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Learning to love thy new neighbour

Deep down, I’ve always been a bit of a bigot.

That’s not an easy thing for a ranting lefty to admit, but I can only change what I accept exists so it’s time for my ego to face the music and do the dance of contrition.

Gentrify This billboard at the Cans Festival, Leake Street, London

Gentrify This billboard at the Cans Festival, Leake Street, London

If we are being truly open minded, our beliefs evolve, nurtured by experiences – both ours and those of other people, throughout our lives. Over the years, I’ve faced down my sexism, become comfortable with diverse religious doctrines and got over my homophobia.

There is a minority group, though, that I regularly let myself socially discriminate against, either with snide remarks on social media or just casual everyday bigotry. I’ve been pulled up for mocking the way they speak and dress.

I’ve caught myself tutting loudly when stuck behind them at the local supermarket as they squeal with delight because it now stocks some exotic produce or other.

I guess on some level I just doubted their intentions.

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Scotland – Don’t leave the party, help us change the music

I’ve always felt a weird connection to Scotland. I think it’s because of my surname.

Being a Mcleod allows me to wear a kilt when I want to show off at weddings but, as a descendant of Jamaica, my name probably has more to do with ownership than heritage.

Better Together?

Better Together?

Nevertheless, like most lefties, I have always had a massive affection for Scotland.

It was one of the few parts of the UK that refused to vote Tory even when much of the rest of the Union was greedily supping at the Thatcherite teat.

Stereotypes are always problematic, even when positive, but my view, through tartan-tinted glasses, of Scots is that they are calm, intellectual, socially-minded and humorous.

I have no doubt Scotland could be a successful and vibrant independent nation but I want Scotland to vote NO and stay with us.

Many on the left, like Billy Bragg, are supporting the YES vote, arguing Scotland should be free to form a socialist utopia which would be a beacon to the rest of the UK and Europe.

The sad truth is that even if Scotland achieved the society her people are crying out for, many in England would just shrug their shoulders in the same way they currently do about Scandinavia, and carry on.

The rest of England would be that little bit more Farage-friendly. For the left, Scotland’s exit would be like a sibling moving out of home and leaving us to deal with our bullying step father on our own – we would wish them well but be a bit fearful for our future.

Maybe if Scotland goes she can take Kent and Essex with her for balance?

I’d love our Scottish allies to stay and help us take back power from the forces of self-interest and social isolation.

Democracy works best when as large an electorate as possible has equal status on a macro level and as much genuine power as possible locally.

Despite the fear of sounding like John Lennon, I dream of a world with no borders and with a much more direct technology-aided democracy, devolved down to the lowest point possible.

Political leanings can change over generations but constitutional structures are more robust.

Picking one out of an alarmingly similar bunch of bad options twice a decade is a pretty poor version of democracy anyway.

Our societies have evolved from tribes, to villages, to cities, to states, to groups of states. This natural progression, if it comes with a genuinely fair distribution of rights and powers, offers the distant promise of a truly fair world.

With good reason, many fear sprawling, distant, bureaucracies leave people with less power and less involvement in the democratic process. This is simply because institutions like the EU and UK have been allowed to become detached from the people they serve.

The task is to make them truly democratic, not to break them up into smaller invented clumps of self-interested humanity.

Despite all of this, it’s been hard not to be amused by the woefully run ‘Better Together’ campaign.

In the last few panicked days of the campaign it sent three massively unpopular party leaders north of the border to remind Scotland what she might be able to escape from and apparently hired Mr Bean to hoist the saltire over Downing Street.

When your long-standing girlfriend says she needs time to think about your relationship, the decent thing to do is to give her space. The NO campaign instead decided to turn up on her doorstep every night shouting abuse and threatening to confiscate her puppy if she doesn’t take them back.

If Scotland votes to break free on 18 September, I won’t enjoy watching Alex Salmond striding around with a blue-painted face, laying claim to the iron throne of Scotland. It will be a small step away from the unified world I want to see but the short term silver lining will be an implosion of Cameron’s leadership.

I’m hoping for a NO vote but one that is dangerously close enough to give Cameron a bloody nose and to leave the Westminster establishment scrambling around for ways to make the UK more democratic.

Should we forget about slavery?

The following debate first appeared in the Voice NewspaperEach week, I chair a debate with members of the Writers of Colour collective.

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Even before he won Best Picture at this week’s 86th Oscar’s ceremony, British director, Steve McQueen’s mantelpiece was straining under the weight of awards including a Golden Globe and a Bafta.

