race me

content warning: some discussion of racism, death, violence 

I’m at my desk in my bedroom, feeling the creep of a headache at the back of my skull. The yellow cast from the ceiling light has always given me a headache, ever since I was a child. I remember arriving off the bus home from school in the evening after it’d limped like a wounded animal from Dover to Capel to Folkestone to Seabrook. By then, the afternoon had aged from grey into black. I would come into the kitchen through the back door, queasy over the crunch of snail shells beneath my shoes on the dark garden path, and turn the light on. The sallow brightness of the bulb would illuminate the room in a bizarre facsimile of daylight, casting pale, awkward shadows, rendering the outside flat black, obsolete, desolate, null.

This month, October, is always the month where something profound changes in my body as it resigns itself to winter. I want comfort, too much food and a warm place to sleep. Sometimes I fantasise about being put in a cardboard box filled with hay and newspaper and sealed up until March, like you’re supposed to do with tortoises. However, I’m an adult human being with things to do, and so I make it through the winter by shining a very bright light on my face in the mornings, taking vitamin D supplements, forcing myself to move my body (very effective, alas) and crying to friends down the phone about how terrible everything is often enough that it takes the sting away, so I can notice that life is still good, still beautiful. For example, how the trees are festooned with sloes, rosehips, haws and crab apples. How far and how clearly you can see out to sea on the coldest days. How the air is as refreshing as a sip of ice-water when I’m cycling, its flavours distilled on the palate—salt, car exhaust, canal mud. 

October is also Black History Month, and I feel a responsibility to be awake for that, too. This year has been a vintage year for unrest, due to the waves of protest reignited by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US. Even as COVID ravaged our societies, its toll disproportionately heavy on people of colour, many went out into the streets, braved the risk of infection and police repression, marched, toppled statues. There were a few times this summer when it felt like the whole edifice—rapacious capitalism buttressed by state violence—might come crashing down. It definitely wobbled. 

So this evening, in the spirit of being awake and staying woke, I ate nearly a whole box of baklava and attended the online premiere of a film, Voices for Freedom, which commemorated the 75th anniversary of the 5th Pan-African Congress. The film stitched together performances and readings by the sons and daughters of delegates who attended the Congress in Manchester in 1945. This is a piece of British black history, and global black history, that feels submerged. Almost all of it was new to me. Among the delegates to the Congress were political leaders who would eventually lead their countries to independence from their colonial governments, radical students, intellectuals, trade unionists and socialists—in short, people from all over the African diaspora who were making huge, structural changes to their world in the name of liberation from racist colonial domination by Britain, the US, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and others.

I joined the stream as the performance poet SAF-S2E was delivering the Marcus Garvey speech ‘African Fundamentalism’ in his ringing, dark brown voice. I was swept up and tumbled in the unflinchingness of Garvey’s words, the fearlessness and fanaticism, the language of the Bible, of epic, of metaphysics, of myth. Later, I looked up the text and found it littered with capitals: “NATURE first made us what we are and then out of our own creative genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that GREAT LAW. Let the SKY be your limit, and Eternity our Measurement.”

Garvey was in some ways a far-from-heroic man, with a legacy laced with reactionary antisemitism, a race-sciencey disdain for mixed-heritage people, and ambitions of an imperial, authoritarian, quasi-fascist kind for the creation a black homeland in Africa. Problematic at the very least. The impact, though, of Garvey’s ideas and rhetoric—his florid speeches on pan-Africanism, the slogan Black is Beautiful—can’t be denied. ‘African Fundamentalism’ causes a rush of blood to the head when you hear it read aloud, because it doesn’t compromise. I crunched the brittle pastry of the baklava between my back teeth, feeling the sugar-rush and head-rush come over me simultaneously. 

I thought back to this summer, to the rhetoric that has defined the popular anti-racist movements of my lifetime. ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be the bare minimum, and yet it’s an obsessively contested statement, fiddled with and fucked with and undermined. And it’s what people take to the streets to proclaim—if only because every day, the societies we’ve built fail to clear that low, low bar, a bar that is almost on the ground. Only recently have the demands to defund the police and the abolish the prison system gained mainstream popularity, which have brought about a resurgence of people calling themselves ‘abolitionists’—a title that’s a little grand, a little silly and puts me in mind of powdered wigs and William Wilberforce, yet, in spite of this, grasps the level of change that’s needed. 

