You are Young, gifted and Black, we must begin to tell our young Nina Simone, Weldon Irvine
To the Young Gifted and Black, Reni Eddo-Lodge
Congratulations Reni on the first anniversary of your book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’. It is a fantastic achievement. Thank you for the research work, the insight, the humour and probably most of all for the accessibility of the text. Now, instead of talking to white people about race I can (and do) choose to signpost them to your book. It is, as you say, ‘sometimes about self-preservation’. I was inspired to hear you speak at the Words of Colour event this week (big thanks to CEO Joy Francis), and to witness the intergenerational conversations that took place there. One particular strand of conversation made me sit up – not altogether comfortably I will admit – and has remained with me through my navigations of a busy week. What happened, you asked, to your generation? What happened to passing the information down?
I include myself in this ‘your generation’, because I am one of the fifty-plusses, who could be your parent, and who has children of your age, to whom I think you were referring. Thank you for your question. What you seemed to want to understand, was why you had had to root in the archives to excavate a body of the potentially forgotten history of Black UK experience. When you noted the relative newness of the Black Cultural Archives (though it is actually a lot older than its current home in Windrush Square) your frustration was palpable – a felt presence that asked questions directly of me, and others of my generation, who were there in the room. As so often happens, when faced with a good question, I had no immediate answers – or at least I spared you the ones that I had, which were probably borne of tiredness. I could have been reactive and defensive, but instead I let the question – and your frustration – stay with me. They discomfited me and rippled out into and through many other conversations within my week. Please don’t feel bad. I am a therapist. In my world, discomfort is also possibility.
Should we tell young people the truth?
There’s a world waiting for you…
There’s a world waiting for you, Nina sings. An important question though, is what kind of world is it? A woman in the audience – someone from my generation who is herself responsible for mentoring young people entering her profession – asks if we should really be telling young people the truth. She, and others, are concerned about truth telling and question earnestly, whether our first responsibility should really be to act in ways that motivate and encourage, and give hope to young people. In this context, telling the truth – about our experiences of racism, discrimination, and exclusion – would be to risk snatching the wind right out of the sails of those coming up, before they’ve even had a chance to launch their boats. Even if we decided to leave out the catalogue of micro-aggressions that most of us have experienced so frequently that we get bored talking about them, I know very few Black people who don’t have stories, that as well as being hard to tell, are also hard to hear. Selective telling – even silence – are sometimes us not wanting to be discouraged or discouraging. Perhaps this contributes to the generational communication gap of which you spoke. My rippled conversations this week have stoked my curiosity about this gap and about what exists within it. I have wondered about things that are not being told, and the other things that are not being heard. We need to stop lying to ourselves, you say in your book, and we need to stop lying to each other. I agree. We also need, I think, to work out what this looks like in practice and how exactly we might stop/start doing it.
At what stage should we tell children the truth?
Your soul’s intact
It is true to say that the struggle to keep our own children’s small Black bodies and souls intact while living in London was a wearying one. You might conclude that leaving to raise them in West Africa was a form of surrender. In some ways it was, but it was also the enactment of a very basic desire – that the souls that we had ushered into the world might, in their formative years, experience a wider spectrum of Black possibility conducive to a positive sense of identity, self-esteem and confidence. We have no regrets, but it is important for the record I think, to acknowledge that there really is no way to outrun the reach of racism or white supremacy. Pertinent to this discussion is the reality that there is no escaping the truths that ask to be told.
During a trip upriver to the island of Janjanbureh (during the colonial era known as McCarthy Island, and Georgetown), we visited the ruins of what we were told was a former slave house. This was, it turns out, not accurate but it didn’t impact on a difficult moment between us, and the other family who were our travelling companions. Whilst we took our children inside the ruins they, who felt that their children were too young and needed protecting from this painful history, waited outside. We stood, as a family, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness and allowed the children to make whatever they would of the experience. They did this in their own ways – sometimes listening attentively to the local guide, sometimes exploring the walls with their fingers, and a lot of the time playing chase in and out between the dungeon-esque basement and the hot sun outside. Were they, I wonder, old enough for this truth? One of the challenges of being a parent is the imbalance between the heap of people who want to make you right or wrong versus the very few who actually want to help. Who can claim to know really, what it is that souls do and do not need in order to stay intact? What feels true is to say that the choice was one that we, as parents, were responsible for, and that notions of right and wrong were and are of little help.
How do we regulate ourselves while telling the truth?
