All posts by Nicole Willson

  • Injustice and ‘Foul Lies’ – Slaves and Freemen in the Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

    This morning, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, I was excited to hear that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave would feature as Radio 4’s ‘book of the week’. I am one of the biggest champions of the recent film adaptation of Northup’s memoir, and I once again confirmed this to myself last week when Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen were presented with BAFTAs (for best actor and best film respectively) and I began punching the air and howling like a wolf, before jumping off my seat to do a little victory dance (at home, by myself.) I hope that the film will enjoy similar acclaim at next week’s Oscars’ ceremony, and that the fantastic Lupita Nyong’O, in particular, might be recognised for her part in the film’s brilliance. I spent a good part of the morning after the BAFTAs trawling articles on the web, hoping that the evening’s results might have stimulated a renewed critical interest in the film and its real-life historical subject (Northup). Inevitably, I found myself revisiting some of the material that had been produced after the film’s initial release, as it was here, in the ‘Comments’ sections, that the debate was really taking shape.

    When I went to see the film (some of you may recall) I was in Louisiana. I had attended a graduate seminar at LSU hosted by Professor Michael Bibler – with whom I share a great many scholarly interests – on transnationalism and the American plantation. When I arrived in the class, I had not yet seen the film, whereas my other class members had. They gave me an insight into things to be critically wary of: the moments of virtual torture porn, the obscuring of the black female voice, and the romanticisation of the ‘Free North’. Having sat with the carrot dangled in front of me for most of that day, I had to go and see it that night so that I could judge for myself. I was completely overwhelmed. I continued to contemplate the points that had been raised in class earlier that day, but generally had few scruples with the film.

    When I watched the BAFTAs, rooting for Steve McQueen and his brilliant cast, and, the following day, as I read the ‘Comments’ sections of the aforementioned online articles, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of proponents that the film seemed to have. Of course, as we all know, these feeds range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and not all of the comments that I fell upon were full of unbounded praise. Naturally defensive over things about which I feel passionately, I was surprised, however, to find myself in (partial) agreement with one of the more critical commentators. The commentator in question argued that the film only made us feel empathy for the plight of Solomon, suggesting that his capture and his enslavement was an injustice, when, in fact, the injustice lay in the fact that anyone at all should ever have been enslaved.

    Although I would contend the point that the film makes us feel empathy for nobody but Solomon – the personal traumas of characters such as Patsey and Eliza demonstrate, after all, the extreme brutalities of the American slave system – our sense of triumph when Solomon is claimed by a former acquaintance from the North to be taken home to his family in New York is undeniable. Our capacity to empathise with the likes of Patsey and Eliza is thus partially obscured. In this moment of elation and (apparent) catharsis, Patsey collapses in a heap to the left of the screen, on the periphery, almost outside of our view. This is a potent symbol. We root for Solomon, and yet after his liberation Patsey, and the rest of the slaves on the Epps plantation, are out of sight, and out of mind. Recalling this moment reminded me that ‘justice’, and our sense of justice, is rarely informed by these peripheral voices, but is shaped by those who have had the power to speak.

    As I was listening to Northup’s memoir on Radio 4 this morning, I was also reminded of the fact that free people of color across the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not always share the same interests with those from the enslaved community. I was struck by a particular section of the narrative in which Northup describes his enslavement a ‘foul lie’. While it was indeed a lie, I wondered why it should have been considered to be so ‘foul’, given especially that Northup was descended from slaves. This piece I now give you is a slight digression from the chapter that I am currently writing for my thesis on the struggle of free people of color in colonial Saint-Domingue and its transmigrations across the Atlantic. While free people of color formed alliances with the enslaved people who had risen up in rebellion in the colony at the end of the eighteenth century, there was to remain bitter and longstanding divisions between these two groups (the traces of which remain visible in independent Haiti today.) Indeed, many of these free men had owned property and slaves of their own, and counted themselves amongst the colony’s ruling elite. These men fought not, in the first instance, to end slavery, but to advance their own civil and political rights as free property-owners.

    Northup cannot be counted amongst this class of property-owning ‘elites’. After his return to New York, he became a leading actor in the abolition movement, and his memoirs were part of an influential tidal-wave of abolitionist literature that surged across America in the 1850s. These thoughts nevertheless remind us that ‘justice’, especially in the context of slavery, did not always have a universal reach, but was, on the contrary, very much individual.

