My family lived in Jamaica under British rule. Their struggle should not be forgotten.
Most of my mother’s stories of growing up in Jamaica had a common theme of shame and poverty. Somehow my mom and grandmom were able to reconcile their resistance to colonialism with their love of the Queen.
The pomp and circumstance of the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II is over, but her legacy is still up for debate. She has been described as a complicated woman, with a complicated family, who had a complicated relationship with the millions of people she ruled over during her 70-plus years on the throne.
It wasn’t that complicated. It was colonialism.
The British monarchy for me will always symbolize imperialism, empire and its legacy of slavery and displacement. Of poverty and partition. Of political murder and white supremacy.
As a child of West African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, the generational trauma of imperialism was part of my everyday life.
The rampant colorism, classism and blind fealty to an abusive and exploitative church all featured heavily in my upbringing.
And yet when I heard the news of the queen’s passing, it took my breath away.
I could feel the weight of history bearing down on me at that moment. But it wasn’t just the history of Queen Elizabeth and the royal family. It was my own history. The history of my mother, my grandmother and of all my Jamaican family.
A sense of pride
My lifelong interest in Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family was spurred by my mother and grandmother. Both women were born in Jamaica when the nation was still under British rule. Despite their feelings about the imperialist forces that worked against them, for most of their lives on that island, they both felt deep affection and respect for the queen.
My mom in particular felt a sense of pride in the monarchy that was never completely understood by her American children. Her life in Jamaica was one of poverty and hardship.
She was born Delores Nicely in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on Feb. 2, 1941, and immigrated to America in the late 1960s. She was the fifth of seven children born to my grandmother Keturah Matheson, who was born in St. Ann’s, Jamaica, in 1911, just days before the coronation of George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather.
Most of my mother’s stories of growing up in Jamaica had a common theme of shame and poverty. She told us about the jeers from her classmates at her shoes, which were no more than tire rubber strapped to her feet. Gathering scraps of fabric to make ribbons for her hair. Often going to bed hungry because there wasn’t enough food for her and six siblings.
There was, however, one fond memory from her childhood. It was the story of when Queen Elizabeth II came to Jamaica in 1953 two years after she ascended the throne. My mom and grandma lit up as they spoke about the preparations for that day. How they stayed up all night preparing. My mom washed her school uniform and polished her shoes. My grandma combed her children’s hair and cleaned the house from top to bottom.
These towering matriarchs of my family spoke of this day with such pride. It was as if the queen had come to Spanish Town to visit them personally. That recognition from the monarchy buoyed their spirits and made them feel a part of something larger than themselves.
The British seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The island remained a colony of Britain until 1962, after a decades-long independence movement by Jamaican leaders. The colonial model of Jamaica was one where colorism, sexism, featurism and other dynamic social and economic divisions that reinforced white supremacy were the law of the land over the people.
While we may be baffled by the official response from Jamaica’s government to the queen’s death, Jamaicans have not forgotten the role the monarchy played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how the royal family and the British government continue to profit from their oppression of Black and brown people across the globe.
My biggest fear is the stories and faces of those who lived under the empire will die along with the queen. News anchors have repeated the phrase “the end of an era” over and over since her death. The struggles of my mother and grandmother and the people of Jamaica, and of all the nations that were colonized by Great Britain, cannot be forgotten. Yes, many of them have passed on, but their passions and hopes for the future live on in their descendants.
My mom never made it to England to see the queen or her palaces. I traveled to London this week and left a bouquet of flowers at the gates, with pictures of my mom and grandma tucked inside. I signed their names on the card because I believe it is what they would have done if they had the opportunity. They were neither critics nor subjects — though their labor and the labor of my ancestors propped up the great houses of the monarchy and the British empire. Somehow they were able to reconcile their resistance to colonialism with their love of the queen. It’s like loving someone who doesn’t love you back. As a Black American, I can relate to that. I guess it’s quite complicated after all.
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