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Centering the colonized in a time of mourning

In honoring Queen Elizabeth, the grief of colonized people and their descendants must matter

Queen Elizabeth II inspects men of the newly renamed Queen's Own Nigeria Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force, at Kaduna Airport, Nigeria, during her Commonwealth Tour, Feb. 6, 1956.Fox Photos/Getty Images

Colonialism does not cry, grieve, or acknowledge the losses of those they colonized and their descendants. It expects those they colonized to cry for them. This is the Black mourning of White supremacy. It is obscene. It is enraging. And it is why Queen Elizabeth II is more than a woman, a mother, and a grandmother being mourned by her children, grandchildren, and millions. The reign of England’s longest-ruling monarch represents the blood, the bone, the soil, the struggle, and the graves of millions of people across Africa, the Caribbean, and in England.

Her reign spans a history of African nations fighting for freedom, land, and self-determination. It began in 1952 when she became queen. That year, thousands of Kenyans were buried by the brutality of British soldiers as they resisted the violent drumbeat of colonial White supremacy. They were the Mau Mau, a resistance movement created to take back land for Kenyans, end colonial rule, and fight for their freedom. The descendants of those who fought and died carry dual legacies: the loss of family and the pain of what their parents and grandparents endured.

Their grief matters.

Kenyan Mau Mau veterans attend a press conference at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 6, 2013.Phil Moore/AFP via Getty Images

In 2012, I remember seeing former Mau Mau warriors, elderly Kenyan men, gripping their canes, backs bent by torture from British soldiers, as they pressed their cases before the British government and won. Their eyes held the horrors they endured. From 1952 to 1960, thousands of Kenyans — men, women, children — were held in detention camps in what was called The Kenyan Emergency. Thousands were tortured, maimed, and executed because of their refusal to bow to the queen and colonialism. Those who survived lived with horror stories. Kenyan women were killed; many could never become mothers because of British brutality. So, too, there were men who could never become fathers.

Their grief matters.

Kenyan’s fight for freedom and refusal to bend to White supremacy was met with brutality, torture, and murder by British soldiers. To add insult to injury, when British Foreign Minister William Hague announced a multimillion pound settlement with the aging Mau Mau in 2013, he proclaimed, “There were atrocities on both sides.”

Kenya’s anger at such an obscene comparison matters. Anger is part of grief.

I am London-born. My dad, born in colonial Ghana, was a fierce pan-Africanist who also had affection for the queen. There are many of his generation who hold both fondness and anger for Queen Elizabeth, her reign, and what she represents. I share their anger. I don’t share their affection. As a journalist, I have traveled to multiple African nations, including Kenya, and am a self-described global Black chick. When you fly into Nairobi, the plane taxis down a runway built by Kenyans forced into labor in the service of colonialism. Their bodies dropped from exhaustion. That labor, that loss, tore apart families. Across the Caribbean, colonialism separated families, transformed futures, shaped identities, and changed worlds.

Their grief matters.

Queen Elizabeth II with President Kwame Nkrumah during her tour of Ghana, November 1961.Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The language of “Whiteness” is a narrative that teaches us all how the world came to be, and our role in it as Black, Brown, Asian, and White people. That narrative says that Whiteness is the world: It built the world, it saved the world, and it civilized the world. The narrative teaches that Black people were savages who needed saving and civilizing. That mindset led to placing Whiteness at the very center of existence. This centering of Whiteness continues to this day, and with it comes an internalized emotional violence against Black people by White people.

With it, comes this expectation of Black mourning for White supremacy.

Whose grief matters?

This is more than a question. The grief of the colonized and their descendants must matter. It is how we arrive at a healing that centers humanity and decenters Whiteness. It is because of this need for a humanity-centered healing that The 1952 Project was born. It explores the toll of colonialism on Africa, the Caribbean, and England. Under the themes of loss, legacy, grief, and healing, this project examines the toll and legacy of colonialism, how it manifests, and how it shapes notions of national, cultural, and personal identity.

The project will reckon with and examine how that shaping nurtured Englishness (Whiteness) as a pinnacle, an identity to covet, defend, and exalt. We must first grieve a narrative that nurtures self-hatred as an aspiration, and then we dismantle it. This is about the emotional collapse of empire. And this process begins by creating sacred spaces to pour out the epic pain, grief, and anger due to colonialism.

The royal family understandably grieves for the queen, their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Black people grieve for our families, our lineages, our queens and kings; we grieve for all that was taken, and the legacy that lingers.

Our grief matters.

Esther A. Armah is the author of “Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing,” CEO of The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, and creator of The 1952 Project.