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The Audre Lorde Compendium (Audre Lorde 1934-92)

  I came to this book seeking the solace of poetry. There is none in it. Instead it contains the prose writings of the phenomenal writer, Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde speaks of how she wrote poetry to try to fix or conjure feelings, thoughts, phenomena which seemed impossible to express through ordinary speech. She only began to write in prose very late in her writing. The essays combine to tell her remarkable journey as a feminist, lesbian writer. Her most famous exhortation is for women to speak out about their lives – even though this is a fearful process when the opposition to their voices is great – so that they learn what issues and experiences women share and how best they can combine to address them. ‘Silence will not protect you’. I was particularly interested in her descriptions of her relationship with her mother, her time in Mexico City, how she found her way to teach at Tougaloo, a Black college in Mississippi and how she got the impression that the Harlem Writers Guild thought she was ‘crazy and queer but that she would grow out of it all’!  Now to find her...

Review of ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison

I got the book from Benji Reid, a dancer –director friend of mine, having bought it for him a couple of months beforehand  from the poet Mark Mace Smith because…. it’s a long story, too long for here! Invisible Man features in its first chapter a ‘Battle Royale’, a macabre practice from US slavery/post slavery times in which black men were placed blindfold in a boxing ring where they were to attack each other, with the winner getting a prize, often a pittance. Abjection. Humiliation. Exploitation. Ellison delivers it with irony rather than rage. The novel is ‘an innocence to experience’ story, with a political subtext. A black college student gets wise. The story begins with him knowing his place, expressing humility and deference to the white man, abiding with the whole Booker T Washington ‘anti-revolution/ pull yourself up by bootstraps and keep your head-down’ philosophy. He moves to college where he encounters rich white college sponsors. There are aspects of A Tale of Two Cities as the black narrator shows a rich white sponsor how the black poor live – the shacks and the day to day deprivation. He then takes the sponsor to a club-brothel, where mentally ill blacks from an asylum are on the premises. As ‘crazy’ people this group can tell it as it is – they have the spark of rebellion and not much ‘step n fetch it’ in them. The story weaves its way back to college and another classic black genre trope occurs – the church scene. Except instead of church it is the University assembly speech. The Dean figure is black guy who learned to keep his head down and accumulate power by getting rich white donors on board. This Dean tells the protagonist he has to learn how to do this subterfuge, how to lie, how to fake humility. So Invisible Man starts to explore black consciousness of the times (1920’s/30’s), the complexity of black psychology when interacting with whites. Ellison’s explorations of consciousness call to mind the double-consciousness ideas of Franz Fanon. I read somewhere Ellison was encouraged to write by Richard Wright of Native Son fame. The riffs and streams of consciousness in Invisible reminded me of Ishmael Reed’s The Free-lance Pallbearers. I’m not sure about this book, for me it was  a little uneven- brilliant in parts, in other parts a little stodgy.  Ellison was of course way ahead of his time. PS I read in Wiki while checking the publication dates of Invisible Man that Ellison was influenced by TS Elliot and Dostoyevsky. Small...

