Saturday, 24 August 2019
Out of the blue a friend asked if I knew Toni Morris – yes- they’d omitted the suffix ‘son’. So I said, ‘no, Toni Morrison, not Morris’. ‘Yes, sorry, Morrison - a writer. She has died.’ I was in Guyana at the time and felt my heart racing as I tried not to believe it. Perhaps because of the circumstance of hearing the news – by someone who had no idea who Toni Morrison was but was reading the headlines on the TV and thought the ‘news’ might interest me, I found myself trying to control my shock. Tears too, I held back. But I had to go online myself to check that it was real. And I don’t know how I can do honour to this force I’ve held in such esteem since I was initiated into her sphere of literary genius as an undergraduate so many years ago – but I’ll see how well I ride.
Like many of us initiates and students of Morrison it started with The Bluest Eye. This was a relatively late discovery for me, as I’d been deprived of any African/Black literature at school and only by chance landed in the lap of Morrison. The Bluest Eye was like a magical canvass on which everything I felt about myself and the people around me were richly laid out. All the characters were deeply familiar – remarkably brought to life in a way I could relate to and had never before been able to in other literary works. The exception I think was James Baldwin’s characters in Go Tell It On The Mountain, but there is a mental blurring about which of these two I read first. Baldwin too was discovered by chance – which initiation I equally cherish. By familiar I mean exactly that I recognised them from memories and experiences of Guyana and London. I knew them intimately and this was so because Toni, as Mentor and Muse had magnificently pierced my consciousness and opened me to myself, my interior world. This world was both individual, collective and conscientiously African and with it I intuitively identified.
It was therefore initiation and (re)birth. It would remind me that I used to write, once upon a long ago. But I had put writing aside, toying with awful poetry but not the longer pieces I used to try as a teenager. The discovery of Morrison (and other African writers at that time) lead me to change my Undergraduate from Business and Finance to English With Commonwealth Literature. It was around this time too (1992/3) I came upon Daughters of Africa, which was another enchanting tool of liberation for me as a student of literature and later writer (at that time I had no desire to become a writer). Rather what I didn’t fully realise was how impacting this period and my musings with Morrison would be. I knew, however, that something was opening up for me and these African writers, with Morrison leading had a lot to do with that.
The book was on the exam paper at my university (Stirling, Scotland). We had to do a reading and give a critique of a passage. I chose the one where Pauline Breedlove (Pecola’s mother) is one day visited at her workplace (as a domestic for the white family with the ‘Shirley Temple’ blond pony-tailed daughter) by Pecola and her friends (I think!). She is going down some stairs (as I recall), she had made blue berry pie, which dramatically drops, splattering on the floor, its hot berries burning Pecola. Pauline is vexed, the berries has spilled a bit on the white child’s dress - she was also in the scene. She gently soothes and tends to the white child and pushes her own daughter down into the berry juice, chastising her for causing the pie to drop. Her soothing of the white child contrasts her cold admonishing of her own daughter – exacerbating the latter’s (the story’s protagonist) self-hatred and later madness as she longs for the glassy blue eyes out of which the world would look and be somewhat prettier and better.
I interpreted this scene as follows: Pauline descending stairs expresses a psychic descension in terms of her own long standing self-hatred. The splattered blackish blueberries reflect the impression/sense of black dirtiness/mess and ugliness that Pauline is psychically suffering from and transferred to her daughter. I noted that the black blueberries starkly contrasted the sparkling whiteness of the floor and also the Shirley Temple child in its false perfection so envied and longed for by mother and daughter. The descent and spilling of the pie foregrounded (as did so many motifs) Pecola’s demise – not only hers but the family’s - microscopically representing the black family who generally bear this blightful burden of ugliness/inferiorisation. I wrote words similar to those anyway – because it was real to me and deep. When my exam paper returned it was given a poor mark – with the teacher’s comment – ‘I think you’re reading too much into this!’
That didn’t deter me from knowing what I knew. In fact, I knew too that that teacher/examiner could mean what she wrote, just be mean, or could just not see what I could. She was white of course, though that doesn’t mean she could never see this basic reading as I saw it. After all what was involved in literary criticism but to try to interpret the words the writer has so skilfully mapped for the reader to discover, eloquently or not. For me this comment meant that I would have a special and private relationship with Toni Morrison that no one could tell me was not real. Toni had worked those words of her first book so well they had etched themselves kinetically into my being and made her my muse long before I realised I needed one (or many). With her passing that relationship is cemented.
