Queen Elizabeth, Colonization, and Global Perceptions

Leeds UK, 14th June 2020: Black lives matter protesters in the Leeds City Centre (Shutterstock)

The news of the passion of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, on September 8th sparked mixed feelings in millions worldwide. Some Black people commented on her passing while expressing their condolences and honoring the legacy of the crown. For instance, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari highly praised the British monarchy as he stated, “We have maintained very close ties with the monarchy. She was a very gracious and elegant queen.” Many others, however, took her passing as an opportunity to critique the violent colonial legacy of the British crown.  Nigerian American  professor Uju Anya took to social media to convey abhorrence and feelings of disgust toward the Queen with comments such as “I only wish my hatred had the effect on her that her monarchy had on my people.” Black people’s ambivalent feelings towards the British monarchy are not new.

Queen Elizabeth’s death only reignited diasporic conversations about the role the British monarchy played in the unjust treatment toward millions of Black people. For instance, in 1965, amid the U.S. civil rights movement, African American journalist Charles L. Sanders traveled to Britain to gain insight into racial issues and connections between African Americans and Black Britons. Sanders quickly realized that like in the U.S., Britain also suffered from racial discrimination and segregation. During Sanders’ visit, he spoke with two Jamaican men who provided deeper understandings of Black experiences in and perceptions of Britain.

Philosopher Franz Fanon articulated the ways colonization fostered racist ideas through colonial education; colonialism also unconsciously influenced the collective perceptions of colonized subjects. During WWII, thousands of Black people from Caribbean colonies relocated to Britain eager to protect the “King and Empire.” Viewing themselves as not only Caribbean peoples but also British subjects, many joined the military and fought for the crown with pride. One of Sanders’ Jamaican acquaintances communicated notions of British nationalism as he explained that although he was a Jamaican native, he felt bonded to the nation. He stated, “England giv’ me gun and soldier clothes. I tell you, mon, that day they giv’ me that I would have killed ten black mon to save one white mon life. … all my life they teach me in Jamaica that England my motherland. They say England’s king my king, England’s queen my queen. I believe that, mon.” (148). The WWII vet’s statement demonstrates the role colonization played in spreading British nationalism. “Jamaica, mon, I thought she just piece of England broke loose and floated out to sea,” he went on to say. Although Black people gave their lives to defend Britain during the war, this did not lead to a racial utopia as racial discrimination continued.

Yet, many Black soldiers, like the Jamaican vet, remained in Britain after the war. Scholar James Cantres explained that after the war Britain experienced a period of rapid migration as an influx of Caribbean people relocated to the country. Nevertheless, despite the growing Black population and Black peoples’ contributions during WWII, many (like the Jamaican vet) soon realized neither their presence nor sacrifices altered their social status due to the color of their skin. Mistreatment and discrimination against Black persons by the British government led to a shift in the Jamaican vet’s perspective about the “mother land.”

“Now I find out what they teach me not true,” he explained. “I don’t stand no more and I keep my hands in my pockets when they sing and raise the flag. For me now I know the damn English mon he bastard, yes. He don’t want me here, but I don’t leave. I stay and fight him, mon. If he make me fight, I kill him like maybe I kill tenblack mon for him long time ago.”

Severing his enduring ties to Britain and its monarchy, the man conveyed a shift in ideologies. Formerly willing to kill for the “English mon,” he now sought to combat miseducation and oppression that remained in Britain by fighting his oppressors.

Oppression, discrimination, and miseducation caused by white supremacy linked the struggles of Black people throughout the diaspora. The Jamaican man acknowledged this shared struggle through his departing words, “You black mon, I black mon. You tell black mon in states how things with us here. You tell’ em real facts, mon. O.K.?” (148) The Jamaican vet conveyed Black unity by identifying a shared experience and solidarity with African Americans and Black Britons. Furthermore, his conversation also displayed the role colonization played in developing veils of delusion through the practice of miseducation while simultaneously demonstrating how discrimination led to a shifting consciousness of colonized subjects.

Britain’s racist colonial history also influenced the thoughts of younger generations of Black people. For example, Sanders met with a young Jamaican man who also expressed distaste toward the British. The young Jamaican attempted to show Sanders his method of “revenge for what the Englishman did to my people for 300 years.” The young man guided Sanders to his anticipated location and then proceeded to inject a teenage British boy with heroin. The young Jamaican, aware of Sanders’ uneasiness explained “mon don you see? I’ve got an Englishman depending on me for a change.” By saying this, the young Jamaican referred to the atrocities caused by Britain’s colonial endeavors on global Black communities, or as Sanders mentioned, “all the things that Britain would forget today, but which black people can never forget for it was they who lost so much, so long, so unequally.” These perspectives about how the monarchy influenced colonized people are heard throughout the diaspora.

Mixed feelings toward the monarchy are visible in other locations such as Trinidad. For instance, in 1966 (years after Trinidad’s independence) many still felt a strong sense of admiration for the British monarchy. Individuals such as Beverly Roberts exuded excitement for the arrival of the queen as she anticipated the royal visit. Roberts explained, “I felt privileged. Everything was perfect. I remember her pearls, and her bag.” Although honored to observe the Queen while in Trinidad, after moving to the U.S. Roberts’ regard for the monarchy dissipated. Becoming aware of the injustices committed on behalf of the crown, like the older Jamaican man, Roberts’ mindset of Britain’s virtue transformed. Nevertheless, other Trinidadians continued to support the crown. Individuals such as Earl Roberts, Beverly Roberts’ husband, credit the British for making significant contributions to Trinidad and Tobago’s history, culture, and identity as he insisted, “the English are an indelible part of who we are as individuals … Much of the ethnicity of our very nation was due to our colonialism.” Nevertheless, Earl Roberts “never forgets that his people were brought to the Caribbean to form a sugar colony, and to be commercially exploited as free labor.” Contrasting these distinct perspectives holds significance.

For instance, the WWII Jamaican veteran reveals how oppression can turn patriotism into detestation while it also may foster solidarity. The young Jamaican man’s thoughts shows us these conversations not only transcend borders but also generations. Furthermore, Beverly Roberts’ and Earl Roberts’ perspectives demonstrate, to some, the institution of colonization is not simply malevolent or virtuous. Thus, juxtaposing these diverse perspectives speaks to larger and long-lasting global conversations about the legacies of colonialism.

Whether condemnation or support of Britain, Queen Elizabeth’s death has led to old conversations and shifting ideas about the effects of colonization throughout the African diaspora. Her passing brought to the forefront diasporic conversations about the role the British monarchy played in the lives of millions of Black people worldwide. Engaging in these ongoing conversations and shifting consciousness must endure. We should not shy away from these dialogues, as they are vital in the fight for equity and reparative justice for Black people worldwide.

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Mickell Carter

Mickell Carter is a doctoral student in the department of history at Auburn University. Her research interests include Black Internationalism, 20th-Century Social Movements, and the intersections between politics and culture. Her current project examines linkages between Black men’s style during the Black Power Movement, Pan-Africanism, and masculinity. Mickell is also a Graduate Fellow and Research Assistant where she interviews Bloody Sunday Foot Soldiers and documents their experiences. She has written for a number of venues including: the AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project’s Warbler newsletter, the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, and the Washington Post. She is also a host of the New Books Network in African American Studies podcast. Prior to becoming a PhD student, Mickell taught high school social studies in her hometown, Columbus, Georgia. You can follow her on Twitter @MickellCarter.