In this short essay for The Guardian, I tell the story of the British overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guiana, its sole colony in South America, in 1953. The piece engages with the conversation in the United Kingdom around attempts to rehabilitate and revise the history of empire and imperialism.
“The parable of the misconstrued red flag was as true for 1953 as for 1964, when it was fact. It imparts a lesson about the tragic consequences of outsiders misunderstanding Guyana’s landscape. That year, there was a shining moment of utopian possibility in the colony, and the emergency fractured its politics in ways sadly still evident. The most recent election was resolved in August after five months of impasse, with racialised violence a spectre throughout. Significant reserves of oil, discovered by Exxon five years ago, have created stakes for the rest of the world. Guyana still amounts to its resources for some. For those of us who carry the wounds of 1953 within us, as the heirs of divide-and-rule, the stakes have always been clear and heartbreaking.”
For The Nation, I write about about the Windrush scandal, the peril and the possibility documents hold for migrants and for scholars, and Hazel Carby’s “Imperial Intimacies,” a personal history of empire, race and so-called Britishness.
“The Windrush story—from the arrival of the first British Caribbeans to the piercing betrayals suffered by their descendants—goes to the existential heart of what it means to be British. David Lammy’s moment in Parliament pointed to the central dilemma for any descendant of Windrush in telling that story: It is a political one but also one inseparable from personal trauma. In her recent book Imperial Intimacies, Hazel Carby, a Windrush descendant, gives us both, narrating the struggle of black Britons to be accepted as British as well as the story of her own mixed-race family extending back to the 18th century. She frames her arguments as Lammy did, in the long arc of history that starts with the British slave trade and continues into the present. Wrestling with the ambiguities of her family history and the correct (as well as bearable) ways to use the personal, she forces us to rethink the very meaning of British identity, for both white and black Britons. One cannot understand British society today without understanding the role that racialization and empire have played in forming it.”
Racism served imperial capitalism well, and xenophobia serves neoliberalism and global plutocrats just as effectively. This Land Is Our Land is Suketu Mehta’s expression of rage at the cynical exploitation of inequality. In it, he makes debt his canvas, overlaying it with borders and borderlands that suggest what we owe migrants. Read my review of the book, with a nod to British artist Hew Locke’s artwork, at The New Republic.
For the New York Times Book Review, I wrote a piece about Valeria Luiselli’s novel in the shape of an archive and consider how it differs from other work (narrative nonfiction or testimonial poetry) that immerses us in the internal and external deserts that unaccompanied child migrants cross: “Which of us who has loved a child wouldn’t be moved by the evocative details of innocence snagged on the jagged fences of adult circumstance?”