In the days that followed the death of Queen Elizabeth II, her legacy was 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.
Jamaica is observing 12 days of mourning to mark the passing of the queen. Flags will be flown at half mast and the government has recommended no celebratory activities take place. It’s confusing, I know. Why mourn a monarch who for all intents and purposes is the symbol of oppression and institutional racism? The head of an empire that has siphoned resources from your country and ruled through terror and torture leaving behind nothing but a legacy of intergenerational trauma.
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 emigrated to America in the late 1960s. She was the fifth of seven children born to my grandmother Keturah Matheson who was born in St. Anns, 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 hungry because there wasn’t enough food for her and six siblings.
Her stories were heartbreaking and she was often moved to tears when she told them. The pain and shame never really left her.
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.
They didn’t own a camera, so there are no pictures from that day. I have scanned old newsreels from the British archives and pored over old pictures, looking at the faces of the Jamaicans who gathered that day. I never found any photos, but when I close my eyes I can picture them there.
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.
We visited Spanish Town many times during my childhood. My mother would play tour guide and point out all the brightly-colored colonial buildings as we drove through the old capital. The House of Assembly was once home to Jamaica’s Supreme Court, and the old Governors Mansion is the site of the 1838 proclamation of the abolition of slavery. They are the same landmarks the queen saw when she came in 1953.
The British seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. The island remained a colony of Britain until 1962, after a decadeslong 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.
In her paper Deviously Ingenouious: British Colonialism in Jamaica, scholar Michele Lemonius argues how British colonialism and the use of slavery in Jamaica was nothing more than a tool for British supremacy over global trade. The empire Queen Elizabeth inherited was never one of love and compassion for the people who lived there. It was an economic weapon.
So many memes and TikToks emerged in the wake of the queen’s death to remind the world of the cruelty of empire. While they are humorous, they are also in themselves a form of protest, and I find that commendable. But there is almost a lightheartedness to the comedy that accompanied the messages, and that can be somewhat disheartening.
These faceless and nameless people who were colonized by the British deserve more than memeification. They should be honored and revered for their ability to endure hardship. For their resilience, strength and unrelenting dedication to freedom at whatever cost.
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 transatlantic 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 mother made it to New York in her late 20s. She finished her education and worked as a nurse. She married my father and together they moved to the lofty suburbs of Westchester, N.Y. with their three girls. She lived a good life here and achieved things I don’t think she would have been able to achieve had she stayed in Jamaica. She died of cancer in 1999. I was 17 years old.
My mom never made it to England to see the queen or her palaces. I travel to London this week and plan to leave a bouquet of flowers at the gates with pictures of my mom and grandma tucked inside. I will sign their names on the card because I believe it is what they would have done if they had 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.