The Queen Died. Now What? Three Brilliant Women on Colonialism and the Future

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. So, I gotta come clean about something. I love “The Crown”. Not the institution no, no, no, no, no. The Netflix show. Y’all know the one with Claire Foy and, um, the, um, the British Meryl Streep y’all know who I’m talking about. Olivia Colman. Yeah, that’s the one. I know, uh, there is a lot to be said about the history of colonization and racism under the British empire.

But I don’t know, there’s something about the Netflix treatment that makes the cognitive dissonance just palatable enough. Sure, the show has done a bit to hint at the fault of the empire in the subjugation of people of color across the entire globe. But let’s be honest, we’re here for the chaos and the costuming and Gillian Anderson’s slow British drool as she plays Margaret Thatcher.

Now, if you are honest with me, you too, my friend, have found yourself distracted by the high drama of the Monarch. Don’t lie to me. whether it was the Netflix series or a Diana documentary or a Royal wedding. You too have found yourself at least momentarily caught up in the fever. It’s by design. 

So, a guy named Clive Irving who’s the former managing editor of the UK Sunday Times, he says that the Monarch uses quote, pageant as an intoxicant. Yeah. The pump, the circumstance, the intrigue, all of it. Not only distracts from some harsher truths, it renders those truths impolite. One shouldn’t interrupt the beauty to make people uncomfortable. Right? And as such when former and current subjects of the British Commonwealth spoke some of their harsh truths when Queen Elizabeth II passed away last week, many of them got told to pipe down.

They said it wasn’t the moment. Told that a country was in mourning and now just isn’t the time to mention all these unpleasantries. But isn’t the colonizing of millions of people across the global south far more unpleasant? I mean, and if you really wanna get unpleasant, here’s a cold, hard fact, Great Britain ain’t the only one. 

While we’re talking about where the Crown Jewels are from, and we must, we need to be asking who exactly built Wall Street and why Latin America speaks Spanish in the first place. Look, decorum and the absolute adherence to it is a vestige of white supremacy culture. And we get told to hold our truths until a more appropriate time. And then that time never comes, but it’s gonna come today. Because we are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, I’ll be talking about the Queen’s colonial legacy with writer Shannon Melero, historian Caroline Elkins, and cultural critic Luvvie Ajayi.

Luvvie Ajayi: History is of no fault of one person, but I also won’t be sitting there being like I am weeping. And I’ve seen videos and pictures of Nigerians and other people who are like weeping at Buckingham Palace. And I’m like, but weep for the women who we will never know their names.

Brittany: That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

Yeah, our first item is about The Women’s March. Now, if you know about the first Women’s March in 2017, you probably know it was more than 4 million people across the globe. But you might have also heard stories about the divisions within it or rumors about some of the positions its founders supported, but data from a disinformation expert at American University, reported in The New York Times, shows that those rumors were intentionally driven by Russian social media accounts who targeted the Women’s March for a period of years to slow down the movement and create fissures on the left.

The trolls found their most successful attacks where those targeting Linda Sarsour. 

Linda Sarsour: My name is Linda Sarsour and I am one of the national co-chairs for the Women’s March on Washington.

Brittany: Sarsour has made a name for herself as a prominent voice for the rights of Muslims in the wake of 911. She’s also a staunch supporter of Palestinian liberation, making her a target for criticism from the right, which Russian trolls easily took advantage of, banning the flames of division. Over the course of a year and a half, 152 different Russian accounts posted material about Sarsour claiming that she supported ISIS, that she hated Jewish people, and that she supported implementing Sharia law in the U.S.

Let me say this, I know Linda and none of that is true. The trolling upended Linda’s life and destabilized the Women’s March, an organization whose original mission was to present a unified front for the most vulnerable. This reporting is a good reminder that disinformation spreads like wildfire, and we’ve got to check out our sources meticulously before we condemn or endorse something on mass.

May we all be much more careful in the future.

Next, nurses are fed up and they’re not gonna take any of it y’all. Around 15,000 nurses in Minnesota walked off the job last week to protest the compromised patient care and burnout they say is caused by extreme understaffing in hospitals. The nurses union has been trying to negotiate an agreement with hospitals in the state for months to fix this issue. 

This is one of the largest nurses strikes in American history and it comes after more than two years of a pandemic in which nurses bore the brunt of our COVID negligence. Here’s the thing, one company that owns four hospitals where nurses went on strike said that they had been planning for the action for months.

