect on every area of society, we can never engage in active forgetting. It is the duty of each of us – black or white – to remember these heinous injustices and stop them happening again.
For as Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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