Review of ‘Black Men, Invisibility and Crime’ by Dr Martin Glynn

Dr Glynn suggests the experience black men go through when entering the criminal justice system is one of discrimination based on the official invisibility of racial factors within the trial process and subsequently within the prison system and probation service. This, he argues, unfairly slants the justice system against them. Upon leaving prison, black men’s chances of not returning to crime are affected by two factors: agency and structure. Agency here describes those things black men can control themselves; structure describes those circumstances that are beyond their control as individuals. While criminology in general does not factor in issues of race in its analysis – race is invisible in most studies – Glynn’s ‘Towards a Critical Race Theory of Desistance’ asserts that it is essential to study what effect race has on the chances of any prison leaver taking a successful trajectory of desistance and conformity and to listen to subordinate voices that are rarely heard to gain a true understanding of the difficulties black men face in this area. Glynn explores how, for some black men, crime is their way of resisting the racism of society; for others structural racism (jobs, housing, youth provision etc) sees them slide back into ‘on road’ life; the absence of fathers can be another significant factor according to Glynn: the surrogate family system that the ‘on road’ community offers succour (as well as a path to recidivism) to black men and youth. Black masculinity is also investigated. Reasons are suggested for the hyper-masculinity adopted by many black men. Among possible reasons advanced are: (a) the benefits in status for such masculinity ‘on road’ (b) racist society’s stereotyping of black men as a threat and the conscious or unconscious adoption of this stereotype; (c) the absence of alternative models of masculinity especially those grounded in a knowledge and appreciation of black culture and history (d) absence of fathers for these men. More widely, Glynn’s Towards A Critical Race Theory of Desistance brings to the fore the structural causes of black criminality. It offers a  deeply meditated reflection on the lives and dilemmas of black men entangled in the criminal justice system. PS. Before Dr Martin Glynn became a criminologist he was one of Britain’s leading black...

Moonlight – Notes on the film

Notes on the film, Moonlight Last night I saw Moonlight. It played to an audience in city centre Manchester, UK. The 200 seater cinema was two thirds full, with an audience approx 80% white. • The film is noticeable for the complete absence of any white characters. This removes one of whiteness’s central tenets – that there must be a white point of view that the film viewer can watch from, and that this point of view should be the dominant one. Instead, paradoxically, the white viewer is forced to inhabit at various times through the film, a series of black points of view. Almost the entire universe of the film and all its attendant points of view, are black. • One of the inescapable effects of racism is that it hyper-masculinises the black male. (see article on this here : http://www.thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=537). Moonlight is a triptych: Tyrone, at three stages in life – child, adolescent, adult. By juxtaposing the vulnerable child Tyrone and the equally vulnerable adolescent Tyrone with the later adult Tyrone, the hyper-masculine presenting adult is rendered sympathetic to white eyes (as well as to black eyes – since black people arguably are as likely to be ensnared in this hyper-masculinity semiotic net as white). The erasure of personality – of any sense of there being in this black male body a unique, vulnerable human being – which is one of the effects of hyper-masculinity, is thwarted by the three-part narrative strategy. It’s brilliantly thought out and executed. The jump cuts in ages also give a ‘dreaming’ space in the film where the viewer can construct in their imagination the details of how one stage led to next. How the child became the adolescent, became the man. It’s a beautiful “telling by not telling”. • The film does not use an establishing shot at its beginning –no bird’s eye view of the district etc (for this method of visual storytelling see for eg Coming To America). Instead it brings the viewer in close quarters with the characters from the get-go. In doing so, it slews off all the sociological contextualising that can make our attention fade – we know that black urban deprivation story, it’s been done many times. Moonlight’s filmic style is closer to the stream-of-consciousness novel technique than the Dickensian storytelling style. There is something going on in Moonlight with the use of shallow depth-of-field that reinforces this. It’s not naturalism – the stereoscopic human eye mechanism generally pings back and forth in the depth of field to bring a deep awareness of surroundings as well as focal point. The Moonlight camera operates usually on a close focal point without much depth of field. This feels like it works on an emotional plane – this is what the characters feel – it shows what the characters would see with their heart. Remarkable also is the intense poetic framing of the shots and the exquisite colouring the film has undergone. You could hang almost every frame of this film in a gallery such is its visual poetry. I’d be interested to hear from big format film makers I know such as Gbenga Afolabi, Clive Hunte or Pavel Prokopic on what is going on technically with this camera work and colouring. They’d know much more than me! • It’s a cleverly positioned film in that the story can reach both white and black audiences while saying different things to these audiences – it has enough levels to do that. If they so wish, a white audience can say, oh this is a coming-of-age film about a black gay man. And that’s OK. The narrative allows that limited reading of the film. They don’t need ask the more difficult questions: what led to Tyrone’s mother and father being so incompetent/ absent parents, what caused the grinding poverty, how did it come about that drugs became a normal career choice in that neighbourhood: ie they can ignore the social context at will. The film permits it. Black audiences may contextualise the film more in their minds, may extrapolate much more. Audiences in African countries may see it as a gay film. There isn’t one ‘correct’ way to view it. • The acting out of inarticulacy is superb by all three Tyrone’s: their silences talk so much. The narrative flips from public to private individual (from public Tyrone to private Tyrone) is the heartbeat of the novel. In that oscillation, in the trauma of that constant, fraught voyage, is all the pain of the film. • Plot wise, the film is simply set up: it uses the ‘humiliate your character early to get the audience to bond with them’ device found in eg the plays of Ibsen. Who cannot root for a small, hugely neglected kid getting bullied mercilessly? • The gold tooth jewellery (grills, fronts, golds) works both on the symbolic and the pictorial/cinematic levels. Tyrone has to remove his tooth jewellery to eat. There are moments in the film when this jewellery is so brilliant, so beautifully framed that we go past its contemporary hustler ‘showiness’ meaning; and in those moments Tyrone’s shimmering smile in all its radiance becomes as beautiful as a Benin bronze; Tyrone seems to know this, at times he peeks from behind this beauty in all his engaging vulnerability. And you think, yes Tyrone is fucked up, and yet… his soul is as pure...

