Introduction – “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye, 1971)
I am stationed at the nexus of issues around race and colonialism. I am a young Christian black man living in the covert neo-racist context of Britain today. At university I studied black political consciousness, human rights law and international development. My identity is formed through both understanding and partaking in the Great Commission, and through wrestling with the abhorrent historic methods of distributing the gospel message utilised by missionaries – an activity that is the result of western idealism echoing modernisation and development theories exported to cultures worldwide.1
“What’s Going On?”2 is a soulful anthem by Marvin Gaye from the early 1970s. The melodic tones prescribed by Marvin Gaye carry a message that is still poignant today. The lyrics helped annotate the struggle for true freedom for many black people who did not have a voice then, and they still resonate with many black communities globally today.3 Music is often used as a soft power approach for addressing the status quo and its qualities have enabled conversations to take place in order to unmask the difficult subject matters in society. In this article I will be referring to a few songs that I believe portray a polytonal quality for addressing the issues of race and colonialism.4
This article is a self-reflective panorama informed and typified by being a first-generation immigrant growing up in Britain. I will begin by delineating my journey of assimilation both in society and church and interrogating how the colonial narrative has dominated my name and history. I draw on past experiences that highlight prevailing archetypes perceived to describe the collective struggle of the black experience in the United Kingdom. I then turn to reflect how the gospel has administered a new sense of identity that ultimately finds the issues around race, ethnicity and colonialism as problematic for future mission. I will conclude with some personal recommendations about how the white-majority church can respond.
Where are you from? … No, but where are you really from?
Often, I am posed the question, “Where are you from?” Immediately, given that I have an unsuspecting middleclass, English accent, I am inclined to answer with pride that I hail from the north east of England and that despite their many protests, home is where the heart is. However, just as quickly as I have declared my love for the lands of smog and glory, I am accosted with denial. “No, where are you really from?” Suddenly, I am filled with dread that my sense of belonging and identity is in question once again. I am drawn into the trap of believing that I am an “other”5 in the land I call home. The reason for this is because the first thing they see is a black man, and not a person with an identity resembling a kaleidoscope.
Nonetheless, I answer politely, engaging with the systemic institutional problems of prejudice and racism. My full name is Gilberto Muxinda Da Silva Afonso – only “Muxinda” (pronounced moo-shin-da) is not of Portuguese descent. Muxinda is in Kimbundu from the northern province of Malanje in Angola, where my grandparents are from. The other names derive from Portuguese and their roots can be traced in various Latin-based languages. My name stands for me as a reminder that my heritage has been impacted by colonialism. I speak Portuguese and though it is classified as my technical mother tongue, it does not escape me that if it were not for the adoption of the Portuguese language during colonial times, I too would be speaking Kimbundu like my father and grandparents – a way to pay homage to the ancestral tribe I come from. Equally, in the same way that the king of Kongo adopted a new name after being baptised in the fifteenth century to denote a new era, I envisage my parents were intentional in naming me Muxinda, passing down names as a way of recalling the former things.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”6 It will gradually become apparent for Juliet, from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, about an illicit and prohibited love, that much is encompassed in one’s name. One’s appellation encapsulates history, reputation, networks, social capital, economic standing and power, and often all is assigned before one’s words are ever uttered into existence. This underlines how naming, a cultural rite of passage into the world, is paramount. Of course, it is no coincidence that we can only be saved by one name: the Lord Jesus Christ. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, ESV).
Unlike many whom I have encountered who can trace their familial ancestry back with a few visits to a local archive or, in today’s technological realm, at the swipe of a finger, I unfortunately cannot do the same. The reason for this is colonialism. Colonialism is guilty of perpetuating overt and covert systemic racism and discrimination worldwide. It has destroyed heritage and distorted history.