12 Years a Slave, his presentation of Solomon Northup’s harrowing memoir of brutality under slavery, has everyone talking about this horrific period of human history again.

But is remembering slavery a vital part of understanding the world we live in now or a damaging ball-and-chain which keeps us stuck in the past? (more…)

Can Coca-Cola ‘open happiness’ in Swaziland?

Five years ago, I found my father via Facebook.

I had always known he lived in a small African nation called Swaziland but hadn’t seen or spoken to him since he returned there after a short stay in the UK in the 60s.

My father sadly passed away six weeks before I first stepped foot on Swazi soil but I have been lucky enough to visit the country four times since. I have met seven new siblings, gone to my grandmother’s 100th birthday celebrations, taught in rural schools and got to know something of this verdant, undulant, landlocked little nation.

Swaziland is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. The present King, Mswati III, has enjoyed total power over his million subjects since his coronation in 1986.

The 45 year-old has a personal wealth estimated at £65m, two private jets, a fleet of luxury cars and last month, married his 15th wife.

Yet he rules over one of the planet’s poorest nations.

Almost 70% of the population lives below the international poverty line and Swaziland has one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates (26%) and the one of the lowest life expectancies (49 years).

Placed strategically between regional powerhouse South Africa and the potent Mozambique, resource-rich Swaziland doesn’t have to be poor.

But it’s hard to swim in a stagnant pool and the monarch’s tight grip on power has led to cronyism and an ineffective government.

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The ugly underbelly of private renting

When my mum first came to Britain from Jamaica in the 60s, overt racism was just a normal part of her day-to-day experience.

She never tires of telling me about the famous ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs that landlords put up on properties.

pic by Paul Joseph

pic by Paul Joseph

In those pre-equality regulation days, bigotry didn’t need to hide behind plastic smiles, it was allowed to roam free and unashamed.

The  Race Relations Act 1976 was supposed to put an end to all that and the Equalities Act 2010 seemed to reinforce the message that discriminating against someone because of the amount of melanin in their skin was simply not acceptable.

Among other measures, the Act made it:

“unlawful for a person who has the authority to dispose of premises to discriminate against or victimise someone else …by not letting or selling the premises to them.”

An undercover investigation by the BBC’s Inside Out London programme into discrimination in London’s private lettings industry aired last night. It showed that, for some letting agents, these laws are just obstacles to be navigated….

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Black history gets the Hollywood treatment

Hollywood has a very dubious history when it comes to telling the stories from Black history.
For years America’s guilt at the way it has treated it’s Black population saw Hollywood airbrush Black people out of many of the stories it told.

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If Native Americans were vilified in many Westerns, Black people were pretty much ignored. The almost all-white Wild West presented in these films bore little resemblance to the reality in which almost a quarter of cowboys were Black and even more were Hispanic.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) was widely credited with giving a more realistic view of the Wild West, and while it was a hugely entertaining and successful film, Django’s tale still had the familiar ring of the poor Black man being liberated by the kindly white man.

The ‘white saviour’ narrative has been repeated over and over again and has allowed stories that America finds difficult to tell seem more palatable.

For a film to work for mainstream audiences the perceived wisdom seemed to be that the stories of ethnic minorities need to be told through the lens of a character white audiences can relate to. Using the white saviour ploy allows a white audience to watch a film about oppression, even with white oppressors, and align themselves with the good white person and Black ‘victims’.

Read the rest of this feature on the TV Collective.

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The Butler serves up a chronicle of the Civil Rights movement

The Butler

I sat down to watch Lee Daniel’s The Butler, unsure about what sort of film I was about to see.

The film tells the story of Cecile Gaines, a black butler who served under seven presidents at the White House while the battle for Civil Rights engulfed the US.

I feared I was in for another sanitised view of the this tumultuous period of US history with black ‘victims’ nobly shouldering various insults with dignity and honour.

There were easy parallels to draw with The Help, Tate Taylor’s Oscar nominated screenplay, which looked at the lives of black housemaids serving white families in the Southern US during the same period.

While I enjoyed The Help, I was left feeling unfulfilled because the film focused so much on the White Saviour.

Even the title of Lee Daniel’s film brought up unpleasant memories of 80s Soap spin-off Benson, which saw Robert Guillaume play the eponymous wisecracking butler who had ideas above his station and on hearing the doorbell would frequently enquire ‘you want me to get that?’, infuriating his owners (sorry I mean bosses) the Tates.

What I got was in fact a nuanced look at the civil rights era through the eyes of Gaines, tenderly played by Forest Whitaker.

