Archive for Race

The next time Sandra Bland

The next time Sandra Bland

Should drive through a particularly bigoted town,

She should make sure she does so

with her windows rolled right down,

so the officer can see her hands, and is reassured

she’s not storing an assault rifle in her lap.

She should also – I don’t know – try being polite;

That is to say, female and white –

For when a white policeman is in pursuit,

A black woman is only acceptable if mute.

Still, Sandra fell silent in the end,

So it’s doubtful anything she now says can offend.

The usual will happen:

People will loudly gawp at the injustice

But quietly conclude her temper was not to be trusted.

Sandra’s crime was simply that:

Smoking a cigarette while black –

Another heinous vice to add to the list,

Such as attending Bible class in Charleston,

Or simply daring to exist.

For McKinney, and Eric Casebolt: “They handcuffed the black baby the second it left the womb”.

They handcuffed the black baby the second it left the womb,

Replaced its umbilical cord

With a chain attached to the wall.

“Well”, they reasoned, “it can’t get used to freedom;

Once it’s set free, it will attack.

What it needs is a knee in its back,

A SWAT team watching its cot,

And a drone sneering overhead

As its mother combs the hair of this sighing, gurgling threat.”

All in all, they say, “that police officer, Casebolt,

Did one thing wrong; he got there too late.

He should have pulled that gun on that girl

When her mother was eight months pregnant with her,

Should have pinned her down in the ward

And warned her of the angry cargo she was carrying,

Who might, fifteen years later,

Slip on a bikini and wander lethal as anthrax

Across a white suburban lawn.

Eric Casebolt did nothing but obey one whispered law:

That the birth of each black baby

Is a fresh declaration of war.”

FIFA and Loretta E. Lynch: a milestone for black women.

Several of FIFA’s senior officials have been arrested on charges of corruption, news which has been welcomed by very many people outside the organisation (and, I suspect, more than a few within). The person leading this effort is Loretta E. Lynch, the US Attorney-General, who has only been in her job a matter of weeks. Lynch is the first African-American woman to hold this post, and here she is, holding possibly the most powerful organisation in world sport to account. This is, I think, a milestone for black women. At times like these, I look back at the history of civil rights activism, and consider those who fought just so women just like them could one day have access to the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Regardless of how these charges against FIFA go, I believe that the very fact that Lynch is here to make them is historically important.

It is probably important today, too. When speaking with several of my black female friends, I see how many of them – despite their considerable success in their various fields – still experience remarkable self-doubt, as if they do not feel worthy of even greater platforms for their talents. That self-doubt is often derived from a world which through the twin stings of racism and sexism frequently tries to hold them back. I doubt that Lynch herself will stop to reflect on this moment – for her, it is probably just one more day in an outstanding career – but many black women, those long gone and those yet to come, may thank her for showing that someone just like them can make it as far as she wants to. And, somewhere out there, I hope that countless ancestors – among them Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Rosa Parks – are raising a glass.

 

 

On Asian-American men: John Cho, Hollywood, and inter-racial dating.

So: inter-racial dating. There are a few topics I don’t discuss that much in my writing, mainly because for all my openness as a poet I am reflexively very private about some things, and one of those topics is dating. Every now and then, though, I see something which frustrates me enough to take the leap. I have just listened to a short radio piece on Hollywood’s historical reluctance to cast Asian-Americans as leading men, and – perhaps it was the black coffee, the Monday morning, or the slightly early start – something tipped me over the edge.

John Cho, who is a fine actor and something of an ambassador for Asian-Americans making their way in the film industry, spoke of the boundaries he had encountered when growing up. “Girls would say in an almost benevolent tone that ‘I just (have) zero attraction to Asian men’,” he told the BBC World Service. “It wasn’t considered taboo to say something like that.” I can remember being told similar things, and so his words resonated with me. Whilst who you are attracted to is of course a deeply personal matter, the reasons for that attraction often go unexamined. Cho spoke of the way that Hollywood portrayed Asian men as weak, and not as natural leaders, which had implications for how they were viewed in wider society: including, in some cases, the fact that some would not readily consider them as potential romantic partners.

If you think about it, “I have zero attraction to white men”, or “I have zero attraction to black women”, is actually a really odd thing to say to someone’s face. The response I first think of is “what – all of them? There are millions, you haven’t even met each of them yet”.  Look – it could just be their preference. But it still seems a little strange, particularly when you announce that to someone out loud.

I mean – what do I know. Maybe sexual attraction really is as visceral and uncontrollable as the type of food that you like. Or maybe, at some level, we have been socially conditioned to say No! to the possibility of ever fancying someone from a particular ethnic group, to the extent that we feel entitled to look into their hopeful eyes and say it. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that, should I ever again be in a situation where someone ever says “I just don’t fancy black guys”, I will say “OK, so you’ve not met the hot ones so far. Give me a few moments, let me me go through my phone book. I’ll change all that.”