I would later have the chance to read more of her works as a student, for my postgraduate studies and then to teach her. Before this, however, I had a dream of Toni Morrison. I was now at University of North London, midway through my Masters. I don’t know where we were, but let’s say we’re in dreamspace somewhere. Ah yes, it was a room, as though we were sleeping over somewhere. Toni was asleep beside me. Jean Stubbs, then Director of Caribbean Studies Centre was alert in contrast and I was awake listening to her saying some academic stuff I can’t remember now. That’s all I recall. When I told my supervisor, she said something like ‘your creative/writer side is asleep and your other academic side is at work/functioning’. I’m paraphrasing from memory but the sentiment never left me. Years later it would drive me to publish my first books. Yes, I cut to the literal chase of rejections and decided to self-publish, after I had shunned doing so for years – and still have angst about it but it is what it is. My supervisor, another wonderful mentor – Dr Patricia Murray was always supportive and reminded me that I had the resources of Morrison and others whose brilliant literary works could be drawn upon to develop my own writing. Advice I continue to live by. It was she too, my supervisor, that sparked the idea to do an independent course introducing Toni Morrison as we’ve been doing with the Amazing James Baldwin courses to a new generation of students/readers. It’s coming…though Zora beckons too.
Toni Morrison is dancing off camera as she and friends celebrate her Nobel Prize win
While my fellow students and later those I taught struggled to read Beloved this remains one of my favourite of her books because it gave me the same sensation I had when I first read The Bluest Eye. It is one of intimacy, of consciousness and the way her words push one to expand not refract. With Beloved, particularly, it was the memorialisation to the ancestors and the way she created this literary monument to them. For me, the connection with Morrison was also because her writings have that quality of spiritual possession, of being expressed through a kind of trance state that her clinical editing skills evoke so magnificently. When I read or heard her remind us that the novel means new reading her books became almost sacred, certainly spiritual. It would be this assertion of the newness of the ‘novel’ that inspired me to write the way I have. Thus for example my novella Something Buried in the Yard would be thought ‘experimental’ but for me is natural. It reflects the aesthetic Wilson Harris spoke about in urging Caribbean Writers to write out of our consciousness, to avoid mimicking the dominant styles that have been imposed on us. Naturally, great literature and art must be given due credit and appreciation but Harris, Morrison, Baldwin and others being great themselves challenged the prevailing hegemony of Western literature atop of which stood mostly white men and women.
On my return from Guyana, I became more conscious of the impact of Morrison’s passing – on the world, on me. She was a force, like Maya Angelou whose spirit in the flesh was vitally grounding. When such forces are no longer there physically it feels like a lonely shadow has taken their place. I was ‘feeling’ Toni, in my being – feeling that she had so long been part of my consciousness I didn’t want to believe she was gone. And then the magic happened to snap me out of the impending melancholia. Morrison, like Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Jessica Huntley among many others is now an ancestor. Her rainbow appeared to remind me of this cosmic relationship on the day we’d just returned from doing an opening to spirit ritual for the Orisa Osun. We had prayed there would be no rain. That downpour held up until we had landed back home – then I saw that enchanting sun and rain dance and knew to look out for the rainbow. I was screaming into the sky, the rain tapping my face, the sun warming it that it is Toni’s rainbow. It is Toni Morrison’s rainbow. And so my skin got that tingly feeling and I could see her in my mind’s eye and feel her in my spirit. And so I look forward to the expansion she will bring to us all from that ancestral base. I know she will be like Marcus Mosiah Garvey reigning as a beautiful kind of terror tirelessly targeting the elevation of African peoples who have too long been denied our humanity and our dignity. Her words will continue to have power and vital meaning for us, as we give blessed thanks that she was writing all this while, as she said, for us in the same way Tolstoy was not writing for us. I am grateful and feel beyond blessed to have Toni Morrison too as a most magnificent muse.
Friday, 3 May 2019
“In spiritual philosophy, unity is the foundation of good. In fact, it can be held as synonymous to it. Unity is the working of all things in harmony with each other; working as one; nothing goes beyond its sphere or limits to violate itself or others. Disunity is the arch-principle of evil. We must recall that the basis of this unity is the one energy/matter and consciousness shared by all things in the world, and in which they have their being.”
