All posts in Projects

  • Elections and Recollections

    Yet again, there’s been a long lapse of time since my last post. When I first set up this blog, I had every intention of maintaining it with the voracity with which I started. As time has passed, however, my inclination to blog has gradually diminished– not because I haven’t been able to formulate the ideas or consolidate the material, but because my passion has been eroded. I’d like to be clear: my passion for life, for my work, for social equality, peace, art, and culture remain intact. It is rather my passion for the blog itself that has diminished. I feel I do La Pasionaria a disservice by making this admission (since it’s to her that this blog indebted), but I also know that I do not, and that it is also a thoroughly positive and edifying admission. After all, this is my first ever blog. I came to this not knowing how I should properly publicise it or whether I even wanted to; I hadn’t done any research into what made other blogs so effective, and I didn’t know what ‘angle’ my blog was going to have – still don’t. I’m now developing ideas about new creative ventures in which I’m more passionately invested. LifeOnMyFeet has been a lauchpad for this creative epiphany, even if it hasn’t played host to it.

    It is perhaps unsurprising that I should have this kind of revelation in the run up to a general election. Five years ago, I recall that my sentiments were similar, and that my political consciousness and sense of ‘purpose’ was acute. In the few days following the general election of 2010, a whirlwind of emotion blazed over me. When I witnessed Gordon Brown walk out of 10 Downing Street and David Cameron walk in, I knew that things were set to change radically. In the intervening period between that moment and the present one, my life has been marked by a series of shifts and transformations; I have finished a Master’s degree, I have been to work for the probation service, been threatened with redundancy, and been on strike; I have been awarded a scholarship for a PhD and am almost at the point of completion; I have published my work in peer-review journals, and I have travelled to America three times. With each new challenge I’ve come up against, I have had to harden myself, and I feel pretty exhausted from all the fighting.

    In just over 2 weeks, I am getting married. Julian has been my stalwart throughout these five years of turbulence and transformation, but I know that the world in which we’ll be celebrating at the end of this month could look very different to the one that we’re living in now. And I know that, really, what happens tomorrow could change our future, and will have more of an impact on our lives than our wedding day, wonderful and momentous as that will be. I am very anxious about the possibilities, not least because I do not want to live under another austerity government bent on the destruction of vital public services and the advancement of the privileged. I was once so certain that I could never emigrate because I did not believe that there was anywhere else in the world where the sense of social responsibility, right, and justice was so strong. I’m not sure that I feel the same way any more – at least, I’m not sure that our sense of social responsibility trumps our level of self-interest. In spite of my cynicism, however, I will be voting with compassion and against austerity when I go to the polls tomorrow. I will be championing our rich heritage of protest and labouring solidarity. I’ll be thinking about La Pasionaria, who led the Republicans and Anarchists into battle against fascism with the words ‘it is better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees’. The fight is not over, and although I know that certain results are inevitable, and that certain projects will lose their lustre over time, there are others that I’m just not willing to concede. ¡No pasarán!

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  • Writer’s Block/Endless Perfectibility

    It’s been over a month. That’s a long time. I tell myself that writing is this ridiculously daunting, time-consuming task, and yet I know that that’s not true. I type text messages that are over 300 words in length, I send emails that go way over that, and I come to my blog and just write and write with complete abandon. In the time that I’ve been absent, I have been drafting a chapter of my thesis. I’m still working on that draft. The process is tedious and drawn out, and yet I really enjoy the subject matter that I’m engaging with and the ideas that I’m teasing out. So why is it taking me so long? I usually have an optimum working output of around 1,000 words a day, and I can do much more than that when I put my mind to it, but this draft seems to be resisting my efforts to bring it into line.

    There are endless reasons why this might be the case. It may be that

    • I am not taking enough breaks
    • I am not working to a plan
    • I am working too rigidly to my plan
    • I am not creating enough variety in my working schedule

    Ultimately, though, I’m pretty sure that none of these reasons explain the current dip in my productivity. It is much more likely that my problems are in actual fact caused by the writing demons that lurk in my head – the demons that tell me that my work is not sophisticated enough, or a point that I’ve made is not articulated clearly enough, encouraging me to go over and over the same paragraph until I feel that it’s close enough to perfect. I read over that paragraph a week later, and, realising it’s still not perfect, continue bashing away at it.

    When I come to my blog, or send an email, or even a really long text, I am able to write and write because, in each case, I am able to explore a different train of thought. These platforms also allow me to develop thoughts that I am struggling to conjure into life in my academic work using a different narrative template (my last blog post was one such example of this.) I know that my best writing is my freshest writing, so I must attempt to kick those demons into touch by moving onto new ideas, and new paragraphs. The solution may seem simple, but in reality it takes brutal dedication to follow through; after all, having spent half of the time I’ve been writing this very blog post editing it, I know that I’m not infallible…

  • 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.

