You began writing today before 6am – it was the only way you felt you could react to what was happening. You couldn’t sleep, your guts were on fire with the news from Pittsburgh, the attack on the synagogue that left eleven people dead. This thing that is tearing at you is not new. It has been there since the day Trump was elected, an event swiftly following which your sleep promptly dropped from six hours a night down to four. For the first few months that you lost a third of your sleep you denied why it was happening, but then you accepted it – that your body was telling you to be ready. You have rested enough, it was telling you, and given what is coming you have so much work to do.
In the early months after the election of Trump you didn’t know best to do, nobody did – maybe not even Trump himself, delirious with the unexpected thrill of his dangerous new pulpit. All you knew was that you were reminded of that scene from Titanic, the awful pause after the ship, having struck the iceberg, had cracked in half and was perfectly poised above the ocean, prepared to plummet. You had to write, even if the quality of the words that emerged was terrible. You had to write, just as you are writing now. You do this because the very act of motion is resistance, that if you stop kicking you drown.
You bumped into two friends earlier this afternoon. You thanked one of them for his furious Facebook posts about Trump’s latest outrages, and he confessed that he felt they were futile. They weren’t, you told him. Everything matters. Your fury matters. Once you are numb to it, that’s the end. We need to keep feeling. It is not inevitable that the very worst is ahead.
You had a beautiful day, even though it is hard to remember that. You visited one dear friend to celebrate her wedding to a wonderful man, and then saw another on her brief return to the city. Both of them are flourishing, doing better than they have ever done. Yet when you woke this morning, you didn’t think of either of them, but of Pittsburgh, and of the hurricane of hatred that Trump continues to unleash.
Your sleep patterns have improved these days, because you have become better at ignoring Trump, of not allowing him to ruin your day, even though the horror of what he is doing often settles across the skies like nuclear winter. But Pittsburgh has happened and the lack of sleep is back. You remember people writing that talk of white supremacy was exaggerated, that the Democrats were crying wolf over the terrors to follow his election, you even remember one friend airily remarking that the Trump presidency, restrained by America’s formidable institutions, would be a quiet one. You remember reminding people, as had countless others, that the toxic levels of anti-Semitism being pumped into the atmosphere would one day thaw some long-frozen and rage-filled plains, allowing ancient viruses to arise from them anew. You and those countless others gain little comfort from having roared these warnings, because this was never a game, never a sixth-form debate where the winner takes home a silver trophy and is treated to a three-course dinner. Like climate change itself, the crisis of extremism, long denied, has always been existential.
Yet there is some comfort – not much, but some. There is comfort because you know that hatred of this nature is predictable, and that the success of this hatred is not guaranteed. You watched from New York with pride as, in your adopted city of Berlin, a quarter of a million people took to the streets to protest not only against the rise of the far Right but crucially in favour of progress and hope. You commiserated with friends from Brazil as they looked ahead in fear to the possible election of Bolsonaro, a man offering ominously simple solutions to complex social problems, but at the same time you marvelled at what fine people they were, and you gained even greater resolve to make the world better for them however you could. We have to celebrate the wins, you tell your friends whenever you bump into them in the street, and we have to celebrate the small things. Everything matters! Everything matters – the briefest act of kindness, the gentle eye contact with the homeless stranger, the channelling of pain into hopeful art, the warmth in the hug when you welcome or say farewell to anyone beloved. Everything matters, even the stream of consciousness I am typing now. Maybe the paths forward aren’t clear, maybe we are still forming a vision of the future where as many people as possible can enjoy health and happiness, and maybe dry land often seems nowhere in sight. But, in the meantime, we need to keep kicking.
Since it’s World Mental Health Day, I thought I would share “How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps: it’s an extract from a longer piece I am working on, a kind of self-help guide to sex, race, dating, mental health, and city life. (If of interest, please share.)
How To Play The Race Card, In 12 Simple Steps.
If you must insist on being a dark-skinned black male in a major continental European city – let’s say, Berlin – then here – assuming that you intend to make your life a little easier – is how you go about it. Here, in a short, simple twelve-step programme, is How To Play The Race Card:
Make sure there aren’t too many of you living in your apartment block. Any more than two is officially an infestation. Make sure there are not too many exotic emissions from your flat. Ethnic smells are fine – ethnic sounds and ethnic people are not. Outside, when approaching a local, make sure you greet them in their own language as soon as you are within earshot. Integration!
When going through Customs, don’t look too cocky. You’ll get stop-searched if you look too free, if you’re too gleefully crossing borders. So what if you’re going on holiday? Suck it up – quell that smile. Halt that swagger. The recommended facial expression, when you encounter immigration officials, is that of a dog taking its final walk – you must look utterly world-weary, careworn, whilst taking care not to avoid eye contact, lest you appear shifty. Remember: visibly broken souls do not smuggle drugs.
Promptly follow every public criticism of the country where you now live with a phrase containing gratitude. For example: “That Nazi march was terrifying but the schnitzel here is nice.”
If you are sitting on a crowded train yet everyone refuses to sit next to you, take advantage of the resultant space. Make a show of it. Manspread. Take a photo of the space and post it on social media, as an example of the Black Gap, the mystical force-field that often seems to appear around post-puberty black men in public. Save the photo on your phone and joke to yourself that you’ll save it for your grandchildren, you’ll enhance it with a sepia filter and you’ll all laugh at how toxic the times were back then. “Granddad, they must have thought you were an animal!” Reflect on whether you smell – look, it is possible. It could be that fellow passengers are utterly repelled by your smell. Later that evening, when you get to your partner’s flat for dinner, don’t tell them that a Black Gap appeared on the train next to you for that second time that week. Not until dessert is served, at least. You don’t want to ruin the mood.
Each morning, before you leave the house, remind yourself that you aren’t ugly. Stare in the mirror and try to feel handsome before you head out of the door. Having a shave often helps – smooth skin feels more attractive. Stubble is for drunken men who have abandoned hope. For the smoothest skin, apply baby oil to your face immediately after a shower, then pat it dry. Don’t leave the flat before you feel handsome. There will be days when you don’t leave the flat.