Hundreds of cockroaches drowned today.

Hundreds of cockroaches drowned today.

It was just as well they died at sea – no-one holds funerals for beetles,

this way there’ll be less of a mess.

In the old days, we used to buy the cockroaches,

Bring them over the oceans in slightly safer ships,

And we’d have them work in our fields,

Snipping cotton for us as the sun seared their shells.

Here’s a secret; the cockroaches have never swum too well.

Back then, we’d throw the sick ones over the side

but now money drowns them,

And we smirk as their brown lungs fill with salt and silt,

We sing as they sink.

 

How To Get Respect, Should You Die In The Public Eye.

Don’t be Syrian,

Don’t be a working-class black teen;

Be a middle-class kid, preferably white, from a two-parent home.

Don’t live within reach of a drone.

Don’t be pictured with a joint while alive,

Don’t let your fingers be seen anywhere near a gang sign.

Don’t date a man who hates you with all the breath in his breast

Since, when he eventually kills you, they’ll just say

“You should have left”.

(On which note,

Don’t die at the hands of a male celebrity –

that never ends well.)

Don’t be Syrian –

you heard us the first time.

If you’re Syrian,

Your problem is that you may die in a conflict too complex for people to understand,

Or so monotonous in its gore

That they’ll merely throw up their hands.

Don’t die a dull Third World death,

Failed by healthcare,

In a land where diarrhoea is lethal as Ebola.

Don’t die a death that fascinates people,

Or your existence will be chopped up and podcasted,

Fed back to us as pop culture.

Don’t die a death where we risk getting distracted

By the fact your suspected killers

Are particularly attractive.

When you die,

Make sure we can relate to you.

Do some charity or some public service.

We’re busy. We need to know quickly

That you weren’t worthless.

If you don’t die how we like

Then you’ll be killed twice:

The first time, when you lose your life

And the second time, when the world destroys your memory as well –

You see, our affections abandon nothing more swiftly

Than a story that’s not easy to tell.

Nigel Farage, the cost of living, and immigration as political time-wasting.

Nigel Farage remarked this morning that there was no longer any need for most racial discrimination laws in the workplace. Given that such laws have recently been vital to protecting the rights of good friends faced by racist employers, I am not going to give that ill-informed view the outrage it seeks. Instead, because we are all busy people, I thought I would set out below a series of tweets that I posted this morning, setting his remarks in a wider political context. (That saves you, should you be interested, from having to read them off my timeline.)

– What is most interesting about Farage is not what he says, but how politicians from bigger parties respond to him.

– Farage refers to racial discrimination laws as past their sell-by-date, inviting other parties to agree or disagree. Watch their responses.

– Cost of living, cost of living, cost of living. It is not working-class immigrants who have put the rental market out of control.

– Cost of living. It is not working-class immigrants who have sent housing prices and petrol prices through the roof.

– Working-class migrants scrap for the same crumbs they always have; that’s only a problem as now you’re down there too. Ask who put you there.

– Huge companies enter the UK, pay almost no tax, force up the cost of living, yet it’s working-class migrants who are “straining resources”.

– This isn’t even an attack on huge companies. It’s merely a request that we be honest about the roots of inequality.

– Breaking news: even if you stop every immigrant entering the UK from now to eternity, it will not bring your rent down.

– The focus on immigration is time-wasting, running down the clock to election time, keeping the cost of living off the political agenda.

– Here’s the dirty truth about immigrant bashing. It’s all about making *just* enough people wake up feeling racist on election day.

– Many people are tired, busy, emotional. They are shattered. They are living hand to mouth. Many of them are in the perfect mood to lash out.

– The working-class immigrant is the perfect political target. Visible everywhere, yet systematically muted, denied a voice. Bullseye.

 

My tweets on that racist football fan video (with RapGenius annotations, and Johnny Cash).

Last night I saw a video where a bunch of racist football fans stopped a black man getting onto a train. I then went onto Twitter and wrote a series of tweets giving my thoughts on the incident. I didn’t mention the club whom the fans supported as I didn’t think that this was a phenomenon particular to their club.

I then received answers from some people who agreed with me, and some who didn’t, which is after all the nature of Twitter. Some people thought I was saying that this video should not be condemned, and so I thought I should write a short note clarifying my tweets.

So I’m going to do the following, which might seem a bit of an odd approach, but I am doing it mainly because I don’t have time to write a full new article on this (deadlines etc etc).

First I will republish the tweets I wrote. Then I will briefly annotate them, RapGenius style, explaining further what I meant by them. Then I will finish up with some music from Johnny Cash.

I hope that makes sense, and that you’re not bored yet. Right – here goes.