Which begs the question of why, if hospitals have the resources to manage a strike, they can’t provide more resources to nurses to provide care? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment and healthcare across the U.S. remains below pre-pandemic levels. And I can say this personally, without nurses our healthcare system would crumble. To the nurses in Minnesota, we thank you. And you’ve got our solidarity. 

Now I wanna close by shedding some light on one of the oldest forms of voter suppression there is, and one woman who’s been trying her hardest to mitigate it.  Up until as recently as 1965, several states in the south had a rule that in order to vote, you had to be able to read.

These were called literacy tests and you literally had to take an exam before entering the poll booth. In many ways, this was really ployed to keep Black people from voting because you know, for so long, it was illegal to teach us how to read and write and our schools were historically underfunded. And while the Voting Rights Act eventually removed those exams, some states still try to make it harder for people with reading difficulties to vote.

Olivia Coley-Pearson: A lot of people intimidated by voting who can read and write. Most of the people who have a problem with reading and writing and understanding they’re not going to go vote.

Brittany: That was Olivia Coley-Pearson speaking with ProPublica. Coley-Pearson is from Coffee County, Georgia, where a third of the voters struggle with a basic reading level. And she’s been criminally charged twice for helping voters who quote legally didn’t qualify for help with their ballots. Since Georgia only identifies being disabled or being unable to read English as reasons for assistance. Yeah. While Coley-Preston has never been formally convicted, the state’s efforts to stop her serve as a warning going into these midterm elections. There is very little conservatives won’t stoop to in order to stop Black and Latinae voters from reaching the polls, including cracking down on volunteers like Olivia, who helps voters understand their ballots. 

Poll workers are deeply essential, y’all and we will need them in full force this November and every November. And if you can’t be a poll worker, but wanna volunteer your time visit

Coming up, I’ll be talking to three brilliant women about what a world without colonialism could look like. Right after this short break.

And we are back. On Monday, as news networks went wall to wall with coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, Puerto Rico was in the dark. Like the complete dark. A category 1 hurricane washed away bridges, contaminated drinking water, flooded roads, and caused a still unknown loss of life and damage to people’s homes and livelihoods.

And it did not have to be that way. Puerto Rico is one of the many places in the world where colonial powers, first the Spanish, then us here in the U.S., swept in to exploit the land and her people. What they left behind is a people struggling to take an equal place in the world. Not because they lack the might, but because they lack the opportunity.

That’s the legacy of colonialism and perhaps no empire left a bigger footprint or a darker shadow than the British empire. So, this week as the Queen is buried, we’re talking about how her colonial legacy lives on. My guests today are Luvvie Ajayi who was born in Nigeria and today writes about tackling fear and living boldly. Caroline Elkins is a historian of the British empire and was part of the first ever lawsuit against the United Kingdom by its victims of colonization. And writer Shannon Melero is my colleague here at “The Meteor”. 

So, we really wanted to have a conversation about colonialism. I think obviously much of the world has been reckoning with the legacy of the British empire, but we wanna take stock of the entire world because colonialism, uh, is not necessarily unique to the U.K. And each of you bring a different perspective to this. Caroline, you are a historian; Luvvie, you are a writer and you are part of the Nigerian diaspora. Shannon, you write about Puerto Rican identity and the American legacy of colonialism. But I wanna start at the person who’s at the center of the story right now, right?

QE II, Queen Elizabeth II, who, as we are speaking, is being laid to rest. And the reaction to her death on social media revealed she is, shall we say, a complicated figure for people? Did you all watch any of, any of the funeral, any of the kind of the pomp and circumstance that has been surrounding this for the last week?

Caroline, you’re shaking your head, yes. Luvvie, you’re shaking your head, no. Caroline, did you look at any of it? 

Caroline Elkins: I did. You know, I did it as, as it was an active research ladies, you know, I had, I was watching this with an eye to quite frankly, symbolism and empire. You couldn’t, but help notice the degree to which empire and commonwealth the service was wrapped around it.

It was carefully curated. And on top of which the, the Crown, the scepter, the, the, the whole thing on top of the coffin, it was like the weight of empire was on, on top of, you know, the root of empire was literally riding on her coffin, um, both in and out of Westminster Abbey. And so, you know, I don’t wanna be glib about it, but I couldn’t help, but be struck by the fact of how the weight of colonialism was hanging there and then quite literally a topper coffin. 

Brittany: Those are powerful images. And I want, I wanna come back to that in a second. Shannon, did you watch it all? Cuz I understand that the Queen has kind of a unique place in your family. 