Ra Un Nefer Amen, in The Tree of Life Meditation
The reason for writing this post can be seen in the words that should jump out at the reader from the outset from the above quotation: “unity”, “good”, “harmony”, “working as one,” “shared by all things in the world” and so on. It is in the interest of exemplifying this “unity” by sharing a couple of dreams in the context of ‘’spiritual philosophy’ and to give a practical example of ‘universal consciousness.’ It is not intended as a treatise on what is universal consciousness since in a general way that should be evident from the quotation and its reference precisely to unity.
I was inspired by a fleeting conversation I was having with my brother Danny last night – which must have prompted the dreams I will share and my attempt to interpret these as examples of universal consciousness. One of these dreams is my mother’s. We usually share our dreams on waking as we did this morning… and we realised they had a similar vibration which I hope to express in this journaling.
Thank you Danny and thanks to Universal Mind for the vibration.
I see myself immersing in water. The dream is more detailed than this but I’ve extrapolated the water symbol for the purpose of the post. At this point of immersion into the water, the dream breaks. This takes place in a river, the water is warm. It reminds me of the river waters (black) in Guyana.
Myself and another woman are late for a ceremony which is taking place at a church/temple. She is dressed in white with gold trimmings. I am wearing a red top and dark/black/blue skirt or bottom. She is walking slowly in front of me taking staccato strides the way a bride would along an aisle. We open the door to the temple (this identification came to me later, when interpreting), where seated in rows are beautiful women, draped in white with the same gold trimmings as the ‘bride’/woman I was trailing. She disappears in the midst of the women and I find myself alone and embarrassed at being late and there being no where for me to sit. I bow to the woman at the head, who is leading the gathered women in the ceremony. I decide to go and sit near to the front, on the floor, just to avoid creating a scene at being late. But the leader/lady at the head – all were women – called me to where she was and was trying to find me somewhere to sit beside her. I become more embarrassed and wanted her to allow me to just sit on the floor. This I did but beside her. She or another began the ceremony and were saying something about how someone came into being – she mentioned something to do with sensuality which memory in exact is lost to me. The only word that was clear was the name Saraswati. I would remember it upon waking…
Dream 3 – my mum’s dream
Mum was the mother of all these children who were of different ethnic mixes. She was expressing in the dream as a ‘mixed’ person too. She was cooking for her children, some kind of rice and butter beans dish. Her children loved this meal. There was a white woman who came along and saw what mum was doing and was telling her that she was doing it incorrectly. She then put on her pot to cook it her way. But hers was burning in the pot. Mum’s was cooking nicely, and swelling to overflowing in the pot (the way rice does) - she could feed all the children with more to spare. Mum fed the children the food and they enjoyed it. The white woman, seeing this, now wanted mum to show her how to cook the food her way, asking her for the ingredients in an aggressive way …end of dream.
Who is Saraswati?
I noted my dreams in my dream book. Didn’t attempt to interpret the water one, but I wanted to know who Saraswati was (I spelt it swarsvati – as I had heard of this Goddess or Indian name before but had never really looked it up). I had a feeling I’d seen mention of her in a book about Mami Wata. But I couldn’t be sure – a later attempt to find it was fruitless.
Not having any books to hand on Hindu Goddesses I looked online for sources that could give me some idea who she is. Saraswati is a Hindu Goddess of knowledge, wisdom, art, music, and learning. She was born out of the Chaos of creation, represented by Brahma (creator god) - who lusted after her, though she rejected him. It is she who gave the Brahma the will to sense, think and communicate – which would enable him to bring Order to the Chaos/void. She is thus connected to consciousness and particularly a ‘river’ which was one of her manifestations (as a river goddess). Clothed in white, she repels the darkness which represents coming into awareness and knowledge. The white clothing/sari is symbol of purity and the rejection of the base or lower regions in favour of the upper (submitting to spirit as opposed to revelling in the sensual and pleasurable). She was tempting to Brahma – which illustrates the continuous quest for overcoming that base instinct in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge and enlightenment. When the base or desire for sensual pleasures is out of control it creates confusion (in the individual as well as the collective mind). Sarawati is invoked to rebalance this disorder.