  • PhD: Periodic Human Derangement

    PhD

    Hello world. Yes, I’ve been absent – and for some time. I’ve been deferring this post for a while, though in fact I’ve been piecing it together intermittently over several weeks. I think that reflects the irregularity and general tumultuousness of my life over the past month and a half of the New Year, during the course of which I have repeatedly asked myself whether I might be ‘crazy’. Everyone has their own special brand of crazy, right? It’s the human condition, I’ve come to learn. There is not really any such thing as ‘sanity’. But there’s crazy and then there’s PhD crazy. Ultimately, I think you have to be crazy to do a PhD; or, if not, then the PhD will make you crazy. Of course, the two things combined are mutually conducive to more crazy. There is a serious point to all of this. Lately I’ve had a series of revelations, and they have opened my eyes to the kind of person that I’ve become since starting my PhD 16 months ago.

    The PhD can be a lonely and intimidating experience; it’s not for the faint-hearted, this much we all know when we sign up. It takes hard work, and guts (real iron-encased guts) to stay focused and positive through the long periods of solitude and the many challenges to our credibility and worth as scholars. We have to face off against these things while, at the same time, trying to spin several plates, ultimately knowing that the extra plates help to drive us and keep our work fresh, but also knowing that they are the essential building blocks in our careers. Again, I’m hardly saying anything new here, and it sounds a lot like the start of an invective against the PhD, but actually it’s not. If anything, it’s more like the opening of a (potentially unanswerable) question about the conundrums posed by the PhD.

    In recent months, I have felt confused and unsettled by some of the emotions that the PhD has thrown up. I feel compelled to say that I am in a (pretty) good place as I write this, but that wasn’t the case about a month ago. In every job, people have to take the rough with the smooth, and there’s no denying that there are a lot of people out there who experience more of the rough than the smooth, but that shouldn’t be the case for a PhD, surely? I mean, in spite of all of the above, this kind of career involves choice, and it relies on a motivating passion. I get to do what I LOVE; I get to exercise my passion and employ my creative energies in ways that to some are unimaginable and unachievable. My expertise was laid to waste in my last job, and the PhD offered an opportunity to change that, so you can imagine my surprise when Julian told me that he thought I was a ‘happier person’ in my last job.

    Though I knew him to be right, it seemed to me the most incredible thing. How could I possibly have been ‘happier’? How could I not be happy now? Everyone’s experience of the PhD is different, but, by and large, I’ve not met a single person that has been through (or is presently going through) the experience who could tell me that they have not had moments of complete desperation. Even in those moments of wild and sustained productivity, when things seem to be ‘coming together’, I think that many of us would still find it difficult to characterise ourselves as abundantly happy. And yet, we’re stuck in a catch-22 situation, as I’m pretty sure that happiness makes you work better and more productively. A lack of happiness translates to a productivity ‘leach’.

    So, inevitably, we try to bring happiness into our lives, ensuring that we enjoy equal measures of fun and rest to balance out the demands of work. But how do we sustain that happiness through our work? How do we continue to feel positive after the buzz created by that breakthrough passes? How do we pull ourselves out from that giant pit that seems to get deeper each time we attempt to climb it?

    The solutions that we find are likely to be personal ones, but I think that we can all benefit from the maintenance of active communities that promote opportunities for fruitful and regular exchange. As I type this, I’m thinking about how I might go about setting up a network for such exchange to take place *exciting brainwaves catapulting Nicole to new levels of happiness*, but I appreciate any thoughts and comments from happy people, or from those striving to achieve happiness in their daily working lives.

  • An Ode to This Day: 2 January 2014

    Breakfasting with the woman that shares my soul;
    Running in the sunshine:
    Danson Lake glistening;
    Ducks;
    Tiny dogs all muddy;
    Children all muddy;
    Getting new trainers muddy.
    Singing in my head: Fats Domino;
    Finding things;
    Eating the last slice of pie;
    Undoing imperfect stitches and restarting;
    Leaving the dishes in the sink;
    Telling the man I love that I love him;
    Writing this.

