CRY FREEDOM: “Why do you call yourself white”?

By Vibert Lampkin

Vibert Lampkin

On October 25th, Rishi Sunak was invited by King Charles III to form a Government and thus become Britain’s Prime Minister. Sunak is 42 years old, the youngest Prime Minister of Great Britain since William Pitt who, in 1783, became Great Britain’s youngest Prime Minister – at the age of 24 – a post he had been offered three times before but refused.

Sunak is a Hindu of East Indian Heritage. His grandparents hail from India. His parents however migrated from East Africa to England where he was born and grew up. In the fashion of most British Prime Ministers, he went to Oxford – though Pitt went to Cambridge, where at the age of 17, plagued by poor health, chose an avenue open to the sons of noblemen to graduate without writing examinations. Today we would call that ‘an Aegrotat Degree’. Let me tell you my experience with that degree.

In June 1957 I was preparing for the second part of the final LLB degree of the University of London as an external student.

After lunch on the Friday of the week before the examinations, I took violently ill. I was rushed to Dr. Reginald Herbert Georges on New Market Street [Georgetwon, Guyana] where he operated a private hospital. He saw me immediately. As he examined me and pressed on the right side of my stomach, I brought forth the meal I had eaten. His diagnosis was that I had acute appendicitis and must have surgery immediately. I told him that my examination started the next week. He said that I could apply for an aegrotat degree. I told him that was not available to external students because the Professors at the University had no way of knowing the work I had put in over the past year.

We argued back and forth about my taking the exam because he said I was playing with my life if my appendix was ruptured. When he saw that I was adamant, he in effect absolved himself of responsibility, prescribed streptomycin and said as soon as the examination was over I must have surgery to remove my appendix. I wrote the examination over the next week and the day after the exams were over, I checked in to hospital and had the necessary surgery. As it happened, I was the only student from Guyana successful at the examination. That was not the end of the story.

In September 1958 I wrote the final examination of The Law Society of England, was successful and was admitted to practice as a Solicitor in Guyana in January 1959. I believe it was later that year that Dr. Georges died of cancer — and I was the Solicitor who probated his Will and did all the legal work for his widow and children! Dr. Georges was not Guyanese. He was born in Grenada, did his medical studies in England where he earned his Fellowship. I have always said that he is the most handsome man I have ever known.

Now back to Rishi Sunak. He has been described as the first Asian, brown and ‘person of colour’ to hold the high office of Prime Minister of Great Britain. I cringe when I hear the term ‘person of colour’. It is a term that originated in the United States to describe persons who are not ‘white’ but has spread beyond the boundaries of the United States.

It is, in my opinion, an ignorant and stupid term to describe a human being. In scientific terms, colour is the range of visible light that humans can see. If colour is solely the way physics describes it, the visible spectrum of light waves, then black and white are outcasts and don’t count as true, physical colours. If, however, the definition of colour includes all the ways in which human eyes process light and the lack of it, then black and white, as well as pink, earn their places as colours.

As a normal ordinary human being or ‘man in the street’, as the common law would deem me, I accept the non-scientific definition – and I think that in excess of 90 per cent of humans would. Thus black is a colour and white is a colour. Thus the term ‘a person of colour’ applies to every person on the planet – from black to white and those in between. I am happy to be a black man, though I am probably more brown than black. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who is as white as the painted walls of my home or the white paper on which letters are written. Those people are normally ‘albinos’ who have a lack of melanin in their skin, a condition that affects all people – including Africans, the original ‘black’ people and Europeans, the original ‘white’ people.

I forward herewith a clip from the movie “Cry Freedom” based on the book by Donald Woods who was the chief editor of the liberal newspaper Daily Dispatch in South Africa. It is based on the life of the freedom fighter Steve Biko. Woods had written several editorials critical of the views of Steve Biko. But after meeting Biko, he changed his views and attracted attention from the security police. When Biko died in police custody, Woods wrote the book about Biko and the only way he was able to get it published was when he escaped from South Africa. Here Is Denzil Washington in the role of Steve Biko under cross-examination in the movie ‘Cry Freedom’. It adequately explains the problem of describing people by their colour.

Vibert Lampkin, born in Guyana, was appointed a Provincial Court Judge in 1982 in Newmarket, Ontario. He retired in 2007.