Robert Somynne: Searching for a Nation

‘It’s a strength! You can be both!'”

“That was an amazing thing to hear. So I stopped feeling like a sore thumb and realised that complexity could bring something, that there are advantages as well as disadvantages.”

– Conversation between Jackie Kay and fellow poet Audre Lorde , who told her she didn’t have to deny her Scottishness in order to be black.

As Scotland moves to the independence referendum in 2014 there has been much debate on national identity. For example, is Scottishness increasing and Britishness decreasing? If so, what are the implications for Englishness and Welshness too? Each of these questions are subject to passionate discussion and sometimes public policy, but one question is less frequently raised: where  do ethnic and racial minorities fit into debates about Scottish nationalism?

I am an Englishman and a Londoner, the child of Afro-Caribbean parents with the blood of imperial adventurers and sugar cane labourers flowing in my veins. I have always felt placed at the cross point of a number of identities and perspectives, not being damned to confusion but ever resisting being pigeon holed. My England is the Levellers who brought a King to heel, lamb patties and root ginger beer, the warbling of the traders at Billingsgate fish market and the calypso loving ‘shine boys’ that still pound the streets of Manchester. It’s a liberal and metropolitan identity which makes it easier to slot into many of the cities around the world.

However, more and more that identity seems in existential crisis. A nation racked by neo-liberalism and its effects has brought out a condition where said identities have become pitched against one another. There seems to be so many irreconcilable hatreds and confusions (whether North/South, London/rUK, urban/suburban/rural) along with a lack of agreement about whether Englishness is robust enough to allow multi-faith or multi-racial identities within its defining. So, where to look for the country that could combine the promotion of the common weal with racial inclusivity and justice? Where to look for a nation at peace with itself, with a settled will and sense of self? An open nation, confident and dynamic enough to welcome, challenge and accommodate darker shades of the Saltire. I believe a future independent Scotland would be such a place.

Not to say that I am unaware that there is racism and sectarianism in Scotland within ethnic groups and against visible minorities. But I feel that the foundations for improvement in these areas can be seen, with public opinion appearing in favour of socio-economic reforms that would form the groundwork for progress, and in a sense of belonging, among Scottish non-white minorities.

Additionally on an anecdotal level I have always felt welcome and included whenever in Scotland; whether in the local port inn in Mallaig or at a poetry slam in Glasgow.

As a poet I want to contribute to and build on the idea of civic participation by Black people and other migrant groups in Scotland. I want to work to encourage and promote excellence in the creative arts, inspire young people to reach their highest artistic potential and contribute to the enrichment of an already diverse Scottish culture. As a teacher I feel an independent Scotland will not only be able to address issues around visibility but also further educate to tackle racism and build on already firm foundations of civic nationalism. The lack of racism within the pro-independence camp from creatives and politicians is inspiring for anyone who wishes to join for a better future. It is a contrast to a British state that pays lip service to fighting racial prejudice yet fails to comprehend the economic tensions and language that ferment distrust and contempt.

For me independence is about accountability, example, solidarity and rebirth. It is the logical inclination of a people to have the desire to decide their own country’s path and in so doing share a better way with comrades abroad. I used to object to Scottish self government on two grounds. One was the exhausted Labour Unionist position that somehow it would be deserting working people in England. However it is clearly unfair to stop Scotland being all it can be while England still figures out what it wants to be. Although assured in my identity , I was additionally wary that the breakdown of Britishness following the demolition of the British state would pose a problem for integration on both sides of the border.

Jackie Kay echoed this concern when she stated she hasn’t made up her mind about Scottish independence but feared it could make the land she loves a more parochial place:

“I worry about wee countries getting large egos and I wouldn’t want Scottish identity to become that, bravado and swagger, a wee hard man. I want it to be an international country that I feel I still belong to.”

But there is an argument that the achievement of independence would not only maintain a tradition of ethnic minorities feeling welcome (relative to European identity on the continent), but also enhance it.

From a literary perspective, we see that black writers who support independence, or who are able to articulate a blending through pain but eventually redemption, will give a voice to those who make Scotland their home.  Kay in her most recent poems combines the Scots vernacular she grew up with and the Igbo speech of her Nigerian forbears. One poem, ‘Bronze Head from Ife’, addresses a 14th-century African sculpture directly in Scots: “Gies yer haund! / Miracle that ye are, yer braw face / lifts my heart; naebody can doot yer art”.

How much do politicians and influential elites include minorities within their projects of nation building and concepts of Scottish identity? Two percent of the population are groups that are non-white and the experience of visible minorities have been and are crucial to judging the health of a democracy and its future prosperity. Coming from London, where ethnic minorities are more visible, it has been interesting to see how Scotland has coped with any degree of racial diversity. It can be said that those groups that have experienced political scandal and turmoil in England (namely religious minorities) have had less negative attention in Scotland.

Additionally it can also be said (and I sincerely feel this) – Scotland is on the whole considerably better on issue of race and integration than many places in Continental Europe. The legacy of a multi-racial empire connects many people of different hues to Scotland in ways that are quite alien to other European nations. It is the case of being a nation and a person marked by something glorious and grotesque. Since my family came to the mother country in the late ‘40s it has been a place that we could fight to make our own; a country worth fighting for despite the setbacks, discrimination and struggle.

The paradox of being a group of nations that are still afflicted by racial prejudice and institutional racism, yet more accessible and pliable than most European nations, has allowed Scotland to absorb a whole range of peoples and cultures. An independent Scotland will be able to build on this.

Robert Somynne
National Collective

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About Robert Somynne

Robert Somynne is a poet and playwright from South London writing with a background in history and politics. He graduated from York University in 2010 and has spent several years travelling Scotland, England, Italy and Hong Kong. His writing explores the complexities of nationhood, ethnicity and childhood memory.