My tweets were as follows:

1. Hm. Many people who will express revulsion at that racist football fan video are just as unpleasant in far subtler and more dangerous ways.

(Explanation: If you condemned that video, awesome. My wider point was that there are a lot of people who have an eye for a conveniently easy fight. The same people who will condemn video of these fans will continue to laugh along with people who make jokes about gas chambers. They are the same people who will embrace bigoted individuals if they can bring some kind of advantage to their club, or simply if they are just fun to hang out with. It is these hypocrites who were the subject of this tweet.)  

2. Extreme, overt, drunken racism by fans is only the symptom of attitudes that may be more commonplace that people would like to admit.

(Explanation: The black man last night faced racism in a very intimidating form. What is particularly worrying is that those racists felt comfortable enough to express those views at such volume and with such confidence, just like that racist who threw the bananas at Dani Alves. We will never know how many passive onlookers silently agreed with their reprehensible views. At such times, the club’s reaction is vital, and to Chelsea’s credit they have acted swiftly in response to this matter.)  

3. The outraged condemnation of drunken racist football fans, without further examination of the underlying issues, is nothing but cathartic.

(Explanation: Yes, you’re right to be angry, absolutely. Let’s also be vigilant about other forms of racial discrimination within the game, and not be quick to dismiss them when they arise. If you are already vigilant, then this tweet was not aimed at you.) 

4. The average racist these days is far, far smarter than a football fan on an away day who gets hammered and abuses a random black person.

(Explanation: The one redeeming feature of those football fans on the train is that they were stupid and so we know exactly what they thought. Again, I was merely saying: let’s stay vigilant. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment out there at the moment – just look at UK politics. If you’re already vigilant, then that is awesome – you don’t have to duck, this tweet was not aimed at you.)

5. The drunken racist football fan on the evening train is the least dangerous racist of all since you know exactly where you stand with them.

(Explanation: This isn’t entirely accurate as a racist frothing abuse in your face can be pretty intimidating, particularly if they are bigger than you or if there are more than you or if there is nowhere to run or if they are quicker than you. Those ones are pretty scary but they’re thankfully not as commonplace as they have been. So they are physically dangerous, yes. I guess I have just become a little bit desensitised to their excesses. At least, because they make their threat so obvious, I know what I am dealing with.)  

6. The most dangerous racists of all are those who will keep you conveniently at arm’s length for years. They are the ones I worry about.

(Explanation: These are often the really scary ones – the ones who discriminate against you in the workplace, the ones who pass discriminatory laws, the ones who practice what Ta-Nehisi Coates has referred to as “elegant racism”. They are the ones who are clever enough to marginalise you without telling you that it’s down to your race, and it’s only when you look back over the accumulated evidence that you realise that’s what it was. A good friend has a successful claim at an employment tribunal to show for it.)

7. As someone who has experienced both verbal and physical racist abuse on the street, I am not belittling what happened tonight.

(Explanation: No, I’m really not. I hope that poor guy was not too shaken this morning.)

8. I am merely saying: let us be clear. Racism does not simply arise from nowhere. It is mould that has been allowed to fester too long.

(Explana – actually no I think this one is pretty clear.)

9. So no, I’m not going to get on my high horse about the drunken racist fans, and I would advise you to be very very wary of anyone who does.

(Explanation: I am as angry about this as you presumably are. Just watch out for the people who are up in arms about this video, but then go back to their own bigoted ways next week. Trust me, they’re out there.)

10. *end transmission*

(Explanation: I always give some kind of sign-off when I have finished an extended series of tweets, normally when my thumb gets tired, so that anyone who has tuned out in the process of my stream of conscious knows that they can have the timeline back.)

I will now send this article to everyone who wrote to me last night asking for further clarification of my thoughts. And I would like to thank Mashable for putting all of these tweets in one place so that their readers could review them for themselves. Have a great day, all.

(And PS – if it does turn out that these tweets were indeed aimed at you, then they should burn, burn, burn, like the ring of fire, the ring of fire.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

God bless Kanye West, and God bless Ida B. Wells.

Last week, Kanye West got on stage at the Grammys and, in his own words, acted like “an asshole”. This weekend, I was a guest on the BBC World Service, looking back at the week’s news. One of the items for discussion was the Equal Justice Initiative’s report on lynching in America’s Southern states. This made me think in turn of Ida B. Wells, whose pioneering and fearless research in this area cannot be praised enough; and finally, at one profoundly historical level, it made me thank God for the asshole that Kanye has become.

