The disclaimer – I write from a place of white privilege, but also as the parent of black kids whose grandparents came from the Caribbean to hard scrabble a life for themselves and their children in the face of racism and poverty. Maybe this is a post I shouldn’t write, but the time has long since passed for holding things in.
My children are black because they can’t ever be white. Can we ever move beyond that visible division – one I can’t truly feel in my soul – in my own family? Probably not in my life time. When my ancestors took it upon themselves to enslave and transport their fellow man across the ocean they caused a deep wounding to those people, the consequences of which are still festering and killing people today. I’m not in that place because I am white. I am not in Ferguson, and I don’t know Michael Brown’s family. But it’s whilst standing on the edge of that place of deep wounding, looking into the abyss of inequity and inhumanity, from which I write this post.
The fact is, white people still don’t get it. They don’t get that when Ferguson exploded yesterday it was an expression of the sheer pain of the seemingly endless injustice to a whole people – and not just straight up lawlessness. The white people who fire the plastic bullets and the tear gas and the pepper spray cannot feel the effects of four hundred years of oppression; the anger of centuries filled with black folk dying at the hands of white people, and the white people’s system. The shameful history of black people being literally destroyed, unremarked, without monument, but all mourned.
I find myself thinking, we, America, will not forget Michael Brown. Like Rodney King in LA, Trayvon Martin in Florida, or Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, London. But these cases, like that of the schoolgirls in Birmingham Alabama – and let us name them: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old, and 11-year-old Denise McNair; or 14 year old Emmett Till killed in Mississippi, or young Will Brown in Omaha – they will be etched on some minds forever.
But most lives that are lost to the system, both in America and here in the UK, do go unremarked, with barely a flicker in the press. It seems to me that, particularly when young black men die in our cities and towns, their deaths are the collateral damage of a system of white privilege. Until we properly address the latter, we can’t impact on the rage and pain of the former. To our disgrace we make laws, but we don’t change people’s hearts and minds. Diversity has become a tick box on a form, but we don’t succeed in teaching people not to be scared of others. We fail in the main task of humanity, which is to live in harmony, even with our differences, in peace and understanding – if not agreement.
My children’s father’s friends – born and brought up in the inner city of Hackney – so many are dead. Dead from what I heard described last week as a ‘lethal absence of hope’. And it is the system that takes away that hope. Most young people never even have it to lose it. The system teaches from a young age that if a boy is born black in this country, in America, in the hood, they have no birthright to hope. They can expect to be labelled early on, given a partial education, and plenty of white people to be frightened – sometimes out of their own blind ignorance, partly the prevailing media narrative. Many young black men can expect to be diagnosed with mental health issues, be criminalised, fall victim to gangs and drugs and everything that goes with that territory. Black men do this, not because they have no aspirations but because any budding aspirations will be ground out daily under the heel of the white press. Every day a black man or boy dies and no-one cares. In today’s equal society, some lives still seem expendable. Those that survive, survive. No-one’s breaking down the white-tinted glass ceiling. Time to call it like it is.
I write all this from a place of white privilege, but I feel this partly is Ferguson’s pain. White privilege meant as a kid I got to imagine my future. Down the road my future partner in life got a future handed to him – one he has fought to simply survive. Ferguson is in pain. Michael Brown”s family are in pain. A whole community is in pain. I hope America, the world will sit up and listen to what’s being said through the flames and the violence of Missouri, before it outright condemns and scapegoats. Do this now, before the twisted racial narrative continues unapprehended down the street in the 21st century – whilst we all pretend we’ve fixed it. We haven’t, there’s a long way to go. Until my children’s father can walk down the street without feeling he has to jump off the pavement to pass a white person, until teachers no longer have to look for the teachable moments in the pictures from Ferguson, until we are done with ticking boxes whilst still fearing our fellow humans, we are nowhere near the equality we have apparently enshrined in law. Until it doesn’t suit us. Like in Michael Brown’s case.
Attributed to Aristotle, the full thing being, ‘Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.’
I would disagree if the learner is an actual child because playing is exactly how the youngest children learn; learning being a beautifully natural default setting whereby a child soaks up learning as unconsciously as a sponge soaks up water. Until, until… the child becomes aware of the external world. Its expectations and setbacks, it’s confusing inconsistency. The forked tongues of adults. The contrary way of teachers. I agree then, the learning can truly sometimes become pain.
I experienced it today, in the class I was teaching, a class of adults. I am always aware that teaching is learning too, and whilst you, the teacher learn, you sit with the learning of others; working with changing insights, openings, chasms and pain. It is holding a mirror up to the process of learning and asking questions to support that. Of course you try to support the person too, but the learning still comes hard-edged and painful. We no longer effortlessly sponge it in, it is like a birth in reverse. Painful and uncomfortable to be close to.
I remind myself, why, why I am there, or here. Not to serve the person in that moment, although that is the hope in the long run. Certainly not to serve myself – there are far easier ways to earn a living – I know because I have tried most of them. I am there to deliver the learning. The visceral, agonising, cord-around-its-neck learning.
We nearly always get there in the end, but as I try to clean up in the messy aftermath of a class, I cannot help but wonder about the wonder of it all.
On days like these when it should be a little warmer than it feels, a little kinder than is evident, a little less painful to hear the news; these are the days when I force myself to type a few words, if only to take refuge in the temporary comfort of the keyboard’s repetitive depressions, accompanied by the familiar clicks of the letters being arranged into a small meaning for the day. An existential activity, like many others, and a little harder but more necessary on days like these.
Write about Freud perhaps: all pain is loss, remembered and unremembered… The perpetual artistic discharge of that unknown void only squaring and cubing it in the case of Amy Winehouse who could only sing loss and pain to us, through, and about, thick layers of suffocation with analgesia. That particular road is No Entry for me today; it has no streetlights, and no bright sun or moon to light a way – I would simply be lost. I will make the journey another day. But make it I will. One step after another is all it takes after all, but the context is as yet unclear: an expedition, a pilgrimage, a maze…
Instead, back to Lucian and his friend, William Feaver’s appreciation in today’s Observer. Seems when I wrote about Freud’s landscapes I was seeing not only what I fancied, but what the artist intended.
About 10 years ago we went to Paris together to look at a Constable show. We both loved his portraits and were somehow trying to help lose, or shake off, the Constable that everyone knows. People tend to say that Constable was a boring English artist, but he was extraordinary in that he treated landscapes and portraits as if they were the same thing. This is what Lucian felt an artist should do. When it came to talking about art, Lucian was incredibly focused, and incredibly open-minded. His favourite word was “promising…
…He believed all his paintings were a kind of self-portrait. “They are all autobiography,” he would say. When I look at his work, however, I see his strange way of approaching things: slightly from the side, slightly awkwardly, but deliberately so, not cack-handedly so. When he was painting, at the point where you or I would probably say to ourselves: “OK. Stop. Leave it now,” Lucian would press on. Sometimes he did this to disastrous effect, but often not. His work, I would say, does not reproduce very well and that is often true of the work of a really great artist. However, when you actually see one of his paintings in front of you the impact is extraordinary. And that impact is him.