“Speech is my hammer,
Bang the world into shape
Now let it fall” Hip Hop – Mos Def 1999
I have a confession to make. I am not the only black unicorn in existence. There are actually quite a few of us around and I will be telling you about them as time goes on.
Today I am going to talk about one of the most famous black unicorns in Britain today, but first a story. During my convalescence last year, I visited the Dominican Republic, the thought being that the sun, sea and sand of the Caribbean might be better for me than the best that East Yorkshire had to offer. I travelled light, bringing a rucksack and a Moleskine, determined to rehab my mind as well as my body. I wrote about anything my mind moved me to and, would you believe it, I found myself composing a letter to one of the OG black unicorns. I was a teacher at the time and I make mention of that in the letter, which I present, without alteration, below:
An open letter to Diane Abbott
Let me start here: I am biased. As a second generation son of Jamaican parents, born in London, and as someone whose politics veers wildly left, it should be impossible for me to dislike you.
For years, just knowing you existed was enough to convince me that my friend was wrong. You see, my friend used to call me a unicorn. He would ask, half-jokingly, whether there existed another Jamaican heritage person with a degree-level education that existed outside of the sphere of sports and entertainment. You were always the response. It’s a funny thing, but for a long time, your existence was a rebuttal to a joke question that had a very serious point to it.
I had known of you for years, but it was 2002 when you came to the front of my consciousness. This was before the march to war with Iraq and I remember vividly your staunch opposition, along with Jeremy Corbyn, Robin Cook and others to the war. I, along with a couple of friends jumped on a train to London from Canterbury to march . We never got to hear you speak in person that day as the crowds were so thick that progress was glacial.
It wasn’t long after that the smearing began. Particularly vile was the ‘row’ over where you sent your son to school. As a black boy that was lucky to go to a grammar school in Kent, I was all too aware of the value of a good education and I found the wilful cognitive dissonance of the press to be distasteful. Nowhere do I remember seeing the question asked of the state of schooling in certain areas. Nor was there any attempt to empathise with a parents’ decision to send their child to a school they felt gave them their best start in life. It was this incident, more than any other, that made me understand how standing up for your beliefs when you are a black unicorn in the public eye makes you a target.
And yet you thrived, not survived. I have always admired you for that.
I am sure I can draw a link between that incident and my current occupation as a teacher at a private school and one of the things I constantly try to teach my pupils: you have no right not to speak up when you see injustice.
The general election of 2016 was the first that I consumed almost entirely through Twitter and the criticism you had experienced 14 years prior was as nothing compared to now. More shocking than the Twitter eggs who were depressingly familiar and the media who were relentless in their attacks on you when you dared to get a figure wrong (but were curiously silent when Johnson, Fallon and other, ahem, ‘establishment’ politicians did the same), was the seeming general acceptance from many that your treatment was ok. It was most certainly not and the number of what I call ‘yeah, but’ apologists I heard roused my anger.
And yet, you were demure.
Diane, I simply do not know how you do it. To take the abuse that you do and not react…it’s exactly what I was told to do as a young black boy, but to see you live it in the public eye is awe-inspiring.
You are a role model to all people, not just women and the BAME community and, for that, I thank you.
A black unicorn