That old letter confirming our UK permanent residency is just as unforgettable as the recent one recognising me as a Member of the British Empire.
Some might say, besides a couple of port cities like Lagos and Badagry, my people – Yoruba people of Nigeria – have little institutional memory about the worst of the British Empire. Add to that Operation Legacy (the 1950s Foreign Office programme to destroy colonial documents), and the fact there are organisations twice as old as my country (Fabian Society, 136 years old versus Nigeria, 60); these faint temporal landmarks and the desire not to live through a lens of internalised inferiority mean we’re rarely in a state of high moral indignation about such things.
Whilst there are black Britons more “woke” to the impact of post-colonialism, the issue of historical racial crimes does not universally feature across our families.
Accepting the MBE invite in this current climate felt strange but rejecting it looked impossible. My old man, stereotypical Nigerian by most standards, was confused when I suggested accepting the award was problematic. What is bad about receiving a state honour, he thought? There are quite a few people like him, people who reject the legacy of post-colonialism, their ethnic identity being informed in different ways.
He does not deny the long history of colonialism and cultural imperialism. To varying degrees, for people like him, it just isn’t allowed to manifest in how they see themselves or the world. Which isn’t to say anyone openly critical of the history of the empire is one dimensional, it’s just its path to mainstream discourse isn’t yet clear. And it needs to be. If we are still using the political paradigms of left and right in 2021 and beyond, you would hope the far-leftish views that call for structural abolition would have found a more centrist tone and framing. Perhaps more “clean the stain of unearned privilege”, less “fight the power and tear down statues”. When ethnic identities and their roles in society are being remade at such a high speed, how fit for purpose are references to the past?