Shannon Melero: Yes, my mom and I actually were in London not too long ago and we hit all the Queen’s hotspots. We like to say we were in all her houses. Because we did go to Windsor and we checked out Buckingham Palace. So, my mother and I are Queen fans. So, I did not watch the funeral, um, only because I hate funerals, but I think for me, the whole period has been really a chance to reflect on not just empire and where it’s put so many of us, but how we interact with it now. Because although technically it’s still not the British Empire as it was so many years ago when she first came into power, the effects are still there. There are still countries that have her face on the money. So it’s definitely been, um, confronting a lot of opposing ideas that exist inside my brain.

Brittany: Luvvie, you are Nigerian, you were like fervently, shaking your head, nah I didn’t watch that funeral. I imagine the Queen means something, uh, different in your family. 

Luvvie: The monarchy is something that I, as a, somebody who’s Nigerian born and bred, just finds to be overly celebratory of its space in history. You know, like, Nigeria’s gonna turn 62 years old October 1st. My mom is 66. She’s gonna be 67. so this country is younger than her. This country is younger than my mother. And you know, the person who is the beacon, yes, she’s not to be blamed for colonialism, but she’s the actual symbol, the actual figurehead of this thing. And you know, a lot of people, I watch the crown, like everybody else on, on Netflix and understand, 

Brittany: Listen, cuz that’s my show.

Luvvie: That’s my show. 

Brittany: And the cognitive dissonance is real. 

Luvvie: And they told the whole Crown’s business. And that’s one thing I really appreciated about it is it didn’t, it shed light on how much it’s a gilded cage. Ultimately, I think about what would’ve happened if this Queen was a radical woman. What could have actually happened and shifted in history?

You know, we watched the moments when she, you know, the person who played her went and did tours in Africa to discourage people from even seeking independence. So when this person is gone, I was like, I make no qualms of the fact that I don’t plan on celebrating or mourning my oppressor. And if people are like, well, she, it was not her fault.

No, it was not her fault. You know, history is of no fault of one person, but I also won’t be sitting there being like, I am weeping and I’ve seen videos and pictures of Nigerians and other people who are like weeping at Buckingham Palace. And I’m like, but weep for the women who we will never know their names. Even people, they died, like people lost family members in droves in the Biafran war, which happened right after Nigeria’s independence.

That was the aftermath of colonialism. Like people literally are like, yes, I remember, you know, I remember my father dying because of all the things that England has done and the monarchy’s at the, at the helm of it. So, I’m not celebrating her death, but I’m also not grieving it. 

Brittany: Caroline, Luvvie is really pointing to, Luvvie and Shannon are pointing to, I think the great range of responses here, and a lot of the conversation has centered around exactly what the Queen’s role was in the British empire. Some people are like, she was just a tiny little 96-year-old woman, this is not her fault. Other folks are saying, you know, a lot of decolonization happened under her reign and then other people are saying, but she had no power. Okay. Well, did she have power to decolonize? Did she not have the power?

Like what is really the truth? Help us break down the Queen’s role in the British empire. Uh, you know, what is your response to folks who say she did not personally direct the atrocities or the exploitation.

Caroline: Yeah, these are great questions. I just wanna pick up on some points that Luvvie was making, because I think she put her finger right on it, which is this Queen had enormous amounts of soft power. Right? 

She was not prime minister, let’s make that clear the way in which the monarchy works, she was a constitutional monarchy. But remember when she ascended to the throne in 1952, she took over as the, uh, the, the largest empire that the history has ever known. A quarter of the world’s gonna mass 700 million people.

They had just lost India, so it was slightly smaller. But nonetheless, during the first 30 years of her reign, there was never a year when there was not a bloody end of empire were being fought. She, they were not giving up empire easily. Now questions, how much did she know? And what did knowing mean? Right?

And when we think about this, there’s no smoking gun. There’s no document that says the Queen gave the order for torture and detention camps in Kenya or crackdowns in Nigeria. But the degree to which she was known for being so well versed in foreign policy, the degree to which she was impeccably prepared, the degree to which 15 prime ministers said or experienced the degree to which she gave wise counsel to suggest she was in the dark is absolutely implausible, just implausible. 

And, you know, I, I sort of go back to Luvvie’s point about, you know, she inherited the monarchy. She was there to gate-keep history. She was preserving how the world remembered the past because that past was really sort of a source of her power in the present and future, and make no mistake she worked assiduously to ensure that the Commonwealth, which really is just a collection of nations without any power. Right?

