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Edson Burton MBE

by <object object at 0x7f48d9167580> last modified 27/01/2023 10:51 AM

Image credit: Dr Edson Burton

From exploring the history of Trinity's building, documenting Bristol's rich history of activism to boldly retelling of Homer's The Odyssey Trinity Associate Director, Dr Edson Burton has been the driving force behind Trinity's heritage and cultural offers. As part of this yrs Honours list Edson was awarded an MBE for his services to the arts and to the community in Bristol and we caught up with him as he shared his reflections upon receiving this award.

"I received an email telling me I’d be nominated for an MBE, and initially I thought it was a hoax – one of those scam emails that you get, some kind of con for unsuspecting but egotistical people. As I realised it was true, initially I didn’t feel any great qualms about saying yes, and I also didn’t have much time because the email had been written a few weeks before and came into my inbox late. So, I said yes, and I think for me the reason why it felt like an easy decision, at the time, is partly because, when it comes to it, I don’t see it so much in terms of the Empire and the nomenclature of Empire, but more as a civic award. But at the end of the day, to be honest, it’s nice to feel that you’ve been doing something useful – and I still dispute how useful I have been – but I was honoured that whatever contribution I’d been making had been in some way recognised.

"At the end of the day my politics isn’t going to shift or change in anyway – I'm still going to wear gaudy costumes and run around half-naked at Shambala and be an advocate for all kinds of things. None of that is going to change"

It’s always loaded when someone of Colour accepts an MBE. The concern is that it’s loaded in a way that it isn’t for White people. I suppose it’s probably loaded if you were a member of the socialist left, if Billy Bragg got awarded an MBE for example, so maybe it’s more about politics than race. We’re at a point in history where notions of decolonisation are to the fore, alongside what British identity means and the injustices of the Empire.

We live in a progressive city, but there are tribes within it, and while we might share broader aims and agendas, sometimes within our tribes, there’s really different ways of thinking about monarchy and status.

But I'm curious about it – I didn’t need it, I haven’t asked for it, but I also recognise that we all stand at a point in history and I’m part of that story, that moment in history in which this civic award means a particular thing, and that still has some weight and impact. That weight and impact is also an echo of my family journey from the Caribbean to growing up in Bedford to where I am today. I think it [the MBE] being part of that particular story is quite powerful.

I think [accepting] the offer of it is greater than a gesture of a no because it may open some doors and add some weight to conversations, but also in the wider story it lands with a particular gravitas that not having it wouldn’t...The problem is, there are two challenges associated with the award: the monarchy and where one sits with that, and the Empire word. As a writer, if we think about the deconstruction of language and its usage and meaning, it completely changes. It’s [Empire] an anachronistic term for something that means something completely different now. It feels a bit facetious, in this day and age, with our awareness of meaning and how meaning shifts, to be still insisting that that’s what it means. It’s a civic award with an anachronistic title. I guess it’s one of those things that any kind of shift gets massively politicised, and the ruptures that come from that shift can, ironically, create an even more hostile environment for progressive thinkers.

So, when all is said and done, I go back to the original thing of curiosity, what might it confer, and I’m also chuffed that some people I know said thank you for doing whatever it is you do. For me, the arbitrariness of this, and why I’m also uneasy about it, is that among my networks there are so many brilliant people doing amazing work, selflessly and being under-recognised – I do a lot of forward-facing, public work which gets noticed, and I’m also aware that friends are doing stuff that I admire but their sense of service is quiet. So, there’s also a sense of humility, not out of some kind of imposter syndrome, but it’s just an understanding that there’s a whole raft of people that go unrecognised".

I can’t say I’ve started an organisation or done this, but sometimes occupying a space is really important, especially if that space isn’t normally available, especially if arguments can be seen as very binary. There’s so much emotional pain when we talk about race, class, sexuality – so much pain of people not being seen, othered, ostracised. Trying to hold those things in respect and balance and have those conversations is so important.

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