Op-Ed

Weekend Read: The Terrible Optics of Becoming a Black Knight

This op-ed asks, "What does it mean for David Adjaye to kneel before Prince William?"

DIASPORA—The argument over whether or not Sir David Adjaye’s should have accepted the knighthood awarded to him is a shape-shifting one.


Just when you think you’ve arrived at a fully formed view-point on it, an adjacent one upends it.

If the view is that Sir Adjaye is a puppet of some sort for accepting the highest of imperialist honors, a concurrent view is that this same honor is testament of Sir Adjaye’s continuing monumental achievements in architecture the world over.

If the image of a black man kneeling before a white man - whether within or without context - represents no progress in black pride, it’s also helpful to remember that only a handful of architects, the majority of whom are white, have ever been knighted.

Attendant factors compound the problem in relation to the offending photo. Sir Adjaye is 50 years old while Prince William is a young man of 34.

Photo via Instagram.

All cultures place a high price on respect for elders but this is demonstrated, in many African cultures, in a particular way that could be indistinguishable from subservience as some squat and some kneel—and not only on occasion but as an everyday practice.

The image of a black man of 50 kneeling before a young man of 34 to accept an award will rankle some even more, and this cannot be ignored.

It is possible that had it been the Queen herself or Prince Phillip who conferred the honor on Sir Adjaye, not as many hackles would have been raised and the disgust felt by some, less so.

Also, Sir Adjaye’s accomplishments as an individual will diminish those of Prince William many times over.

One designed famed and expensive building projects the world over, while the other said congratulations for doing so. The correlative achievements of appointer and appointed in the offending picture is very unequal.

But then if a knighthood is too much the representation British imperialism, how does it differ from having a British passport?

Photo via Twitter.

Take it even further, how is it different from speaking the English language which has been spread through the same conquest that is inseparable from the conditions that have sustained the honours system?

A British passport is democratic and acquired by birth or naturalization, while the honors system is very selective.

A British passport holder may think nothing of his or her possession and the wide berth of advantages it gives in terms of hassle free international travels, trust and respect—all trickled down from British conquests and the (brutal) order imposed over centuries.

Is it then a matter of choosing which representation is the least odious? And who gets to decide? The individual passport holder, former colonial subjects or the individual honoree?

An important voice in this debate, which is not being heard, is that of other Black architects in the UK. They, better than others, will have a commanding view on the issue but the few i approached declined to give any comments.

One, accredited by RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) would only speak on condition of anonymity. Her main concern is that for the most part, only Sir Adjaye will benefit from the honor as it doesn't tell a very progressive story about the fate and everyday lives of Black architects in the UK.

As recently as 2012, the Architect's Journal, concluding from data released by the RIBA and Fees Bureau, attests that “nearly 94 percent of architects are white, compared with 93.3 percent last year (2011),” while “Black British architects account for 0.9 percent of the profession, down from 1.2 percent in 2008,” but also adding that “the proportion of Asian architects has increased from 1.8 percent in 2008 to 2.5 percent” in 2015 when the analysis was released.

So, Sir Adjaye’s knighthood hasn't come at a time of boom for Black architects. Matter of fact, it's significance is enhanced as a result.

Isn’t rejecting the honor tantamount to rejecting his own achievements and those of other Black and minority architects who have thrived against the odds?

Sabo Kpade is a regular OkayAfrica contributor. His short story Chibok was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. His first play, Have Mercy on Liverpool Street was longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. He lives in London. You can reach him at sabo.kpade@gmail.com

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