But that she was obsessive about her role as the head of the Commonwealth, which by the way, is not inheritable. She ensured that Charles would become the, the head of the Commonwealth after her. The degree to which she, through everything she did wrapping herself in empire and then Commonwealth.

The other thing that she did is she beckoned people to revere her. And in that reverence obscured all this other underbelly of empire. So, you know, I think it’s a complicated history, but it’s certainly not one in which she was not playing an intentional role in how the pass is remembered and how her power was projected.

Luvvie: Can I double plus this, please? You just drop bars, like on top of bars, because here’s the thing that’s happening that people are doing after her death. They are white womaning her. They are removing the pieces of her legacy and her history and her doings that speak to oftentimes the decision that at best was apathy and that worse was cruelty.

Right? So they’ve turned her into the cause people are losing their great grandmother. She was a great grandmother to few, but she was a torturer and a figure of cruelty to billions. The only people who have the privilege of being humanized in that way, even though their legacies of cruelty are white women, white people, and this aftermath has been fascinating to me.

Brittany: I’m thinking back to all of those scenes in the crown, right? Where she’s going on these so-called goodwill tours, these tours of the Commonwealth and doing what you’re saying, Caroline, beckoning people to revere her. Right? And that soft power is not without consequence, right? In some very hard and tangible and deeply challenging ways.

Caroline, you’re not just a historian you’ve also participated in legal action brought by Kenya victims of British torture for them to win the right to sue their colonizers. What’s the history that prompted that particular action? Like how did you get involved? I’m curious, what sort of, what sort of ripple effect that suit had across the Commonwealth.

Caroline: The suit was found in 2009 by survivors of detention camps in Kenya. And as, as a one way of suppressing the Mau Mau emergency, the British government set up a mass system of detention without trial, where they executed systematized torture and murder, and they detained about a million and a half people.

And to your point, Luvvie, in each one of those detention camps, a picture of her Majesty hung. I spent about over 10 years putting this story back together again because getting back to how much the Queen knew, her ministers lied all the time to parliament, to all kinds of inquiries. And when they finished up empire, they burned most of the documents. They got rid of them.

And so I sort of put the story back together again, which then becomes the basis for the first time the British government has been sued by a former colonized population in the high court of London. It ends up fast forward, you know, four years later, the British government settles this case recognizes for the very first time, the history of the British empire that torture had been, uh, used in her Majesty’s name and settle for about 20 million pounds Sterling. 

And what’s very interesting about this case is when the claimants were in London, I was there with them at various points. Do you know the one person they wanted to see? The Queen. It was to the Queen that they were appealing for justice.

I mean, I couldn’t make sense of it all. And some of this funeral is helping me with this and they had to sort of internalize this reverence. It was to the Queen who they were going to go for a sort of mercy for justice, the same Queen that hung in their detection camps. And I think it’s only really recently that we are beginning to understand the full extent of the ways in which the violence and the torture were systematized during Queen Elizabeth’s rule and really systematized in a way, as I said before, that it’s very hard to believe she was completely in the dark about this. Quite something, actually when you think about it. 

Brittany: It really is. And I wanna turn now to some of that lived experience because Luvvie, you spoke about your mother living through this. Her generation seeing what it was to once be part of the British empire and then to achieve independence as Nigeria did in 1960. How does your family talk about that time before independence? 

Luvvie: You what funny, they don’t. It’s really fascinating. I realize that I’ve never had a conversation with my mother about what her life was like before Nigeria got independence. Cuz, again Nigeria 62, that means she was five. My grandmother who lived through it is no longer alive, but being born and raised in Nigeria, which still has all these fingerprints, like when I came to the U.S. at nine, how I spoke, I still use British phrases. So for example, instead of saying cookie, I said, biscuit. In Nigeria, attorneys still wear those white wigs and they still call themselves barristers. There’s so many ways in which Nigerians operate and that Commonwealth fingerprint is still in everything. All these countries that were colonized by England, we still have so many specific things in common that is very British.

Brittany: Now Shannon, we are talking about Britain, shining the light across the pond, as it were. But you are from Puerto Rico, uh, which is a quote unincorporated territory of the United States. Big air quotes on that. I think that the United States’ relationship with Puerto Rico and its other territories can sometimes evade scrutiny, the scrutiny it deserves quite frankly, because we don’t call them colonies.We call them unincorporated territories, but you definitely see a parallel here. Right, Shannon? 

