Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Queen

[Yesterday I was browsing through 'Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)' by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, as you do, and I came across the following story. Trinidad-born Stokely Carmichael - one of the key figures associated with 'Black Power' in 1960s America - was invited over to London in May 1967 to speak at the 'Dialectics of Liberation' conference. His presence in Britain was not tolerated by the Labour Government of the day, and he was soon deported, but at the conference he met a fellow Trinidadian 'Michael X', who seems to have thought of himself as a kind of British version of Malcolm X, and was incidently the first person prosecuted under the Race Relations Act (typical British law - introduce a piece of legislation to tackle racism and then prosecute a black guy). Anyway to get to the point, I'll let Stokely tell the story of his encounter with 'Brother Michael.']

'I was there, talking with some students, when I noticed this short, muscular, redbone-looking brother coming toward us. You couldn't help noticing him. Something about him set him apart from the students. Something a bit too flashy in his clothes or his style? Or his walk, not exactly a swagger or a strut, but vaguely and unmistakeably "street".
"Oh, oh, there's that Michael X", a Jamaican sister said, not entirely approvingly, adding with a grimace, "The press calls him the British Malcolm X." I'd heard about the brother. I began to really check him out. By some accounts he was of "unsavoury charcter" and something of a player. And, as I quickly learned, a performer. When our eyes met, he broke out this beaming, wide smile and threw his arms wide.
"Oh, God, Brother Carmichael, is you? You the very man I come to see, boy. The very man, oh God, boy, oh God, boy."
There was nothing British - much less Oxford - in the brother's accent. It was pure San Fernando, back o'bridge. I felt like it might have been deliberately exaggerated to mark not only our common Trinidad origins, but his own class distance from the "bourgeois" students standing around.
"Yeah, boy, I does need your advice for true. I believe I jus' mess up bad bad, man. Oh, God, boy, listen this." By which time he had, as intended, commanded the attention of everybody and launched into a story about a meeting he'd just attended with "some decent, very respectable people, boy" on solutions to "the growing racial problem in Britain."
These "respectable people" included an Anglican bishop, assorted vicars, an Oxford don, some retired colonial civil servants, and a sprinkling of highly respectable and accomplished coloured folk, even a black baronet...Sir Learie Constantine, a great West Indian cricketer who'd been knighted.
These good people, deeply distressed by the increasing racism being directed at the growing immigrant community by the British public, had been meeting over tea to explore initiatives to try to counter this.
"So now they come up with this plan which they think is good. But see they don't want to go forward with it before, and unless, checking it with the masses, we common folk, eh? So they invite me to tea. I guess the street militant, yes. The bishop's wife, she ask the name of my organization. I say, 'RAAS.' She look shock. 'That's the name of the organization, ma'am. RAAS [The Racial Adjustment Action Society]. 'Oh,' she say.
"They all now looking at me right strange. So I say, 'Well, yes. I certainly agree that this racism is deplorable. Quite unworthy of the British people, yes. But I glad such distinguished people taking an interest, eh. Gives one hope, eh, what? I real honoured to be there.' I cock my little finger, sip my tea, and try to look serious an' respectful.
"Well, they say. After much thought and discussion they arrive at a proposal which had possibility. They had concluded that the situation was sufficiently grave, that the sovereign herself should intervene. Oh, God, I thinking, the queen? What that ol' bat goin' do? You ever hear she talk, boy? Give a speech, eh? But I jest sip my tea and look interested.
"Yes, we believe it is incumbent on Her Majesty to set the tone. An example to the nation. A gesture simple yet direct. Dramatic and unmistakeable yet appropriate. But what form should this take?
"'Well, yes', I say. 'Is a brilliant idea for true.' But in truth, boy, I now wondering the same thing. What form? They all smile and nod agreement.
"'Well', the bishop wife say. 'As you know, Mr. X, the very best ideas are sometimes the simplest.' They pretty sure they have such an idea, but they want to run it by me, so, as it were, to benefit from my unique and valuable perspective.
"'Okay,' I say. 'Be happy to help if I can.'
"'What we were thinking, are thinking,' say the bishop, 'is that perhaps, we here acting as a body, might, privately of course, prevail on Her Majesty to adopt a black child. Would that not be salutary? A splendid example, what?'
"They all looking at me now. I now look pensive, boy. I sip my tea, screw up my face, and grunt, 'Yeah.' I mutter. 'A black child, uh-huh.' Finally they say, "Well, Mr, ah, X, what do you think?'
"'Oh, is brilliant,' I say. 'Absolutely inspired.' They begin to beam and smile.
"'Only one thing,' I say. 'It might could be better.' They all stop smiling and look puzzled. 'How so?' they ask.
"'Well...I thinking now. The queen, she still quite a young woman, yes?'
"'Yes, relatively speaking. Perhaps, but why...?'
"'Well, instead of advising Her Majesty to adopt a black child...why don' we...why ain' we just go ahead and ask her to go on and have a black baby, eh?'
"Talk about a long silence, boy. Then...
"'Good heavens, man. You can't...you can't mean actually...actually...um...giving birth?'
"I say yes, tha's exactly what I saying. Ain' you looking a striking example of racial tolerance? This'll be an example not just to the nation, but to the world.
"Boy, the meeting break up just so. I doubt they go ask me back. But tell me, Bro Stokely, you think I wrong?"
Then he cracked up, enjoying himself shamelessly. That was our first meeting. I'd figured the story was a tall tale in the Sterling Brown tradition, but later other people would assure me that such a meeting had indeed taken place.'

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