Don’t leave the flat. Remember that time you saw the bus driver wearing the neo-Nazi dress code. Remember the time you were racially abused by two white women at the top of your road. Remember when they put their hands on you – they actually touched you. Don’t leave the flat.
Get on a plane to another country as if to escape but then come back because you understand that all you ever get wherever you travel is merely different flavours of racism, that the seasoning may be different but ultimately the meal remains the same.
Don’t laugh it off. Don’t make a quick quip when the Turkish kids in the local park ask if they can see your huge cock. Don’t joke about your big dick. If you must, then when someone teases you about it, ask whether they would like you to fuck them with it. Don’t laugh it off.
If you laugh it off that tells people it is fine, and it is not fine – you are not fine. Remember that you have seen other black people arrive in and then leave this country, exhausted at being treated so poorly. Ask yourself the simple question – do you have unfinished business here. If the answer is yes, then stay. If the answer is no, then run, my God, run. You are not a martyr.
For the sake of sheer survival, focus upon the positive. There are people here who love you. People here who love you. Many, many white German people. They love you. Despite your struggles, you have found greater personal and professional support here than you have found anywhere else. Look how Look at the joy with which you are greeted at the local supermarket, at your favourite local restaurant. Brother, they call you. The Lebanese, the Vietnamese, the Sudanese embrace you.
Remember that no matter how much you might feel despised or stereotyped, you are only ever one new conversation or great first date away from changing your life. Cherish your many friendships. Send text messages out of the blue to those who are dearest to you, telling them you love them. When they ask “whatever prompted that?”, then tell them “I am grateful for you, and whenever I feel grateful for someone, I tell them.”
And finally, step number 12. Start wearing brighter colours. Pink, green, red, yellow, orange, even gold. Shine so that you are undeniable. Your skin is a spectacular canvas. Each time you are smiling and vibrant in a place that would rather see you dull and invisible, you will grow in hope. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving, keep pushing. Keep loving. Keep pushing.
Let me make a confession. I think that I have writer’s block. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that I have been writing non-stop all summer. But let me explain.
Writer’s block isn’t the inability to write anything at all. After all, writers who have writer’s block still fill out their tax returns, they still reply to their emails – eventually, at least. No – writer’s block is something different. It’s the inability to complete, or even to begin, the work that you really care about. It is rooted in fear. And that’s what no-one warns you about the power of words. Sometimes, it is overpowering.
What am I afraid of? Well, I think it is this. Creativity is a muscle. If you don’t keep using it, if you don’t keep feeding it the twin proteins of knowledge and experience, then it wastes away. And over time I have begun to fear – that word again – that I have not worked hard enough, that I am not wise enough. I think that I have good ideas – maybe even great ideas – but, at present, I am not sure that I have the strength of creativity to hold them aloft.
This is not a good time to have writer’s block. My work is on very public display. I am about to begin my most ambitious programme of work yet. I am planning to update the first book that I wrote about football. I am planning to write a third book about football, to complete the trilogy that I started in 2007. I am planning to write a sequel to the sci-fi novel that I wrote in 2016, and for which I am still seeking a publisher. I am planning to write monthly essays about how to navigate the world of race and the world of bisexuality. I am preparing to write a book of short stories based on the four years I have so far spent in Berlin. As a musician, I am about to play three play of the most important gigs of my career to date. This is not a good time to be feeling any creative self-doubt.
But perhaps this period of fear is necessary. We all make our living in the world of words. We know just how powerful are the tools of our trade. Whichever way you voted, you can’t deny the force of the call to take back control or to make America great again. I am afraid because I am fiercely aware that, just like black lives, words truly matter.
How do I rid myself of this fear? How I stop being scared? I need to remind myself, first and foremost, that fear is a luxury. Just as I have writer’s block, I think that a lot of us in this room have climate block. I think that climate change – the heatwaves, the fires in the Arctic, the floods in Kerala – is a threat so terrifying that we feel immobilised before it, that we have to look away. We didn’t expect to have to deal with this in our lifetimes, but it’s right here, right now. And we don’t think we have the tools to deal with that’s coming. But we can start with words. We can start with empathy and with hope.
I have just arrived from Helsinki, where I have been advising a social enterprise, LYFTA, on how to raise media awareness of their brilliant work in almost 400 schools. LYFTA, with the aid of virtual reality technology, aim to connect students all around the world – the future of our civilization – through a series of interactive video exercises. When I return to my home of Berlin this week, I will be helping to launch a social enterprise, a cafe which pays a percentage of its profits to support local projects. Given the arrival of extreme climate change, I cannot afford to be afraid. I cannot afford to be too frightened to write.
The fear isn’t completely without foundation. I am thirty-eight years old and I worry that I have not done enough with the gifts that I have been given. In some ways those fears are valid. But this isn’t about me and it never truly was. This is about using every moment as courageously as we can not only to endure but to embrace what is coming. It’s about building community wherever we can. It’s about that kind word, delivered with a gentle nod and eye contact, to the homeless person. It’s about asking each other and ourselves why we aren’t doing better as a society. It’s about reaching through what may feel like justifiable rage for something which may make us collectively happier.
These may sound like nothing more than words. And that’s exactly the point. My address tonight is an invitation: an invitation not to dwell upon what is wrong with the state of our world, but what, with sufficient time, care and urgency, could be right. And if you, like me, feel overwhelmed by doubt, then start with a single sentence. You can keep it in mind if you find it helpful, maybe even save it on your iPhone as a reminder, stick it on a post-it note above your bathroom mirror or next to your desk. And that single, simple sentence is: “Fear is a luxury”.
All of us in this room are both fortunate. Words are our trade. In a time when winning arguments has never been more crucial, we are experts in the business of persuasion. I think we all know that we can’t continue as we are – that it’s going to take so much kindness, patience, and imagination to extract us from this mess. So let’s start now – whether it’s advocating with greater passion for a stronger renewable energy policy, or signing up for that shift at the local soup kitchen. Let’s not only do the best we can, but do better; and, crucially, let’s not be afraid.
