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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Two Sides of Reluctance, two sides of the pond (with added bits)

Black as the new black

So, I begin this post with my own reluctance; in the absence of wanting to weigh in with my own opinions too much, I present the reflections of others.

Danez Smith begins his 'not an elegy for Mike Brown' with a begrudging:

"I'm sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name

his same body. ordinary, black

The tone of relentlessness, of being unable to conjure up the required emotion and the weighing up of his worth against others, is something that then transforms into a reflection on the canon, the "default" white.

"[A] white woman kidnapped and that's the Trojan war" brings to my mind studies that have been done on newspaper column inches for disappearances and murders. It's well-documented (Google it!) that missing white children get much more news coverage than non-white children. (Class plays its part too, it must be stated, especially in this country, where it means much more than simple economic status. But it's difficult to separate race from class entirely)

I first got to read Musa Okwanga's 'For Mike Brown: The black boy is the new nuclear deterrent' when
I came across his tweet which apologised for re-sharing, but a mother had asked him to.

" […]The black boy is so terrifying to America,
That now all of its enemies want one.
North Korea has just put in an order,
Offering twenty thousand black boys and their families
Free schooling, room and board […]"

Here the tone is ironic, sarcastic, full of awareness of international weight. It reminds me just how much "black" is a mark of fashion, of world-recognised oppression, of kudos. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President (do you remember all that hope?) it seemed like the whole world stopped to applaud.

I remember being in Paris at seventeen with a bunch of school friends; we were loud and getting in the way of commuters one evening as we walked the streets. "Fucking Americans", I kept hearing from Parisians (at least, that was the only thing I managed to understand). Just a few years later, when Obama was elected, there was graffiti all over the city of him, in different postures - in one impressive mural, he was in a Superman outfit, getting ready to change the world. I was with a friend at the time, and I found myself deliberately talking in loud English, deliberately stretching my vowels and walking tall; this is the only time I have ever wanted people to think I was American. The idea I felt - and the one reported widely - was that his blackness was a game changer. The notoriously racist America had moved onto the next chapter and anything was possible. (TuPac's "I wonder if heaven got a ghetto" and the line: "We ain't ready to see a black President" haunted me then - I wished he'd been alive to see he was wrong.)

If nothing else, black will always be political.

It was interesting for me to read both of these poems in the same afternoon. To me, they're great examples of the British/American divide; it feels typically British to go for humour to make a serious point, to stick to the absurd (or to downplay everything) in order to bring out anger. Danez Smith's poem, on the other hand, is full of his personal feeling right from the outset; despite the precision in his words, despite there being far fewer words in his poem, the feelings are clear and right at the heart of the poem.

Capturing Fire Workshop

Nearly three months later and I haven't managed to write about Capturing Fire in Washington, D.C. I think there was just too much to capture (as can be demonstrated by Thomas Hinyard's 8 blog posts on his journey there).

What I will share now is my memory of running a workshop with Sophia Walker on taking a "British" satirical approach to uncomfortable topics. Racism, ableism, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia and many other social ills came up over again in the workshop. It was clear that the participants - and society as a whole - had a lot to deal with!

The idea of the workshop had been to take painful experiences and craft them into a beautiful piece of art.

I was amazed at how people took to it, but also realised - just sometimes - it isn't easy to take something you feel passionate about, something that still hurts, and change it into something you can laugh at.

In the last two weeks, as I've been travelling around, news items related to Gaza, Ferguson and Robin Williams have all triggered strong reactions from me and friends of mine online. Sometimes I wish there were more space for humour in posts I've seen on Facebook and Twitter. And sometimes I feel not everyone's taking things seriously enough.


My own thoughts on this aren't going to be wildly different from previous posts I've put up here.
We've all read the news. Our thoughts should be with the family right now. But, somewhere, a resentment that has been rising for the longest time has bubbled up and it's not about to go down any time soon.

Boy becomes sacrificial lamb and, mostly, because he fits the profile. Unlike Mark Duggan, whose death initially sparked protest before turning into something else, the boy in question was apparently without a gun and would have ended up in college. Just as much as middle-class white children make for more extended reportage, the presumed guilty get sidelined. Towns throughout the States could have been protesting earlier, just as we need to protest against the fact that not a single suspicious death in police custody has ever resulted in a conviction.

I posted a link on Facebook yesterday which I found provocative and was pleasantly surprised to engage in conversation about it. One friend wanted to know if I've personally felt oppressed by "the system" and whether most of the advice there applies to a British reader.

I didn't answer that directly; for the moment, I'm reluctant. I have one more night of Edinburgh and the news is only faintly coming in through my phone in between poetry sets and redrafts of chapters from my dissertation. Let's wait and see what happens, shall we? 

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