  • Gratitude List

    I’ve been back for nearly a month. December has been a bizarre, transitional month, but it has been quite wonderful. I want to celebrate all of the wonder of this entire year with a gratitude list (a few of which I’ve seen floating around and have felt inspired by in recent days), so here goes:

    1) Family

    I am grateful to have a family that I can really happily call a family; a family that doesn’t just keep up appearances but cares. I am grateful for the fact that this year we were able to reconnect with family that we hadn’t seen for almost seven years, and for the fact that that family welcomed us back as if that time hadn’t elapsed at all. I’m grateful for my extended family, formed over the eleven years that Julian and I have been together. I am grateful to have parents that have been supportive of all of my choices and have helped to guide me on the course that I am now taking. I am grateful for the relationship that I now have with my younger brother: all of a sudden, after all of those years of bickering and nastiness, we seem to click, and I see so much of my younger self in him. I know he will go far.

    2) Friends

    I am grateful for my wonderful friends – you complete me, make me smile, encourage me to be brilliant. If it weren’t for you, I’d be nothing. I am grateful for the new friends I have made, and I hope that we will maintain lasting relationships. I know that we will. I am grateful for your strength; you have struggled and overcome obstacles and shown me through your lived experience that we can do it.

    3) Running

    I had no idea when I started running just a few years ago, how much I would grow to love it. I always thought that sport was something that you ‘had’ to do, like eating lettuce and brushing your teeth twice a day, but I have grown to realise that that’s just not the case. I love to run, and I am grateful to have legs that carry me to the most fabulous places. This year I ran over Tower Bridge in the sunshine with my best friend, I ran in City Park in New Orleans, and today I ran in Bexleyheath in the pouring rain.

    4) Dancing

    I was sad last year to leave behind my friends at the Five Wents Memorial Hall where I learnt to lindy hop. I will DEFINITELY be returning to a lindy class in the new year, but this year I developed a love for a new kind of dance: zydeco. This last weekend, I went Cajun dancing for the first time since I returned from Louisiana, and it was fabulous. What I am most grateful for, however, aside from my pure love of dance, is the fact that I have a man in my life who likes to dance with me, and who doesn’t just dance but sets the floor alight. In dance, the lady tends to follow, but whenever I say to Julian, ‘will you do this [insert crazy new dance here] with me?’ he does. And he does it like he always knew how.

    5) Books

    Books, of course, are my life. But this year I remembered how much I love books, and what I see in books that can be imaginatively brought to life. I hope some day, in the not too distant future, to create my own.

    6) Sunny Days

    This year I have made the most of sunny days. Even when, for the most part, I have been stuck working inside, I have forced myself to get out and enjoy the sunshine. For my international friends, yes, we had lots of sunshine in England this year!

    7) Kent

    Kent is the county that Julian and I were born in, grew up in, and presently (sort of) live in. This year we rediscovered its beauties and found the place that in 2015 we will marry. It’s easy to forget that Kent has historically been thought of as the ‘garden of England’, but if you just step outside, you realise that it’s totally true.

    8) My travelling partner

    This year I have presented at conferences, given a public talk at the British Museum, and travelled to Louisiana in the name of research. I am grateful for the fact that my partner was there for me every step of the way. He has pushed me and inspired me, and he has helped me to make it wonderful and memorable. New Orleans we never expected to have, but now we have it, and we will have it forever.

    9) Ladies’ Night

    Yes, damn right. You all see the pictures on Facebook. These nights are legendary, and ‘ladies’ night’ has become an institution with a number of followers over the past year. I am proud to say that I haven’t missed a single one.

    10) The future

    How can you be grateful for the future, you ask, when you can’t possibly know what the future will hold? Well, that’s precisely why I am grateful. I am grateful for the unpredictability of my life and for the rollercoasters that I will no doubt encounter along the way. 2014, you don’t phase me one little bit.

     

    Have fun tonight, y’all!

  • Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

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    …So mused Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans. As I sit here in the kitchen of my beautiful (rented) Mid-City shotgun house, I am beginning to contemplate that very question. The only way that I could answer is in the affirmative: yes. Most assuredly, yes. A million times, yes. New Orleans has been the place that I have called my home for the past month, and in many ways, I feel that I am leaving home. Of course, in reality, I am returning home and am happy to be, but I am also sad. Who knew that a place could leave a person with feelings so bittersweet? Certainly I did not, and I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience before.