Last week I spent a wonderful couple of hours in the company of a film crew, who interviewed me at length for a documentary they were making about xenophobia and austerity in the UK. A few days later, I was thankfully informed by Oz Katerji, an investigative journalist, that this company – Redfish, based in Berlin – was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Russia Today.
I didn’t quite retch when I found out, but my stomach certainly lurched. Yes, the referral came through a dear friend, but it is ultimately my own fault. I should have done my own due diligence – and a simple Google search would have revealed the above article.
Here’s the thing about the programme to which I contributed: I think that the topic is a vital one, and I think that the presenter did an excellent job of examining the issues in our conversation. I just don’t believe that Russia Today, given their stance on refugees, are honest brokers. In fact, I think that they are the opposite. Just the other day, they ran an opinion piece asking the Canadian government not to resettle Syrian refugees, on the grounds that they were either “potential terrorists or supporters of terrorists”. The article is here.
Yes, I know that Russia Today serve up entertaining segments about sport and other entertainment. But I object so strongly to their general political mission that, had I known of their involvement in this documentary, I would have declined the opportunity to appear.
I am very careful with the media appearances that I make, for three main reasons. First, I think it is very important not to become a talking-head, and become the “go-to guy” when it comes to talking about, say, racism in public life. I think that type of status as the “community leader” is very unhelpful. It implies one person speaks for a diverse group of people, which is dangerous. Secondly – though this might be hard for some to imagine! – I would quickly get sick of the sound of my own voice. But thirdly – and most importantly – I do not want to lend legitimacy to certain platforms. Though those organisations to whom I give interviews certainly have their flaws, the crucial difference is that they are not wholly owned by authoritarian states who jail and murder activists and journalists. (If you are not familiar with the following names – Natalya Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky – please Google them.) I do not know that I have always got the balance of my media appearances right in the past, but it is something I have come to care about deeply. The thought of my views being aired on Russia Today is deeply upsetting on a personal level and deeply worrying on a professional one.
Some people would say that I am an idealistic fool for turning down some of the media platforms that I have. Those platforms, after all, often mean more visibility and with it the possibility of vastly better earnings – speaking gigs, consultancy fees, and so on. There are some days – when I can’t send a relative a few thousand pounds to help with that operation or those couple of months of rent – that I agree with those people. I have turned down huge amounts of both exposure and money from people I have suspected to be unscrupulous. Why have I done this? Because, so far as I am conscious and not consumed by desperation, I don’t want to contribute to a worse world, and I think that we are being ushered into such a world by Russia Today.
Why am I telling you this? To learn from my example, really: to remind myself, and to remind you, that we have a choice. We don’t always have to say yes when someone puts a microphone under our nose. I don’t judge those of you who do – God knows that writing can be a precarious and thankless life, and if you have people who depend on you financially then it can be hard to reject that camera or that paycheque. Wherever possible, though, we should try to step away. Let’s do our homework, and find out for whose regimes or fiefdoms we may be the unwitting mouthpiece. Let’s at least know who we are working for, and make our judgements accordingly. Because if we are to be held accountable for ignorance and bigotry – as we should be! – then, at the very least, that ignorance and bigotry should knowingly be our own.
I was honoured to be asked to give a short speech at the Black Lives Matter Berlin protest march, alongside some of the very best activists and human beings I have met in the city (and anywhere else, to be honest). Here is the text of my speech, if you have a moment to have a look.
I don’t know when refugees went from being human, to a problem to be managed. I don’t know when the dark-skinned man became the savage. I don’t know when migrants became a thing to be disinfected. All I know is that these things have happened, that the refugees once welcome are being herded into shelters, and the question is what happens now. And again, I don’t know. All I know is that we weren’t supposed to be standing here: The black spirit was meant to be too broken to survive seas and oceans, And to many who hate them, or are afraid of them, it is a mystery that the migrants retain their dignity. Most of us in this crowd are not refugees, but we are all migrating towards an uncertain and possibly exciting future. We can look proudly at the thousands of years of work that activists have done, and remember that our best years to come.
I would like now to quote part of the “Migrant Manifesto”, written by Immigration Movement International:
“We have the right to move and the right to not be forced to move. We demand the same privileges as corporations and the international elite, as they have the freedom to travel and to establish themselves wherever they choose. We are all worthy of opportunity and the chance to progress. We all have the right to a better life.”
“We acknowledge that individual people with inalienable rights are the true barometer of civilization. We identify with the victories of the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the advancement of women’s rights, and the rising achievements of the LGBTQ community. It is our urgent responsibility and our historical duty to make the rights of migrants the next triumph in the quest for human dignity. It is inevitable that the poor treatment of migrants today will be our dishonor tomorrow.”
“We witness how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors. We understand that migrants and non-migrants are interconnected. When the rights of migrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk.”
This manifesto has never been more important. Just as black lives matter, All of our efforts matter: the smallest acts of kindness, of compassion, of resistance, and defiance. We don’t need to fear the Nazis: they’re just unhappy people with good marketing. Instead, let’s continue to march forwards, With love for each other, with happiness and with hope, Towards a gentler future, which we all truly can call home.
I had a chat with a friend recently, a very talented fellow artist, who said that he was exhausted at the thought of making new work. He has been putting new work out there and it’s not getting much of a response, positive or otherwise. He seemed a bit despondent and I told him: that’s completely normal. You’d be deluded if you felt any different. The majority of my work as an artist has been met with indifference or hatred at the time that I released it. People often didn’t care at best, or despised it at worst. When I published my first poems about football they were so hated that I didn’t write a poem about football for almost two years. And I mean, hated. As in – don’t-come-near-our-football-club-ever-again hated. Don’t bring your posh poetry around our working-class game. And that’s just the poetry I have put out. Whichever field I have worked in – fiction, music, journalism, whatever – there’s not a moment where I haven’t thought “my God, you are just some weird narcissistic alien putting out work no-one wants”. (And the benefit of working in several different areas is that you have multiple opportunities for often humiliating rejection.) One day when I have time and am completely free of those traumas I will list some of the examples.
