Not Feeling Too British Today

October 2022

History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.

—Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past


The day is hot, swelteringly and appropriately so—it is summer, after all, and virtually every front yard is abloom with flowers, their colors bold and bright as summer colors should be. This is the street I live on—have lived on for the last half-a-century almost—in what real estate agents once labeled a starter home in a starter neighborhood that because of obscenely high house prices has become the opposite of that descriptor. It’s where we, my family and I, ended up in mid-Toronto.

As I walk from the main thoroughfare of St. Clair West to my home, I sweat in the heat, and a body memory overtakes me—the experience of walking in the hot sunshine and sweating. Just as suddenly I am aware of the not-at-all-unpleasant smell of my own sweat—sharply fresh and somewhat astringent—and instantaneously I am “back home” in the Caribbean, walking to and from school, four times a day, and often sweaty in my blue-and-white uniform. Oddly, summer is the time I miss the Caribbean most—so similar in its abundance of heat, of green and of color. Winter—although now deeply loved despite a relationship begun as an arranged, even forced, marriage—remains alien. It is the consciousness of this return to an earlier time that brings to mind Proust and his madeleine, that now metonymic sweet treat that returns his memories to him, or is it him to his memories? In my own case it’s something more bodily—the smell of my own fresh sweat—that returns me to a time and place that is no longer there but that never leaves. It lingers.

I stand in a large hall with plenty-fuh-so children, most African, some Asian—all descended from the enslaved or indentured and under the age of eleven. This is Tranquillity Girls School in Port of Spain, the capital city of the former British colony Trinidad and Tobago, and I am about ten years of age. We are hot, we sweat, profusely, and we sing, singing our lungs out to the tune of “Rule Britannia,” made great by the sweat of others.1 We sing loudly, we sing lustily and sweatily—“Briiiitons nevah, nevah, neeehvah shall be slaves.” In another language, badenglish, we hot, we sweatin, and we singing we lungs out—“Ruuule Britanniah, Britanniah rules the waves,” and we stretching out the vowels dem, de as, de es, de is, os, and us, to the far, far-er—the far-est and fairest reaches of empire on which de sun never setting. We singing loud, loud, the way children does do, we singing as if, if it up to we, not one single Briton evah evah eeehvah becoming a slave. And as we sweating in the low-slung, tropical-style colonial building, jalousies all round to let in the “monkey-say-cool-breeze,” i knowing something that i don’t know that i knowing in that sweating, singing throng of black children like myself.2

It is the not-knowing that i know.

This extended moment of recollection occurs in that brief span of time between 9 and 19 August 2022, when the trappings of empire rise as if unbidden from a long deep sleep, a Leviathan summoned from its decades-long quietude awakens and rears its head: “The Queen is dead, long live the King.” And, in the wake of the death of the British Queen, it shakes itself and simultaneously shakes off the pretense of its death, making a mockery of the myth of the demise and entombment of empire and colonialism.3 There it was—dignified, matriarchal symbol of the British Empire in full bloom, the Queen’s picture taking up the entire front page of the Toronto Star just one day after the same page was dedicated to the 8 September 2022 massacre on the reserve of the James Smith Cree Nation. That previous front page had carried photos of the ten victims, all Indigenous, as well as an article about the event and the eighteen victims who survived. The links between the late British Queen and what she represented—the British Crown, the former British Empire, and colonialism in all its brutally varied forms—and this recent tragedy that had unfolded on the reserve are not only direct, as the back-to-back Toronto Star front pages unwittingly suggest, but are toxically intertwined and possibly even indissoluble.

I cannot bear to watch the events unfolding in the “metasphere” during the enforced period of mourning. I turn off the CBC, the closest thing to the official voice of the Canadian state that exists;4 I skim the only newspaper I have delivered, the Toronto Star, avoiding articles on the death of the Great White Queen. Everywhere I turn, I see that little girl in a blue uniform tunic, three big pleats at the front and three at the back, over a white blouse, I see her, descendant of the enslaved, singing that Britons never, never would be slaves, and know that I am seeing something else—that moment of not knowing what I don’t know and simultaneously being aware that I don’t know it. As I extrapolate backward, into that moment of knowing that I don’t know and not knowing what it is I didn’t know, memory telescopes to the focal point—the girl in the blue-and-white uniform—only to expand once again, as if being viewed through a wide-angle lens. The questions arise and linger: Why were we singing that song—Was a member of the Royal Family, the British Royal Family, visiting? Was it simply reinforcing our subject status? We were never told what the song meant. To the rulers. No one cared what it meant to us. I don’t recall ever singing it again.