Exhibition Review: “A Thousand Words” Exhibition of photography by Benji Reid

“A Thousand Words” Exhibition of photography by Benji Reid: Review   There seems to be a tide that’s turned in black visual arts.  The era of reportage style photography, the experiential , realist mode of photography is being eased to one side and in the space created more metaphorical, idiosyncratic styles are emerging.  The ‘A Thousand Words’ show is one terrific example of that. Take one photo.  There is a jumble of stick furniture – a sound system box among it – and a character is clambering over it all. He’s wearing a ten gallon hat, and behind him is a Sherlock Holmesian  blue smoke backdrop of Victorian-like fog. In one hand he holds a lit, light bulb. There is something Potteresque about the assemblage, there are notes of the Western (the hat), something of the musical, Les Miserables in the orchestrated furniture shambles  of the scene and the way it is lit.  The photograph is seeped in a rich, theatre blue – it’s obviously a shot that has been arranged and it does not hide that. As the character clambers over the furniture there is a faint expression of surprise on his face. He’s almost off-balance but not quite – on edge. It’s cool. I can leap these obstacles. The viewer’s eye travels along the line and meets the surprise of the photo –  the trainers (blue & white). Those trainers spring the image out of all those trad tropes into something  hiphop, something completely different. Then the photo hits me as a metaphor of how to deal with life’s setbacks – as if to leap over failure, defeat, disarray all the other obstacles of black life, the magic shoes being the springboard  – those shoes being the shoes of your culture: don’t be fooled into devaluing its contribution to your well-being. The character in the photo  is the photographer himself. The exhibition can be read in two parts – the  photographer’s self portraits and his portraits of others. I got the feeling  that he was exploring the difference between these two modes:  photographing others v photographing himself.  There is something Dali-esque about some of the self-portraits. The communication loop of subject and photographer is not needed, so the narrative in self portraits can be truer, deeper, by-passing civilities and the need for a dialogic photo – one in which there is communication / a shared vibe, an act of expression for the dialogue partner  / between photographer and subject. So that’s just one photograph!  There are many more, equally intriguing. The exhibition is on until mid December at Contact, Manchester’s youth theatre base on Oxford Rd. Details here:...

Book Review: The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, by Catherine Johnson

A well researched, finely written  re-imagining of an actual historical figure, The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo sheds light on how identity is formed and shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories, like that of the ‘exotic other’,   that are projected upon us.  An essay in how far a lie can stretch, and who does the stretching.   A great yarn with a beguiling central character.