My point, as I told him, is basically this – that it’s fine to be overwhelmed by this stuff at times. That you’ve always got people in your life who would love you utterly even if you never wrote another line. Go and spend time with them and hopefully after a while you will fall back in love with your art again, and the desire to create new work will become greater than the fear of that work being rejected. That’s basically what making art is for many people, I think – you’ve got to want it more than you are afraid, and it’s absolutely fine to acknowledge that you’re drained and maybe even scared. Hopefully, in time, you will get your energy back.
So (no spoilers!) I watched Black Panther last night. My God. I’m not going to write a review, because I’m relatively late to see the film and a thousand majestic dissections have already appeared online. Instead I will only write a hopefully brief emotional response, since that’s the only thing I can add that might be somewhat fresh.
My favourite football player, in visceral terms, is probably George Weah. Not because he was the finest of all time – even though he had qualities which put him firmly among the greats. But because what Weah achieved on the field, where he was the most elegant blend of grace, power, speed and balance, was merely a fraction of what he achieved beyond it. Weah, a proud citizen of Liberia (a country with its own extraordinary place in world history) was one of the first male African footballers to stand at the very front of the world stage, and he was utterly apologetic when he did so. Weah was a man many of us could recognise; tall, dark-skinned, we could have seen him at the barber shop, he could have been an uncle. And yet there he was, gliding across our screens. He looked like us, spoke like us, and so we started to swagger like him.
Watching Black Panther felt like seeing George Weah at his peak. Visually magnificent, thrillingly unpredictable, with duel after beautiful duel against elite opposition. The land of Wakanda itself? A glorious vista of the old and the new. And the women were just as I knew them. In them, I saw my relatives: unfathomably strong and supportive, amazingly courageous at every turn, humbly and patiently building a better world each day. How they persevere through all the exhaustion, I will never know.
Will there be critiques of this film? Absolutely. I look forward to reading them, and after some time I may attempt one of my own. For now, though, I am especially thankful I saw this film in Black History Month, because it feels like a milestone of its own. After the movie, I sat with a friend of a friend who had come to the movie with us; an African-American woman, born in the early Sixties, who well remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (and, with a further poignant nod to Black history, was closely one of the world’s greatest basketball players). She was overwhelmed at the representation of African-Americans on screen, particularly the women, and rightly so. All I could think was: this movie was excitingly broad in its appeal, and yet was also uniquely for her. Black Panther felt both intensely personal and at the same time universal in its appeal, which in my view is one of the pathways to great art.
As for me, it reminded me what a privilege it is to be an artist, and to wake up daily with the chance to create something, anything, which might give hope to anyone. This film not only reminded me but wholly convinced me of the importance of optimistic, forward-thinking art. For that alone, it is a masterpiece.
So, about that Nike advert, which was greeted with widespread ecstasy on social media when it was released last week. Some might say it was “just a commercial” – and, in one sense, it was. From one perspective, it was merely a three-minute celebration of some of the capital’s finest artists and athletes, a uniquely emotive seduction of the wallets of London’s young. From another point of view, though, it was particularly powerful. So many young Londoners, when watching this short film, reacted with an online euphoria that I hadn’t witnessed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. So many of them felt seen, and understood. Notwithstanding the passionate critiques made by several on Twitter – namely, that people of South Asian heritage were underrepresented in this commercial – it was a piece of work that struck a cultural touchstone.
At this stage, I had to take a step back and ask myself what was happening here. After all, we’d seen this before, this arrival of an optimistic new dawn and a brutal aftermath. Collective joy about the brilliance of the 2012 Paralympics didn’t stop the British Government from driving through a series of severe benefits cuts for people with disabilities. Nike has given us a timely reminder of how much young Londoners love their city – but, in truth, how much does their city love them back?
I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Really, I don’t. I’m based in Germany now, but having lived for many years in Hackney, Finsbury Park, Leyton, Brick Lane, Walthamstow, the Isle of Dogs and Croydon, this city and its surroundings are in my soul. It’s just that, overall, I think that London takes its young people for granted. In her recent report, “London’s lost youth services”, the Green Party politician Sian Berry observed that between 2011/12 and 2016/17 “the average council in London has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an average of 36 per cent”. Moreover, she notes that cuts of an average of 25 per cent are planned for the following year.
Elsewhere, the outlook seems equally grim. By the start of 2016, it was estimated that around 40 per cent of London’s live music venues, many of them important places for young people not only to go out but to cut their teeth as performers, had closed down. Seeing Giggs in that Nike advert, too, I was reminded that many of London’s rappers and grime artists have not only survived but thrived despite the city’s authorities, not because of them. Just a few ago, we saw the removal of the infamous Form 696, a police risk assessment procedure which for twelve years was used to cancel countless shows across London’s black – sorry, urban – music scene.
I think that Nike advert is significant because it shows us how much young Londoners have made a fightback against such considerable odds. Look how many of them, typified by the magnificent Little Simz, have looked at the difficulty of their circumstances and somehow made a huge success of them. But not everyone – in fact, almost no-one – is as gifted as Little Simz. The grind is brutal, and it shouldn’t be. Travelling around Europe, I am frequently struck by how much cheaper other cities are by comparison. London is a town where house prices are seemingly rising at the speed of sea levels, and where most young people can only look to home ownership as the vainest of dreams. (On bleak days, I wonder if some wealthy developers would be happiest if the city were one giant and pristine high-rise estate, surrounded by an immaculate lawn marked “NO BALL GAMES”.)
If London truly wants to encourage the youthful creativity so lauded by Nike, then it needs to subsidise it. It needs to provide a generation with far cheaper housing and robust contracts to protect them from rapacious private landlords. It needs to ensure that a simple journey from Zone 3 to Zone 1 isn’t financially daunting. It needs to prove to young Londoners from working-class backgrounds that they will be utterly welcome not only in its brochures and on its billboards but in its boardrooms.
