I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen. Continue reading “I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written”
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul has been re-released nationally as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. Thanks to the MUBI streaming service I got a chance to watch again one of the great works of the New German Cinema that I last saw when first released in 1974. The film remains as extraordinary and – sadly – as urgent and relevant in 2017 as it was in 1974. Fear Eats the Soul is, without doubt, a masterpiece: a blistering social and psychological examination of racism that has a tenderness rarely found in Fassbinder’s work. In addition, the idea of a film which treats the sexuality of a sixty year old woman in so matter of fact and sensitive a manner unfortunately remains as startling now as it was four decades ago. Continue reading “Fear Eats the Soul: Fassbinder’s film is still relevant after 40 years”
When the story of radical politics in Britain during the second half of the 20th century comes to be written by future historians, pride of place will surely be given to the black activists drawn from the post-war generation of migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. This thought occurs after reading reviews of Familiar Stranger, the recently published collection of autobiographical essays by Stuart Hall, who was – in Tim Adams’ words in the Observer – ‘perhaps the most significant figure on the British intellectual left over the course of the last 50 years,’ and learning of the death of Darcus Howe, who once described himself as having come from Trinidad on a ‘civilising mission’, to teach Britons to live in a harmonious and diverse society. Fresh out of university in the early 1970s and fired up by student and anti-apartheid protest, I drew inspiration from these black activists and the struggles they spearheaded, fused with the rebel music of reggae and 2-Tone music. Continue reading “Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain”
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.
The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.
In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.
That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”
A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa. There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.
Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’. Continue reading “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride”
It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading “The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”
For the second time today I’m re-blogging a post by another blogger. Compared to the first, this one is deadly serious. From Cath’s Passing Time here are some things which must be said on the day that Jo Cox’s murderer is sentenced to life. Continue reading “Fascism arrives as your friend: important words from a fellow-blogger”
I’ll admit: I felt deeply depressed after reading yesterday’s Guardian Long Read which portrayed how right-wing populist parties are advancing in all parts of Europe by appealing to the widespread and growing resentment of political and financial elites, co-opting the policies and rhetoric of the left, and polishing their public image by publicly breaking with the symbols of the fascist past.
Coming as the latest Hillary Clinton email revelations seem to have handed Donald Trump a last-minute advantage in the American presidential election, and after the spectacle of the clearance of the Calais refugee camp and the British government’s reluctance to do more than the bare minimum to protect vulnerable young residents of the camp, the current mood reminds me of Alexander Blok writing in 1908 of his sense an impending catastrophe: ‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’
The moment seems perilous indeed. Further warnings of dangers that might easily force their way from the past into the present were contained in a piece written by the Labour MP Richard Burden following his recent visit to Srebrenica, and in news of the death of one of the last survivors of the Nazi death camps who became one of the most active UK-based witnesses to the Holocaust. Continue reading “‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’”
Nina is an outstanding one-woman show we saw this week at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool. It is a deeply personal tribute to Nina Simone by Josette Bushell-Mingo, the London-born actress and singer who is currently artistic director for the Swedish National Touring Theatre. As its full title – Nina – a story about me and Nina Simone – implies, and as became apparent minutes into this remarkable production, this is a personal meditation, laced with anger and bitterness, on the meaning of Simone’s music for another black woman. The show runs for another week and should not be missed. Continue reading “Josette Bushell-Mingo’s Nina at Unity Theatre: angry, beautiful, outstanding”
What does it mean to come home?
– Home, page 106
Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels. Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all. The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”
What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…
So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out. First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.
Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:
Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’ – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:
I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.
Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.
I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.
Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:
A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.
In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:
My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.
As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:
The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.
And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself. Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary. It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.
Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002. He recalls:
She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.
Angelou was, Younge writes:
A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.
Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993? Those lines:
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
And the concluding verse:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Sad news today of the death of Staurt Hall, a giant force in post-war intellectual life on the left in Britain. Born in Kingston into an aspiring Jamaican family, Hall received a classical English education in Kingston before winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University.
Hall arrived in Britain in 1951, part of the Windrush wave of Caribbean migration. He found himself in a country that was both familiar and yet one to which he never entirely felt he belonged: he once recalled that when he took the train from Bristol to Paddington station in London, he saw a landscape familiar to him from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Throughout his career as academic, activist and polemicist, Hall produced countless articles, essays and collectively written volume, as well as radio and television talks. In 1979 he became professor of sociology at the Open University, attracted by the idea of teaching those who had previously missed out on educational opportunity. He remained at the OU until 1998, focussing on questions of race and postcolonialism, and on theorising British society and culture from a migrant perspective.
From the mid-50s he wrote for New Left Review (he was a founder member) and Marxism Today in the company of such figures as EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, Raymond Williams and Ralph Miliband. The impact of his writing on race, gender, sexuality and identity, and the links between racial prejudice and the media was felt far beyond academia.
Stuart Hall explains racism on British TV
The Spectre of Marxism: 1983 Thames TV documentary written and presented by Stuart Hall
Last autumn a documentary about his life by the film-maker John Akomfrah, called The Stuart Hall Project, was released. Writing in the Observer, Tim Adams wrote of the film:
You come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.
That film grew out of The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen video installation that I had the privilege of seeing at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in 2012.
Here is the post I wrote in celebration of Stuart Hall after seeing The Unfinished Conversation:
In one of his last interviews, with the Guardian two years ago, Staurt Hall expressed his pessimism about politics generally and the Labour party specifically (in a fine assessment of Stuart Hall’s legacy for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries reminded me of that line of Gramsci’s that Hall would quote with approval – the one about ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit’):
The left is in trouble. It has not got any ideas, it has not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it has got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.
Amen to that. A great voice is silenced. The conversation left unfinished.
- A selection of programmes in memory of Stuart Hall (BBC Radio 4)
- Jeremy Gilbert reflects on the life and work of Stuart Hall (Open Democracy)
- Stuart Hall obituary (Guardian)
- Stuart Hall’s cultural legacy: Britain under the microscope (Guardian)
- Stuart Hall: The Kilburn Manifesto – our challenge to the neoliberal victory (Guardian, April 2013)
- Review of John Akomfrah’s documentary The Stuart Hall Project (Observer)
- John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation