Originally commissioned by Counterpoints Arts as part of the Who Are We festival at the Tate
The audacity of our skin
What does it Matter?
“...you don’t worry about dirt in the garden because it belongs in the garden, but the moment you see dirt in the bedroom you have to do something about it because it symbolically doesn’t belong there. And what you do with dirt in the bedroom is to cleanse it, you sweep it out, you restore order, you police boundaries, you know the hard and fast boundaries around what belongs and what doesn’t. Inside/Outside. Cultured/Uncivilised. Barbarous/Cultivated, and so on.”
- Stuart Hall discussing anthropologist Mary Douglas and her ‘matter out of place’ theory
I remember an empty seat next to me on a crowded train, my breath a plague. I remember walking easy in a quaint French village before being interrupted by the wrinkled nose of a passerby; tu viens d’où, alors? reminding me that foreign follows me like an old cloak lugging around my neck. I remember the breeze in Kerry’s voice telling me, I don’t like the really dark black people, but you’re alright, the way horror grew in my chest like ivy that day (its leaves have still not withered). I remember Year 6, the way my teacher shuddered at a picture of my profile. How I first understood revulsion without knowing its name, tucking my lips into themselves to make them smaller, if only for a little while. I remember the pointing, questions of whether I could read whilst holding a book, being looked at too intently to be thought beautiful but blushing all the same. I think this is a love, but the kind we have been warned to run from. It owns a gun, yet will not speak of its terror; obsessive in every curl of my hair, the bloom of my nose, the peaks and troughs of my breath. I’d tell you who I am, but you do not ask for my voice. You’ve already made up your mind, haven’t you?
Hostile, a definition:
Bitter; windrush citizen: here until your skin is no longer needed
Cold; migrants sleeping rough will be deported
Militant; charter flights, expulsion as a brutal secret in handcuffs
Unwilling; women charged for giving birth after the trafficking, after the rape
Malicious; Yarl’s Wood is locking away too many hearts, will not let them heal
Warlike; landlords, doctors, teachers conscripted for border control
Argumentative; hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Brexit means Brexit
Standoffish; do not fall in love with the wrong passport
Resentful; black and brown forced to prove their right to free health care
Unwelcoming; the number of refugees dying to reach you
how long must we make a case for migration? recount the times it has carried this country on its neck so this nation could bask in the glory of its so called greatness? how loud should we chant our stories of beauty of struggle of grit? write all the ways we are lovely and useful across our faces before we become a hymn sheet singing of desperation? what time left to find a favourite cafè and a hand to hold? to lie on the grass in the park and spot clouds whose shapes remind us of the things we’ve lost? the souvenirs we can’t get back?
Who are we to one another: a dirty secret
Here’s the thing we forget as we age; we’re not so different. Yes, there are some people whose clothes will never start a riot, those who will never know the grief of having a face made synonymous with a thug (the trauma of this deserves its own word). It is true that the things we experience are wrapped up in the life we are given. But when it comes to who we are, down to our most intimate core, aren’t we all just a bit lonely, a little scared? Asking questions no one truly has answers for?
Consider this; many of us did not want to get up this morning, some of us couldn’t. There is that dazed place we all inhabit seconds before fully waking that has no border, needs no passport. When the temperature drops to a chill, a body becomes its own shelter, shoulders round into a cave protecting itself. Some of our worse fears will come true, others won’t. We are all still chewing on words we wish we’d said to someone, somewhere, and longing to swallow back the ones we’ve said in temper. A first love will make our bodies speak languages we didn’t know we were fluent in and we all carry the heaviness of loss. How did we forget that we’re all deeply connected on some level? Revealed only in moments like when a stranger falls ill in public; the way most of us will flock to help them, to remember ourselves.
Every day my computer scrolls through a news feed of angry people drunk on their ability to put others back in their place. There is a growing army of the righteous who tell us that there is a correct language to speak, an exact way to love, one acceptable altar to pray on. I watch a video of a man on the top deck of a bus screaming at another with a boiled kettle rage. He is all fist, spit in your face, my- grand-dad-didn’t-win-the war-so-your-kind-could-piss-it-all-away. I’m not sure it matters who the person on the receiving end of this rage is. In the video he is a chilling quiet, the kind many people of colour will recognise. It is a calculated silence, the kind where you are bargaining for your survival (and this too needs its own word). It does not matter whether he has a job he works hard at, the taxes he does or does not pay, if he tips generously, whether he is kind. That’s the point, isn't it? Racism does not look for nuance, only the audacity of our skin. I wonder if with a different lens these two could be lovers, could be sitting next to each other as strangers on the same top deck. They’d realise they were listening to the same music and how this one track makes them each feel a particular kind of giddy as the bass drops, how as the bus jolts a headphone would fall from each ear and they would turn to look at each other and they would smile.
What words have been left for us?
Words tell lies. This is difficult pill to swallow for a writer, but it is true, I think. We’ve inherited childish terms that shape the way we interact with one another. The words Black and White are at their heart nonsensical, artificially packed with history and, all too often, too much meaning. And yet, still, these labels are seared onto our backs. You’ll find this no better than in the language of terrorism, filled with a cruel rage reserved for people of colour, whilst the more noble and redemptive words, such as lone wolf and misunderstood, for white acts of violence. How we ourselves are living in a language that equates our colour to a shipwreck where all hope is lost. It is, after all, a dark time. Blackness, with all its pain and apparent innate knowledge of rap and knife crime and squalor embedded under its skin, stands with its back to whiteness, which in turn, knows fresh air and the best schools to get into. How boring this, but these terms of reference are as scorched in our minds as a national anthem. How then, should we come to understand ourselves with the language we’ve been given? To find meaning and truth in words that are the scraps of the dictionary?
Give us back our tongues and we’ll give you an answer. It may not be a sound you’ll recognise but it will be ours, all ours.