I was born in Angola in 1992 amidst a brutal and protracted civil war. Angola was subjugated and played host to a proxy war between the Soviet Union allied with Cuba and the United States of America: a severe contest for the ideological recapturing of the Angolan state.7 Described as “the magnificent beggar land” by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira,8 Angola was colonised by the Portuguese until 1975, making it late to the independence party – a black stereotype that it desired to avoid. International relations theorists and studies of postcolonial African societies will often point to Angola as a textbook example of what state-capture looks like. This is a result of having had a quasi-dictatorship headed by the Dos Santos family through a neo-patrimonial regime for almost 37 years.9 The civil war ended in 2002 by a quelling of anti-government forces by the Dos Santos. Angola later emerged onto the international stage as a self-sufficient petroleum-state.10
Angola became a Christian country in the fifteenth century under the auspices of the king of Kongo, as previously mentioned, through trade negotiations that took place with the Portuguese colonisers. Initially it embraced Roman Catholic traditions and later Protestantism grew due to an influx of missionaries.11 The adoption of this “new religion” was a prerequisite to access trade agreements. The out-workings of the Christian faith in practice saw a rise in syncretism across the various polities that came together under the monarchy. This collusion involved a ransacking of the natural resources and minerals and the beginning of the exploitation of slaves. The Atlantic slave trade accelerated the dominance of Portuguese culture in Angola despite efforts from previous heads of state at the time. Thereafter, the very construct of societal norms was dictated by Roman Catholic and Protestant influences. “The state expected a ‘missionary contribution to the colonial task’, and viewed Christian missionary work as the ‘Portuguese mission’ for the world,”12 so much so that Christianity seemed to be transformed into a vehicle for manipulating the axis of power. The conquest of language and the dismantling of cities by the establishment of trading hubs became a textbook diplomatic tactic of which Henry Kissinger would be proud.13 The influences of Christianity also seeped into the civil war divides after independence. During the struggle for control between 1975 and 2002, the incumbent government was supported by the Catholic Church and the opposing factions were supported by Baptists and Methodists who criticised the Dos Santos government.14
Upon discovering this, my immediate emotions are angst and sadness. The way Christianity was used for the purposes of dividing and conquering was exploitative. One is left with some difficult questions. Why did early church missions not “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”?15 Was the understanding of the sanctity of life so different from the interpretation of the gospel one reads in Scripture today? Did the missions not see how inextricably implicated they were becoming in imposing the horrors of colonialism? As highlighted by Reni Eddo-Lodge and historian David Olusoga,16 slaves became the commodities that financed many cities across Britain during the colonial period.17 The difficulty in this truth is that the church as representatives of Christ have been complicit in prior missions overseas that have culminated in these very slaves reaching British shores.
The nod – the black cultural handshake
For black people in the UK, the ability to occupy space in the arts, education, media, business, and private and public institutions is a marker for progress – for example, the achievements of Frank Bowling becoming the first black Royal Academician in 2005 after decades of neglect.18 “The nod” is an unspoken, inherited black cultural phenomenon, which demonstrates solidarity among blacks. It will often happen when one discovers another black person in a space that is not a common space for black people in society.19 This is especially true where institutional racism abounds. “The nod” greeting signifies a hidden appreciation for managing to destroy the barriers to entry.
My assimilation into British culture began upon discovering baked beans on delicious buttered toast. Since then, I’ve had many more weird and wonderful experiences and can unequivocally state that I am quintessentially black and British. Negotiating between Angolan culture and integrating into the British one did not come without its challenges. My first exposure and difficulties were found in navigating the school system. Despite starting off in a multi-ethnic area of East London, I still felt like an outsider. I did not speak the language and was forever trying to keep up with my peers, attempting to be accepted into the culture. I began working hard to achieve this by doing things such as supporting Arsenal Football Club and watching the BBC/ITV news religiously to improve my accent. I wanted to sound like Sir Trevor McDonald!
Despite my best efforts, the realisation that I still wasn’t accepted came during the 2004 Euro quarterfinal games. As a school, astonished that England had reached this far, we were permitted to watch the Portugal vs England game before the school day began. The whole country was completely behind the golden boots of Michael Owen. Unfortunately England lost out on penalties to the fresh face of Cristiano Ronaldo. I tried to join with the commiserations for the team but was refused access by my peers and was castigated for “being Portuguese”. I tried to distance myself from Portugal, stating that I was Angolan, but alas I was bullied for a few days after that. Colonialism strikes again.
During the month of October, the question of identity has been thrust upon me repeatedly. Black History Month has always been a confusing time for me. I’ve never heard about Angolan history or black British history either,20 only American history. And why is it only a month? As if a month is enough time to discuss the history of all black people. And why isn’t there a white history month? Surely, my white peers didn’t want to be left out… These are questions I’ve had and to this day, which remain unanswered. I learned about slavery through the lens of the African-American civil rights movement, but I was not conscious of the possibility that Angola was somewhere slaves came from.
