I joined BBC London’s Sunday Show with Dotun Adebayo to discuss the Queen’s Speech.
The Washington Post is doing a project looking at the evolution of the n-word and its contemporary use in America today. It features a lot of different people in conversation, and depending on your views you can see have some custom videos made for you… and add your own.
One of my favourite writers had this to say:
I don’t know what I think. I don’t like the word and I don’t use it myself – but a lot of comedians I like do. It definitely depends who is saying it and why. But it has a history. And language has power. I do think the people whose history is marked by it should decide how and when it’s used. But black people aren’t a monolith – there will always be many, many diverse views.
The year is young, but there are already a few things I think I’ll be following or seeing this year.
Apart from 12 Years a Slave, I’ll be looking forward to watching Belle, the story of Dido Elizabeth Bell, the mixed-race daughter of a slave who was raised by her uncle the Earl of Mansfield, who was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and who made a landmark ruling that paved the way for the abolition of slavery. I’ll also be following the blog of UCL’s project into the British legacy of slavery, which taps a rich seam of history that we don’t often look into in this country.
I usually despair of the lack of plays that I want to see in January, then find myself whisked away by a spoil of theatre across the city from February onwards.
Last year I was gutted to miss The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic. I heard it was fantastic and I can only hope it will return one day. I did have the pleasure of seeing A Season in the Congo and have just (literally, my credit card is still steaming) bought tickets to Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which starts on 6 February:
It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?
I can’t wait to find out.
I haven’t seen the new series of Top Boy on Channel 4 yet, but the reviews are asking if it could be Britain’s version of The Wire. I really enjoyed the first series so this has definitely whet my appetite. Among the legion publicity interviews, I came across one in which Ashley Walters chides black actors for leaving the UK for the US. Even though I’m sure this was probably overstated for a juicy headline, he did say:
“It’s obvious that it’s more difficult for black actors than it is for white actors over here. So you can run away to the States or you can stay here and try to change things.”
He has a point. And yet, I wonder if it’s that simple. So many actors have crossed the pond and returned to the pick of roles, in TV – Idris Elba, David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor spring to mind – or in theatre – Marianne Jean Baptiste who was recently in The Amen Corner at the National Theatre. Film roles continue to be scarce, but then British film is under the cosh at the moment and this affects film roles for actors of all colours. The path to the US is well-trodden. However, I wonder if Walter’s is overlooking the importance of what goes on behind the screen?
Earlier this year I went to panel talk at the National Theatre featuring Paterson Joseph and other black actors on the state of Black British theatre. We discussed the Black Audience (does it exist?) and the shortage of roles for black actors. One of the problems identified was the dearth of black writers, producers and directors. They are there, of course, but it is clear that until you have more people of colour behind the scenes in positions to commission and produce content, we won’t see any tangible change. And this isn’t to say they would only create “black” productions – though there’s nothing wrong with that – progress will be when we have those productions but we also have black actors in roles that aren’t “the black character” – in other words, they’d pass the Shukla Test.
Just a thought.
This post has been buzzing around my head for a few days now, but the threads of my feelings and thoughts were too difficult to unpick.
Three articles I’ve read in that time on the trial and acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman have been among the most eloquent and perhaps the hardest to read, but thoroughly worth doing so. They’re also linked.
One. Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian: “Open Season on Black Boys after a verdict like this” It was briefly taken down for legal reasons, but is now up on the site.
Appeals for calm in the wake of such a verdict raise the question of what calm there can possibly be in a place where such a verdict is possible.
In a nutshell, he put his finger on the feeling of dismay, disappointment, chest-constricting worry and sadness felt by so many Black people right now. While I think it’s wise to call for cooler heads to prevail, there has also been a lot of policing of Black people’s reactions to the case by commentators in the media. Some conservative commentators have pointed to the statistics of Black on Black crime and urged the community to mourn about that before they consider what happened to Travyon. The implications of the verdict for young Black men are hard enough to swallow without the community being told how they can feel about it. One issue does not negate the other and it is the privilege of those with power who seek to dictate to others how and under what circumstances they can mourn.
Two. Ta’Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic: “Trayvon Martin and the irony of American Justice” This was a hard read because Coates outlines how exactly the acquittal was possible from a legal standpoint. And no matter how unjust the verdict is, he’s right:
In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice.