    Many a time I’ve fallen head over heels in love with a place: Sydney, Liguria, Havana, Perigord, and, of course, New York. Julian and I have talked about one day (in the not too remote future) moving out to New York for a period, and there are a handful of other places that I think I could one day call home. And now I’ve caught the bug; this trip has showed me that, while it may be hard, I could do it. That said, I think that this experience has been a unique one, and will remain with me forever. It’s the kind of bug that takes root and never leaves. There is something to be said about the ‘infectious’ nature of the South, I think, and New Orleans in particular – about how it affects you, invades you, and penetrates to the very core of you. The landscape issues its own kind of poetry: the bayous and cypresses, the creole cottages, the balconies, the cemeteries, the slowly sinking sidewalks, the Big Muddy. I could go on, but I don’t know where it would end – my mind and my senses are literally teeming – and, quite frankly, there are some things that I would like to retain just for myself.

    So I’ll finish with this: if I’ve learnt one important thing on this trip, I’ve learnt that to write about the South, and to truly understand the South, one must first go to the South. It’s not enough to read books about it. Books are nevertheless a great starting point, and, ultimately, they led me here. I’m continuing to follow the trail with new books, and with old books and a fresh mind. See y’all soon.

     

  • At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

    Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

    The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

    Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred.  This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

    Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.

    I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.

     

  • Big Steps

    October is always a wonderful month, and each year I try to squeeze as much as I can out of its wholesome autumnal fruits. Because October, to me, is really Autumn: distant enough from September, when the weather is still striving to be warm and accommodating to alfresco diners, and not quite scarf-and-glove-inducing like November. Of course, it’s no surprise that I enjoy October more than most other months, and I’m a bit (more than a bit) biased there – October has always borne witness to so many wonderful and special things in my personal life. This October has been no exception. In many ways, this month has been the hardest and most challenging month of the year, but it has been good, and it has helped to grow me.

    Over this past month I have given two public talks – one at the British Museum and another at the Millennium Library in Norwich. The first of these was incredibly daunting in a way that I hadn’t expected it to be. I’ve always loved speaking, and am glad that I jumped on the conference bandwagon early in my career as a researcher, but have never really had an opportunity to speak outside of my academic peer group. It was both, then, incredibly rewarding but also somewhat intimidating to witness so many people from the general public turn up for my talk because they were interested in its content, and in what I had to say. Once the pressure was off, though, and the talk was over, I was reassured by the positive feedback and engaging questions that I received. This was mirrored in the audience response to the talk that I gave a couple of weeks later at the Millennium Library in honour of Black History Month.

    I emerged from both experiences feeling for the first time some degree of certainty that I would like to have a career as an academic. From the onset of my journey as a PhD student, I have been reminded of the difficulties faced by early career academics – and academics in general – which have been amplified in recent years owing to government cuts in the arts, and in higher education. However, the more and more that I engage people with my subject, and connect that subject to people’s lives in the present moment, the more I become convinced that academia is my calling.

    I now only have a few hours left in the United Kingdom, as I prepare for another big journey. October, it seems, was just a primer for an even bigger, better, and more challenging November in an unfamiliar space. I’ll keep you all posted while I’m away but, for now, I’ll leave you with some mementoes from this wonderful October.

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    Gilt of Cain slavery memorial, Fen Court, London

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    Me getting ready for my ‘big bluesy birthday’

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    Sculpture installed at the ISM entitled ‘Freedom’, by Atis Rezistans, an art collective in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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    Julian and I toasting each other at the Five Bells Inn in Brabourne, having just booked our wedding!

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    Senate House Library, Bloomsbury

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     The view from Lympne Castle, Lympne

  • The Little Girl in Me; the Woman I am

    As many of you know, I am planning a wedding. Due to commitments that I have in my professional life, and to allow me plenty of time to save, this event will not be taking place until the spring of 2015. It is rare that I get much time to think about the necessaries that Julian and I will need to take into account in planning our big day, and when we first got engaged we were convinced that we would be unlike most other couples who go through this process. I would be totally cool; never would the name ‘Nicole’ and the word ‘bridezilla’ be used in the same sentence, and Julian would be totally involved, rebuffing the stereotypes of men who sit back while their partners go gaga over table plans and flower arrangements. Most of that stuff is a long way off for us yet, and we have a team (or maybe it should better be described as an ‘army’) of fabulous people – friends and family – who will help us bring it all together, but I think that, by and large, we’ve done pretty well. On a couple of occasions, however, an insane and monstrous bridal version of myself has taken possession of me, and I have emerged from the experience thinking, ‘what on earth just happened?’ When I was very little, one of my favourite things to do was to watch my mum and dad’s wedding video. Repeatedly. I think that as I grew older, and in the eleven years that Julian and I spent growing to be more a part of each other, I forgot that this little girl ever existed. And in those moments of monstrosity, Julian has got to know her. ‘I’m sorry that I’m a stupid little girl,’ I’ve said, ‘but it’s just part of me that I can’t erase.’

