Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Shuffering and Shmiling - interpretations

When my African Caribbean partner was working on a play on race in South Africa with a white South African artist, I suggested there was room in the play for Fela Kuti's tune "Shuffering and Shmiling". 

The classic and poignant line being "You Africans listen to me as Africans. You non-Africans listen to me with open minds."
I felt it held true with the point of the play being about race, and that Africans, or those of the African diaspora, are in the position to be able to talk and explain about race, whereas Europeans need only to listen, and as Fela said, with open minds.

I also maintained that the "black" majority population in South Africa should be referred to as Africans, and the "white" population as Europeans. I have been challenged on that point in South Africa and back in London. I still hold true to this, and if white people born and raised in South Africa consider themselves African, why are they so desperate to hold onto a European culture and way of living? In Europe of course, the expectation is on migrants to assimilate into European culture.

This last point that there is such a thing as a white African, makes me concerned that they may have chosen to hear Fela Kuti's line on the assumption that they themselves are African, and that my partner (of African Caribbean descent living in the UK) will have been construed as the European. 

If so, that's a pretty concerning spin on the whole intention.... but then explains how most whites really don't get what's going on around them, and choose to selectively listen....And then concentrate on what's in their own minds anyway.

Perceptions are everything. But there is also a reality. And it's not Europeans that are sucking on it. When all things are equal in the world, I won't need to have this discussion. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

My time in KwaZulu Part 2 - the white bit

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve drafted this blog. I’ve swung from cussing white South African’s to trying to be more constructive in my approach. The problem I have is that inside I’m raging. I’m angry at white South Africans for what I saw, for what they don’t see, for their inability to engage with an African majority, for trying to maintain a European culture in an African nation. Most of all I’m angry that so much white liberal dialogue is introspective and about how they deal with their conscience, their definition of white privilege, and how much they feel hurt because people don’t like them…. All that self-reflection, all the while black African people are dying through poverty and the unequal ownership of land and wealth that favours the minority population.

I’m angry that a people can be so arrogant and lack empathy. That they think they have a right to be there, when they are privileged to be allowed to be there. That they think any opinion other than their own cannot possibly be right… and I believe that is a legacy of apartheid.

I’ll add a short precursor to my story, which is an important backdrop to understanding where I come from on angles of race. A lot of people reading this may have only known me a short time, or know me through my African Caribbean partner. I am a white male from London.  I was brought up in Slough, a few miles out of Greater London. Slough has the most diverse population outside of London itself, had the first black British female mayor. My passion for equality was ignited by powerful messages I heard in music in my youth. Of course that has been from a white male perspective, and can’t be anything else, but I constantly strive to listen. I endeavor to be proactive in fighting racism. Silence is not enough. Yes I have a black partner, very active and high profile in the arts, and this has introduced me to people I may never have met otherwise, and opportunities where I have listened, seen and not spoken. I give thanks to those that trust my presence and good intention. I respect those that don’t. I do not intend to speak on anyone else’s behalf. I cannot define racism, I cannot feel it. But I will still fight it, because that’s what I know to be right. And I know to do so, means dealing with everything that I look like. I have no issues myself with who I am, but I decided that starting a legacy as a humanitarian is better than honouring a legacy of a heritage that does not define who I am.

My previous blog touches on the beauty and wonder of my first week in Durban, and how the poets, people, experiences and constructive arts around Poetry Africa had a huge impact on me. Once again, I give heartfelt thanks and love to everyone I met. You and your art have been such a blessing for me. Photographing you completed the circle for me.

After the first week at Poetry Africa, our week really switched in style.  We moved to a flat in Glenwood. Walked to the shops a lot. Got stared at a lot. But we (a mixed couple) get stared at outside of London, in Paris, in Sydney, in the Caribbean, in Plymouth, England… we get stared at. But we knew there was history here. We’d picked up on the vibe that there is very little cultural mixing, so I’m not sure how much more we noticed stares, how much more different we felt. Whether I pre-loaded my mind to expect different attitudes to us. After getting a feel for our environment, that no longer mattered to me. I’m generally quite a shy person, my partner is not, and doesn’t take to there being an “elephant in the room”. Before long, we were talking to every waitress in coffee shops, every market seller and shop keeper. Just getting along and mixing.

However, I soon realized that being there was also a learning curve for me. Learning about how being in Africa for the first time was particularly profound for my partner, and how the affect on her of having a white partner impacted her experience. I’m not going to run into her feelings or views, you can check her blogs for yourself, but these were deep factors for me. On top of that, the whole purpose of us being here for weeks 2 & 3 was to put together a play with a white South African on race. That again posed many issues, which again, my partner has been dealing with in blogs and also in performances since returning to London. I don’t want to make personal references on this blog. That said, I know that the dynamic for my partner has been put to the test…. You’re an African Caribbean woman, been asked to create a play on race with a white South African man, with a white director, and where you want consolation and support from the rigours and stresses of dealing with such subjects…. That also has to come from a white man, your partner. I don’t underestimate the impact that has on her, nor the strength of our relationship to deal with it.

