My mother came to London from Barbados in the early 60s with a British passport and two A-levels in European history and English literature. She could quote from A Winter's Tale, but knew only heat and hurricane. Before she left the island she was given orientation classes to prepare her for life in Britain. They told her to wear flannelette pyjamas and a woollen hat. They said nothing about people shouting abuse at you in the street.
She came of her own free will. She also came because she was asked by the British government to help to build one of the nation's most cherished institutions, the National Health Service. Racism and the cold aside, two of the things to strike her when she arrived were that most British people seemed to know very little about their own country, and even less about the nations their country had occupied. In the words of Gilbert, a Jamaican immigrant in Andrea Levy's award-winning novel Small Island. "But for me I had just one question - let me ask the Mother Country just this one simple question: how come England did not know me?"
These elements of my mother’s story will form the basis of my testimony today, drawing as they do on some of the central threads of the black European experience versus the American experience. Europe did have a civil rights movement. It took place at roughly the same time as the US civil rights movement and around the same issues - the right to vote, opposition to segregation and a more equal share of resources. But it did not take place in Europe. For the most part it primarily took place abroad - in Algeria, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Congo etc. That has left a local indigenous population in Europe with little understanding of or sense of historical responsibility to those whom it once colonized.
The screams of the oppressed tortured by colonialism were uttered continents away and were neither heard at home. So there has been little in the way of moral reckoning with our past. But when it comes to domestic matters there is little in the way of historical literacy that would explain either European power or the presence of non-white people in Europe. In the words of the venerable director of the Institute of Race Relations in Britain, Ambalavaner Sivanandan: "We are here because you were there." But if you didn't know you were there, how could you understand why we are here?
This ignorance can and has lead to severe racial antagonism which over the past 20 years has reinstalled itself as a permanent fixture in European political culture. Fascism - or at least the xenophobic, racist and nationalistic elements that are its most vile manifestations - has returned as a mainstream ideology in Europe. Its advocates not only run in elections but win them. They control local councils and sit in parliaments.
In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy, hard-right nationalist and anti-immigrant parties regularly receive more than 10 percent of the vote. In Norway it is 22 percent; in Switzerland, 29 percent. In Austria they have been in government; in Switzerland, where the anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party is the largest party, they still are. In Italy they are about to return to government again. A central plank of these parties' platforms rests on the notion that each nation is a mono-racial and cultural unit into which non-white people have come and must on entry either conform or be banished. This or course is hinged on an entirely mythical notion of white European uniformity which must be defended against the uncivilized and the unwashed.
Conversely on the level of daily cultural interaction it is difficult to imagine the continent without non-white people. In literature, music, sport we have become so inextricably intertwined in the national fabric that to unpick us would make that whole cloth unravel. But that has not stopped many from trying.
Particularly since September 11th the push to assimilate into a society that won't house, educate, employ or even respect you has become particularly intense. Like many my mother who took a low-paid steady job - the industries that non -white people went into depend largely on the countries they went to and came from. But the industries and sectors our parents went into have for the most part shrunk or been decimated leaving relatively limited opportunities for their children.
In Europe there is no black middle class. There are black middle class individuals. But no class as such. For their children the dislocation between our race - our colour - and place - where you are, appears at times unshakeable. Those who have been in France or Germany for generations are still called immigrants. And on that note, I will end with the conversation I had with an old man while I was at university in Edinburgh who asked me where I was from. "Stevenage," I said. "Where were you born?" "Hitchin," I said. "Well, before then." "Well, there was no before then." "Well, where are you're parents from," "Barbados." "Ahh, you're from Barbados." "No, I'm from Stevenage."