If you follow me on Instagram (please do, we’re having fun there!), you have surely seen me bragging about my attending an international conference in London, the topic of which was “Caribbean Women (Post) Diaspora: African/Caribbean Interconnections”. I was honored to have been accepted and I would like to warmly thank the organizers of the conference, Dr. Suzanne Scafe and Beverley Goring of London South Bank University who put so much work in the preparation and even took the trouble to provide me with vegan food for each meal.
I presented a paper entitled ” ‘There is such a shelter in each other‘: women looking for homes in Zadie Smith’s novels”. During the two days of the conference, we reflected upon the position and struggles of black women in our contemporary societies. We formed an inter-generational group and I reveled in the diversity of the experiences and the presentations themselves. Let’s have a short sum-up of the talks that had the most impact on me.
Anthropologist & Keynote Speaker Gina Athena Ulysse stood up when her name was announced. She was at the back of the room and opened the conference by an amazing chant (in which she slipped the first lines of The Fugees’ “Ready or Not”), slowly walking across the room to the lectern on bare feet. A magical moment. She mainly spoke about the necessity to “dare to know oneself” and said “if we don’t define ourselves for ourselves”, then we are controlled by the others’ limitations. This “we”, of course, designates black women: “We exist as we are and that is enough”, she hammered out. “Subjectivity allows me to claim who I am and not who you want me to be”, and she added, “your objectivity suffocates me”. At one point in her speech, she cried. She cried. And during the Q&A time that followed, another woman of about the same age, maybe fifty, maybe sixty, broke down in tears, in echo to Gina’s words. Just mentioning the invisibilisation of women of colour made these two women choke on their words and actually cry, right in the middle of an academic conference.
Now this may be the moment to mention that at this point, in the room, there were only three white young women and one Japanese woman. All the others were Black. We were also supported by three black men. One of the white women left after her presentation so until the end of the conference, we were only two Whites in a room full of black women. For once, I felt part of the minority, my skin colour visible, my belonging unsure, my knowledge of codes uncertain. I am not writing this to complain. On the contrary, I felt extraordinarily happy to be in this room, which was described several times over the course of the conference as “a safe space”. I was happy to be welcomed and listened to, even though I felt a bit worried, talking about the experiences of black women in Zadie Smith’s novels and wondering if I was talking rubbish or making sense. But most importantly, what I felt, right from the beginning, when these two women cried, was that I had to be here to listen. I felt humbled. As a white young woman who benefits from all the privileges of whiteness, I had to make the most of this unique experience to keep quiet and listen, genuinely listen, with my ears, my heart and my empathy, to what the tears and words of these women had to say to me, and what I could do with it.
And what I can do is write.
I won’t go into the details of every presentation because this is not for me to do it and publications are planned, but I would like to come back to some elements and for the white people who read this, please do as I did last week: read with your eyes, heart and empathy.
After Gina’s speech, a conversation on silence ensued and as it was evoked during the Q&A time, I hope it is ok for me to share these thoughts.
First Gina reminded us that we cannot do away with history. There’s a contemporary reality to history. And when I saw these women cry, I understood that what may seem remote to us, white people (slavery, systematic segregation…), is still very present for black people, wherever they live. In a conversation with a (white) friend later on, she told me “oh come on, slavery has been over for two centuries, they should get over it”, and I saw myself looking at grown-up women shamelessly crying earlier during the day and said: “How can you, when you see black people crying because of this, how dare you demand that they “get over it”?”. We, white people, need to be aware that the scars from all that white people inflicted to black people for centuries are not healed yet. Talking needs to be done, a lot of talking. And yes, you weren’t a slaver, I wasn’t either, but I’m part of a race that has exploited black people for centuries and it is only normal that there is still suffering about it because: we cannot do away with history, even if this would be so much more comfortable for us, white people.
Back to silence: according to Gina Athena Ulysse, silence is part of the structure of power. In dictatorships, in the US today, silence is a weapon. But the person who asked the question about silence replied, and I think that person had a point, that “silence is also a way of being oneself, of grounding the self”. Silence to reconnect and reground is just as important. They concluded that the important is to discern which aspect of silence wins. Breaking silence can be revolutionary, but keeping silence is also a choice. It can be a generative space as well. Only, when people are under attack, it becomes a weapon. Someone else intervened to quote Kevin Quashie’s book, The Sovereignty of quiet, in which a difference is elaborated between being “quiet” and being “silent”. I’ll let you ponder over those thoughts…
Gina also expressed her worry that “forgetting is happening too much in this world” and wondered how it was possible to create spaces within this hostile world so as not to let history be forgotten. I don’t have the answer to this question, but I think that meetings, encounters and dialogues with as many people as possible are part of the solution, be they in academic or more informal and friendly contexts. Gina then developed her thought to say what we can easily notice in the far-right systems of thoughts: “the problem is that people prefer simple narratives. However, the past makes the narrative more complicated”. In a conversation with a (again white) friend, he/she tended to resume the race issue to “we are not always the villains, and they are not always the nice victims”… As if this was a Disney movie without nuances we were discussing! Is it really a question of being the villain or the hero? Certainly not. History is much more complicated than that, and as Gina said, it is still present today.