I actually ended up being far more involved in the play than I expected. At times the naivety and inappropriateness of the approaches to dealing with race were revealing in themselves. At times, there was a lot of white noise as I had to counter and discuss many of the angles coming to the play’s concept and discussions. Indeed, the Durban artist’s post show blog underlines this by the conclusions he has drawn about his understanding of racism. To be honest, his detachment from the reality of racism underlines the huge distance white liberalism in South Africa needs to travel if it is going to save itself….

Save itself?
If white liberals cannot move away from their need to address their hurt feelings, their guilt, and feeling sorry for themselves, they are going to have problems. I saw poverty that I’ve not seen before. Poverty in a country that has wealth to share. Nowhere in any white discussions on racism did this transpire to be part of their perception of racism.  People in their country dying, was not part of their discussion on what racism is. The transfer or sharing of wealth is the one thing that whites don’t want to talk about. It seemed very obvious to me that the black African majority have tuned out of white liberalism. There’s no point in listening to white noise, when it’s inward looking and self satisfying, and in no way addressing the needs of those who are actually doing the real life (and death) suffering. This is true of much of white European Capitalism around the world. The difference in South Africa is the white Europeans are blatantly a protected minority. At some point if value and wealth is not shared, I can only surmise that it will be taken from them. The FeesMustFall demo’s demonstrated to me there is a new young political urgency that will only wait so long.  In the Caribbean there is an expression I have learned. “If you do not hear, you must feel.” White South Africans need to take note.

Me People-watching in South Africa, in coffee shops and bars, has been pretty telling. In England, there is a way that many upper middle class people have about them. An arrogance and an expectation of how they want to be treated. The only people they view on that level is people who look like them. In South Africa, that came across very strongly from most of the white people I saw. It was an exaggeration of that very nature. In fact almost a caricature of it. I saw people being rude to Africans waiting on them, simply by niceties that were not said.

Now, if you take that arrogance, and take that expectation that only people like yourself are on your wavelength, then what happens is, your empathy “chip” in your brain goes wonky. It has first and second class citizens in its perception (either consciously or subconsciously). But it’s there. So you apply empathy more to those that are like you. You can relate to how they feel because they are like you. This was an epiphany moment for me. Seeing many white South Africans behave like they were gods and others aren’t, made me realize this is a fault in many white people around the world. The UK, USA, Europe…. It’s how we’ve worked exploitive capitalism for centuries, on the poor in our own countries, and on every other race around the world. By not empathizing or caring enough for those not like us, because we have enabled ourselves to think they are different….

Therefore we don’t have to care for them. Therefore we can shut off their cries. Therefore we can expect them to live in poverty and not care for our role in their crisis, nor our role in the solution.  I’d never fully got that perception on how that is at the heart of racism… (ie. Fucked up empathy). It took me to come to South Africa to see that so profoundly in action on a majority population, and then see it about white “dominance” around the globe generally.

I was asked a very profound question by an African artist. We were discussing how African diaspora culture around the world is generally very welcoming to strangers.

I was asked, how is it that white people are raised to be so evil, to care so little for others.

I was asked that on my last day in South Africa. I had already realized in the previous weeks that empathy was a major issue with many white South Africans. That question clearly resonated, and confirmed everything I’d been thinking.

Every white person needs to look at that question again. Whether you agree with it is up to you. If you don’t, you need to ask yourself why someone not like you could think it. The answers lie in how you deal with that… or not.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

My time in KwaZulu part 1

It’s the late 70’s or early 80’s. BBC TV is showing a documentary on South African poets, I think from Soweto. I’m in my late teens. I’ve recently been exposed to lyrics from a track by Steel Pulse called Tribute To The Martyrs. A tune that lists African diaspora heroes murdered by Eurocentric regimes around the world. There are names I don’t know on the track. I bought the album because I’d fallen in love with funk and reggae, I wasn’t expecting to be educated. But these names….No internet, I fumbled through my mum’s encyclopedia to learn more. I caught references to one name that had also been in the news for a killing as the song talked of the murder of Steve Biko. I bought a book about him and read it on my commute to work. That’s why I turned on that BBC documentary.

This documentary was about poets. I had no care for poetry, but this was different. This was poets using a voice to subvert the evils of a system, a white supremacist system, and to ensure a voice was heard no matter what the risk was.
I video taped what I could of the programme and was so taken by one of the pieces, that I wrote it down word for word and stuck it on my bedroom wall. The words and my teenage bedroom have long since gone, but some I remember even now, 

Go Man Go
Black Man Go
Go Man Go
Black Man Go

(then I recall references to Africa….)

Egypt My Head
Azania my toes
Rivers my blood
Letting it Flow.

I wake up from my memory of this moment that I’d forgotten about, and I look up. I’m in a bus surrounded by poets from all over South Africa (or should that be Azania), driving through KwaZulu-Natal, or should that be (KwaZulu). The sudden jolt to that memory while sitting in that bus, listening to a language so conceptually different to my own being spoken around me. I was moved, not by some kumbaya moment. This was a moment of connecting with my youth, the development of my morality, but more than that personal emotion, it was humbling. Here I was in the legacy of greatness, with poets who connected right back to that moment, but still needed to speak. Still needed to speak OUT. 

