All posts in What Matters

  • 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.




  • Running away with myself, or, The Red Shoes

    My jaw is on the floor. I look up at the clock on my computer screen to see that it’s 4.44pm; I’ve been working since 8.30am and I feel like I haven’t done half of the things that I’d planned to do today, and I know that I still have a stack of things that I hope to do before the day is out. Yet, although I have a plan, and although I know that it’s impossible to think that I can accomplish everything that I had intended to do in one day, I feel like time, ‘like grease through my fingers’, is slipping away. I think that I feel that sense of time loss more acutely as I slept terribly last night, so you might say that I’ve been doubly robbed. Personally, I wouldn’t; I’ve been a sporadic insomniac since the age of about 16, so fatigue is something that I have for a long time been learning to combat. In addition, it might be logical to assume that more waking hours should proffer me with more hours of productivity. If this were the case, then I think that I’d have little need to write this post, and you’d all, no doubt, be very envious of the full and productive life that I lead. Alas, while I strive as best as I can to stay ‘on my feet’, sometimes my feet get pretty tired. And, to use another foot analogy, I sometimes picture myself in those fateful ‘red shoes’ that Hans Christian Andersen taunted me with as a little girl – the ones that dance and dance and continue to dance even after I’ve chopped off my feet. A touch melodramatic? Perhaps. I know that my situation is not unique and I know that there are many people in my life that work harder and longer, and have pets and dependants that I don’t even have to worry about, but surely there has to be a point at which we all draw a line?

    This post is not intended to be a diatribe against Chronos, or even against those other keepers and controllers of time that we know to exist outside of mythology, but is rather more of a scoping exercise; on a more human level, it intends to instigate a conversation about the efficacy of knowing one’s limits. As a woman with a strong sense of my own (and indeed every woman’s) potential, I am loathe to use the word ‘limits’, for the fear that it may spiral into derivations thereof (limitations, for example), but I should be very clear in saying that what I actually refer to is our personal right to say ‘No, I’ve done enough, and I’m not doing that’. I wonder, furthermore, how we do this without cutting out the things that we love to do and form the vital core our existence. While reading is part of what I ‘do’ on a daily basis, and while I do essentially ‘love’ it, I feel that it’s important to make sure that I go to bed reading the trash that I’ve chosen to read over the French article that I kick-start my day with.

    My second discussion point relates to guilt. Those of us in academia can always rest assured (however ironic this may seem) that we have never researched enough, read enough, accumulated enough, written enough, and edited enough. The process is perpetual; when we stop, the work is still there; when it’s completed, it could still be improved. What I have found runs in tandem with ‘clocking off’, therefore, is an immense surge of guilt. This year’s Christmas was particularly hard for me, and, while I enjoyed the mince pies and family frolics, I berated myself for not working for a few days. That old adage about ‘work-life balance’ just seems a bit hollow these days. After all, it’s not really a problem of ensuring that you harmonize work and life, but a problem of feeling constantly let down by yourself, even in the advent of harmonization. So, my question is: how do we erase guilt, and how do we absolve ourselves?

    In the time that it’s taken me to write this piece, I could’ve read an article. Alternatively I could have washed the clothes that are spilling out of my laundry basket. If it had to be the latter, then I think I made the right choice.

    To be continued…after I’ve located those darn shoes…

  • Women, Brilliant Women

    Today I want to celebrate the fact that I am a woman. What I mean to say is that I am a woman amongst women. Today, of course, marks International Women’s Day. I am sitting on the tube (yes, sitting – lucky me!) and there are two women either side of me. Both are reading (one a Kindle, the other a paperback). This is usually my commuting pastime. When I get on the tube and my mobile signal drops out and I can’t use twitter or Facebook I descend into my own world. Whether that be a fictional or a theoretical one it is very much my world. It is the time when I most engage with my own thoughts, ideas, and creative energies. I am not one amongst millions of social networkers, but merely one. It makes me truly happy to see so many women in my immediate vicinity immersed in their own worlds: sleeping, reading, working, and daydreaming. While some stranger’s rucksack may be thrust uncomfortably in their face, and while they may be forced to straddle an aisle littered with luggage and feet, this does not inhibit descent into that solo, private world.

    I am now at King’s Cross; I’m off the tube; I’m walking. So are the other women. I’ve lost them.  Whoops, I almost took a wrong turn!

    I could tell you what I aspire to be as a woman, and what dreams I hope to inspire in my future daughters, but I think it would be better to celebrate what I have achieved and what I am. We cannot celebrate what we have not yet made possible, and we do not need to augment the pressures in our lives by pondering too much on this. Besides, I think I’ve said quite enough (for the time being) about lists. I am a woman, forged by a woman, and by those men that have always reinforced my worth. I am fortunate to have what all women should rightfully have: a voice; a passion; a life. Let’s celebrate us, and let’s continue to fight.

