Most African Americans — like most Americans — see England as a quaint place of afternoon teas, the queen, rose gardens and good manners.
Rose gardens are not very far from Westminster Magistrates' Court, close to the Houses of Parliament, where a young black British woman, college educated and not quite 20 years old, stood clad in a tracksuit last week and admitted that she had looted a huge flat-screen TV from her local shop.
She said that she hadn't been able to sleep since then and had walked the TV and herself into the cop shop, where she was taken into custody. The district judge took into account the young woman's surrendering herself to the police and sent her on her way for sentencing later.
In the end, the young woman may not do jail time. But the United Kingdom is a small country, and her name and face are known. Unless a miracle happens, this young black woman's life is utterly ruined.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, I have lived in London now for 25 years. I came over from New York to do a play for what I thought would be six months. I've done many things, mainly in the field of culture, and even added British nationality to my American citizenship.
I've taught Shakespeare to black students in Brixton, London's equivalent of Harlem. Once, when I called my London-born black class "English," they took my head off. "English," to them, meant the white racists who had harassed their parents and who used the St. George's Cross, the national flag of England, as a whites-only badge of honor. England? They wanted no part of England.
That was two decades ago. A young man interviewed just the other day said that he felt like an immigrant in his own country, that England meant nothing to him. He came from Tottenham, where the English riots began.
Tottenham is a section of North London a bit like parts of Brooklyn, N.Y. It is full of people of African descent, immigrant and native born, but also other nationalities and colors, along with a smattering of artists. A Roman road, typically straight as an arrow and more than a thousand years old, runs down the middle of it.
Now known as Tottenham High Street, it used to be covered with the kinds of stores that you can find anywhere in a working-class community: record stores, computer shops, clothes stores, fast food, hairdressers, barbershops and so on. Today, after the community was invaded by rioters joining Tottenham-raised folks who hijacked a peaceful demonstration after the police shot a local black man, this main street looks like a war zone.
The English do not particularly like their young. Traditionally, they have packed them off to boarding school or into the army or onto ships. However, the riots are rapidly revealing themselves to be largely a youth phenomenon and a class one, too. Race is the bass note.
Mix in the ranting of the largely right-of-center press, the courts working day and night like something out of Sweeney Todd, and the myriad of mainly black men being wheeled onto the media to explain things to the powerful Oxford- and Cambridge-educated elite so that they can use the info to keep on ruling, and you can understand why the feel-good vibe of the royal wedding is well and truly gone, here in Old Blighty.
The truth is that the English riots are a symptom of all of Britain, all of Europe. Young people of color in Europe — Europeans — find that they have no place in these ancient nations of the West. For now.
And yet, in November, at one of the theaters of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, my small opera Yes will be staged. It is a "state of the nation" opera, written by me but, more important, composed by a black British woman, Errollyn Wallen, brought up in the very Tottenham that is struggling to live again.
We will have, among other characters, a black family onstage. They will not be dysfunctional — just normal British people singing about their hopes and dreams. The audience will see the world through their eyes.
I believe that Errollyn and I are the first black female team of composer and librettist ever to have our work produced on a major opera stage in European history. Our opera presents a Britain of many peoples, of many colors.
Yes, this, too, is England.
Bonnie Greer is an award-winning playwright, novelist, author and critic. Her opera, Yes, premieres at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London at the end of November. She was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for her contributions to the arts.