Shannon: I absolutely see parallels, um, you know, one of the first and biggest things that came up in the media aftermath of the Queen dying and everyone, you know, taking to Twitter with their brand new degrees in, uh, Imperial history was a lot of talk about how, you know, almost a celebration of how this, um, leader of an Imperialist nation was gone and, and, you know, maybe somehow that was going to change things and it was just this air of excitement. 

And I see that and everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it. But what I think to myself and what I told my husband is, you know, are we gonna have this same energy when the next, uh, former U.S. president dies? You know, I don’t know who is the oldest right now, but one of them is gonna drop any day now and are all of the Americans who are suddenly so interested in history, are they going to remember that right now at this very moment in time, you know, Puerto Rico is sitting there to the south and is being treated like a colony?

And it’s especially, you know, today at the forefront of my mind because of the impact of hurricane Fiona, which has completely, you know, wiped out the power grid in Puerto Rico. And you know, it’s being framed as, oh, you know, those poor people, they just can’t get it together because they just can’t figure out how infrastructure works.

And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no. We can figure out how infrastructure works. We can figure out how our power grid works, but we cannot undo is hundreds of years of what, let’s be honest, is colonial rule and damage and tax breaks and misappropriation of funds and corrupt government. And it’s all coming from the U.S. The U.S.’s main export to Puerto Rico is corruption and just an utter mishandling of resources.

So, you know, the Queen’s death has brought up a lot more than just, how do I feel about British imperialism? 

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, hurricane Fiona essentially has the entire island effectively without power right now. And it will be that way for days, which is not just about the hurricane. It is about the grid, it is about the infrastructure, it is about the lack of investment. And I’m wondering, Shannon, what it was like for you immediately following the Queen’s death, kind of watching this on social media. It was fascinating to almost see people treat it like a sport, right? Like there were teams, right? Like there was the Irish Twitter memes and the Nigerian Twitter memes, and oh, Black Twitter is a mess right now.

Right? But these jokes were coming from people living in the United States, which of course is currently keeping multiple populations of people in literal second-class citizenship. I’m curious what that sight was like for you.

Shannon:  As far as all the reactions on Twitter, you know, I’m not gonna lie. I love a good joke, and Irish Twitter was absolutely popping when it came to the jokes and I did feel bad for laughing at them, but a good joke is a good joke. Other than that, I, you know, I largely did have to sort of unplug the whole thing because, and it’s nothing to do with, you know, an emotional state over the Queen’s death, but it really came down to what I cannot stand is people in glass houses, throwing stones.

And right now, you know, those of us living in mainland USA, we live in just the biggest glass house, possibly in the, on the globe, you know? We have benefited and we have thrived as a country off of some massive, massive atrocities. And no matter how we wanna spin it, no matter how we wanna frame it, no matter how much we wanna 4th of July fireworks it, you know, we are just as bad as the U.K. 

And frankly, the only difference is the U.K. had a head start. They’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have, but to make it out to be that we have some sort of moral high ground to stand on. So it’s almost foolish to me to take that stance because you know, what are we as individuals doing right now to dismantle the oppression that we as Americans are putting out into the world? We’re  just tweeting.

Brittany: Especially given that some of the former leaders of this country, their faces are on the money too. Right? 

Caroline, I wanna stay with Puerto Rico for a second because these similarities that Shannon is drawing are critically important. What are, what are some of those threads that we need to continue to pull at? And what are some of the functional differences between what the U.S. does and what the British empire did? 

Caroline: Yeah, I mean, I think the, these are great questions and listening to you, Shannon, I was, so I was so struck by, you know, it’s kind of in my own head taking a step back and thinking about how do we get these kinds of structural inequities today and how do we get them in, in countries that profess themselves to be liberal democracies, right? 

This is sort of the spread of liberalism, this idea that everybody can benefit from rule of law and free markets and all of that. Well, you know, I think in so far as we can see a common thread between say, you know, let’s sort of make a leap here between what happened in Luvvie your, you know, in Nigeria and also Shannon what’s going on in, in Puerto Rico.

Well, this sort of sense of this broader civilizing mission, broadly defined, right? The British were really explicit about it. This is what they were up to and it kind of a smoke screen to their empire. Right? They were out there exploiting, but it was all about developmentalism so that, whether it was Blacks in Nigeria or brown people in India, that one day you’re gonna be just like us, but not yet, just not yet.