Every week, it seems, I see a new article bemoaning the laziness of millennials – how they don’t work hard enough, don’t save enough, how they are ungrateful for what they have. How they are far too demanding. As I write this, though, I am preparing to teach a week of creative writing to a class of wonderful young Londoners – a group as nervous as they are determined, as gentle as they are inventive – and I am reminded that they are not nearly demanding enough. London must demonstrate that it deserves these people. I only hope that it accepts the challenge.
Ian Toothill climbed Mount Everest while he had terminal cancer – and that wasn’t the most impressive thing about him. Not even close. He was a truly beautiful human being – how strange it is to refer to him in the past tense – and for all his spirit of adventure, which was extraordinary, his greatest quality by far was his kindness.
I don’t know much about climbing Everest, and I don’t wish to find out. I get nervous enough looking out over a fifth-floor balcony in a stiff breeze. All I know about climbing that beast of a landmark, a feat which Ian presumably found no more difficult than a brisk walk, was that it was probably a journey far less painful and terrifying than the one Ian faced in hospital these last few months. Yes, we would all visit him: but every night, visiting hours would end, and he would be alone with the journey, ascending to the bleakest of summits.
Ian was – is – remarkable. The BBC, reporting on his death – the Everest feat, undertaken for charity, had won him widespread acclaim in the media – mentioned that he was childless and unmarried, a dispassionate description that might have implied he had no family. But like the footballer Cyrille Regis, who also passed away this week, I have rarely seen someone so loved. He was universally admired. His gifts as a musician were considerable, as I learned when he played bass for one of my previous bands. More importantly, he was what a man, what any human, should aspire to be – gentle, empathetic, compassionate. The only time I ever saw him upset in those last few weeks was when discussion focused too much upon the latest antics of the current American president, whose cruelty and narcissism could not be any further from who Ian was.
Ian was so considerate. In December, when I said I would visit him in hospital, he said I didn’t need to pop in for more than ten minutes – he didn’t want to take up too much of my time on my return to the city. He was wrong, of course; I could have talked to him all night. During that visit, he was the very soul of warmth, even as his health was deteriorating all the while. I don’t know how he managed to summon such positivity in the face of a fate so, so unfair. He was only 48. I would have expected and understood him if he had withdrawn into himself – and I suspect that, privately, he had several of those moments. Overall, though, I think he was furiously determined to wring every last moment of joy from this world before he left it.
Ian had something you don’t see often enough in a world this brutal: he had the courage to love. Not just his friends, or his partners, but life itself. His last gift to me, one of so many, is a message I will forever treasure.
A few years ago a close friend of mine, Nick Eziefula, once gave me a simple and vital piece of advice that I have lived by ever since he delivered it. Nick said: if you think of someone, contact them. I thought of Ian last week, when consuming the very latest of my beloved sweet treats in a Berlin cafe. So I dropped him a line, and he replied:
“Enjoy every single moment, you are living! Not doing deals, not worrying about making loadsa money, and what everyone else is doing, just “being”. It sounds beautiful. I have spent hours in cafes, escaping, dreaming, realising what I have to be grateful for… even getting excited planning impossible climbing/charity Everest climbs on there 😊. Enjoy x”
Enjoy. That was last Wednesday, when his already severe condition was getting steadily worse, though there was no sign of that in his words. It was the last time I heard from him, and is an instruction both vital and inspiring. Enjoy. I will, my dear friend. I will.
I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I say that, in the Western world, we are currently living in the Age of The Other. For the last few hundred years, the modern world has been very largely shaped by white heterosexual men, and we are now in a period where that order appears to be changing. The Other – that is to say, anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is feared to be taking over. It is absolutely true that the recent election results in the Western world can be explained by a popular revolt against the ruling elite. But that is only a partial explanation, and I think that the entire explanation is much more unsettling, if not sinister.
When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, there was a rush by many commentators to explain his victory as due to the “economic anxiety” of his voters. The initial data seemed to support this view, with twice as many white working-class voters voting for Trump as for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet a deeper analysis of the numbers showed something different. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic Magazine found that, and I quote, “financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.”
We saw a similar pattern in the UK, when the country voted to leave the European Union; an event known as the Brexit referendum. Brexit was explained, just as Trump had been, as a working class-revolt against the elite. I thought that this was strange, given that only a year before the working-class had been given a chance, at the general election, to vote that same elite out of power – and they had re-elected them. Something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed by a piece of research published earlier this year by the London School of Economics, or LSE. To quote that research,
“Keen to distance themselves from charges of xenophobia, Vote Leave worked hard to dispel the notion that their cause was powered by generalised anti-immigration sentiment. Where immigration was mentioned, the issue, it was claimed, was not numbers but control and fairness. Why should unskilled East Europeans get in ahead of qualified South Asians?…Yet academic research raises questions over this interpretation. First of all, immigration was key. Second, and more surprising, is concern over non-European immigration. The problem of unrestricted low-skill European immigration was repeatedly flagged during the campaign, so many assume people voted Leave because they were primarily exercised by the issue of East European immigration. This turns out not to be the case. What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants…This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data.
What’s most interesting to me about this research from the LSE is one particular sentence: when they say that “what’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants”. When the researchers say “no-one”, they have clearly not been listening to years of warnings from non-white and non-EU migrants about the degree of xenophobic sentiment in the UK. These findings are remarkable because, even though they were received by many as some grand revelation, they were – to me at least – not at all surprising.
And then we turn to Germany, where I have been living for the last three years. Here we see that the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party has claimed over 13% of the vote in the general election. Here we saw the same pattern. In the media, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the AfD appealed to voters who were victims of the country’s economic inequality. Yet this analysis again ignored the research. I quote, from an article in the German newspaper Deutsche Welle:
“a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), published in April, nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation. This was backed up by a TNS Infratest survey released in March, that found that 79 percent of AfD supporters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.”