We will return to Kanye West very soon; but, for now, we should go back to the formidable Ida B. Wells. In 1892, following the murder of three of her friends, she began a vigorous investigation of their deaths and the social circumstances which enabled them. She interrogated a world where black boys and men were routinely taken out in the street, tortured and killed, very often in broad daylight. This happened under the pretext that they had raped white women: most commonly, though, it seems that their true offence was to have had consensual sexual relations with those women. On one occasion, in 1891, one black man – Will Lewis, of Tullahoma – was taken from jail by a mob and hung, for the apparent crime of drunken rudeness to his white superiors. Black girls and women were not remotely spared either, with one Mildrey Brown hung in 1892 “on the circumstantial evidence she had poisoned a white infant”. Well’s resulting publication, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, is a seminal work, and simultaneously a daunting read. Yet so audacious was Wells in her efforts that, at one point, I found myself smiling with glee.

I began to imagine the faces of those everyday white supremacists, so complacent and comfortable in their racial tyranny over the South, if they could have seen Kanye preparing to take the stage at the Grammys. Specifically, I imagined the faces of the editorial team of the Memphis Evening Scimitar. On June 4 1892, they wrote that:

“The chief cause of trouble between the races in the South is the Negro’s lack of manners. In the state of slavery he learned politeness from association with white people, who took pain to teach him. Since the emancipation came and the tie of mutual interest and regard between master and servant was broken, the Negro has drifted away into a state which is neither freedom nor bondage…he has taken up the idea that boorish insolence is independence, and the exercise of a decent degree of breeding toward white people is identical with servile submission….there are many Negroes who use every opportunity to make themselves offensive, particularly when they think it can be done with impunity.” (My italics.)

As I read this I thought of Kanye mounting those steps, I thought of these racists watching him, and as I sat at my kitchen table I allowed myself a quietly maniacal chuckle.  After all, if these editors could have created an algorithm that would have produced their worst nightmare, then it is pretty safe to say that it would have produced someone like Kanye West. (In fact, in the quoted paragraph above, they virtually prophesied his emergence.) Kanye does not even have the good grace to be humble about his talents. He lacks manners; he is frequently impolite; he is rude, boorish, offensive, intemperate, obstreperous and vulgar. And, as I read these words from 1892, I absolutely loved him for it.  Kanye is critically acclaimed, he is independently wealthy, he has the ear of millions whenever he opens that mouth of his, that awful goddamn mouth – in short, he is everything that the slavers feared the day they reluctantly unlocked that final yoke.

Towards the end of her magnificent paper, Wells wrote that  “the more the Afro-American yields and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.” There is no chance of Kanye ever yielding and begging, and that is thanks in very large part to the extraordinary efforts of Wells, who made possible an America in which a black person could be so free, so bold, brash and unrestrained.

And so I find that there are two contexts in which I view what Kanye did at the Grammys, when he went onstage to tell Beck, the winner of the Best Album award, that Beyoncé would have been a more deserving recipient.  The first context was immediate, in which I rolled my eyes and thought “Kanye, for God’s sake, you’ve been an ass yet again: you’ve disrespected and possibly ruined someone’s big day, a moment which may be the culmination of their career as an artist, let it go.” The second context is historical: and here I watch as the editors of the Memphis Evening Scimitar look helplessly into the future, a world featuring the unapologetic arrogance of Kanye, an uppity Negro the type of which they would gladly have seen dragged out and butchered.  And, in that context, I howl with laughter: and I think, God bless you Kanye West, and God bless you Ida B. Wells.

 

“Searching for Walter Tull.”

A head and shoulders portrait of Walter Tull

Last December, as part of an event held by Philosophy Football to mark the role that football played during the Christmas truce in World War One, I performed the poem below.  “Searching for Walter Tull”, which I was commissioned to write for that event, reflects on the life of one of the first black professional footballers in the UK (for Clapton FC, Northampton Town and Spurs), and the first black man in the British Army ever to lead his white peers into battle. As the day of my reading drew closer, I found myself more and more moved by his story, and the reality that the best and the bravest of human beings too rarely get the lives that they deserve. The title of this piece refers to the fact that his body was never found; but, despite that, he still left a remarkable legacy behind.

————

“Searching for Walter Tull”

Walter Tull.

His life was the ink that stands out on history’s page.
The orphan, this mixed-race grandson of a slave,
The footballer slow in stride but swift of thought,
The soldier who survived the Somme
But who died in World War One’s injury time.
A few weeks from the end of that churning conflict,
In no-man’s land, as he was leading a charge,
Life handed him the red card.
Months earlier, in Italy, he had been the maker of history,
Going where no person of colour or Negro had been allowed to go before,
A black officer leading his white peers into the hungry mouth of War.
So loved was he by his men, that they risked their lives to recover his body after his death.
But Walter Tull‘s slumbering form was never found;
And, a century after his death, we are still looking for him now.
Known for his calm when the world was aflame,
We need his memory at this time
When the humanity of Britain’s immigrants is being so furiously denied.
So sleep well, Walter Tull, and we’ll do what it takes
To ensure that, to your story,
The world remains awake.