Category Archives: Art
I have northern hands. They are my grandfather’s on my mother’s side: squared off, sturdy, safe?
I see my grandad spinning a knife on the polished dining table after tea – the bone handle spinning, silver plated SHEFFIELD slowing, slowing, ready to point out the person who would be doing the washing up.
My grandad always did the washing up. And peeled the vegetables.
I do the same, but I don’t spin a knife.
I have his hands and they are northern, Lancashire hands, worn in with the good earth and the pit dust of somewhere like Newton-in-Makerfield. I have the hands that he was yet to grow into as a boy, walking through the Queensway Tunnel under the River Mersey with an uncle the night before it opened in the summer of 1934. I have the hands that dovetailed joints and played ludo and grew vegetables and wrote a PhD about the infinity of numbers. I have those hands, and the stories that lie in them, and I’m grateful.
My mother has them too.
I ventured into the loft today to bring down this large original for my daughter’s bedroom wall. It’s the kind of piece that isn’t fashionable these days, but I’ve always thought it had an interesting quality of atmosphere or (to borrow from Wassily Kandinsky) innerer klang even.
I have often found this phrase problematic: it sounds simple, but in practice it is not. It sounds like a grand gesture, but done in public, with resonance it’s the kind of act that rightfully ends up in a movie and in the history books. Public speaking of truth to power form definitive moments on which the world can eventually turn. Take Nelson Mandela speaking in his defence in court in South Africa on the 20th April 1964. He concluded his speech with these famous lines
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
The words above are beyond memorable. That day Nelson Mandela spoke truth to power. But the truth that he spoke, although political, and thankfully in public for posterity, was driven by an accumulation of smaller personal truths that, for many years, had no voice at all. It’s a speech everyone should read in full, and not just looking back to a different time and place, but mindful of certain parallels around the world today. The following extract illuminates the painful personal experience of black South Africans under white rule. It’s hard not to read it without imagining yourself experiencing it too. That, I think, is part of the point.
The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans.
When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that they have emotions – that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what “house-boy” or “garden-boy” or labourer can ever hope to do this?
Pass laws render any African liable to police surveillance at any time. I doubt whether there is a single African male in South Africa who has not had a brush with the police over his pass. Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into jail each year under pass laws.
Even worse is the fact that pass laws keep husband and wife apart and lead to the breakdown of family life. Poverty and the breakdown of family have secondary effects. Children wander the streets because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go, or no parents at home to see that they go, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to violence, which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous. Not a day goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships [into] the white living areas. People are afraid to walk the streets after dark. Housebreakings and robberies are increasing, despite the fact that the death sentence can now be imposed for such offences. Death sentences cannot cure the festering sore.
Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes.
Nelson Mandela, through the ANC, gained a platform to speak his truth. Not so for the men thrown into jail in South Africa: beaten, abused, sometimes to death. Not so for the wives left behind. Not so for the children, denied an education. Yet some people may have spoken their truth, and gone unheard. Others may, from fear and self-preservation, remained silent. Who of us wouldn’t too? Nelson Mandela spoke for all of them.
I went to see The Scottsboro Boys at the theatre this week – based on the true story of 9 young black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931 and sentenced to death. I am not an especial fan of musical theatre, but the subject matter and the reviews made me determined not to miss it. It is a great piece. I feel it is brave. I can see why it closed in New York after a mere 12 weeks.
There is one moment in the production that stands out, a moment of suspense, where one of the young accused wants to speak truth to power, the truth being the injustice of it all, the power represented by the only white cast member The Interlocuter. The moment is heavy with audience expectation. The truth suffocates in the accused man’s throat. In that moment, you get the sense of how almost impossible speaking truth to power is when the personal and the political come face-to-face. How the bravest of men and women can be overcome by the most urgent of imperatives: the need to survive.
I have come to realise, over the years, that like it or not, I represent some part of the system that silences the truth on the tongues of people for whom the system has minor regard. This is an uncomfortable fact. Yet it is fact, and as such I have a responsibility, small as it is, as personal and non-political as I feel I am, I still have a responsibility to speak out. I am saying it clumsily. It sits clumsily still with me because it’s easier to remain ignorant, to stay silent. James Baldwin, the American writer, can say it better, I hope.
In his 1949 essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel‘ he excoriated the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe for her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the essay Baldwin is clear: it is not enough for a writer to describe the horrors of the world, overlaid with righteous indignation in order to comfort the readers. Baldwin believes such novels ’emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American Dream.’ Baldwin asks why is that we are ‘so loath to make a further journey… to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?’
This is the power of the uncomfortable and paradoxical truths that Baldwin believes ‘will free us from ourselves’.
This is the truth to power that we need to speak: other people’s truths to our own power – power that we often blindly leave in the hands of those who misuse it.
Postscript: I’d like to name these young men and their position in the photograph, but black history recorded by white people is often a victim of disregard for the status and dignity of each individual concerned. As if, to quote Nelson Mandela above, history does ‘not realise they have’ names, lives, loves. For now, here stand:
I find myself wondering if Scottsboro Boys, the musical, would have passed the James Baldwin test. I think, perhaps, yes. And I also wonder: who do I speak for and to?
This has been done by the eldest (twelve) on my phone when she was sitting in the car for a few minutes whilst I bought some dog food at the pet shop.
This has been done by the girl who says she doesn’t like art (as it’s taught in school) anymore.
This has been done by someone who has an instinctive approach to form.
A week is a long time in politics. Last Friday my heart was breaking that the majority of good people in Scotland voted to maintain the status quo, proving the science on bias in decision making is nearly always right. My heart was breaking, and my mind was fuming as the Westminster elite, who had shamelessly manipulated the media discourse over the last couple of weeks of the Independence campaign, entirely for their own benefit (and not that of Scotland) immediately altered the conversation from one of further devolved Scottish powers to English votes for English MPs.
That long sentence shows that I still cannot speak of it, not really. Not without getting almost incandescent with fury and indignation about how easily the establishment continue to distract and manipulate the majority.
Anyway, now all the conversation is about air strikes in Iraq and whether they will be expanded to Syria. I have views on this, I am just not sure exactly what they are. I could not help but wonder how the wife of the captured hostage Alan Henning felt about the vote yesterday. My heart goes out to her, him, and their family and I hope his story turns out better than that of others. I just can’t understand man’s inhumanity to man. Do we learn nothing?
Coincidentally, this morning my daughter decided she wanted to draw ‘scary things’ and a quick google came up with some inspiration. She did this freehand whilst I was busy with the other child. It’s a pretty horrible image, and depicts, for me, the truly ugly side to some humans’ nature. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, I suppose.