The parable of the red flag

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.”

The Jonestown We Don’t Know

An aura of contingency continues to surround Jonestown, so often portrayed as the tale of a lone madman, a charismatic crackpot who imploded in a random heart of darkness. In truth, as I have come to learn, Jonestown does not point to a singular erratic Svengali but, rather, to fundamental aspects of both my adopted and my home countries. About 70 percent of the community’s 914 dead were African Americans, whose precarious place in the country of their birth made them responsive to pitches to leave it. Their individual stories have been lost in the commemorations, an erasure that also obscures the systemic character of what unfolded. America in the 1970s was still so warped by the legacies of slavery that it inspired the followers of Jim Jones to dream elsewhere, and Guyana’s politics at the time made it fertile ground for their dreaming. 

Read more in my essay for The New York Review of Books Daily.