I didn’t go to any protests, not even the one outside Folkestone Town Hall that was led by my late friend Arike with the words ‘Black Men Are Good’ emblazoned on his chest. I felt too scared, too helpless, too self-pitying. I couldn’t tell what difference it would make. What I did do was lie in bed and cry and talk and cry and jitter with the restlessness of guilt and rage. I hoped for the downfall of civilisation, hoped that I would get to just watch. A text I wrote to a friend on 1st June: “[…]It all feels very strange and scary… US race stuff is really in-your-face terrifying but it feels so distant to me, even though I know it’s not.”

This is part of the fight for me. The internalised racism that is lodged in my psyche tells me all the time that I don’t matter—as a black person of mixed heritage, as a queer woman, as a young adult, as a discouraged writer, as a person with mental health struggles. This is the bit of my mind that tells me I’m a child, I’m pretending, I can’t do anything, I’m a speck, an iota, a mote of dust. I have to do the inner work of realising that I must stand up and be counted, and that act in itself gives a tiny bit of juice to the movement for a more just world. I need to fight to notice that there’s something to fight for. Underneath the debris of my privilege and the myriad ways I can afford to comfort and distract myself, I can sometimes catch sight of the fact that my life is as it is in part because of racism. Even though I’m unlikely to be killed by the police for merely existing, I am subjected by racism at every moment. We all are, actually.

These ideas are easier to access the more I read, think and write, and the more I realise that black history is my history, and this world, structured by capital, exploitation and racism, is my world, too. Learning about the recent history of police brutality in this country has helped, in a painful way. Racism, police brutality and sexism resulted in the degrading violence towards black feminist heroine Olive Morris. Racism, privatisation, and the hatred of immigrants that saturates political discourse in this country resulted in the death of Jimmy Mubenga. Racism and the particular violence that is acted out on black men’s bodies and in black men’s lives resulted in the deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Mark Duggan, Edson da Costa

On a bike ride with my family in June I nearly cycled into a polite but assertive Black Lives Matter march along the Hythe canal. Surprised and a little chastened, I dragged my bike over to the grass on the side of the path and smiled at the marchers, who smiled back as they chanted. Seized by the moment, feeling a little giddy, I raised a fist, curling my fingers and flexing my arm at the elbow—mentally I was picturing Angela Davis raising a chic, casual salute at her trial in 1971—and felt the power of the gesture in my own body as I saw fists raised in return as the march streamed by me.

Last weekend, for Black History Month, I organised an evening of poetry, storytelling and interviews by local black artists, addressing and honouring black men. I also read some of my own poems, which was wonderful and difficult, as the writing itself didn’t come easily. I had to push myself hard to commit words to paper, convinced as I was of their uselessness. But I have had these huge thoughts about racism roiling in my head for a few months now, and I knew I had to decide to use them in the writing, pushed up as they were against my struggle for my own significance. I had to decide to tell people what I wanted them to know, to smooth and shape the raw material of my ideas under the grit of my critical eye, until I had something I could share. I had to decide that sharing on the level of the personal, oblique and metaphorical could be a contradiction to my feelings of political helplessness and fear, that a symbol wouldn’t just be a symbol if another person could see it and understand what I meant. And I had to decide that words, the words I chose, could themselves inform reality and create possibility; that they, too, would matter. 

A prompt for you, then, gentle Antidiarists, as thanks for bearing witness to this long and meandering entry. 

Take a wander into your personal history — where has racism touched your life? What did the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer bring up for you? Go straight to the feelings. Antidiarists of white heritage especially, I’d ask you to be considerate of your community, but also to be honest. The option to post anonymously is open to everyone, as always. Breathe deeply. Post. 

Yours, 

Josie

P.S.: Black History Month celebrations are going on throughout October… check out the full schedule here.

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