I quickly discovered that there was a difference between being black African and black British due to the various data collection forms I have had to fill out. When I was in primary school I was branded as being “fresh off the boat” or a “freshie” because I didn’t know the British culture, which at the time I interpreted as an innocent way of describing new people. Unbeknownst to me, this statement had heavy connotations of a colonial past.21 Boats have been the means of entry for many foreigners and the rejection of people from a boat has been particularly highlighted in the recent Windrush scandal.22 This incident filled me with deep anger and fear, hearing of those individuals who had arrived in the UK on their parents’ passports and later been told to return “home” having lived here all their lives.23 I didn’t arrive on a boat, but I did arrive on my mother’s passport. Will I one day be told to “go home”?
In secondary school, I was the only black student in my classes. Of course, this did not come without its challenges. Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons were a particularly interesting time. I would witness my teachers wince through issues around racism and discrimination. It seemed that they thought these topics were only relevant to me, implying that anything to do with race and ethnic diversity only had an impact on black people.24 At the time I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had to answer for all black people. The pressure of being the stereotype of a black person, whether it be from sports, the token black person in teen films or in music videos on MTV, was overwhelming. A majorly disappointing time was when I auditioned for the role of Othello in the school production; it was given to a white person. For a while, my assimilation felt like I was on trial and the jury already had the evidence before I could even open my mouth to state my name.
“Black Man in a White World” (Michael Kiwanuka, 2016)
My experience of racism began upon arriving in the UK; in other words, I became black on 24 April 1999. Racism and its effects for me have been varied. I have been physically attacked and verbally abused. As a child, I had to walk the long way home to avoid walking past the local pub and being racially abused by a group of intimidating old white men. This was at the time of Anthony Walker’s death in 2005.25 Another negative experience was applying for a job soon after completing my degree and being told that I was overqualified at the interview after having already submitted my CV. All highlighting the effects of structural racism in society.
The lyrics in the song “Black Man in a White World”26 have undertones of a black spiritual song, essentially offering up a sobering reality for any black person wishing to emancipate themselves from the institutional challenges of today.27 It’s catchy, punchy and yet still melancholy in its delivery. When I first heard this song, it forced me to question where I could see black representation in society. Dr Andrew Wilson discusses the hidden nature of racism in society. He writes, “For many others, conscious and interpersonal forms of racism are only the tip of the iceberg; they are the bits that can be seen, and decried, but they are held in place by a whole variety of institutional, structural and systemic factors that are, most of the time, largely hidden beneath the surface.”28
Attending university introduced me to the activism of unheard-of names, which helped me dive into the pool of self-discovery and self-analysis. I began to immerse myself in the history around black thought, and black political consciousness. Modules I studied involved debates about justifying wars present and past, as well as dissecting colonial France and its relationships with the former colonies. I explored the collection of works called la Négritude as coined by Aimé Césaire – an ode to his natal lands.29 I studied the works of Frantz Fanon and his critique of the colonised mind.30 I delved further in understanding Edward Said’s Orientalism and the notion of “the other”.31 This journey of investigation proved to be a rude awakening to the negligence to which I had been subjected. I had embraced a false history: one that was colourless and as many have already described, a “white-washing” of the truth.32
I became so passionate about the topic of race and colonialism that I decided to write my undergraduate thesis about the various strands of thought found within the sphere of black political consciousness. Notable figures I came across included Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael, who were all keen on pioneering the pan-African movement. These leaders began by being intentional in restoring the belief in an African, or more broadly, a black autonomy, with each exploring how to best address the issue of decolonising black culture.33
What would a world be like if Africa were the coloniser and not the colonised? Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman explores this idea and her novel has now been adapted into a television series.34 It depicts white people being coerced into worshipping with tribal traditions and wearing traditional African dress, a parallel to Christians in the colonialising of Africa, who brought with them their specific way of worship and culture.