The film, based loosely on the life of former White House head butler Eugene Allen, chronicles Gaines’s journey from the cotton fields of Georgia to Obama’s Oval Office.

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster

Daniels, the director behind the excellent Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman and Precious, uses Gaines as a symbol of the African American generation that came before the revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s.

In the opening scenes of the film, a young Gaines watches as his mother is raped and his father is shot dead by a white cotton field owner.

We later hear Gaines describe the world he eventually finds beyond the cotton fields.

“No one would give me a job or food, no place to sleep. Any white man could kill anyone of us at anytime, and not be wanted for it. The law wasn’t on our side, the law was against us. I was hungry all the time.”

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the tension between Gaines and one of his two sons, Louis, played by British actor David Oyelowo.

Louis represents the civil rights generation. He’s ashamed of his father’s bowing and scraping and his father sees him as a hot-head who is doing nothing but bringing trouble down on the family and the black community in general.

Looking back, it’s easy to take Louis’s side in this argument and dismiss Cecil as an Uncle Tom who was too afraid to stand up and demand his rights in the way that his freedom bus riding, Martin Luther King following, Black Panther son does, but this would be a mistake.

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The film shows just how perilous it was to be black in the US in the first half of the 20th Century. Young Gaines and his generation had to endure the Strange Fruit of black bodies swinging from trees and the hand-to-mouth existence outside the quasi-slavery cotton fields.

It was their suffering that emboldened their children’s generation and gave birth to the church groups that cradled much of the early movement.

As Gloria Gaines angrily tells her son at the end of dinner scene, “Everything you are and everything you have is because of that Butler”.

Criticising this generation for not standing up to their oppression is as ridiculous as black people who now say, “I would never have been a slave, I just wouldn’t have put up with it”.

While those people definitely existed, most didn’t exist for very long.

The film also shows that Gaines eventually grows to appreciate the struggle that his son goes through. He realises that he should have supported him more and judged him less.

This is a message for both generations. We see how both relied on the other and that the political earth is constantly shifting beneath our feet.

The film, which also stars Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s long suffering, sometime cheating, wife Gloria; Cuba Gooding Junior as his wisecracking fellow butler Carter; and Terence Howard as his cuckolding friend Howard, topped the US Box Office when it was released there in August.

Much of the interest was in the portrayal of the seven presidents that Gaines serves under.

A host of stars including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan help give the story its historical context.

Most are shown either to grudgingly accept the Civil Rights movement or to be against it.

Ronald Reagan’s son Michael, has accused the film of portraying his dad as a racist because of his resistance to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

Reagan’s supporters point out he and Thatcher were worried about communist elements in the ANC which they feared would turn the country into another Cuba if the regime were brought down.

I believe you can never call anyone a racist because you can’t know another person’s soul. You can only judge their actions.

Whether you call the act of bolstering a regime, which was brutally oppressing its subjects on the basis of their skin colour, simply to ensure US and British companies continued to benefit from the oppression ‘racist’ or not seems a moot point.

These presidents and their various stances on black equality are a sideshow anyway. The film doesn’t claim to be a documentary, it’s a look at the 20th century black struggle in the US.

Another criticism which has a little more depth to it is that the film is yet another presentation of the suffering black people endured in past and is a form of guilt porn for white liberals.

I’d argue there are plenty of films portraying contemporary black life and either glorifying or denigrating the hardships this often involves. Reminding people how these hardships came to be is a good thing.

Louis progresses from a freedom rider, taking the abuse and turning the other cheek, to the much more radical Black Panthers who believed in delivering material benefits for black communities and determined self defence.

“We ain’t getting beat no more”, he tells his parents over a fractious dinner.

Eventually he becomes involved in mainstream politics and helps get Obama elected.

It’s this analogy for the black struggle that I have the most issue with.

The presented narrative is: things were bad, black people grinned and bore it, then they rose up, America saw sense and now we have a black president.

This is far too neat a tale and the ending which sees Gaines walking into the brightly lit doorway of Obama’s Oval Office to meet America’s first black president as if walking through the pearly gates, is an image too far.

No wonder Obama is said to have wept watching the film.

While I realise that this is a tidy way for the film to wrap up, I would have liked to see at least a nod to the continuing struggle.

Without this nod, The Butler feels like it lets modern America, the America of Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell, off the hook.

Jonathan Ferrell died for being black and scary

Jonathan Ferrell died for being black and scary

It seems to say: “Hey, your folks did all that horrible stuff but you guys voted for a black president, so we’re quits”.

I’m proud to be a member of Writers of Colour, a collective of writers trying to bring more diversity to mainstream media.