And the same sort of concept applies to even somewhere like Puerto Rico in the United States, that one day with the tutelage of the Americans coming in, and you’re part of this Commonwealth, you’re gonna have the benefits of all the things that democracy will give to you, but just not yet, but guess what happens.

Not yet never comes. And so you have to grab the not yet, if you are Black and brown people in these populations. Right? And I have to say this sort of concept of not yet, it’s in every major document that’s ever been out there after World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the League of Mandates, uh, Nation Mandates, the United Nations, the creation of non-self governing territories.

I mean, literally that phrase, not yet developed, not yet ready to stand on their own, this kind of you know, making mass swaths of the population like their children. And getting back to the Queen, the matriarch, and she was self crafted this way. The matriarch of empire and Commonwealth just died. The mother just died.

And now Charles is taking on the role as being the patriarch. And just like, Shannon, if we wanna get back to the U.S. a classic sort of uncle Joe Biden now, I mean, it’s partly cuz he’s kind of dopey sometimes and he says stupid things. But the, the, this sort of familial language, right? Don’t forget the power of language, the power of the way in which these societies are being cast.

And this idea that not yet doesn’t come and look Frantz Fanon was right, who said the only way for formerly colonized populations to be truly free is to shed the shackles of liberalism because it’s not really equal. 

Brittany: Whew. I mean, listen, anytime we get a Fanon quote in here.

Shannon: If I could also jump on what Caroline said about, you know, this idea of not yet. I, sorry. I get so worked up trying to not curse. 

Brittany: Say what you gotta say. It’s alright. We’re an adult podcast. 

Shannon: Oh, perfect. This idea of not yet fascinates me because there have been moments in history where we had a chance to like, take the shackles off my feet so I could dance and we didn’t take it.

But where are those opportunities coming from? They’re coming from the United States Congress. They are deciding what freedom can look like, like right now with the Puerto Rican Status Act that is stuck because it is a hot ass mess. The oppressor is deciding what freedom could look like for the rest of us.

And it frustrates me to no end that right now, they’re saying, well, we are gonna think of what these three options could look like for y’all and then we’ll let y’all decide. But from these three limited options that we over here, who do not live there, who do not help, who do not even keep up with the damn news stories have crafted for you to choose from.

And, and it’s this idea that like, we’re giving you this chance. Don’t mess it up. We are facing so much not yet. And this is why I fear, you know, I fear that statehood. Deep. I deeply, deeply fear that statehood vote because the greatest tool that the U.S. has over the island of Puerto Rico is to say, you cannot make it without us. And that is false. 

Brittany: You know, I wanna keep pulling at that thread because when we talk about the global history of colonization and oppression there are many empires. We had Julissa Arce on the podcast last week. Right? And she was talking about the fact that she speaks Spanish as a Mexican-born woman.

That in of itself is a vestige of colonialism, right? I’m currently in Maryland sitting on Indigenous land. I have the blood running through me of enslaved African people who built this country. Right? And Shannon, I know that there’s not one answer to this that, um, is agreed upon by everyone who lives in Puerto Rico, who once lived in Puerto Rico. But in your mind, what does liberation look like? 

Shannon: Oh, that’s so hard. It is hard for me to say because anyone who lives there right now will hear this and say, well, she’s not really Puerto Rican. And they could say that I was born in New York. My mother and father were born in New York. My grandmother was born in Patillas and my grandfather’s family is also from Patillas.

We are in Patillas alone, not the whole island, but in specifically Patillas, we are there going back to the early 1800s as tobacco and sugar cane farmers. So sure people could say, I’m not from there, but you, you can’t take out what’s in here. You can’t take any of this out. And I run on that soil.

So in my opinion, liberation looks like independence. We have been a prize of Spain and a prize of the United States for far too long. Well, how has that benefited us? How has that benefited the people that live there? So for me, it does look like independence. It does look like becoming an independent nation, a nation that serves itself.

It’s time for Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. I feel like that sounds horrible to say it out loud, but if tomorrow, the island voted for independence and I got a call from Joe Biden saying, you know what, you can’t go back because you’re technically not a citizen anymore, then I’ll pay that price.

If I gotta stay my ass here because I wasn’t born over there and now independence is happening. Okay, take it. 

Brittany: Similarly, when you look across what is left of the so-called Commonwealth, what do you want the fate of that empire to be? What, what do you believe it should look like from now on? 