The ten days of enforced mourning remind me of what it would be like living in the Caribbean, or any other hot country, for that matter, and trying to avoid the sun—the ever-present, ubiquitous sun. Everywhere all the time. The Great White Queen and the trappings of the Empire. Her life. Her death. It gives me an insight into what my parents, their parents, and their parents before them lived with. My late mother and others like her spoke of the births of their children in relation to the birthdays of children of the British Royal Family. I recall hearing of a family member who was named Jubilee in recognition of one of the many jubilees celebrated by the Royals. And simultaneously I deeply regret never having been able to take my mother to Buckingham Palace. She had wanted to visit, and I had wanted to make it happen. I hold these contradictory and often conflictual feelings within the container of my embodied memory as the long-dormant sinews and muscles of empire are allowed to flex, if only in pomp and pageantry.

These histories, memories, and stories related to how we lived under the rule of this family at the nucleus of the British Empire, a brutal institution for those who were neither White nor upper class, course through the veins of those like us who once sang of Britons never being slaves. Somatic memories are lodged in our body memory, our very cells, and the blanketing quality of the news about the passing of the Great White Queen activates unwanted memories and a desire to avoid any reference to her. This despite my being quite indifferent to her passing—she was but a cog, albeit an important one, in a much larger machine. When I grew up, it was not uncommon to hear someone, in response to being greeted and asked how they were doing, reply, “Not feeling too British today.” Interestingly, I didn’t hear anyone ever say they were feeling British, but it was clear that not feeling British was the equivalent of not feeling well or not feeling yourself. Not feeling too British today—ironically that was exactly how I was feeling in the wake of the death of the Great White Queen. Not at all British as I recalled that it was we, the descendants of African slaves, who were made to go out into the mad-dogs-and-English-men noon-day sun and sit, sweating again, in bleachers, or more often made to stand at the side of the road, still sweating, waving, flags or Black hands, as the gloved White hand rotated slowly from the open Rolls. And some of us, even being used to the heat and the sun as we were, still fainted—sweated and fainted.

Why, then, after entering the sixth form and being given the option of not having to go see Royalty as a reward, perhaps for being a sixth former, did my sixth-form classmates all rush to Memorial Park in Port of Spain to see the Duke of Edinburgh on a visit to Trinidad? They returned raving about how blue his eyes were! That earlier moment returns—the moment of knowing something that I don’t know. And becoming aware of the knowing of an absence. It is clearer this time—we had a choice; we didn’t have to go. But there is pageantry and there is pomp, and all cultures partake in their version of it, even after they’ve had it taken away from them. As had happened to those who sang of Britons never, never being slaves in the former British colonies of the Caribbean and all around the world. Indeed, the loss of pomp and pageantry was the least of the losses, when one considered the loss of language and of family, of kith and of kin, of the security of being of the dust and earth of the place you inhabit, and of knowing the gods and that they walk with you . . .

And the British doing pageantry very well, and besides, they feeling very British today—

Some five years into his dementia, my now-deceased father declared that he had been knighted by the Queen. The roots of colonization penetrate deeply. Into our psyches and our emotions, into our very brains that store our memories, and unmemories, as in my father’s case. The hippocampus, the neocortex, the amygdala, each connected to memory in specific ways, none able to withstand the virus of colonialism that eats away at all that protects us and produces the state of not feeling too British today. Having spent many years in the archives in England, he, my father, would subsequently spend as many writing to the Queen and the British government, as well as to the local newspapers, demanding that certain wrongs related to Tobago be corrected, most egregious of which was the 1899 legislation that yoked Tobago to Trinidad as a ward. Independence for Tobago, nothing less, was what he wanted. And so, along with announcing that he had fought in World War III, using bayonets, no less, he declared he had been knighted.