We talked a lot, during these two days, about the sense of home and the feeling of belonging of black women in a Britain that still feels that “people of colour should go back to where they came from”. I’ll expand on this topic in my review of Why I’M No Longer Talking To White People About Race, because I don’t want to divulge the contents of brilliant presentations that will be published.
Talking about the present that still exists today, I lived a curious experience. During my postcolonial literature class last winter, I taught my students about the Windrush Generation, what was happening at the time in Britain and why Jamaican people were called to the Mother Country. We studied The Lonely Londoners and my students loved it. However, this was all old history for me. I mean, 1947!… Well, it suddenly became real, very real, when I got to listen to Guyana-born British artist Desrie Thomson George, who exposed her work in a free exhibition, Jilo the Survivor, that was worth visiting (I’m sorry that you missed it!). Desrie told us that she was 6 when she arrived in Britain. The sole trace of her existence was the simple mention, on her grandmother’s passport of: “…and child”. She told about her experience of being a black child in a racist, white environment. She told us how white kids would laugh at her until she started genuinely finding herself ugly. She told us about how, aged 10, she tried to modify her features on a (absolutely lovely) picture of her, making her lips thinner (this broke my heart). She told us how she understood “invisibilisation” when one day, her teacher asked a mathematical question and her hand shot up in the air but the teacher ignored her until, after calling on every other pupil, she had to finally turn to Desrie, who gave the correct answer. The teacher’s reaction, instead of lauding Desrie, was: “how did you know that, did you cheat?” Desrie said the truth, that her uncle gave her maths lessons and made her work very hard. She came back home with a letter in an envelope for her uncle. She did not open it and dutifully handed it over to her uncle. Can you imagine the content of this letter? The teacher asked Desrie’s uncle to stop teaching Desrie because it was “disrupting the classes” and made the other pupils feel less good! How sickening is this? I’m happy to say that Desrie’s uncle ignored the “request” and said that it was the teacher who had a problem, but Desrie was certainly not disrupting the class. That was Desrie’s first experience of invisibilisation (and it was also such an unfair humiliation…). Her work as an artist reflects the invisibilisation of women and celebrates the beauty of black women. Had I been rich, I would have come back home with two or three statues and paintings. I strongly recommend that you check out her work if you don’t know her!
The conference ended with readings, followed by a discussion, with writers Alecia McKenzie (who I’d been talking to during the first day like we were old friends, never knowing who she was — the blunder! also, check out her blog, SWAN) and Diana Evans.
After sharing a poem, Alecia McKenzie invited a conference participant (Aisha Spence, from the University of the West Indies) to join her in reading “Full Stop”, one of the first short stories she wrote: written in an epistolary style, the reader is invited into the intimacy of the letters exchanged between a Jamaican grandmother and her granddaughter who lives in New York. As the letters follow one another, we slowly discover that maybe, the grandmother is a manipulative woman, but the doubt always remains as to whether this is so or not, whether she is manipulative on purpose or whether she’s just selfishly and comically serving her own interests… The oral performance was absolutely fascinating as well as funny and made me want to read more, especially now that I know Alecia’s voice.
Diana Evans read an extract from her last novel, Ordinary People. It was a pretty intense passage that I don’t want to write about because there are spoilers in it. I haven’t read the book but Diana Evans’ smooth writing made me want to discover her (how surprising for a bookworm, isn’t it?). Both writers evoked the question of belonging. Diana Evans explained that even though she is here and from here (Britain), she doesn’t quite belong, and writing is a way of exploring what it means to be Black and British, of thinking about “how we wear our history”, because, she said, echoing Gina without knowing it, “we will never lose our history.” Alecia Mckenzie, as a Jamaican living in Paris, explained that the sense of unbelonging is something that they carry everywhere, they just don’t feel at home.
Finally, this article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about my encounter with @bookish.soph, who was one of my first followers on Instagram and who has become a real friend, in the last few months. As she had won the thank you giveaway I organized a few days ago (I swear this was what the random function of Excel gave me as a winner!), I brought her the book and when I gave it to her, she said: “Now, I also have a present for you and this may be a bit weird because, you obviously have the book already but…”. And here, in front of my bewildered eyes, she produced a copy of On Beauty and continued her explanation: “… as you know, I met Zadie Smith two weeks ago and I thought you would like to have a signed copy so I got you a copy and bluntly asked her to sign it for you…” I rarely cry tears of joy but Sophie’s present was SO thoughtful that I burst into tears. And this is how I became the happy owner of a brand new SIGNED COPY of On Beauty (which was most welcome because mine is beginning to be battered!). Thank you so, so much Sophie for you attention!
The funny thing is that two days after Sophie met Zadie Smith, I learnt that I would meet her too, and I intended to bring Zadie Smith On Beauty to sign, too! I just brought her NW and now I have two precious signed copies by my literary star.
If you’ve reached this point in the reading, well, first, CONGRATULATIONS! And I hope you enjoyed this personal account of the conference. Don’t hesitate to comment below if there are things you would like to share!