     

  • 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

  • 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…

  • Time, Space, Here and Now

    This blog began several weeks ago when I went to see the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness. I was pretty riled at the time: riled that I had spent my Saturday evening watching an action movie that was so far removed from the sci-fi fantasy dramas that I had grown up on, and riled because it was so disappointingly sexist. A lot of time has passed – I’m still riled, of course, but so many things have happened since that moment that have affected me in unspeakable ways. In a sense, I suppose that this is why I’ve been absent for such a long while, and I have to apologise to my dedicated followers for over a month of nothing. I’ve been busy, but that’s no excuse; that’s just the excuse that I make for myself.

    Knowing where to begin after such a long absence is hard. To surmise, I have been testing my own limits; I have been mining deeper into the recesses of my own mind (testing those hypotheses) and, in the process, becoming more increasingly assured of the importance of the project(s) that I’m undertaking. In a sense, this is good news: affirmation that we are doing the ‘right thing’ is always going to fill us with a little bit of warmth, is it not? On the other hand, it is also a sad reminder of the fact that pervasive scars have been created by prevailing imperial sensibilities. It’s strange that it’s only been a few weeks since a horrific incident a few miles down the road from where I live exploded across the world media. I even heard about it on French Radio. The EDL went on a violent rampage: taking to the streets, abusing Muslims, torching mosques. My friend could see blue lights and helicopters from her balcony. People became disgusting. Or, rather, the things that were already disgusting just became a little more visible. Either way, I was sad that, over and above every other emotion that I experienced over that course of time, I wasn’t surprised.

    I should have had something to say, perhaps? I spoke with friends and family, I commented on other blog posts, tweets, and articles, and I ruminated. I am continuing to think, because I know that the scars won’t suddenly be healed overnight. Writing helps me, but it doesn’t help the problem. The problem is big, and the solution needs to be greater than big. I’m continuing to work on that one, and continuing to develop progressive ideas. I won’t be mute again though. Silence is not what I do; silence is what I combat. This is me, right here, back with a BOOM. It isn’t an essay, but I’m here to let you know that the fight is still very much on.

     

    ‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.’

     

  • Affirmation: BAAS

    This time last week, I was taking in the delights of Wiltshire as I made the journey via South London to Exeter for the British Association of American Studies (BAAS) annual conference. It was quite a trek, and I was naturally fretting about the kind of reception that my paper would get in front of an audience of my peers. Really, I knew what I could expect, and had little reason to worry. This is because I had already delivered a paper at the previous year’s conference. At that time I was still working a full-time job and my holidays were being eaten up by PhD applications, funding proposals, and trips to the British Library. I didn’t mind it; it was a welcome release. Though I loved my job, my passion has always been further study, and it was such a great opportunity to be able to meet the people working in my field before I had even embarked on my academic journey. More than anything, it helped to reaffirm why I had decided to make that leap into the unknown and leave behind the corporate world in which I felt so at ease and in control.

    Since starting my PhD in October, I have had to relearn my attitudes towards everything, and accept that control is something that is peculiarly elusive in the doctoral world. That’s okay though, because I have realised that I like to live a little on the edge, and I’m excited about the prospective uncertainty that I will face in my career, because the people that have touched my life over the past year have helped me to see that the possibilities are endless. The life of a researcher can be quite isolating, and I can see why it would be easy for a lot of people in my shoes to become reclusive, but I have always thrived in a communal environment, and am always seeking out opportunities to attend seminars, conferences and meet up with like-minded friends who I can bounce my ideas off of. BAAS, for me, is the culmination of all of this. With such a thriving community of Americanists, it is hard not to find someone with whom you share some kind of intellectual overlap. When I arrived at the second panel of the morning last Friday to deliver my paper, I was amazed and overwhelmed by the number of people who had come along to listen, and engage with the arguments being presented (last year, I had an audience of about 9, which included the other two panelists and the chair). It was thrilling, and truly enlivening, and I met some wonderful people who were able to offer me some great advice off the back of it.

    A week before the BAAS conference, I went out with my mum, and we spoke about the recent work that I had been doing in the archives. I was happy to see her taking an interest in my work, and she gave me some important things to take away and consider. It also reminded me why communication is so vital to research; when my research, in particular, considers how phantoms of the unconscious have been channeled throughout history, there is no way that I can conceive of exorcising these phantoms without bearing them out publicly. What we bring to light must be shared with the world – and not just the familiar world, but the world in its entirety.

     

  • My Vesey Street, Lower Manhattan

    Lower Manhattan

    Around 6 months ago I took a trip that I will never forget; I went to New York City for the second time in my life. It was the marker of so many wonderful things – my mum’s 50th birthday, mine and Julian’s engagement and my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary. It’s a city that means a lot to us as a family, and to Julian and I in particular, but I won’t go into that here (it’s not long after lunch and I really don’t want to make you hurl).

    While we got to revel in NYC’s manifold delights, and although we got to see most of the things that we hadn’t been able to on our previous trip, I was sad that I still didn’t manage to see it all. For me, the trip was no ordinary jolly. Though I only had five days, I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to pillage the resources of the NYPL and to seek out the ‘ghosts’ that form the foundation of my American-oriented research project. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture came up trumps here. There were some real gems. It’s a shame that my time was so limited, as just as I found myself having to leave, the material started getting more interesting (and legible!)