We could go on, and on – to examine the rise of the far-right in the Dutch elections, the French elections, the Austrian ones. But I think the pattern is clear. Not only is xenophobia a common factor in each of these election results, it is also one which comes as a shock to many voters.
I want to talk about this shock. It is often based upon what is known as “white privilege” – that is to say, when white people are unaware of racism or don’t have to be, because it doesn’t affect them directly. There are times when I feel like calling it “white innocence”. It constantly amazes me that a country can have such a shocked reaction when the xenophobia of a large part of its population is revealed.
This is because of white innocence. Not all white innocence is deliberate. Some people simply don’t know how bad racism can be, because they don’t see it as part of their daily lives. But there’s the other kind of white innocence, the wilful ignorance of what is happening, and that is thoroughly, utterly dangerous.
How does this innocence manifest itself? It’s to be found in all those people who choose to look away from injustice. Those people who avoid the awkward conversation about racism at the family dinner table, who don’t speak up when the hear anti-Semitic jokes in the dressing-room or on the golf course. It is to be found in the cowardice of the people who cringe when they hear open bigotry among their friends or relatives, but remain silent. It was James Baldwin who best expressed this state of affairs. In “Notes from a Native Son”, he wrote that:
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Monster is a strong word. And rightly so. I also think that it is accurate. I think that there is a certain amount of denial that we all need in order to maintain life as it is. I think that most of us have the need to believe that, fundamentally, we are good people. There are some senses in which I am probably a monster. As a meat-eater who until a few years ago ate fast food fairly regularly, I have been complicit in the deaths of many thousands of animals. Increasingly, I find it hard to justify my consumption of meat on moral grounds.
It is difficult to call ourselves monsters. We are good people. We love our friends and our partners and our parents. We are good children, not monsters. It is this same cognitive dissonance that lies behind the results of a poll conducted in the US. That poll was carried out by Ipsos between late August and early September, for Thomson Reuters and the University of Virginia Center for Politics. It took place a few weeks after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, during which a counter-protester was killed by a white supremacist. The poll found that, and I quote, “while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists “there are troubling levels of support for certain racially-charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups.”
Furthermore, the poll noted that:
“While only 8 percent of respondents said they supported white nationalism as a group or movement, a far larger percentage said they supported viewpoints widely held by white supremacist groups: 31 percent of Americans polled strongly or somewhat agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage,” and 39 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
What has happened here? Well, I think that white innocence is at work. There is an understanding that to be seen as a racist or a white supremacist is a Bad Thing. But there are also widespread and deeply-held fears of non-white people. These are not, as is often argued, views that are held subconsciously. Earlier this year Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a US-based data scientist, examined a series of Google searches in order to see if he could detect previously undiscovered levels of racism. He found that, and I quote at length, “In my work with Google search data, the single most telling fact I have found regarding hate on the internet is the popularity of the word “nigger”…Searches for “nigger jokes” are 17 times more common than searches for “kike jokes”, “gook jokes”, “spic jokes”, “chink jokes”, and “fag jokes” combined. When are these searches most common? Whenever African Americans are in the news.
The frightening ubiquity of this racial slur throws into doubt some current understandings of racism. Any theory of racism has to explain a big puzzle in America. On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice – and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, job interviews, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation among political scientists recently has been that this is due, in large part, to widespread implicit prejudice. White Americans may mean well, this theory goes, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their treatment of black Americans….There is, though, an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism.”
It is James Baldwin, again, who I think is most important here. In an interview in 1963, he said that:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
Why do some white people need the nigger, or the other? Why do they need to lash out against those different from themselves? I think that some white people need it because, in a time of such uncertainty – of surging social and economic inequality – they need to point to someone, to a group of people, and tell themselves: “well, life may be terrible, but at least I am better than them.”
In the three months following the Brexit referendum, charities reported that crimes against LGBT people had risen by 147% compared with the same period in the previous year. The victims of these attacks reported that they had been abused by people saying “now we can get these people out of the country and you’re going to be next”.
This may be uncomfortable for some, but I feel that a significant part of the Brexit, Trump and AfD sentiment is based upon a visceral, almost primal desire for some form of purging – to return to a time when things were clear and clean and straightforward. To some extent, these voters need The Other, because to hate them is a reassuringly firm feeling in turbulent times. It’s here that I would like to introduce the best analysis of economic anxiety that I have read anywhere. It came from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a magnificent essay for GQ Magazine, entitled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof”. One of Ghansah’s interviewees, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, said that:
“Trump showed us this, that we underestimated how vulnerable and precarious self-esteem is for white, working-class people in this society. They not only see the white elites, but then they see…black people, coming from behind, eclipsing them. And, they say, ‘What are these people doing up there? What has happened to me?’”
BEING THE OTHER
If you are Other in some parts of the Western world, then you need to work out not only how thrive but to endure. That may sound like a dramatic statement, but all the same I think it has some weight. I say this only because a good friend, a black woman, has recently moved from Berlin to Stockholm, since she believes she is less likely to suffer racial violence there. Around this time last year, she was pushed off her bike by an elderly white German woman as she cycled past. Several other friends, in the lead-up to the US election, reported a rise in levels of racist aggression in the street. One was sitting on a train when a passenger sneered at her and then showed her his Nazi tattoos. Another was beaten up by his taxi driver. I detailed these incidents and other yet more grave ones in an article for the New York Times in February 2017, entitled “Fake News Meets German Racism”. The piece was met in some quarters with fury, as some people asked why I was trying to make Germany feel guilty for its welcoming nature.
Now, I am not saying for one second that the Western world cannot be a dangerous place if you are white and male. I am saying that, if you are a woman, or gay, or transgender, or non-white, then those dangers – then those risks of emotional and physical danger increase sharply, often exponentially.