Luvvie: I mean, I feel like people being able to draw their own line. So Nigeria was in a deep civil war afterwards because again, like colonialism doesn’t care about who actually lives there. It just draws random arbitrary lines and whether or not people got along before then it just like not y’all together. So funny enough I did my ancestry just because, I mean, I already know my family background, but I said, I just wanna test this out real quick and see what happened. So, I did my ancestry about probably three years ago and it’s interesting it came back and said I am 60% Benin, 40% Nigerian. 

And I laughed because it ultimately was just saying you’re a hundred percent Yoruba because the arbitrary line drawn to split up Benin and Nigeria, Yoruba people ended up here, Yoruba people ended up on the other side.  And ultimately my family is just a hundred percent Yoruba and it just affirmed to me just how much colonialism has split us apart in ways that made no sense. In ways that did not honor the land, did not honor the languages, did not honor the people. It just built these systems and these boxes and said, now you are here now you’re here. So that’s my reflection is that I don’t know what freedom looks like from the point where you understand that your people are elsewhere also. 

But I think it also looks like us knowing that our people aren’t just in the borders that have been created for us, our passports are these books that have told us that we are separate, but truly there are no borders to our cultures, to our languages.

Like you will even, you know, descendants of enslaved Africans who are here, you go to Ghana, you see somebody who lives just like your cousin and your auntie. All the things that they have tried to do to separate should not keep us apart. All of our fights are the same. So our fights are the same in Mississippi, right? As they are in Acra, as they are in Johannesburg, in Cape town. And I think freedom looks like us all understanding that and moving with that in mind and knowing that all of us belong to each other. No matter how much they have tried to separate us. 

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, Caroline, we’re talking about what we hope it looks like. And then there’s a question of what it will look like. Right? With the Queen’s passing, I think we’re all recalling the fact that the British empire changed significantly during her lifetime, it got much smaller, right? And of course the Irish, Kenyans, lots of people will tell you it did not get smaller without a fight.

But now that she has passed on, what do we think the fate of the empire is? What do you think the United Kingdom will look like as it moves forward? 

Caroline: Yeah, look, I think that King Charles III, there’s a lot that’s hanging in the balance for him. Right? Let’s put aside whether or not people are going to have affection for him in the same way. And, and the like, but we discussed earlier, how much did the Queen know? What did knowing mean? There is no question that King Charles is aware that serious crimes happened on the Queen’s imperial watch. That’s one. 

Two, coming from formally colonized populations, the ground swell of demands coming from whether it’s Jamaica, whether it’s Canada and the Indigenous populations there with children, torn from their parents and put into these residential homes where horrible things happened. Back to Luvvie’s point, about these arbitrary boundaries that cause vast amounts of violence, whether it was Nigeria, whether it was,  India, Pakistan at partition, et cetera, et cetera. 

One thing that’s working on that case, that Mau Mau case taught me is the power of history, the power of the truth and courage that it takes to bring truth to. In the form of, of the British government, in the form of the legacy, of the monarchy and what I would encourage so many populations around the world is to say, look, we’ve known from histories from your parents and your grandparents, but at the end of the day, those in power will say, show me the document.

Show me the history book. Show me. I don’t wanna hear about oral history cuz you know, people make things up. It is so documented. Now the degree, the roots of structural inequal. The degree to which violence was inflicted in the British empire. And what’s important to point out is that you were mentioning before all, all empires are violent, but the British had a particular pernicious way of making everybody believe they were exceptional.

That there was this myth of British Imperial benevolence and it is obscuring the real nature of the past. And it’s also making it very difficult for people to realize and actualize their own futures. So my view on this is King Charles III either has to step up and recognize this rupture to frankly, have the courage that his mother didn’t have.

And at the same time, the people who formally colonize people must demand that he’d do this. And if he does not do this, then they have to find other ways to separate themselves outta the Commonwealth. And there’s different ways of doing that. But I think that they need to move forward in ways that are without sort of these former Imperial structures.

And it’s hugely, it’s not just symbolic. It means something about going it alone to be truly independent today. 

Brittany: Iwould also say that British citizens need to make that demand as well. Right? Of, of their government. 

Caroline: The only thing they got left, they’re this tiny craggy little island in the North Sea. With their economies in the crapper. Brexit hasn’t worked out, their government’s in shambles. The only thing they have left is a glorified path. So make no mistake, I think it’s also a moment where some people are gonna hold onto this past tighter than ever before.

Brittany: Ooh, that could be a podcast episode in and of itself.

Caroline: Just right there. 

