The Queen has died – now we need to talk about the crimes of the Empire

As a journalist in the UK, I was involved in rehearsals for the strict protocol surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth for years. As news anchors we had specially commissioned black suits ready and pressed in newsroom wardrobes. Obituaries were written and updated on each of the Queen’s many health scares.

Contributors were retained to feed the requirement for back-to-back coverage of national mourning – an event unprecedented since the advent of 24 hour TV. As a black British woman though, it was hard to know how these events would affect me. I still have no idea how I actually feel about the passing of the only British monarch I have known. Throughout my life, deference and admiration have been signalled as the only appropriate response.

Many of us as ethnic minority Brits understood this as a test of our loyalty, patriotism, and Good Immigrant status. We would therefore fall into two categories: those who sought to pass the test by enthusiastically towing the line of national mourning – and those too conscious of the harm Britain’s power has caused, who would stay silent.

But it turns out tone policing is no longer tenable. Social media has been saturated by the harrowing memories of a legacy the British establishment has refused to acknowledge. The plunder of land and diamonds in South Africa, crimes that adorned the Queen’s very crown. The physical suffering that continues from violence inflicted by her government in Kenya, even as her reign was celebrated for having begun there. Or the scars of genocide during the Nigeria-Biafra war from 1967 to 1970, events that took place a decade into her rule.

In Britain, the minoritized are remembering this Elizabethan era through the lens of the racism that was allowed to thrive during it. The radio host and former footballer Trevor Sinclair was quickly hung, drawn and quartered for voicing this perspective has failed to quell the tide of global truth-telling.

The burdensome task of truth-telling to a hostile Britain more used to hearing its past is glorious has always fallen unequally on the descendants of the Empire. Yet as I write, our stories are continuing to be erased. During her reign, the BBC tells us, colonies “gained independence” – no mention of those who were imprisoned, shot and killed in the battles (from the Gold Coast to Cyprus, India and Malaysia) that were required to win it.

This trauma is not recalled with a single voice. One of the effects of the Empire which Queen Elizabeth personified is that it is unevenly remembered within our communities. People who were enslaved were taught that their assimilation into culturally superior Britain’s Empire was a form of advancement. Families like mine in Ghana both experienced the violence of colonialism, and were then educated to believe it was justified.

I sympathise with those who feel the Queen’s loss. Under her reign, many latched onto the stable sense of cultural continuity. To lose that is to feel disrupted and uncertain. But for me, the monarchy represents not the presence of stability, but its theft. Britain’s Empire by definition redrew boundaries, and swept aside generations of tradition. Our parents and grandparents were recruited to Britain for its benefit, the terms and conditions of which my generation are still trying to make sense. We know how it feels to lack cultural continuity. Britain enjoyed it at our expense.

Now, with a new era, the nation will change. But the erasure of black and brown perspectives does not. We have never had the luxury of ignoring the histories of oppression obscured by personal affection for the Queen. Now the rest of Britain may find itself confronted with that reality, too. Afua Hirsch is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and former barrister. She teaches journalism as the Wallis Annenberg Chair at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Text: Afua Hirsch

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