Coates forensically examines Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. Based on the criteria in the law, it would have been difficult to secure a conviction. It is a badly drafted law. Furthermore, Coates explores the historical context to this and the criminalisation of Black people by the American legal system. He concludes:
It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn’t come back from twenty-four down.
In sum: bad laws lead to bad outcomes. The law can be applied systematically and you can still have injustice. As I said in number one above, disempowerment: Black people are most affected by these laws but are historically disadvantaged to change them.
Three. Anthea Butler, Religion Dispatches: ” The Zimmerman Acquittal, America’s Racist God”
When George Zimmerman told Sean Hannity that it was God’s will that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, he was diving right into what most good conservative Christians in America think right now. Whatever makes them protected, safe, and secure, is worth it at the expense of the black and brown people they fear.
Their god is the god that wants to erase race, make everyone act “properly” and respect, as the president said, “a nation of laws”; laws that they made to crush those they consider inferior.
When the laws were never made for people who were considered, constitutionally, to be three-fifths of a person, I have to ask: Is this just? Is it right? Is God the old white male racist looking down from white heaven, ready to bless me if I just believe the white men like Rick Perry who say the Zimmerman case has nothing to do with race?
You already know the answer: No.
Like Coates, Butler identifies the problematic laws. But she also lifts the lid on another, less talked about aspect of this case that has played out in the media since the campaign began to have Zimmerman tried for Trayvon’s murder.
As a Christian, it’s an aspect that shames and worries me deeply, but I welcome Butler’s honesty. Laws like Stand your Ground and many of the Voter ID laws are being pushed by Conservatives, a large number of whom are from the White Christian Right and who have legislated in fear of so many things (globalisation? religioius pluralism? loss of privilege?) but which finds its face in Black and Brown people. These are laws created without justice in mind and they are badly drafted and do not work.
I have seen the tweets and facebook posts. I’ve talked to friends and heard the sadness in their voices. To be honest, I don’t know what to say. I know the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I know the balance will be set right and that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 2 vs 14) but at times like this I feel the weight of injustice and I wonder, how long, Lord? I wrestle with the paradox of what I see and what I have reason to believe. Like Jacob, I wrestle with (my understanding of) God and discover that he doesn’t fade in and out like a faulty radio but He’s everywhere, being revealed and hidden at the same time. When He seems hidden, sometimes I lack the words and the courage to name Him.
Martin Luther King said: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”
It is right that we don’t feel peace because justice has not been done. The justice system has run its course but the struggle continues.
“If you don’t let us sleep, we won’t let you dream.”*
We need better laws so that the system can function better. We need to have the hard conversations in our legislatures, communities and societies. We need to wrestle with racism and and injustice.
We need to secure justice and peace for Trayvon and all the others like him. And for us, too.
*There was a play at the Royal Court Theatre earlier this year or last by this name about the impact of the government cuts on young people. It has stuck with me as a phrase of resistance.
I was pleased to read today that Adrian Lester and his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, won Critic’s Circle Awards for their play Red Velvet, which was performed for the first time last year at my favourite off-West End theatre in London, The Tricycle. She wrote it, he starred
The play is about Ira Aldridge, a forgotten stage star from the 1830s who was an accomplished Shakespearan actor, especially popular in Prussia and Russia. Oh, and he was black. Lester captured Aldridge’s theatricality, vanity and vulnerability, alternating between an increasingly frail but fractious old man and a proud performer at the height of his popularity.
One of the things that struck me was that it appeared that to play the Shakespearan Kings, Aldridge whited up: at the end he prepares to go “on stage”, slowly donning his wig, white makeup and white gloves. I was instantly reminded of a similar scene from Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman at the National Theatre in 2009. There, the whiting up was subversive, mocking; here it was a majestic mask; but the imagery was striking in both plays.
From time to time, London life being what it is, I just can’t seem to organise an outing to the theatre with friends; no matter, I am perfectly happy to go by myself. The only drawback is, there’s no one to talk about it with afterwards! I went to see Red Velvet one chilly evening in November, unwilling to let the £10 early bird ticket offer pass me by. It was worth every penny.