Brittany: I’ve got one last question that I really wanna ask each of you, but as I do that, I wanna really set the context of what colonialism, neocolonialism, residual colonialism looks like today. Right? According to the United Nations, there are still 16 non self-governing territories. That’s 2 million people who are still under United Kingdom, United States, and French control.

There’s of course, neocolonialism where these economic relationships create a kind of dependency where nations are technically free, but they are hamstrung by continuous generational debt. So we talked a little bit about what liberation looks like for Puerto Rico, for Africa. But broadly,what is the opposite look like? What is a world completely free of colonial domination look like, Caroline?

Caroline: You know, as a historian, I have to say it’s a thought game, right? Cause I have a hard time imagining the world without empires. Right? We’re actually in a weird period of time, right? Putin right now is sort of exercising his whole, you know, fantasy around empire.

But look, I think if I were to imagine a kind of utopia without this, it’s where people are all starting on the same, starting. That the hundred meter dash doesn’t begin with all the white folks in power beginning on the 80 meter mark. It doesn’t begin with basically an extraction of wealth to the extent that young people can’t be educated, that elderly can’t be taken care of, and that people are actually able to actualize their own possibility.

And as one knows that everybody on this, in this conversation knows it’s not because the world is lacking in talent. right? It’s because there’s lack of opportunity. And what I would imagine in the kind of world we’re talking about is that there is real opportunity that transcends the color of your skin, where you come from in this world.

And that to me is what a world looks like without colonization. 

Brittany: Shannon, how about you? 

Shannon: For me? It would look extremely different because without colonization, I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak English. I am a Taino without colonization. I keep thinking about this. Luvvie, whenever I hear you speak, further back in my family tree, we originated in Nigeria as Yoruba people.

So I think about that and I, and it occurs to me that portion of that family tree wouldn’t have come into the Taino portion of the family tree without colonization either. So it’s so hard to imagine because my people in my original culture was erased by what many Americans don’t wanna recognize as a genocide carried out by Columbus and other explorers when he just wiped out the Taino population by the millions.

So that changed everything before I can even pinpoint a family member. So it, I think for me, it’s just so difficult to fathom what it would have been like have things gone differently, going all the way back to the 1400s. 

Brittany: Luvvie, close us out. What does a world free of colonial domination look like? 

Luvvie: A world free of colonial domination would be a bunch of people’s culture still, right? People still speak in all these languages. So many languages wouldn’t be extinct. We would have a more borderless travel. The fact that our passports, the physical thing that we hold, literally determine how far we can go on this earth. That frankly belongs to none of us. That’s what a world without colonialism would look like.

You know, the fact that the U.S. passport can get you to 180 countries without a visa, but like another country’s passport can get you to 20, you know, is a, is, is because of colonialism. So I think it looked like a more borderless world where we can all travel and meet and see each other and eat our foods and speak our languages, our rightful languages, you know, Nigeria’s official language is English, a country that has over 200 languages our official language is English.

And now like we’re even seeing people who are born and raised in Nigeria, not even speaking their own language. They, they don’t. I have cousins who don’t speak Yoruba, which is wild to me. So yeah, a world without colonialism would look like us being freer to actually just physically move and go around this world and know more about everybody else.

Brittany: I love it. Well, here’s to getting to the world that you all described. Thank you so much, Shannon, Luvvie, Caroline, for everything that you do, for all that you’ve taught us in this conversation. It was incredibly rich and I know folks are gonna learn so much. Thank you.

Luvvie Ajayi is a bestselling author of books like I’m Judging You and Professional Troublemaker. Caroline Elkins is professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard University and the author of Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Shannon Melero writes “The Meteor’s” newsletter, which you can find at

What strikes me most is how nearly impossible it is to imagine the world we have without colonialism. And that is of course the point as I always say, oppression strips us of our imaginations because empire and its many, many tentacles find their way into everything, not just our economies or constitutions, but our food, our medicine, our languages, our clothing, it is in a word ubiquitous. 

And that makes it challenging to part from, but to quote my friend Glennon Doyle, we can do hard things. And frankly, we have to, we have an obligation to strive for freedom even, and especially, when it feels as challenging as pulling tiny individual threads from the totality of the garment of human existence, because being colonized is not our destiny, because our children deserve agency, because we should get the chance to design the world we want.

And not simply accept the one that we were given. And that, my friends is always the point.

So, that’s it for today, but never, ever for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

Our associate producer is Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

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Thanks for listening, thanks for being, and always thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.