As a river goddess she was created when the world was threatened by a raging fire called ‘Bagdavani’ (a demon/destroyer). In her river form it was Saraswati that put out the fire – carrying it and immersing it into the ocean, thus saving the world from destruction.
I was fascinated by her beauty and power as I read of this goddess. In one of the depictions she was wearing a red top and white and gold trimmed sari – colours I’d seen in my dream.
Saraswati and Osun
There are some similarities between her and the Yoruba river goddess Osun. Mami Osun also saved the world which had been threatened with extinction. Like Saraswati, one of her symbols is a peacock (for the arts). When the earth was refused rain due to a curse by the creator god Oludumare because his representatives the Orisas believed they no longer needed to listen to him, Osun was chosen to plead the cause of her children so the earth could once more be fertile. She assumed the form of a peacock to take the long and arduous journey to the creator’s palace. When she reached the palace her peacock feathers looked seriously battered which made Oludumare pity her who had been so beautiful. She told him how her children (people of earth) was succumbing to the ravages of the draught he had brought on them and were dying. God looked on earth and saw that it was true. He respected Osun’s determination in venturing to his palace (passing the burning sun and all other heavenly manifestations to reach there) and saw the purity of her heart and the compassion for her children. He restored rain to earth and it was saved. Osun’s colours are also white and yellow (gold); the same white for purity but she does not reject sensuality but expresses it as an essential aspect of divine creativity and beauty. Saraswati encourages temperance and balance when it comes to sensuality.
Friday – today – is the day generally reserved for honouring Osun (so the link is aligned). It’s also the day of Venus – goddess of beauty, love, art, etc.
The Water and the Goddess of knowledge dreams
My immersion in the water relates to baptism, regeneration and rebirth. That this was happening in the dark or black waters – speaks to the Chaos of creation, from which knowledge would have to manifest to Order the world. We are in that state of confusion, presently in the world. There is an onslaught of the psyche through information overload as leaders and their systems make a mockery of human development (through real knowledge, learning and the humanities – art, music etc which have been blighted in the past few years). The more we are supposed to know – the more ignorant we seem to be – especially when it comes to race and tolerance between the human family. We are constantly bombarded with images that proliferate hatred, separation and disunity instead of those advancing love, harmony and wisdom - the will to know Truth by which ancients have long told us we can be liberated from our ignorance and oppression.
The world is in need of that immersion I had momentarily in my dream. The water force is cleansing, purifying and regenerative. It is life. Whether this natural force comes to us in our different ethnic understanding as Osun or Saraswati it is a reminder that we cannot do without its rejuvenating, life-sustaining property – individually or collectively. It is a symbol of unity, peace, harmony for it is the something we cannot do without. It reminds us of our responsibility to life and the environment.
Without doubt we are in a period of knowledge expansion, where the truth of everything can no longer be locked down by oppressors. In the dream, the leader lady at the front was actually trying to get me to use a kind of chest as a seat. Therein, I’d say is the trove (Truth), which I knelt before – because I sat on the floor instead.
My clothes - for I was not wearing white as the others – relate to my quest for knowledge, to be elevated from ordinary (base) to greater/deeper understanding of self. But humility (seated on the floor) is precursor to gaining wisdom. Red, might also be linked to worldliness/sensuality/base which need to be balanced with the white of pure spirit in the context of my dream and the dominant associations of those colours. I am not discrediting sensuality or passion by saying this but using these colours in reference to a particular reading/understanding to consider the dream in the context of universal consciousness. For I am mindful of the power of the erotic as espoused by Audre Lorde which she describes as ‘a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings’ (from The Master’s Tools will never dismantle the Master’s House, 7). Here, Lorde sees the power in the erotic as opposed to the ‘suppression of true feeling’ and ultimately ‘sensation’ when the erotic or sensual gets conflated with the ‘pornographic’ or debased knowledge.
The world is in a hyper state of sensation without (true) feeling/meaning, is the point I’m making. Saraswati represents the knowledge and wisdom to elevate us to meaningfully save ourselves/the world by feeling for each other and subjugating the prevailing symbols of ignorance and disunity.
I interpret the ‘bride’ to be a projection of myself since I am in the quest for knowledge, wisdom (going to be married to these). I would have to shed the garments of ignorance (the red/black/dark) to wear the white of knowledge, purity, wisdom.