    As we’re now entering feminism’s ‘fourth wave’, I wonder if my (speculative) daughters will grow up differently. There was nothing particularly ‘girlish’ about my own upbringing, however, and, when I cast my mind back, I realise that my mum had nothing really to do with my obsession for weddings. My mum bought me pretty party dresses, but she also bought me leggings and trainers and inspired me to become the strong, independent woman that I am today. I think that, ultimately, it comes down to the experiences that have framed my life; I remember going to a spate of weddings in my early childhood – friends of my parents, and uncles, and the like – and I was mesmerised by everything that they had to offer. I have also been a bridesmaid on six occasions (not quite ‘27 Dresses’ but I am evidently hot bridesmaid property). Some of the best memories I have made, in my later life, come from the weddings I have been to. I will never forget the ‘Danza Kuduro’ car shimmy on our road trip up to Northumberland for Ben and Ellen’s wedding, or the ice swan at my aunt and uncle’s Hindu wedding, or the fantastic Soul and Motown band at Helena and Jeff’s wedding.

    Earlier this week, I went to visit Mary Wollstonecraft’s tomb at Old Church in St Pancras. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was one of the earliest British feminists and one of the most prominent political writers of the late eighteenth century. She had a child with a man named Gilbert Imlay who abandoned her, and later found love with William Godwin with whom she had a passionate affair. In the course of their relationship, she fell pregnant with her daughter, Mary, who would later make her own literary mark with the novel, Frankenstein. Wishing that their child should be legitimate, they decided to marry, and were married at the same church at which they are both now laid to rest. I doubt that Mary Wollstonecraft ever went through any of the crazy thought processes that I have been through, but I know that she did some crazy things for love. Throughout the course of that day, I had sparked up a twitter conversation with another fan of Wollstonecraft and met her when I visited Old Church. We spoke about her life, or, rather, she spoke and I listened. She gave me a postcard and told me about some of the other interesting tomb-dwellers in the churchyard. And at this point, I realised that being a rational, freethinking woman is not in any way affected by my reversions to girlhood, and that our brilliance, as women, comes from all of our component parts. I am a woman, but I am also a girl, and I don’t apologise for either of those parts of me.

    Wollstonecraft’s Tomb, Old Church, St Pancras

    Before Julian proposed, he went to let my dad know his intentions; we were all heading to New York to surprise my mum for her 50th birthday, so it was crucial that she couldn’t know any of the details (he would’ve told her otherwise.) My dad was ecstatic, but offered him some words of warning: ‘You know that it’s just going to be weddings and dresses all the time now, don’t you?’ ‘Nah, Nicole’s not like that,’ Julian retorted. I do talk to Julian about the wedding, and I’ve shown him my Evernote folders and Pinterest boards, but we also talk about world affairs, work, hobbies, and all of the wonderful adventures that we hope to have in life. Let there not be one ‘big day’, I say, but many.

     

     

  • CARNIVAAAAL

    Carnival

    I can heartily assert that I’ve always been big on pageantry. On one occasion, when I was about four years old, I was wandering around the stockroom in the charity shop where my nan and granddad then worked and I happened to fall upon this bright pink, sequinned dress (I say ‘dress,’ but I’m not quite sure what it actually was, though I have been told that it was most likely some kind of modern dance costume.) Needless to say, I loved it, and my grandparents were forced to part with the couple of pounds that the shop would have sold it for. I used to love getting this costume out and putting on the sparkly pink arm warmers. Sometimes I used to eat my dinner in this get-up (to me, there was nothing unusual about this). This, I suppose, set the tempo for the many fancy-dress and themed parties I was to have throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, right up to the present (I haven’t yet decided on a theme for this year’s event, but rest assured that there will be one!) I could recount many other examples on this score, but I would need to dedicate an entire post (and some) to the effort. I would like to conclude this little jaunt down memory lane, however, by recalling the moment when I discovered Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. At the time that this book fell into my hands, I was just about to leave university and embark on a Master’s course at King’s College London. It was unlike anything I had ever read and it was all that I really wanted to read; in short, I found it utterly cool. In this world (the world created by the Renaissance writer François Rabelais), Bakhtin envisions a carnival that is so grotesque that it renders its participants equal through a kind of levelling laughter. In this world, masqueraders don costumes that allow them to transcend the ordinary social barriers that proscribe their daily lives: jesters become kings, and kings become fools.