He would have gone to war on behalf of the Empire that consigned him and others like him to half-lives many, many levels below their ambitions and their capabilities, but his flat feet prevented him from fighting on the Great White Queen’s behalf. Had he fought in the war, I probably would not be writing this. His life would have no doubt taken a different path, if he had lived, that is. He would, eventually, become headmaster (principal) of a primary school, creating a family long on respectability but very short on money. And my response to his self-knighting was, “Why not, why the hell not?” And, having reclaimed his mother’s maiden name, he becomes Lord Yeates, one of those to whom I dedicate Zong! As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.5

I witnessed the heady excitement of the hectic days as the island moved across time and space and history from colony to independent nation in 1962. The voices of my parents weaving dreams of a new future for themselves and for their five children—free education!—were a counterpoint to the singing of “Rule Britannia” and the sweating and waving and fainting for those who did not care an iota about us. Only about how our sweat could enrich them. And just like that, “Massa day done,” or so De Doc said. De Doc, the affectionate term the populace bestowed on Dr. Eric Williams, scholar politician and author of the seminal work Capitalism and Slavery. “Massa day done.” What did I, all of fifteen going on sixteen, know of how long that journey would be—that sixty years later we would still be hard at it. How little I understood that his, De Doc’s, later exhortation that we relinquish Mother Africa and Mother India was impossible, both in light of seeds of conflict sown by racist colonial practices as well as because scattered spores that we were, blown like chaff across alien lands, we longed to connect with what we perceived to be the source. Despite the mistakes and errors, however, “Massa day done” would be a powerful counterpointed melody to “Rule Britannia” for that little girl who had earlier sung about Britons never being slaves. If asked how she was feeling, she could very well say: “Massa day done.” Today. However, while the knowing and understanding of this statement was of a more certain quality than the earlier knowing related to “Rule Britannia” (in part because she was older and in part because she had embodied some of that change—she had, after all, danced with hundreds of other students in the official independence ceremony), she understood that Massa day being done could be embraced only one day at a time.

It just so happens that I have tickets to go to the Stratford Festival, Ontario, the day after the announcement of the death of the Great White Queen, to see Death and the King’s Horseman (DKH) by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. I know the story but have never seen a production; in advance I think how apt it is that I’ll be seeing a play that deals with protocols surrounding the death of a King from a once colonized African culture, the Yoruba of Nigeria. I am not disappointed—the stellar production pays appropriate homage to a brilliant work whose story is a metaphor writ large for the damage and destruction that is the direct result of colonialism.

It is poignantly ironic to hear Iyaloja, the mother of the market, point out to Simon Pilkings, the British district officer, that the English too have their own protocols and practices surrounding the dead; she insists on the necessity of certain rites to ensure the continued well-being of the community. As the British themselves are in the process of doing. In the world of the play, Elesin, the King’s Horseman, must commit ritual suicide thirty days after the King’s death. Under our modern gaze, the practice appears shocking. Within the confines of the play, however, it is entirely necessary and accepted, and in preventing Elesin’s suicide by arresting and jailing him, the British rupture the fabric of the community. Elesin’s son, Olunde, attempts to repair that rupture; he assumes his father’s role and commits ritual suicide in his place. His act, however, is futile and does nothing to correct the grave and fatal disruption to the well-being of the community activated by colonial arrogance and racism; indeed, it becomes a striking metaphor for the disaster that has come as a consequence of colonialism in every nation and jurisdiction.

“The Leviathan of the Seas is it, the terrible shadow, the beast with a million eyes and a million ears—conquest, rape, plunder. . . . I studied your methods in school.” Those are the words of James Keziah Delaney, played by the British actor Tom Hardy in the 2017 film Taboo, whose setting is a dirty, mean London halfway into the second decade of the nineteenth century. His words describe the British Royal Navy. A classic antihero, Delaney is addressing and challenging a roomful of powerful English men who run the equally powerful East India Company, amongst whose ships’ cargoes are to be found enslaved Africans. I think of that little girl sweating in her blue uniform, singing about Britons never being slaves. I think about her and about the rape, plunder, and conquest that was synonymous with the Britannia of which she sang but knew even less. I think of “Massa day done,” and I recall the Mau Mau fighting for their land and Britain’s horrific torture of them. I think of the forced removal of enslaved Africans from their homelands to anywhere in the world; I think about the destruction of British colonial archives, either by fire or water, as they withdrew from certain colonies, carried out only by White British functionaries, otherwise known as Operation Legacy.6 I think about my mother and all the other women like her having to “pick rice” every day because the rice that was exported to Trinidad and Tobago was broken and dirty and had to be cleaned—picked—by hand. I think about the large, robust, and harried-looking woman whom I would see on the streets of Port of Spain, walking fast, and whom people called Britain. I think about Lord Yeates. I think about these memories, personally and otherwise accrued.