Interpreting the Mother and the white woman in mum’s dream
I interpreted mum’s dream to relate to a universal reality in which children/peoples of the world are oppressed by a system (global white supremacy and capitalism) that destroys and consumes rather that promoting creativity and abundance for all. That my mother should see herself in the archetypal Mother role of a mixed bag of children speaks to the universal consciousness of her dream. ‘Whiteness’ or capitalist exploitation (the ‘white woman’ wishing to learn how mum was making the food) are destructive universal forces, individualistic and ultimately in a state of decline. In other words, there is an elevation of consciousness taking place (the love of the rice/beans) that is increasingly rejecting the destructive (burning food) in favour of the sumptuous, truth giving food of maternal (read this as the Divine Feminine) love and energy. This system will attempt to use its power to perpetuate itself (and “violate others”), but it will burn out eventually. On that road to destruction it will go after the Mother’s way of bringing her children to light/understanding/knowledge of self and try to contaminate their will to find truth and elevate themselves from the clutches of the destructive force.
When I told mum my dream she said, she was dreaming something similar. Sometimes, I can’t quite see how she is drawing comparisons between what I’m saying and what she is. This morning spirit spoke. For Saraswati embodies light, knowledge, wisdom, her ‘white’ is purity, contrary to the image of ‘whiteness’ in mum’s dream reflecting ‘dark’ (burning), ignorance (the white lady didn’t know how mum had made the rice/beans meal – truth/knowledge). We know that Saraswati destroyed a demon (oppression/destructiveness/ignorance). Mum’s cooking pot was overflowing – growth of wisdom and abundance, whilst the white lady’s (ignorance) was burnt and consumed by flames. In other words, Mother Nature has provided enough for all her children, but forces work to prevent everyone from reaping her abundant rewards.
If I may be permitted to extend the interpretation a bit, the ‘white woman’ reminds me of a reading in the book of Revelation, chapter 17 which speaks about the demonic, harlot ‘Babylon’ who goes after a pregnant woman to devour her children. On the demon woman head was written: “Mystery, Babylon the great mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” which has been given loads of interpretations not least the ‘capitalism’ of Europe, particularly as embodied by Britain/London ‘that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” Any which way you interpret this chapter, this harlot juxtaposed to the innocence of the pregnant woman appears destructive and oppressive. The metaphysical interpretation is links to the conquest of the higher self over the lower, through the process of the Chakra meditation system, as reflected by the constant use of the number 7 in Revelations (as suggested by Bro C Freeman El, though I can’t find the precise reference, and writing this from memory).
There is of course within the universal that which is personal or an individuated expression of the one consciousness. My mother and I have been for the past few weeks locked in spiritual communication which, has involved us meditating. I’ve shared with her ways of interpreting the allegories in the bible that relate to Kemetic spiritual philosophy which has been corrupted in the books of the bible. As she is now trying to reinterpret her understanding, she sometimes blurts that ‘they’ gave ‘us’ false teachings – keeping the truth from ‘us.’ Needless to say the ‘they’ refers to those oppressors and enslavers who continue to violate African traditional practices and traditions which keep Africans (‘us’) in perpetual ignorance – if we don’t attempt to learn the truth.
Why did Sarawati manifest in my consciousness?
In my spiritual life, I recognise the Komfa tradition of Guyana. In this practice adherents refer to seven different ethnicities for its pantheon – African, Amerindian (so called), Chinese, East Indian (Hindu), Dutch, English, Spanish. I have lately been so focused on the African spirits, especially because African spirituality has for so long been demonised that I overlook those other expressions reflected in the tradition. I have always sought to promote the dynamic, inclusive spirits that Komfa (and Surinamese practices too) celebrate through their various rituals. I see this practice as capable of unifying us as a human family – since in Komfa an adherent who is African can manifest a spirit whose actions tell us it is Amerindian, English, East Indian and so on. In other words, spirit does not see colour/ethnicity/difference the way we do. We are yet to realise in an outwardly obvious way practices that recognise the African spirits and ultimately African cosmology. Dominant discussions of world religions and spirituality continue to leave out the African contribution, privileging Greece, Rome, China, India as though African contribution to so called ‘civilisation’ is myth and discreditable. But I digress…?