    I’m now at the BL, my intellectual home, and walking into the ladies’ toilets I notice a sticker on one of the cubicles that reads, ‘Armpits for August’. I smile. Yes, we are brilliant. We most definitely are.

  • History Unchanged? Django Unchained

    This week I have been traipsing to and from Colindale each day to access the British Library’s newspaper collection. It has mostly been a journey back in time through microfilm; specifically, I have been reading every issue of the Carolina Gazette published between 1791 and 1792. At times it has been mind-numbing, but those little nuggets of gold have kept me mining. I’ve also taken the opportunity to order up back copies of the (now extinct) black British newspaper, New Nation. This had to be the highlight of my week – rummaging through features about old popstars and now retired athletes in newspapers (yes, real newspapers!) from 2006. I had gone to this publication looking for the article submitted by Tony Blair in the November of the same year in which he had offered an apology, or rather an expression of ‘deep sorrow’, for the transatlantic slave trade and the part that Britain had to play in it. Although at the time that this entered print I was just starting university, I remember the moment vividly, and I remember the reactions that it provoked in the national media (some of which had been reproduced in the following December 2006 edition of New Nation.) What I don’t remember, however, is the content of the article itself, and there is a simple explanation for that: I never read it. I could spend an entire post berating myself for that, but then I’d have to berate myself for not reading any kind of newspaper back then (I really didn’t, much to my shame). The article was published in the run up to the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade. Reading it for the first time made me angry, for various reasons, and that brings me on to Django.


    Yesterday I went to see Django Unchained, a film that has been widely publicized as a ‘slave revenge’ narrative.  I’m not going to say much about it here, because I have little to say that hasn’t already been, or won’t be said, by others. Tarantino lovers will not be disappointed – there’s plenty of exploding viscera to keep you going. And before the mudslingers start piling up the clods, I have to say that I actually quite enjoyed it, but that was largely owing to Jamie Foxx, whose performance will no doubt be overlooked in all of this controversy. Over the past week, Django has cropped up in conversation several times. There have been mixed feelings about the film, it’s intent, and how it deals with slavery, and I had hoped that seeing it would clarify whether I should be on the side of the angry squad or not. I remain undecided, however, and I think I can pinpoint why.


    Before I walked into the cinema, yesterday, I was unsettled about the fact that a white director had made a film that is ‘making people talk’ about slavery. We should, of course, be talking about slavery, but as a white woman who struggles to negotiate the problem of speaking and writing about slavery on a daily basis, I cannot reconcile myself to Tarantino’s sainthood. Perhaps, people will contest, it doesn’t matter who starts the dialogue. And they are right; it doesn’t matter who starts the dialogue, but it matters who controls it. When I was carrying out some preliminary research on Tony Blair’s 2006 New Nation article, I found hundreds, possibly even thousands, of references to it online. New Nation folded in 2009 and sadly no longer exists as a periodical publication, but if you were to carry out an online search of the newspaper, you might be led to believe that it never existed (if it weren’t for the handful of traces and the short profile on Wikipedia.) What survive in these traces are the words of a white politician speaking about slavery. What do not survive are the numerous instances of such activity enacted by New Nation independent of Tony Blair. Black people were talking about slavery long before Tony Blair felt compelled to do so and long before Tarantino started inventing new genres, but it seems that we have just never been that good at listening. Django, like Blair’s article, has been released unto the world. It will reach millions, no doubt. And if people start speaking about slavery as a result, that has to be a good thing. But we must remember that for everything that’s put out there, there is always something that’s cut out and that we play a vital part in that ellipsis.


    I went to see the film with my partner and two friends, however, and this, I think, distorted my interpretation in a way that I hadn’t expected. Although my friends have a general idea of what it is that I do, I rarely speak in depth about it with them, but after we saw Django, I started speaking to them in a way that I had never spoken to them before, and they seemed genuinely interested and keen to learn more. While I am a lot more open with my partner about the nature of my research and the things that I have discovered over the past 3 years, he was evidently quite shocked by the scenes of slave torture, mutilation and murder in Django, and perhaps even more shocked when I told him those were ‘pretty tame’ compared to some of the eyewitness testimonies that I had read. After we had left our friends, on our way home, we discussed this further, and I reiterated my concerns about the film. I told him that I didn’t think that Django was likely to change the world, or change the way that we respond to the challenges of the African diaspora. ‘But if it does,’ he responded, ‘will you eat your words?’ I was stumped. Usually so sure about how I feel about these kinds of things, I now feel less so. The film is problematic, for more reasons than I’ve accounted for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t effect some good.


    I’d like to think that when people go to see Django Unchained, they will ask questions, and not just of the director, or of the screenplay writer, but of themselves, because only this way will it have something to offer to posterity. Slavery isn’t just our past, after all, but is imbedded in our living memory. We remember selectively, and Django only serves to reinforce this, but with a concerted effort, perhaps we will all begin to build a bigger picture.