“when we are worn out by our lives . . . we will turn to you as we do to our children—to the innocent, the ingenuous, the spontaneous. We will turn to you as to the childhood of the world. You are so real in your life—so funny, that is. Let us run away for a little while from our ritualized, polite civilization and let us relax, bend to those heads, those adorably expressive faces. In a way, you reconcile us with ourselves” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 132).
“Lay aside your history, your investigation of the past, and try to feel yourself into our rhythm. In a society such as ours, industrialized to the highest degree, dominated by scientists, there is no longer any room for your sensitivity. One must be tough if one is to be allowed to live” (Fanon 132).
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it is interesting to consider this in conjunction with recent and current events. News headlines over the past year have often concerned the #MeToo movement; over the past few weeks, at least in Britain, they have focused on the Windrush Generation speaking up over deportations. Both movements showcase how easy it is for people in power to deny the existence of people without that power. Powerful people use the strategies of objectification and isolation, as exemplified in the quotations from Fanon above, to enhance and reconcile their own existence at the expense of others, who are not allowed to escape the role assigned to them—or to express their feelings about that role. In both #MeToo and the Windrush protests, it has been the ability of groups (women or Windrush citizens and their children) to speak out collectively that has won support for individuals. Mental health is an insistence on existence—both a refusal to be silenced and an ability to access your connections with communities of the past and present. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many people have criticized #MeToo for its focus on white women, emphasizing the what Hazel Carby argues when she writes that “white women stand in a power relation as oppressors of black women” (“White Woman Listen!” 112). So while #MeToo has resonance with the Windrush protests in terms of their effects on people’s mental health, it is also important to recognize that they are not the same.
It is also important to be alert to how people are often distracted from the silencing and isolating of individuals through society’s acceptable narratives. The headlines on today’s BBC news demonstrated this nicely; the UK page on their website mentions “Sixty-three Windrush migrants ‘removed’” by the British government, but you must click on the headline to find out more. Right next to this headline, in larger font and with a picture, is the story that “Markle’s sister hopes dad will go to wedding” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk; accessed 13:09 EST 5/15/18). There is a caption under the headline and picture. The story of Meghan Markle, the new “black princess” is one that is being touted as proof that Britain has moved on from its racist past (https://www.buzzfeed.com/sandirankaduwa/itsamodernmarkle?utm_term=.wcm5P0XGO6#.lkobvK3AXw), but as with any royal wedding, it is also a way to distract the public from serious news—news which includes Windrush deportations and former Grenfell Tower residents, mostly poor and many of color, who are still struggling months after fire caused by unsafe appliances and construction materials destroyed their building. (But hey, Prince William helped paint their community centre: https://www.aol.com/article/entertainment/2018/05/15/prince-william-helps-paint-community-center-for-grenfell-tower-fire-victims-ahead-of-royal-wedding/23435180/).
One of the Windrush Generation threatened with deportation, Glenda Caesar points at a picture of her parents’ wedding that took place in 1968 in the UK. Credit: ITV News (http://www.itv.com/news/2018-04-11/windrush-generation-nhs-worker-lost-job-and-faces-deportation-despite-living-in-the-uk-for-more-than-50-years/).
Even if you accept the royal distraction, the wedding might not have the post-racial effects hoped for by some. Becoming a “princess” might not protect Markle from being silenced and isolated by British society. She could look to British children’s literature to find out what it means to be Black British “royalty”. Two books which highlight the mental health and identity formation of young black girls labelled as royalty are Nina Bawden’s Princess Alice (André Deutsch, 1985) and Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978), and they offer radically alternative visions as to how to survive as a Black British princess.
White British Bawden (best known for her novel about WWII evacuees, Carrie’s War) tells the story of a Black girl named Alice, adopted into the white Maclusky family along with several other children (none of the others are Black, though two are Asian). The cover illustration by Phillida Gili makes Alice’s place in the family clear; she is looking after the baby while all the other children are playing with toys or pets. Cinderella-like, she also cleans the house. Her family are grateful, but not to the extent that they help her. Despite this, when her biological father turns out to be an African prince, Alice fears “He might kidnap her and lock her up in his palace in Africa” (n.p.). She prefers to stay and clean house for her adopted family. Her adopted father tells her, “All my daughters are Princesses to me” (n.p.); by equating his “real” and adopted daughters, Mr. Maclusky erases Alice’s history and need for community; he affirms her place in the family, but at the expense of Alice’s identity formation as a Black person. She cannot belong to a British family and accept her Africanness.
Black British Errol Lloyd’s Nini, on the other hand, is denied neither history nor community. She wants to join a multiracial carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume and sits alone, crying. Her friend, dressed as a fairy godmother, does not tell her she has to toughen up or remain outside the carnival community; rather, her friend gives her a costume. “It was only a piece of cloth, but it fitted Nini perfectly” (n.p.) the text states. The cloth is not any random piece of cloth, but one resembling Kente cloth, the royal cloth of the Akan people; in it, Nini is able not only to join the community, but because of her costume, becomes Queen of the Carnival. The last line of the book is telling: “Nini talked about it all the way home” (n.p.). Her connection to community and history, unlike Bawden’s Alice, gives her a voice; she is not silenced or made to accept her place as less-worthy outsider.
This emphasis on the Blackness and Britishness of Black Britons is the only way to ensure a unified Britain. Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem, “The British” (Wicked World, Puffin 2000), not only highlights the mixture of people in Britain, but values all their contributions to Britain. “As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish/ Binding them together with English./ Allow time to be cool” (39). The poem does not, however, suggest that just mixing people will necessarily result in a nation. Zephaniah’s poem ends with a warning: “An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all” (39)—from the Empire Windrush to the tower block to the palace.