Of course, women know this very well. As a dark-skinned black man who identifies as queer or bisexual, I know it too. In Berlin, the problem has become more intense in the last few months. I believe that Angela Merkel’s decision to provide a million Syrians with refuge from the war is one of the bravest and most praiseworthy political decisions of the modern age.
I say this not only because of the horrific fate which Chancellor Merkel helped many Syrians to avoid, but also because of the significant logistical challenges of helping the Syrians in their new home. Merkel has paid a political price for accepting these challenges, facing not only fierce criticism from her rivals but also losing a significant share of her vote in the general election.
It has not been easy for Merkel. In early 2016, in Cologne, an event occurred which a fellow journalist described as “a game changer”. At New Year, hundreds of men “of north African appearance” perpetrated the sexual assault of dozens of women. Though the perpetrators were overwhelmingly German-born, it was the Syrians who received the bulk of the backlash, with Merkel’s refugee policy being blamed for these attacks.
It would later emerge that the Cologne attacks had a profound effect on the psyche of the German public. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Germany’s leading NGO in the fight against far-right extremism, published a paper on how Cologne had led to the reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.
There were no positives to be drawn from the AfD’s capture of 13% of the vote in the German elections. There were only the smallest consolations. I heard some non-white friends say that at least people would now believe them when they said that there was a problem with racism in Germany.
I can only say, from my own experience, how exhausting racism is. I would like here to read you a post that I wrote in July this year; it is a little long, but I think it explains how racism feels as well as anything I have written. It is called:
“Racism breaks my heart.”
Racism breaks my heart. I am writing this directly after reading the official confirmation that Adama Traore, a young black Frenchman, died of asphyxiation after being detained by police. I am writing this right now because the feeling is raw, and I need to express what this is like – this helplessness. Racism doesn’t always break my heart. Sometimes it is just an inconvenience – like 4am last Sunday morning, when listening to music on my home from a great night out with my friends, and my journey was interrupted by a tourist who leaned into my path and asked me for drugs. I can shrug these moments off. Yet they accumulate until I can’t ignore them, and then a tide of sorrow rolls through me, so deep and wide that I succumb to it.
Two nights ago a friend of mine stepped off a train in Berlin and three white Germans serenaded her with a chorus of “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger”. Yesterday I saw a video of a 48-year old Nigerian man who was dragged off a train in Munich by two inspectors – though he had paid for his ticket, he had not presented his ID – and, howling, had his face pressed to the concrete. The journalist who posted the footage, for her trouble, received a hailstorm of threatening phone calls from the far-right. Today, I read the news about Adama Traore.
Racism breaks my heart. There are days you look in the mirror and wonder how you can negate it. If you can dress more smartly in certain settings – if you can avoid certain areas. But then you realise that you can’t. To the racist, a monkey in a nice set of clothes is still a monkey. There are days you wish there was an app on your phone that allowed you to travel through the world on stealth mode.
Racism humbles you. You can be as successful as you like but there are still those – so many of those – who will not see you as fully human. It’s a strange world. Some would advise me to concentrate only on those who are enlightened, who are not prejudiced – but I am not convinced that the majority of people in our world are like this. From London to Rio to Bratislava to Cape Town and elsewhere, I have seen too much severe social and economic inequality of which racism was the root. We daily tell ourselves that most people are good, but I am not even sure what that means anymore. What use is being good, what use is being the decent silent majority, if deaths like those of Adama Traore don’t cause that majority to roar? What use is outrage at injustice if it is never spoken?
I’m aware that when I write about racism, many people may tune out. To those people, I would like to say this: I wish I could tune out too. I wish I could hang my dark skin on a line somewhere, and carry on with one less problem like the rest of you. Because life’s hard enough already, isn’t it? Life’s hard enough trying to hold down that job, and trying to keep your partner happy after all those years, and mending those ailing ties with your family. Life’s hard enough without walking the streets of different cities, fearing that you may be too big, dark and dangerous for people’s comfort.
Of course this isn’t how I approach every day. It’s just that there are some days when you find your soul heavy with grief at the death of a sibling in prejudice you never met – last week her name was Bianca Roberson, this week his name is Adama Traore – and, on those days, your eyes brim with tears as you type, because in that moment being black is an almost unbearable burden. Days, I am sad to say, like today.
How, as someone who is Other, should I make my art? That might sound like a silly question. You might just think: “it’s easy. Just get out a piece of paper, or pull up a blank screen on your laptop, and start writing.” But I do not think it is as easy as that. I believe that the way the Other – anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is portrayed in popular culture shapes the way the Other is treated in our world. If we artists continue to produce work filled with stereotypes, then we encourage the world to judge queer people and so on according to those stereotypes. And you only need to look at Nazi-era propaganda to see how that ends up.
Perhaps you think I am being dramatic, but the problem is a severe one. Compare the media’s treatment of Mike Brown, who died at the hands of a police officer, with its treatment of Stephen Paddock, who has just murdered upwards of 50 people in Las Vegas. The first details to emerge about Paddock’s life was that he was a quiet man who loved country music. The first details to emerge about Brown’s life was that he had a fondness for marijuana. The instinct of Western media, for so many profound historical reasons, is so often to humanise white murderers and to demonise non-white murder victims. When making new work, I feel a particular responsibility to confront that dynamic. We do not create art in a vacuum.
Look, too, at the representation of people of colour in fiction. I quote an article from Marykate Jasper, writing in February 2017:
“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which has been tracking the number of books published by and about people of color since 1994, announced their numbers for 2016 on Wednesday. For children’s books published last year, approximately 22% were about people of color, and 12% were written or illustrated by people of color. Currently, people of color constitute 38% of the U.S. population.”
At a time when non-white people are being reduced to stereotypes in the political arena, I believe that representation matters more than ever. I feel an obligation to write non-white characters who, if not necessarily heroes, are nuanced, well-rounded – in other words, fully human.
There can be a danger in this. I believe Junot Diaz has written about the pressure that non-white writers feel to be the voice of their community. You have to be careful not to be some kind of self-righteous mouthpiece – well, you can be that if you want to be, but it rarely makes for good art. Then you have the warning from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of “the danger of a single story” – of writing a tale that people then take to be representative of an entire community.