I see her more clearly now, that little girl in a blue pleated uniform. I smell the sharp clean smell of her sweat, like I do my own on this summer day in Toronto. She knows that there is something she doesn’t know and knows that she doesn’t know; something that is important and that gains its importance by not being known. Perhaps one aspect of it is the invisibility that Trouillot references in the epigraph; another, that place of knowing unknowing from which the work arrives. In Looking for Livingstone, for instance, Livingstone, one of the avatars of Victorian Empire and colonialism, is traveling through Africa on exploits that will glorify his queen and the Empire, renaming the marvel that is Mosiotunya, the smoke that thunders, with Victoria Falls.7 He meets the Traveller, who understands the havoc Livingstone is wreaking on the continent. In that novel the place of knowing unknowing that the blue-uniformed schoolgirl first intuited is contained in the idea of Silence that becomes the generative and generating force. In Coups and Calypsos, Rohan and Elvira, descendants of Mother India and Mother Africa, respectively, and themselves descendants of the enslaved and the indentured, struggle to make connection, to establish, dare I say, a “poetics of relation” in a world which, like that in DKH, is permanently upended—at war with itself.8 On these fragmented islands, absent the autochthonous, the aboriginal and the indigenous, two people of fragmented cultures, counterpointed by the griot attempting to lay bare the invisibled history, attempt a crossing of the divide of race and culture. They fail, but Elvira is moving toward that state of knowing unknowingness that she calls the darkness. And as for that chimera, emancipation, that Otoniya (Juliane) Okot Bitek explores—the idea of “Massa day done”—how could they who conquered, raped, and plundered ever take what was never theirs to take, that which was beyond them: the free of within, inside, and besides; of suck teeth, steups, cut eye, and arms akimbo? And, if it wasn’t theirs to take, how could they ever return it? Didn’t we always know that they who had sent us into the abyss were waiting for us, as the world was waiting for the sound of us? How could we ever think that they could give us what was always ours and that we would accept that which was ours? Always. Always it was. Ours. We ting. In the shadow of an empire already beginning to fracture, that girl, the one in the blue uniform, sweats in the heat and still sings—she knows and also knows that she doesn’t know, although not what it is she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know. The knowing is sufficient, however. She, the girl in the blue-and-white uniform, feels the beads of sweat on her face, on her body, remembering how she reach into the unknown—seeking connection, longing for relations, through the conditional . . . if . . . only . . . . She hadn’t yet learned the subjunctive, but was aware of the possible, the hypothetical. Subjunctive, from subjunctivus, meaning “to join beneath”—it is all joined underneath. It is all about the conditional—the maybe’s and the could be’s; the if’s and the if not’s—“If not in yours / In whose / In whose language” are we not the “beautyful ones” . . . not yet born, already born?9


m. nourbeSe Philip

[1] In 1740, James Thomson composed a poem by the name “Rule Britannia,” which was set to music in the same year by Thomas Arne. The song is associated strongly with the Royal Navy as well as the British Army.

[2] “Monkey say cool breeze” is a colloquial vernacular Trinbagonian expression meaning: just wait, the offender will get their just deserts, somewhat akin to karma.

[3] The Queen of the British Royal Family is almost always referred to as “the Queen” in the media, without the qualifier or descriptor “British,” suggesting that she is the only queen. While one could say that the British Royal Family is the preeminent royal family, it is important that this carefully nurtured error be challenged.

[4] The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, more often known as the CBC, is a Canadian public broadcaster that is also a federal Crown corporation funded by the government. It provides radio and television broadcasts in both official languages.

[5] M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).

[6] Operation Legacy was a program carried out by the British Colonial Office (later to become the Foreign Office) between the 1950s and 1970s. Its purpose was to prevent certain documents from falling into the hands of its ex-colonies. Documents were burned or carried out to sea and sunk.

[7] M. NourbeSe Philip, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (Montreal: Centre for Expanded Poetics and Anteism, 2018).

[8] M. NourbeSe Philip, Coups and Calypsos: A Play (1996; repr., Toronto: Mercury, 2001).

[9] M. NourbeSe Philip, “Meditations on the Declension of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheek-Bones,” in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 27; Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Houghton Mifflin, 1968).


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