For a week, my head was driven with poetry and music at the Poetry Africa festival. I listened, watched and tried to learn from poets (including my partner) that shared stories as poets do. But there was fire and urgency and honesty in these performances that captivated me. Even the poetry that was not in a foreign language, so I didn’t understand it, was so powerful, and the way the audiences would roll back and forth on the words spoken or sung. I fell in love with poetry again that week. What art is supposed to be…. communication of what needs to be told. I try to do the same with my gift of photography. All I can do is try and capture the love I have for the performers and their stories. What they and the moment mean to me is what I try and capture, their essence.

I visit schools and see my partner connect with children. She talks openly to them about police brutality and living in Europe and the world over about what the African Diaspora has to fight every day. That connection through struggle and survival.  I’ve seen how she connects with children back home in London. To see it here, especially how young girls feed off her strength, you can see the empowerment spread through the room. No white person could ever resonate like that.

Of course there’s so much more to recall, like a DJ who blew me away, sampling local beats with hip hop…. That was just off the hook. Also moments of music mixed with poetry and guitar cross beats that were just mesmerizing. Trying to photograph when your eyes keep watering is not an easy thing.
On one trip, I’m talking to a poet who knows the very documentary I’m referring to. I don’t know how many times I said “wow” on that first week. You see that, was my first week. 

If I said “wow” so much on my first week, I probably said “Fuck” more often to myself in the remaining 2 weeks.

The journey switched from being around African artists and the privilege I was afforded by being with them, and some friendships that were made, to 2 weeks of a predominantly Eurocentric experience in an African country. That’s not to say the time was spent living in a European world. That is not the case, but I was supporting my partner through a poetry/ theatre piece on race, which was dominated by the backdrop of a white population trying to deal with its conscience (or lack thereof).

There were exceptions though in the last 2 weeks. We were fortunate to hook up again with some of the poets that we had met and got to talk and also see some parts of KwaZulu land that we may not have otherwise seen. These were moments of deep observation and learning. Moments of a lot of fun. But also moments of new heights in my despise of everything white people stand for.

We also went on a student protest #FeesMustFall. I tried to capture again with my camera, not as a tourist or voyeurism, but to spread the word in my circles, and to share with my family and friends what it meant to witness history being made. The power in the students was, well, overpowering. That was one of the most incredible days in my life. The problem with having a camera on protests (in London too), is people mistake me for a journalist. No, I’m there because I believe in the protest. I love the power in youth, and in their free spirit is wisdom in action.

Let me end this part of the blog right here. We’re on the cusp of me laying into my people. Let me not tarnish the beauty of my experience with Africans in Africa with how I feel about Europeans in Africa, and the lessons I learned or feelings that were reinforced about white people. 

I apologise for any naivety in this blog. Any kumbaya moments. I am always concerned that somewhere my white self might trip up on itself. To be honest, I’m not actually normally concerned by that. Most of my friends in London and worldwide Facebook and real life connections have known me for a long time, and know where I come from in terms of fighting Eurocentric bullsh@t. I’m aware that I have a new audience from friends and connections I made in Durban, who may have put trust in me, or because of the partner I have. My background and personal history is not known to you. It is to you I specifically hope I have written appropriately.

I will end this part as a prefix to my next blog. That same DJ who blew my ears off in Durban, played one of my favourite Fela Kuti tracks, which even got me 2 stepping. It became the theme of the next 2 weeks:

“You Africans listen to me as Africans. You non-Africans listen to me with open minds”


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Return from South Africa, a heavy heart, new friends, and stupid white people

Having arrived back in London, I'm left with deep intense thoughts about South Africa which I will blog about later. But I can't get over the feeling that every bit of white discussion on race, liberalism and where that goes.... it means nothing. It is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ‪#‎feesmustfall‬ impetus showed me that white opinion is irrelevant. My opinion is irrelevant also. Unless white South Africa gives up its disproportionate wealth and land ownership, it will be taken from them. All the discussion of race and understanding is simply white noise. White = European, Black = African. Africans do not need or want any validation from Europeans, just like mine is a European blog...It doesn't matter. The only need is to eradicate racist poverty and policies. Europeans have the choice to give up wealth now and increase the opportunities of peaceful transition. If they don't, and I know they won't because of their greed, lack of empathy, and seeing themselves as superior to Africans... then change must come. And wealth MUST be TAKEN from them. I pray that's peaceful. I don't know how it can be.
Racism is of course global, and there are many parallels in oppression of the African Diaspora by Europeans around the world. The key point about South Africa is the wealth and land is with a minority population, and why the point is so important that the majority have the ability to act and take by force if so inclined to do so. I find it so incredible that there are so many frankly stupid white people in a country where they are a minority, that have no clue as to how to engage with African people, nor see how they have a desperate need to change their behaviours and actions.
I will blog more later. There is much to process. I met some incredible people, made beautiful friends, saw, heard and was told and asked things that resonated so deep that I never want to become numb to it, to force me into action. Thank you x

Some photos I took of the #feesmustfall student protest follow. I will write more when I've processed my experience.