As much as you can, you must avoid the “Other Gaze”. That is to say: you may want your work to resonate widely, and in doing so you may try to make it as accessible as possible. The danger in doing so, though, is that in order to reach a wider audience you reproduce familiar and even comforting tropes.
How do you avoid all this? You can never guarantee how readers will receive your work – in some ways, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. But you can help yourself by being self-aware. Here’s one example.
A few years ago, I began writing a version of Romeo and Juliet, based in a fictional African nation that I had created. The romance was to take place between two black men – one of whom was a freedom fighter suspected of bombing the town centre, the other one of whom was a detective investigating the case. It was, I thought, something that could be a moving love story – it would bring in themes of homophobia, of tribal conflict, of forbidden love.
But I didn’t write it, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because, at the time, I was a queer black man who didn’t believe that love between two black men could ever end well – that our society was so violent towards us that any romance was doomed to fail. And, without realising it, I had begun to reproduce that narrative. I didn’t write the novel because I believe that it’s time for gay black men in fiction to have happy endings. That’s why I applaud the director Barry Jenkins for making Moonlight.
That was several years ago, but I am still not immune from the danger of viewing black people only by the oppression that they suffer. Last year I began writing a novel, entitled “Make Us Human”. The title – ironically enough – referred to the one-dimensional way in which the media portrays black people. The novel was about how a black boy is killed by a neo-Nazi, and how the investigation into his death tears the family apart. The black boy, Michael, was a model student and an excellent footballer, yet in death he is made out to be a drug-using troublemaker.
I didn’t finish this novel, and I am glad I didn’t. Because, in the end, it was still framing the story of the black family primarily in terms of its suffering. A few months ago, I published the first seven thousand words of the novel online, and the response was incredible – several friends asked if I could finish writing the book. But I declined. Black people, I thought, are so much more than our pain.
So, I have told you of two novels I have not finished. What is the use of being an artist if I don’t actually finish any work? Well, here is the good news. At the start of this year, I visited the German town of Wurzburg, where I spent a weekend retreat at a place called the Institute for Philosophical Progress. There, I was able to set out the philosophy behind the work that I intended to make this year. I came to the following conclusions.
We are in a time where forces of repression are in the ascendancy. In America, we see a President whose daily ignorance and bigotry is often overwhelming. We are seeing the victimisation of the Other from Myanmar to Egypt to Holland to Iraq. I can therefore do one of two things. I can either write work that reacts to the mood of the times; or I can urge and create a positive vision of the future.
Given that I am of African heritage, and that my work features African protagonists, I think that this makes me an Afrofuturist.
In short, I want to spend the rest of my life writing stories where people who look like me help to contribute to a better world for us all. My work will be inclusive. It will encourage people who are not The Other to empathise with refugees, with immigrants, with non-white people, with queer people.
Last year I wrote what you might call an Afrofuturist novel. It is called “The Trauma Thief”. It is a sci-fi thriller set in London in the near future, with a fourteen-year old black girl as its main character.
It’s taken a while for me to realise this, but most of my favourite artists are Afrofuturists. There’s Outkast, with just two of their seminal albums – ATLiens, and Aquemini. There’s Janelle Monae. My favourite song of all time is Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” – the extended version, of course. It’s closely followed by “Expansions”, by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, whose lyrics – though they may seem embarrassingly simple – are as rousing as any I have heard:
“Expand your mind
We all must live
In peace together
Extend your hand
To help the plan
Of love through all
Mankind on Earth”
The modern version of Lonnie Liston Smith’s classic track is probably Kendrick Lamar’s “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, from his Section 80 mixtape. I quote:
“Now I don’t give a fuck if you
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddamn it
That don’t mean shit to me
Fuck your ethnicity.”
In this song, Kendrick advances a radical, beautiful vision of the Other, one which I share. One where the Other uses their vantage point from the edge of society to bring everyone in society together.
I am not proud to say that in my teens I had homophobic views. I am proud to say that, when I realised that I was bisexual in my twenties, I learned empathy for so many other marginalised groups. I realised, to quote the poet Stacey Ann Chinn, that “all oppression is connected”.
This, I think, is my unique opportunity as a member of the Other living in Western Europe. I have, to some extent, faced discrimination from the existing social order, but not enough to stop me doing the work that I need to do. I am in an extremely privileged position, and I acknowledge that. I have a platform where I can help to make life easier for people in more hostile environments.
I am also lucky, in a very particular sense. When society casts you to its fringes, it gives you a perspective from which you can critique it. It is very hard to observe the grand vehicle that is our society when you are speeding along in its front seat. It’s much easier to watch it from the pavement as, often thoughtlessly, it rushes onwards.
I have made this pledge with my work – that my art, as the Other, may at times be scathing, but ultimately it will be optimistic. It will try, as far as I can, to follow the vision of the African feminist Jessica Horn, who set out a political philosophy as inspiring as any I have heard. She said, in an interview with AfricanFeminism.com:
“I claim feminism as a political home, and feminist as a political identity because I believe the feminist proposition that the root of injustice in our world and in the lives of women in particular lies in patriarchal power and its friends racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…and that in order to transform the world we have to challenge patriarchal power. Whenever you challenge unjust power there will be backlash. But I believe in the possibility of justice for all, and for full choice, full happiness, full opportunity and lives free of violence in these gendered bodies we live in. I believe freedom is possible. Anything you believe in is worth fighting for.”
“ My feminist utopia begins in our bodies, as our first and last home, as the only thing that is ever really ours-as the space that life is made real. My utopia is a world where we all live free, healthy, pleasurable, agented lives in our own bodies. It requires political, economic, social and cultural systems that enable embodied freedom for all. Oh and there must be art too. Lots of it.”
This is a joyful vision, one which Horn has described as “revolutionary love”. It is an ideal of which I may fall short, but I will try, as far as I can. I will try.