The Importance And Necessity of Black Self-determination

Bishop Joe Aldred shares the scriptural inspiration behind his latest book, Flourishing in Babylon: Black British Agency and Self-Determination

At a time when the oppressive white separatist apartheid system operated in South Africa – under which Black South Africans were legally denied their humanity, including their democratic voice – activist Steve Beko insisted: “I write what I like.” When Old Testament prophet Habakkuk was troubled about prevailing injustices in society and the apparent inactivity and silence of God, the prophet was told to “Write the vision” God had shared with him, so that a herald might take it to the people.

In 2019, at the scene of the slow and painful death of African American George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer – while colleagues and a crowd looked on – one person filmed the incident which was then broadcast to the world, leading to universal protests and action against racial injustice, driven by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Windrush Scandal

In 2018, when the Windrush Scandal broke, I became furious at what I saw as an inappropriate representation of the Windrush Generation (people from the Commonwealth – including me – who settled in the UK between 1948-1973) as a people wholly caught up in the government’s hostile environment legislation. They were unable to prove their right to UK citizenship – the right to live and work – and were consequently being denied such rights. I immediately wrote a blogpost entitled ‘Not in my name’, in which I distanced myself from the national public narrative and insisted that the overwhelming majority of the Windrush Generation were diligent and informed citizens who had kept appropriate documentation up to date, and had not been caught up in the hostile legislation-inspired Windrush Scandal.

I was correct about the majority; however, a small minority suffered untold pain and injustice; were denied rights; and were deported for being unable to prove their entitlement to citizenship. Appropriately, documentation and compensation schemes have been set up to address the wrongs. Sadly, the hostile environment legislations remain on the statute books when, in my opinion, they should be repealed. I remain angry at the pain caused to those who suffered, and at the public narrative that typecast and infantilised the entire Windrush Generation as objects of national white pity for being the unwitting victims of these ungodly pieces of legislations.  

What the foregoing shows are some varied reasons that drive people to write. Styles and capabilities vary as widely as depicted in the New Testament story of the distribution of talents, with some having one, some two and some five (see Matthew 25).

The lesson Jesus seems to have in mind is for us to learn to value and work with what we have and seek to add to it – never to bury, hide or undervalue it. Of uttermost importance is the content of the message the talent conveys. Sometimes when I read other writers, I am full of jealousy at their smooth, complex and erudite narratives, but I also know they are not expressing what I want to express. My instincts often juxtapose my thought patterns against dominant arguments and trends. It never occurs to me to run with the crowd; I am the ultimate unheard narrator! The only way for the sentiments and thoughts inside me to emerge is for me to write, using what talent I possess, which is a work of lifelong learning and development.

The impact of George Floyd

Flourishing in Babylon: Black British Agency and Self-Determination was birthed out of the nexus of the COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd murder, and fascination with my Christian Pentecostal tradition’s take on Jeremiah 29:11 that ignores the wider context of Jewish exile in Babylon contained in the book. In sum, Black British people were again popularly caricatured as hardworking but hapless and helpless victims of COVID-19. Faring worse than everybody else in society, we were more likely to catch the virus and more likely to suffer and die from it. Our fate was in the hands of others: we had no agency; no power of self-determination; we existed at the ill or goodwill of others.

George Floyd lying helpless under the knee of the police officer was a symbol of the helplessness of Black British people in the face of the racist disadvantage we face, bereft of personal and group agency, and self-determination, existing – or not – at the whim of a racist system, condemned to suffer and die from race hate. If Black British people have any hope, it lies in agencies and powers of determinations beyond themselves, in the hinterland of white saviourism that has not saved them in the past but is their only hope now.

The relevance of Jeremiah 29

It’s against this tide of dependency on the other for hope of prosperity – looking away from self in despair of a perceived infantilised existence of ethnic disadvantage and disparities – that my Pentecostal upbringing says NO! Black British people are humans made in the image of God (imago Dei) with agency, power of self-determination, and a plan. However, Jeremiah 29:11 has to become more than an optimistic plan when it says, ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”’ God’s declared intention needs to be understood not as a fait accompli but as a call to action to make what heaven has declared come upon the earth.

Flourishing in Babylon: Black British Agency and Self-Determination therefore is a call to arms. It locates God’s intentions for us within a schema contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, encouraging them to adopt a plan for their survival, prosperity and eventual return home, based on a new cosmological frame of reference for God, their oppressors, and themselves. Simply put, ‘settle, build and grow’ was to be their watchword as they took their destiny into their own determinative hands, leading to prosperity and flourishing in Babylon. I write commending deployment of agency and self-determination as the vehicle capable of taking Black British people successfully to the place all humanity desires – one of humans flourishing in the company of each other and of Creator/Sustainer God.

Bishop Joe Aldred is a retired Christian ecumenist, writer, speaker and broadcaster.

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