    Just before I left London I attended a fantastic seminar hosted by Celeste-Marie Bernier at King’s College London as part of their ‘Race Matters’ seminar series. I don’t remember how, but during the Q&A that followed, the African Burial Ground cropped up in conversation. For a long while, I had wanted to visit the national monument in Lower Manhattan, and had hoped to be able to do so on my trip. I considered it necessary in helping me to build an understanding of how burial (and by this I mean white burial of black history and culture) is imbedded in America’s cultural memory. That aside, I wanted to pay homage to a resource that has been so great an inspiration to me over the past year or so that I’ve been following them on twitter.

    Two days after I visited the Schomburg, I coursed my way around the Lower East side, hitting up Greenwich Village (via Mark Twain’s house), the Highline and Katz’s Deli. In the afternoon, we split from my parents and headed down to the World Trade Center memorial (after booking tickets to visit Lady Liberty on the following day). When we got to the memorial, we were told by the stewards that we needed to collect our tickets from their gift shop on Vesey Street. Hmmm…Vesey Street, I thought. Like Denmark Vesey – the South Carolina former slave that had plotted a huge slave insurrection in Charleston in the early nineteenth century. Although I have since learned that the street was not named after this particular Vesey, I was a little excited at the prospect of this ghost of the American past wreaking its havoc in the financial district, reminding us what it was all built on: namely, greed and slavery.

    Julian and I had planned to visit the African Burial Ground after we had been to the World Trade Center memorial. It would’ve been the last stop – and rightly so – as we had wanted to have some time to reflect as we walked back from the memorial. As we meandered past New York’s municipal building, we took a wrong turn, getting lost down a sidestreet. Eventually, we found the right sidestreet, and the African Burial Ground. When we reached it, however, my heart sank. It had already closed. The sun hadn’t even set yet – it was a beautiful fall day – but we hadn’t realized quite how late it was. I admired the beautiful structure from the outside, and walked around it, reading the information boards that were dotted around at regular intervals. You see, this was, and continues to be, the site of an African burial ground. Beneath the tarmac lie numerous souls, mainly those of slaves who were brought here and buried according to African ritual and custom. It is only in the past decade that the site was declared a national monument. I was deeply upset that I couldn’t go inside and explore the site fully, and this feeling remains with me still.

    We left the memorial and walked back round to Brooklyn Bridge and, though my feet were worn after all the traipsing, Julian managed to drag me to the halfway point. It was breathtaking. We stood there and watched the sun go down on a city that was built by the displaced, the lost and the forgotten.

    Sadly, I know that however deeply I penetrate, and whatever I shore up and excavate in the process, my understanding will always be limited. Next time, however, I will make the African Burial Ground my first port of call. Until then, I hope Vesey continues to make mischief in Lower Manhattan.

     

     

     

  • Itchy Feet

    I’ve always had a vague idea that I’d like to travel, and have charted on a theoretical map in my head all the places that I’d like to see. Mexico, Thailand, Samoa, Brazil, St. Lucia and Croatia are a handful of places that have always been ‘up there’. I’ve been very fortunate to have seen many wonderful places already and I relish any opportunity to explore the unknown treasures that my own small island has to offer, but I have recently felt the urge to step up the vague notions I’ve previously had of raking my feet through foreign sands and reach out for something more tangible.

    I guess it’s only natural that these feelings should surface when I’m planning to take the biggest trip of my life. In November this year I will be jetting off to New Orleans in the name of research, and I hope to spend about a month in the Big Easy. I haven’t travelled that far away from home for that length of time for a long while, and I’ve certainly not done it on my own before. I’m really excited about the prospect, and I get a little bit squealy inside when I think of all the amazing things that I will get to explore. I’m particularly enthused by the idea of getting to see some of the tignons (headdresses worn by free women of colour under colonial sumptuary laws) in the LSM’s collection.  Of course, while I love what I do, and while the libraries and museums will certainly yield an abundance of wonderful things to keep me occupied throughout my stay, I have no shame in admitting that what I am perhaps looking forward to the most is the food.  With fare ranging from beignets, gumbo and barbecue shrimp to po boys, jambalaya and oysters served hot and cold to titillate my taste buds, I know that I’ll be in for a treat, and I might just come home looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making the preparations for my big trip, and I know that there’s a lot more yet to do (on top of the thesis writing, conference papers, archive work, and museum talks that I will be working on over the next few months), but I am starting to think that this is really only the start of a much bigger journey – a journey that will almost certainly take me away from my familiar London-Norwich enclave for perhaps an unspecified period of time – and I’ve been starting to lay the foundations. I don’t want to say too much at this stage; although my thoughts are no longer a fog, they’re still only blossoming. I hope it won’t be too long before they start to bear fruit, however.

    I’d like to end this piece by mentioning a very dear friend who took a massive leap into the unknown this year, leaving her job, her friends, her home and most of her worldly possessions to go and live and work in France. Her journey has been an uphill struggle, but she has been an inspiration, and I can’t wait to be reunited with her in the summer for a few beautiful days. See, ma chèrie, look what you’ve started! I hope you’ve got something that I can scratch that itch with…

     

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