Overall, I began to reinterpret history with a fresh perspective, which allowed me to scrutinise the narratives I had accepted for so long. I started questioning what I had been taught about race and colonialism. I came to discover that white privilege and white power dominance was prevalent in all levels of society.35 For example, as pointed out by Ben Lindsey in his seminal book We Need to Talk About Race, using the terminology BAME (black, Asians and minority ethnic) assumes that white people are superior, as they are not included in the classification, and also assumes that the struggles of these individual groups are monolithic. Lindsey goes on to explain how unhelpful this is as a starting point for the church to engage in the healing of its congregations.36 Bryan Stevenson suggests that for one to begin to understand the issue of racism one must reach a deeper level of proximity: up close and personal.37
Too often I have been the only black person in rooms of predominantly white people, having to forgive and give grace when stereotypes of black people are assumed nonchalantly. The result of living in a covert neo-racist society is that one eventually becomes desensitised and exhausted of false promises of change. Since going through a journey of self-discovery, coupled with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I have become more proactive, learning how history has deep black holes, which are left unanswered due to lack of engagement.
I resonated with the parallels found in many of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s sermons about the promised land. I dared to believe in such a place again.38 My faith in the Lord Jesus Christ has encouraged me to continue the fight for my children to not have to experience the same trauma I often go through as a black man in a white world.
Faith, colonial osmosis and the future of missions – “From the Inside Out” (Hillsong Worship, 2006)
As outlined in the worship song “From the Inside Out”,39, I have been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ in a gradual process of osmosis. I became a Christian in 2007 and was baptised the following year. Finally, I thought, a place where I will be truly welcomed for what I look and sound like. I was thirsty and I received the invitation to drink. In a similar way my history has been dominated by a gradual process of colonial osmosis. This means that there are elements of my story where I have learned to accept the effects of colonialism as they cannot be reversed. After several years in the church, I realised that the same societal issues of race and prejudice were not absent, only masked.40
The church needs to be open to changing its attitudes on race and colonialism if it is to become more effective in future mission. A report carried out by the Barna Group entitled “The Future of Missions”41 shows that in recent years, momentum in recruiting young adults and reaching out to Generation Z has proved difficult due to their deep reluctance to become involved in missions because of the sensitivities around race and colonialism. Young adults are concerned with the various aspects of mission practice. For example, they fear perpetuating dependency in those being helped, they are concerned about the historic models of mission as being western-centric and they may also be sceptical about the success of missions, i.e. the imposition of the gospel on another culture. The perceived lack of engagement by the church is pushing away a future generation of missionaries. The church should therefore be quick to change from the inside out so that from leadership to discipleship, it has a clear message about race and colonialism.
As a young adult and Christian black man, I offer here some recommendations:
To the white majority churches. Black people are not to be regarded as a statistic for meeting quotas. Black people should be given the full range of leadership opportunities, not just leading worship. Black people should not be desired only because of their extra tithes. Black people are not perpetually late. Africa is not one country. Black women should not be treated as invisible. Young black men are not just good for heavy lifting jobs around church. Black people don’t all look or act the same. Black people don’t all know each other even if it seems like we do.
To Christians – be Christ-like. “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other” (Rom. 12:9–10, NLT).
It is my prayer that you will continue to engage in learning and unlearning your conscious and unconscious biases, and that you will be prepared to listen and be prepared to change. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gilberto Da Silva Afonso is a native Angolan, residing in the UK. He holds a Masters in defence, development and diplomacy from St John’s College, Durham University, and a BA Hons in French and international politics from Manchester Metropolitan University. Gilberto works as the vocational recruitment officer at CMS. He is married to Melanie and they live in Oxford.
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1 Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012),.
2 “Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Official Video 2019),” YouTube, 13 September 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5TmORitlKk.
3 Rania Aniftos, “Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ Gets a New, Yet Still Relevant, Music Video: Watch,” Billboard, 13 September 2019,
4 Mark Anthony Neal, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (London: Routledge, 2013).
5 Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin UK, 2016).
6 “Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene 2 | Shakespeare Learning Zone | Royal Shakespeare Company”, The Royal Shakespeare Company, accessed 5
September 2020, https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeare-learning-zone/romeo-and-juliet/language/the-balcony-scene.
7 Patrick Chabal and Nuno Vidal, eds., Angola: The Weight of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
8 Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
9 Daan Beekers and Bas van Gool, “From Patronage to Neopatrimonialism: Postcolonial Governance in Sub-Sahara Africa and Beyond,” working paper (Leiden, The Netherlands: African Studies Centre, 2012), 35.
10 Assis Malaquias, “Making War & Lots of Money: The Political Economy of Protracted Conflict in Angola,” Review of African Political Economy 28, no. 90, (2001): 521–36.
