Written by Thushari Perera
Historian A.J.P. Taylor, like many others who declined royal honours, said that “The Establishment draws its recruits from outside as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards… There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing so corrupting.”
In a similar vein, Rasta Poet Benjamin Zephaniah set high moral standards when he refused an OBE in 2003. In a must-read Guardian article Professor Zephaniah wrote: “I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters.”
Almost two decades later, David Olusoga, BBC presenter and Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, seemed almost compelled to explain why he accepted his royal honours. He wrote in the Guardian “I dislike the link to empire, but it felt wrong to turn down an OBE. For many black Britons, such awards are flawed but every honour we accept advances us and is a mark against racism.” Olusoga also later revealed his working-class background.
Is the Empire Retro?
Cambridge Professor Priyamvada Gopal sardonically replied to Olusoga that even Bengali literary giant and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had returned his knighthood in solidarity with his fellow countrymen massacred in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. Gopal also pointed out that “the E-word” is not “a retro empty term”, especially now that “aspirations to a resurgent imperial global grandeur have resurfaced, so explicitly and harmfully in the case for Brexit.”
As Gopal explains, Zephaniah, unlike Olusoga, linked his rejection of an OBE “not just to past atrocities or a ‘betrayal’ of enslaved ancestors but to the very real afterlife of empire…dispossession and the retention of the spoils of empire.” Gopal also observes that “Olusoga and others are fully entitled to their personal choices and private compromises. What is more questionable is the presentation of these personal decisions as politically sound choices made selflessly in the name of all black Britons.”
Are there any South Asian Women in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list?
While mainstream British media is preoccupied by British honours received by men, there is less focus on women, even less on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women. Bizarrely, even the Architect of the “hostile environment” policy who was named in the honours list had mainstream media coverage.
British South Asian women who receive royal honours are the least talked about, except perhaps in India or specialist community local media. Even these media outlets usually prefer to emphasise the achievements of healthcare professionals or scientists rather than people working in the museums, arts and cultural sectors.
It is worth reminding that very few people receive royal honours? According to the Museum Association, “In total, 1,073 people received awards, three-quarters of whom were recognised for their service to their local communities. Women make up 47% of this year’s recipients, 10.4% are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, 5.9% consider themselves to have a disability and 2.8% identify as LGBT.”
M.I.A. and Sara Wajid both named Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)
M.I.A. the singer and Sara Wajid, a heritage professional, were yet both named as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) last June. M.I.A., a British-Sri-Lankan-Tamil global pop star, who also worked with Madonna, said on Instagram that she accepted the MBE for “services to music” in honour of her mother: “She is one of the 2 women in England who hand stitched these medals for the last 30 years. After receiving asylum my mum and cousin took this job in 1986, because it was the only non English speaking manual labour she could find. She spent her life in England hand sewing 1000s of medals for the Queen. No matter how I feel or what I think, my Mother was extremely proud of the job she had. It’s a very unique situation for me where I get to honour her most classiest minimum wage job ever.”
Sara Wajid, the Head of engagement at the Museum of London and co-founder of Museum Detox, a network for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic professionals, also received an MBE for “services to culture and diversity”. Wajid, a highly-driven individual ticks all the boxes. A former journalist, Wajid studied at the University of Sussex and the School of African and Oriental Studies. Agile communicator, she was part of the Arts Council “Changemakers” cultural activists group at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, that she humbly self-describes as “state sponsored dissenters.” As for her MBE, Wajid said to the Museum Association news that “The fact that this incredible award still comes wrapped in the outdated language of empire is the starkest reminder to me of how urgently we need to decolonise our culture and society and the invaluable work of the Museum Detox network on this front.”
A New Museum of London in the City
According to the Camden New Journal, Wajid is currently working on the relocation of the Museum of London from Moorgate into an empty building in West Smithfield by Farringdon station, which is set to open in 2024. “It’s the biggest cultural project in recent times. I am responsible in engaging Londoners in the project. We are the people’s history and our collection reflects the full diverse spectrum of London,” she said.
The smooth running and delivery of this project includes a cash injection of several millions of pounds according to the Museum of London’s Annual Report 2018. The decolonisation process seems to be in full swing with the likes of Sharon Heal (Director of the Museums Association) endorsing the “decolonisation” of collections and programming. It has to be hoped that museum workforce diversity, which remains desperately static according to a recent report – with BAME people particularly underrepresented at museums in England – will have significantly improved by the time the new Museum of London opens its doors to the public.
As for the Museum Detox network, it is developing a new partnership with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).
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