When you feel really low, there’s a great truth you should know
Professor Christina Sharpe, author of In the Wake, asks how we can memorialize transatlantic slavery when its afterlives are still unfolding. Another good question and one that evokes, for me, therapeutic work with trauma. Generally, we understand trauma work to be most effective once the person concerned is safe, and the actual traumatic event is behind them, in the past. The paradox of the Wake then, as Sharpe describes it, is that the past is not past, but instead ongoing and everyday. This is exactly the kind of ongoing trauma that we might naturally feel a pull to dissociate from – to lie to ourselves about – as a strategy for survival. At the same time, it is also a traumatic inheritance – a trauma that our children are born into, and for which we also carry a responsibility to speak truth to. Another of the paradoxes of Black being. Sharpe calls the processes of thinking through how to do, think and feel in this reality, wake work. The positioning of practices of parenthood/elderhood as wake workhelps me to navigate these paradoxes and impossibilities by reminding me that they are in fact, irresolvable. Sharpe argues that,
“Rather than seeking a solution to blackness’s ongoing and irresolvable abjection, one might approach Black being in the wake as a form of consciousness”
It is with this consciousness – of living in the wake of the past that is not past with an eye to the future that is not here yet, and that may not arrive – that I regulate myself. I regulate myself as a parent/elder in order to tell the truth, and sometimes, to withhold it. I am not convinced about the linear relationship that we have been encouraged to believe exists between history and time, (I am more interested in notions of the spiral and spiralling that came up in conversation with the fantastic Dr Karen Salt this week) but I am interested in the gaps with which it leaves us. Our historic timeline offers us generation gaps, information gaps, and gaps between what and where we think progress should be and what and where it actually is. Then of course, we also have the gaps between what we know and what we choose to tell. What I can tell you now is that, in managing the trouble and grief of the wake on a daily basis – and still being able to experience joy, success and love – I, and all the people around me employ many strategies. Possibly, you do too, which begs the question; how often do you/I tell the truth of these strategies – of the ways in which we get by? These survive–thrive strategies are, in my opinion, in urgent need of telling and sharing, parent to parent, elder to youth to elder, and across as many generations as we are able.
Bridging the Gaps
I am fortunate to be around younger people – my own children and those that I think of as my children but who technically belong to other people – on a daily basis. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be writing this, and even if I were you would be unlikely to be reading it because I am a long way from being able to utilise the internet and social media to its full advantage on my own. It is worth noting that the processes by which information can be passed on, have transformed in my lifetime. I wonder how easy it is to imagine the world in which I grew – without blogs and vlogs, email or mobile phones, and with no Black twitter to laugh it off with on rocky days? I very much appreciate the Black cyber-universe in which harsh truths can now be more collectively held, including our family Whats App group chat, where truths can arise, meet several minds and attract an array of responses. I like that we can now share and pass things on more easily. I especially like that when I’ve finished writing this, I will enlist the help of one of my children, and they will sigh and roll their eyes and walk me (again) through the intricacies of tweeting and tagging, and they will think that I don’t know that pictures of my confused but determined face are featuring in their Instagram stories. I like that it will all be good. These days, a lot of our truth emerges in this way, through collaboration.
Maintaining intergenerational circles
There are times when I look back, and I am haunted by my youth
I was tired when I arrived at the event where you were speaking. I am often tired these days. It crossed my mind that I would be better in my bed, especially when I saw all the people who looked so much less tired than me. I will admit, that it isn’t always easy to look upon youth, shining and sexy, and radiating success. It is hard not to fall into comparisons – to inventory one’s own life, cataloguing where you were at that age and what you should have done by now. Or perhaps it’s only me – in any case, I’ll own it. I could have snuck out, and legitimised it by reminding myself that I had already read your book, appreciated it, disseminated and recommended it, hence performed my civic duty. I am glad that I stayed, and heard you speak, and that I was there to witness your question. I don’t know if it took courage, but it did feel like a courageous question, addressed as it was, publicly to the elders. What happened to your generation?
You didn’t frame it as criticism and I didn’t hear it as such. I heard a curiosity, a stepping towards, an invitation to share, to be proximal and intimate, and to come into a circle. I wanted to respond at the time but was interrupted by invisible things – tiredness, time, the trauma of the wake – which is why I am writing now. I know that we (my generation) can be indignant at times, feeling that so called ‘millennials’ are not listening to us or valuing what we have lived and done and seen. To be listened to and heard is to be recognised and respected. We want this for ourselves, and I’m sure you do too. I dislike the term millennial when applied to people precisely because it sets itself up as a border – distancing and separating us as though we belong to different categories of humanity who need and want entirely different things. If we can prise ourselves away from the timeline – turn towards each other, form spirals instead of lanes – we can reduce this distance. We needto reduce this distance. In asking your question, respectfully and openly, you did just that – reduced the distance, at least for me. Thank you. In truth, it does pain me that I cannot now go back to give you, or any of my children, what you have already found for yourself. I can though, respect, appreciate and honour your finding.
What happens now?
But my joy of today, is that we can all be proud to say
When asked why you wrote ‘WHY I’M’, you said that it was perhaps the book that you would have liked to read yourself, that didn’t exist when you wanted to read it. You noted that the publishing industry follows the money, and in this way, has supplied us with lots of books on tidying up and far fewer on socio-political structures. I have similar thoughts about parenting; if I have wanted advice on weaning and potty training, there are shelves full of it. When however, what I have needed is help with explaining to my children, the world that they have been born into and the paradoxes of Black being – the shelves were bare. Perhaps I should follow your example, and write the book myself. Until then, what I am doing is recommitting to staying awake in this wake, and to encouraging all of us to be mindful and vigilant so that we might avoid the well-worn tracks to where the generational clichés live. Let’s give a wide berth to ‘young people are this’and ‘old people are that’, and think twice before we start sentences with ‘in my day’and ‘in your day’. These are all of our days, until they are not. The spiral spirals, not up or down, nor in or out; there is no right way to go. By continuing to make circles, stepping in and towards, gathering and talking (virtually and otherwise), and staying connected, we respect the truth of all of our days. More importantly, we simultaneously honour the past that is not past, and the future that is not here and the gifts of now. What a lovely precious dream…
To be young gifted and black
Is where it’s at