Archive for January, 2013

  • 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.

  • Renewal

    Several weeks ago, I experienced an instance of déja-vu. Sitting in the graduate cafeteria with some of my friends, mulling over the progress of our research (as we only occasionally do when we are together out of fear that we might perhaps be forced to admit our own shortcomings), we fell upon the subject of the ‘purpose’ of our research. ‘Nobody’s ever going to read our theses,’ someone joked; ‘No, it’s not as if any of us are going to change the world,’ posited another. This making light of the seriousness of our work angered me. Yet I had had a similar encounter just over two years ago. At the time, I was just finishing my Master’s degree, and I had hoped to go straight into doctoral research; my life was taking a different (though not radically different) route to the one it is taking now. I couldn’t get the funding that I needed, so that put paid to my academic aspirations. I was resentful of friends who were about to embark on research projects because their faculties had an abundance of funds for postgraduate researchers, or whose parents had deep pockets and could effectively bankroll what the university couldn’t. I was also jealous of those who were simply ‘lucky enough’, as I saw it, to be offered a scholarship. However, I was more resentful at a system I saw as completely unfair.  My bitterness was compounded by someone who told me that his research had no real ‘purpose’, that he just wanted a PhD and that he suspected that his monograph would end up sitting on a shelf gathering dust. ‘What the hell is the point in that?’ I asked one of my friends. As somebody who had fought for her education, had taken two Master’s degrees (the second in a separate continent to her then fiancé, now husband) and had suffered rejection more times than I yet had, this did not impress her. We believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing and in the fact that we could make a difference and it left a sour taste in our mouths when anyone suggested that things should be otherwise.

     

    While I have been exposed to different worlds since that moment and while I am thankful for that exposure, my feelings remain unchanged. If anything, they have been ratcheted up a notch. During my two-year hiatus from academia, I worked for the probation service and loved every minute of it; I was making a difference, in a very small way, to the lives of the individuals and groups that I worked with. The decision to leave and return to my academic career was not an easy one. How could I justify, I kept asking myself (especially in my last few weeks), leaving people who had become so dependent on my support? There would be someone to fill my shoes, of course, but what would happen in the meantime? People would suffer because of my indulgence, because of my selfishness. I reassured myself that what I was going on to do was just as good (but, crucially, not greater, as that would demean the vital work that I did and those that I worked for). The job of imparting knowledge, of filling the gaps left by others, and of changing perspectives: this has always been my calling, and I have finally been given the opportunity to take this up and make it happen. This is in part what has inspired the genesis of this blog; I’m not hoping to advance my career, but to share ideas and perspectives. I’m committed to making a difference, whatever manifestation that may take, and believe in creating a forum to discuss problems that resonate with modern life. Perhaps this endeavour is foolhardy, but I’d prefer to take that chance.