In the end, we chose to leave.
Do you know what pleurisy is? It's a condition in which the tissue lining the lungs and chest cavity become inflamed. It makes breathing deeply nigh on impossible because the pain can be blinding. It leaves the sufferer very tender, and forces them to take short breaths in an effort to manage the pain. It’s a disease that reminds me of pale Victorian women, delicate and broken, holding dainty lace handkerchiefs. Several years ago I was hospitalised due to the condition after I almost passed out from the pain at work. The worst pain settled under my left breast, and at its most severe, felt like a vice squeezing at random interludes to remind me of my own mortality.
It sounds dramatic to say this, but I felt a very similar pain – the same crushing ache, in the same location – in the early hours of Friday morning, when it became clear that the result of the European Union referendum vote was going to be to Leave. Before the pain became an urgent thing, before everything was confirmed, I'd already had an unexpected cry. A leak of confused emotion. Who was I crying for? For myself, for my friends, for many of us of different hues and accents, for all the young people who had voted to Remain. I was crying for my country.
Turns out leaving the EU isn't quite as romantic a parting of ways as the movies depict departures to be – a train slowly picking up speed as it pulls away from the station in slow motion.
In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Isn't that wild?
Instead, for me, it felt like a physical blow: The throbbing made my skin feel too small, and I was left winded. I had thought it would be terribly, nail-bitingly close – but Remain we would. By the time Sunderland declared for Leave, the first horseman of the Big Bad to come, a bleakness was sitting in my chest, waiting to crowd out what was already there and bloom into something even more desolate. If I had an MRI scanner, I swear I would’ve been able to track the progress of that dread, unspooling jerkily as if in a stop-motion film; the final result is an intense Rorschach painting. If I sound dramatic, it's because this feels dramatic. In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Isn't that wild?
I am utterly devastated in a way that I am still struggling to quantify and articulate. The sunniest, most optimistic part of me feels broken. I am far from home. I mean that in the physical sense: East London, specifically my little corner of Hackney (65% turnout; 83,398 to remain/22,868 to leave), is more than a full ocean away. But I also mean it in less corporeal terms: I am away from my closest family members and friends, with all the comforts they afford. We are not physically detaching ourselves from the continent of Europe, and our futures are too entwined for total annihilation. But we have added distance, and I am scared and worried.
I don't know what will happen now that we've decided that leaving the EU is the best thing for us. David Cameron will resign within the next few months; a change in the leadership will likely trigger another general election. Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, may hold another referendum to disband the United Kingdom. Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Féin political party, has called for a referendum on a united Ireland. I've read as widely as I can, and even the clearest takes still offer up a degree of murkiness. How may the EU punish us for doing this? How quickly will we slide out of Europe’s DMs and vice versa? Is the referendum result actually legally binding? (Please, God.) The markets show our currency went into free fall; on a personal "I-get-paid-in-pounds-sterling" level, what does that mean for my income? On a wider one, Jesus H. Christ, what have we done?
Jesus H. Christ, what have we done?
I have scrambled to send messages to my UK cohort, each of us doing a version of – gallows humour, rapid-fire doomsday predictions, instructions for self-care, and so on – long, anguished wails over fibre optic broadband. Our hopelessness does not have a solid manifestation yet, but we know what we fear. Many of my friends are people of colour, and for us this result is less a surprise and more a confirmation of our long-term fears and temperature readings of our nation when it comes to welcomes and goodbyes. Can you be unsurprised but still quite shocked at the same time? It's one thing to suspect that we, all of us UK- (and specifically London-) born, were living in a country that has become increasingly paranoid and insular. But it's quite another to have it confirmed, and in such a dramatic manner. The decision to opt out was also the removal of doubt. This is who we are. This is what we have done.
The entire process of the referendum, from the campaigning that grew wild and frenzied in the home stretch, to the very first results that trickled in, got me thinking. I thought about the lives my parents led when they first arrived in London in the 1970s, young and beautiful and hopeful before racism became a blight in their lives. And how those lives became an even more complex series of negotiations once us kids started to arrive. Thinking about my parents led me to think about Empire, and the toll it takes on those whose lands were colonised, but also the handsome rewards for those who did the colonising. I thought about how so much of England's wealth came from a series of deadly adventures (well, deadly for some), decimated human landscapes, and exploitation on an inhuman scale – we are able to claim a seat at the high table in today’s world only because of a less than glorious past. I thought about the concept of borders, and about how border controls were far less stringently applied at the time when the United Kingdom spread out across the globe, claiming lands and ending lives on the whims of powerful men. I read about sovereignty, and how important that is for nation states, and then I thought, again, of all the formerly sovereign lands that were plundered for generations, before being abandoned without a backwards glance. It’s easy to shut doors when you’re back from the market, laden with goods. But you don’t leave without expecting to pay for them, surely? The hypocrisy of it is almost admirable.
I thought about the milk of human kindness gone sour and lumpy.
I thought about the souls buried forever in the water – no, not just those souls, but the more recent ones – and I thought about the conversations being held in large auditoriums about whether or not the mostly brown and black human bodies housing those souls deserved to be saved. I read about people who said we were "full up", tired of having to care about lives that are not their own. I thought about “cockroaches” and “swarms”. I thought about the milk of human kindness gone sour and lumpy. I thought about my multistranded identity – black and female and Muslim and working class (in origin, if no longer in fact) and Cockney (born well within the sound of the Bow bells, thank you very much) – and I thought about how all those strands had been flattened to fit where they needed to fit. I thought about what is allowed to be British or English, and what is not. I thought about the lies that have been told to us, over and over again, relentless in their advance, pummelling (some of) us into believing them as fact. I thought about the dishonesty of the people who are in charge of us, and how some of us are so greedy for their lies that we suck on the sponges of straight untruths, hyperbole, and bald-faced lies until they are dry. I am deeply ashamed that this is who we are in 2016.
Am I being dramatic? This feels like a dramatic moment.
If we are really out of the Union, then so be it.
If it doesn't end us in a fundamentally irreparable way, then we will repent at our leisure. I am interested in what comes next in terms of our own evolution as a country. The referendum has brought to the fore previously obscured (either by denial or genuine ignorance) xenophobic and racist views. Those are the things worth examining and beating back. Our breaking away from Europe in a bid for nationalism at a time when some of the continent’s biggest crises are coalescing is what happens when you attempt to modulate the tenor of poisonous political discourse by matching it. Handling the most obtuse and willful language of division and hate with kid gloves and treating it as though it were reasoned, measured debate was the beginning of the end. The minute you make the "well, I agree..." gesture, you give it legitimacy, and you practically walk it down the hall to your kitchen. Have a seat, dine with us.
I’ve never had the luxury of ignoring the state of Britain. It affects me and mine in a way that is visceral and immediate. In the story of a breakfast of bacon and eggs, one animal is giving more of itself; the residents of the chicken coop do not feel their losses as keenly as those in the pigpen. It begins with the simple things that immediately catch your eye: my name and my skin. And then it radiates outwards, and engulfs the building blocks of my humanity. For some of us, there's more skin in the game.
Do I sound dramatic? This is a dramatic moment.
As Thursday night turned into Friday morning, I was sitting on a sofa in an apartment in Brooklyn, pressing a fist to my aching chest and massaging rhythmically, while listening to BBC Radio 4 and refreshing the referendum results on Twitter. It's not pleurisy this time.
But the pain feels even worse.