by Chris Haydon
I had been intending to write this week’s blog as a direct follow-up to last week with more suggestions of my favourite films to watch during the lockdown. However, given the current widespread protests in the US against the murder of George Floyd - yet another black man killed by a white police officer - that doesn’t really feel appropriate. So instead, I thought I would round up some of the best artwork, writing and reporting that looks at the horrifying history of racism in both Britain and America and the way that racial discrimination remains endemic in our societies today. Hopefully this will give more context in which to understand why there is so much justified rage at the moment.
I’ve already touched on Spike Lee’s work, and his film Do The Right Thing, that I mentioned last week, is a great place to start when it comes to understanding the daily lived experience of racial discrimination. Lee is also a hugely accomplished documentary maker, and When The Levees Broke is a profoundly insightful look into how structural racism left black people so incredibly vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina. I have also heard great things about his documentary 4 Little Girls, which looks at the murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve not seen it yet but it is high up on my list of things to watch.
Another movie that is well worth watching is the 2017 horror film Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele, it is the story of a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the family of his white girlfriend for the first time. But something in the family is not quite right and he soon realises that they are hiding a terrible secret. The film is a caustic satire of how white liberal ‘tolerance’ is often not what it seems.
A great place to start understanding all of this from a British perspective is with Akala’s book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Akala is a rapper from west London, and in this book he explores the complicated ways that Britain’s imperial history continues to influence so many aspects of our society. He is phenomenally well-read, and the book combines that learning with elements of autobiography to explore how race and class intersect across both time and geography to create ongoing structures of discrimination today.
Of course, there is a fine and extensive body of writing about the impact of colonialism and empire. Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique, is one of the most significant thinkers in this field, and his 1952 book Black Skin White Masks is essential for understanding the psychological impact of empire. He explores how colonialism forces the colonised to internalise the values of the coloniser – so violence gets enacted not only on the body but on the mind. A contemporary thinker on all of this is the Kenyan writer Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. His book Secure the Base is a fascinating collection of essays on the challenges facing contemporary Africa. He is particularly insightful on the need for African nations to preserve their own languages rather than relying on French and English - the languages of their colonial past.
Another brilliant writer on race, this time from an American perspective, is the journalist Ta Nehisi Coates. Coates came to prominence a few years ago when he wrote this lengthy and extraordinary article for The Atlantic magazine, making the case for reparations for slavery. It’s a wide-ranging and compellingly-argued piece covering everything from the founding of America through to housing policy in contemporary Chicago. It’s also worth looking at another major article by him about the US prison system. More recently, he wrote a book called Between the World and Me which takes the form of a letter to his young son exploring how to survive as a black man in America. It’s painfully honest and not an easy read, but is essential nonetheless.
It was this book that led some to compare Coates to James Baldwin - one of the most profound commentators on the African American experience in the 20th century. Baldwin wrote countless plays, novels and articles, all of which are worth a look, but a good place to start might be his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, or his posthumously published collection The Cross of Redemption. You could also read his brilliant play Blues for Mister Charlie.
There is also, of course, an exceptional body of work written by black women. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison are two of the most prominent, but I would also urge you to read Citizen, a collection of prose poems by Claudia Rankine which look at everything from microaggressions to police shootings. Angela Y Davies is another inspiring voice. An activist for many decades, you could start with her books Women, Race and Class and Freedom is a Constant Struggle. On this side of the pond, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is really excellent and expands upon her thinking that she initially outlined in this blog.
One issue of racial injustice that is specific to the UK is the ongoing fallout from the Windrush Scandal. Last year, I worked with Black Apron Entertainment and the Royal Court to commission and produce a series of short films written, directed and performed by artists of Caribbean heritage to respond to this - you can see them all here. They give a real insight into the impact that the Home Office’s explicitly racist policies had on people who came to UK as citizens of the British Empire and who have contributed so much to our society.
Finally, if you want to read some truly brilliant plays about everything then I can strongly recommend anything by American writers like Dominique Morisseau, Branden Jacobs Jenkins, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Lynn Nottage, and British writers such as Kwame Kwei Armah, Roy Williams, Winsome Pinnock and Natasha Gordon. Specifically, it’s well worth having a read of Danai Gurira’s play The Convert, which looks at life in colonial Zimbabwe and had its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre when I was artistic director there. Also, I was proud that the final show I produced at the Gate was Assata Taught Me by young British writer Kalungi Ssebandeke, which looks at the life of the legendary Black Panther Assata Shakur.
Of course, reading books and watching films is no substitute for activism to fight racism. But in order to campaign well, especially if one is white and has no lived experience of racial hatred, it is vital to have a deep knowledge of the issues. Hopefully the resources above will help on this journey to understanding.
Photo: Sticker You | Unsplash