11 William Gervase Clarence-Smith, “Angola – People,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 3 September 2020, https://www.britannica.com/place/Angola.
12 Didier Péclard, “Religion and Politics in Angola: The Church, the Colonial State and the Emergence of Angolan Nationalism, 1940–1961,” Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 2 (1998): 166.
13 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012).
14 Péclard, “Religion and Politics in Angola”.
15 Matt. 22:21b, “Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’” (NIV).
16 Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).
17 “BBC Two – Black and British: A Forgotten History,” BBC, accessed 3 September 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082x0h6.
18 “Not good enough’: Oscar Murillo criticises Tate over Frank Bowling exhibition,” accessed 12 October 2020, https://www.theartnewspaper. com/news/not-good-enough-oscar-murillo-criticises-tate-over-frank-bowling-exhibition.
19 Musa Okwonga, “The Nod: A Subtle Lowering of the Head You Give to Another Black Person in an Overwhelmingly White Place,” Medium, 16 October 2014, https://medium.com/matter/the-nod-a-subtle-lowering-of-the-head-to-another-black-person-in-an-overwhelmingly-white-place-e12bfa0f833f.
20 Anushka Asthana with Aamna Mohdin et al., “Revisited: Britain’s reckoning with its racist past,” podcast, The Guardian, 25 August 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/aug/25/revisited-britains-reckoning-with-its-racist-past-podcast
21 “BBC Four – Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle,” BBC, accessed 31 August 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002sqv.
22 Anushka Asthana with Amelia Gentleman, “Revisited: The Windrush scandal isn’t over,” podcast, The Guardian, 28 August 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/aug/28/revisited-the-windrush-scandal-isnt-over-podcast.
23 As dramatised in “Sitting in Limbo”, BBC iPlayer, accessed 31 August 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08g29ff/sitting-in-limbo.
24 Rachel Humphreys with Reni Eddo-Lodge et al., “Revisited: Understanding white privilege, with Reni Eddo-Lodge,” podcast, The Guardian, 27 August 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/aug/27/revisited-understanding-white-privilege-with-reni-eddo-lodge.
25 “Anthony,” BBC iPlayer, accessed 31 August 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000lb9c/anthony.
26 “Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World (Official Video),” YouTube, 28 March 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TYlcVNI2AM.
27 Rachel Humphreys with Commander Bas Javid et al., “Are the police failing BAME communities?” podcast, The Guardian, 8 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2020/jul/08/are-the-police-failing-bame-communities.
28 Andrew Wilson, “On Structural Racism,” Think Theology, 1 July 2020, https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/on_structural_racism.
29 Aimé Césaire, Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, trans. N. Gregson Davis (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2017).
30 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008).
31 Said, Orientalism.
32 “Anthony Reddie & Ravelle-Sadé Fairman – White Power and Black Suffering,” Nomad Podcast (blog), 23 June 2020, https://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/anthony-reddie-ravelle-sade-fairman-white-supremacy-and-black-suffering-n226/.
33 Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2007).
34 “BBC One – Noughts + Crosses,” BBC, accessed 31 August 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p082w992.
35 “Fighting the Power: Britain after George Floyd,” BBC iPlayer, accessed 31 August 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p08hvwsl/ fighting-the-power-britain-after-george-floyd.
36 Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches (London: SPCK, 2019).
37 “Grace, Justice, & Mercy: An Evening with Bryan Stevenson & Rev. Tim Keller,” YouTube, 3 June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyBfOX5OHRQ.
38 Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman, We Shall Overcome (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993).
39 “From the Inside Out – Hillsong Worship,” YouTube, 3 August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-9mUDbGsEk.
40 I recently watched a play called Les Blancs, which clearly depicts these themes (Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff, Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs: A Drama in Two Acts (New York: French, 1972)). It is the story of a Protestant medical mission in an unnamed African country in the midst of an independence movement against the colonial powers. The mission is no longer at the heart of the community and the relationships between the white settlers and the natives is fractured. There are various themes around ownership, violence and power struggles that are difficult to swallow, presenting the harrowing nature of colonialism during the nineteenth century. (See “What Is Les Blancs?” National Theatre, accessed 2 September 2020, https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/file/what-les-blancs.)
41 Barna, The Future of Missions (Ventura, California: Barna Resources, 2020).