I’m sitting here, breathing in, breathing out, as I wonder: “Who am I and why am I here?” – little questions with enormous significance and even more so when we're considering anew our collective identity. Continuing the racist, xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP's Leave campaign, Nigel Farage at 4am declared the Brexit victory as a "victory for real people", dehumanising large swathes of the population. But my heart beating inside my brown-skinned body tells me that I, too, am a real person.
“Immigration” has become a dirty word bandied about by Leave campaigners with UKIP’s notorious “Breaking Point” poster, forgetting how much immigrants have done not to break but make the country. This week, Jo Cox’s husband, Brendan, spoke about his belief that she was killed for her politics, and how politics has become geared towards “creating division and playing on people’s worst fears rather than their best instincts” – how true that seems today.
“Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration,” said Jo Cox in her inspiring maiden speech. All too often, we're unaware of this. In the furore about immigration, about why there are people who look or sound different, with a different skin colour and/or speaking different languages – it helps to get back to a basic history lesson. It's knowledge we need to overcome deep-rooted ignorance and fear.
While growing up, I knew little about the migration stories in my history. Growing up in 80s and 90s Manchester, I learnt about Henry the VIII's six wives in meticulous detail and vividly remember colouring in their fine costumes, but I don’t remember being taught the stories of England's colonial history. I don't remember being taught anything about why I – a brown-skinned girl – was sitting in a classroom in northern England. I remember singing at school "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves", but I don’t remember being taught about the effects of so-called Britannia's epic journeys to rule the waves. Every day, I walked down the so-called “Curry Mile” in Rusholme, where school was situated, but I don't remember the school syllabus explaining how there came to be such a vast array of cultures and cuisines in our city, that part of British history which resulted in so many journeys across the world.
I find it alarming when, in some instances, those of immigrant histories themselves turn against new waves of immigrants, forgetting that they or their ancestors were once in the same position of making a new home elsewhere
Despite having been born in Britain, my identity is often called up for questioning.
“Where are you from?” is a question I’m often asked (a question which can get wearying, but worse perhaps is the lack of questions – assumptions that brown-skinned people are all from the Same Place, from some shady Land of Immigrants, the Other Place, ignoring all nuance).
I have a short response and long response.
“Manchester,” I answer.
“No, but where are you originally from?”
“Old Trafford, which is part of Stretford, Manchester,” I answer, cutting a long story short.
The question wrapped inside that question is: why are you here? How did you come to be here? [and from some right-wing nationalists: shouldn't you Leave and go back to where you come from...]
So here’s the story of where I’m from, in a nutshell:
Once upon a time, in the 19th century, indentured labourers (known as “Gladstone’s coolies”) were brought from British India to Guyana to toil in sugar-cane plantations – my maternal ancestors made this journey. My mother was born in the village of Berbice, Guyana (geographically in South America but also part of the "Caricom") – whereabouts her ancestors are from in India she can only guess. Fifty years ago, in 1966, British Guiana became Guyana following independence from Britain. Aged 21 years old, my mother migrated to England alone, after gaining a nurse traineeship, and remembers the shock of arriving in the winter, the trees stripped bare of blossom.
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Once upon a time, Kenya was ruled by the British and that is where my father was born, his parents having journeyed from India to Nairobi. Following Kenyan independence from Britain, my father, aged 19, migrated to the UK. They met in England and married in Manchester – where I was born, as a complex result of multiple migrations.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But this is not only my history, but part of Britain's history, too (why I was born in Britain – why I’m here – is a direct result of Britain having colonised India, Guyana and Kenya – of Britain once being there). We need to become more educated about all parts of British history – they should become part of the narrative of the country and not a forgotten footnote of history.
Everybody has their once upon a time. And there are not effects without causes. As for new waves of immigrants, it’s crucial that we understand why they are here too, and Britain’s part in that, and how war and political and environmental catastrophe have led to the worst refugee crisis in modern times, with more displaced people than since World War Two. I find it alarming when, in some instances, those of immigrant histories themselves turn against new waves of immigrants, forgetting that they or their ancestors were once in the same position of making a new home elsewhere.
It's also vitally important to remember the once upon a time of Europe too, with European integration post-World War Two being a concept based on peace not war, and an alternative to destructive, extreme nationalism which, waking up this morning, seems more rampant than ever.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," warned George Santayana, but many in power still insist on forgetting. We urgently need to open up conversation and dialogue instead of fatally forgetting. Love triumphing over hate was a message to take from the #MoreInCommon events this week – and that's a message we need to do everything to spread, for love humanises us. We should be bringing up into the raw light of day hidden histories, the wealth of buried stories about who people are and how they came to be here. There’s a whole world of untold stories that deserve to be shared to better understand the Britain we live in today – from those who are also, Mr Farage, real people.