    A lot of time has passed since I first read Bakhtin, and while I think that his theory of carnival and masquerade continues to offer interesting insights, these insights do little to inform our understanding of what carnival is really like in the black Atlantic world. Over the weekend, for the first time in my life, I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. For me, it was a beautiful experience, and encapsulated all of the things that I love to do: dress up, eat, drink, and dance. It was also, and indeed primarily, a learning experience. My knowledge of carnival – of its intersected and diasporic history, of the people that have kept its traditions alive and channel the politics that underlie it – has expanded over the past year, and what I have learnt has infused my conception of our persistently segregated world. As a white woman that studies black history, I am reminded daily of the need to step outside of myself and see myself as a seer, as someone that makes a career out of discussing a history that is not my own, but which I am nevertheless passionate about. In this way, my going to carnival was not just about ticking something off of a list, but part of an ambition that I have to deepen my understanding through lived experience.

    This experience sadly coincided with news about Miley Cyrus burlesquing black culture in a sexually degrading dance routine at the VMAs, and served only to reinforce my belief that we all need to do a better job of understanding and learning about each other. When I was getting ready this morning, I didn’t hear much about Miley or the VMAs on Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme (it being Radio 4, I guess), but I did hear a discussion about the recent LSE report whose research found that children in inner-London schools were not in any way hindered by the presence of foreign-speaking children in their class. No, I thought to myself, not hindered, but enriched. I don’t want my children to grow up sheltered from such experiences and only hearing me talk about them in the abstract, and I hope very much that they will get to share them with me, so that we can continue learning together. Next year marks 50 years of the Notting Hill Carnival. Let’s make it a big one.

     

     

  • When the going gets tough, the tough get writing

    Life for PhD student can be pretty solitary. The cultural switch from the corporate world of interaction, swivel chairs and tea-making rotations to the world of wood-paneled walls and endless books was initially quite a shock to the system when I started my course in October last year. Of course, I love what I do, but it can be really hard to work within the limited space of your own mind for an indefinite period of time, especially when it’s so difficult to compartmentalise all of the other things that are going on up there and focus on one thing at a time. When you initially try to come down from the abstract theoretical space and ground your ideas on paper, everything turns into a bit of a confusing mush. You read back what you’ve written and think, ‘ick, that’s not what was up there in my head!’

    Over the past week I have been trying to write: to tap into my inner creative. Tap tap tap. At times it has felt liberating, at others frustrating. Mostly it’s felt frustrating. I started the week with a plan, and immediately had to scrap the plan. After redrafting the plan I seemed to be away, and then the weekend came. And then I wrote some more, before stalling. In fact, this very piece has been punctuated by stalls. All of this points to a larger problem – the problem that one will naturally encounter problems in the creative process. In order to surmount these problems, solutions need to be devised; in the corporate world, we jokingly used to call it ‘solutionising.’

    These solutions, I think, have to come in the form of variety. If in the past I have hit a stumbling block, I have overcome it not by removing the obstacle, but by removing myself. I take myself away, turn to the books, instigate a conversation with someone who might be able to give me perspective, or otherwise try to replicate the same thing elsewhere. This blog is a friend that invites and celebrates all of that variety. At times I descend into silence. But it is not good, nor is it productive, to focus entirely on one thing at the expense of everything else. The old adage that, in trying to cast your net out wide, you become a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ is totally unhelpful. It is only through dabbling in difference that we are able to sharpen our senses and develop an awareness of new things, while enriching our sense of the old. It is all well and good to say ‘I plan to do this, this and this today’, but sometimes those plans don’t work for us, and we need to be prepared to reformulate.

    In this sense, teaching ourselves is like teaching others, but a little harder, as we are not always able to see opportunity in our own problems: we just see further problems. So we need interventions. Sometimes it’s hard to know that, but, generally speaking, whenever I go quiet, that’s a clue. If I haven’t written here in a while, please clamour and shout – it really is for my own good!

    I don’t know whether the writing fairy paid me a visit in the night, but for now I’ll work with what I can. Tap tap tap…