Saraswati appeared in my dream perhaps to remind me of the universality of spirit, that as much as one can find the goddess of wisdom/knowledge and so on in one culture/tradition the same force energy exists in others. I’d be remiss in writing this if I didn’t acknowledge the Kemetic equivalent Seshat – the Goddess of knowledge; Aset/Auset/Isis is the goddess of wisdom among other qualities. To isolate our spiritual development where we preference one version and deny another when the emphasis is the same is ignorant and unwise.
She came too because each time I light a candle these days I ask that the act/ritual increases my knowledge and understanding. She came because I am trying to be true to my work in the field of education, knowledge exchange (sharing), quest for learning, spiritual development etc. In a universal way, all that is being explored in the world right now, whether we care to see it or not. There is increasing quest for better knowledge and understanding, but the demon to defeat is the prevailing ignorance of such forces as white supremacy and capitalism. She is a force, like so many other expressions of the Divine Feminine that we need right now to wrestle the world from the flames of destruction so represented by the oppressors and terrorists against humanity. I was so blessed by the dream and my ability to see it in a broader sense – in the spirit of dream sharing, unity and harmony that I see as a wonderful example of the often referred to Universal Consciousness. I welcome all such energies that know I will not shun them just because I am black and do not remember that there are many ways to express comeliness.
Wednesday, 20 March 2019
It was impossible to imagine what it would be like. Although riskily scheduled to take place in March (2nd) we could not have anticipated the fair weather which blessed us, bright sunshine, interspersed with a mild breeze but thankfully no rain. Passengers from near and far (local, national and international) lined the pavement at Temple Pier along the embankment in quiet eagerness of what would be the first River Cruise along the Thames, organised by Black History Walks. The cruise was set up to sponsor a Nubian Jak Blue Plaque for Dr Harold Moody, an unsung African (Jamaican) activist and champion of Civil Rights who pioneered the Civil Rights movement in the UK.
Tony Warner had invited me to take part in the historic occasion by brushing up my research on Mary Prince. I was delighted as I would be dressed as this formidable African woman whose book The History Of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831) was the first account by a black woman to be published in the UK. Her book would become a major instrument for the abolition movement – attesting to the atrocities of slavery as she had personally experienced.
Mary Prince was in fact predecessor of Phyllis Wheatley, ‘played’ by Makaela Simpson for the Cruise. Wheatley, a child genius and the first African-American female poet to have her work published came to England to promote her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). We were styled – costumes and make-up by Katherine Nanena. Tony Warner donned a 19th Century outfit, portraying a handsome and fitting homage to another great figure of Black British history – author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) also formed the slave narrative genre. Enchantingly styled as our ancestors we greeted the guests with warm hearts but sober, contemplative faces as we marvelled at the impact of what we were doing – without previously anticipating what this would be like.
Our narrator on the Cruise was Black Historian Steve (S.I.) Martin who guided us on the two-and half-hour tour along the Thames – noting sites like Cleopatra’s Needle, West Indian Docks area, Mary Seacole Statue – positioned outside St Thomas Hospital. It was a needle-in-haystack stretch to see it from the boat but the knowledge that it was there along with the history of Mary Seacole’s contribution to British history was insightful. This is just a sample of the experience – part of which was made special by the presence on the Cruise of notable community activists and leaders of Black History: Robin Walker (along with Tony Warner, I feel an honorary doctorate for him is overdue), Professor Dr Elizabeth Anionwu, Mia Morris, Dr Lez Henry, Nia Imara, Avril Nanton, Emmanuel Amevor (whose books made a good educational complement to the day). Apart from the lack of refreshments aboard the boat, and minor first time niggles (the mic playing up and some passengers believing it was their annual family coach trip to Margate and being somewhat rowdy) the 180 guests left with all smiles. Intermittent music and our (Mary Prince, Phyllis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano’s) recounting of our stories added to Steve Martin’s narration about the historical sites pertinent to Black British History.
Once donned as Mary Prince, I confess feeling the ancestral vibrations permeating – not just mine but everyone’s. It’s difficult to write about it without seeming sentimental and gushy but certainly it (has) lingered –not least because the Bus Tour followed the next day (March 3rd). This day severely contrasted the previous sunshine blessed – the blessing instead was from some persistent wintry rain. We were in a comfortable luxury tour bus, however – about 70 or so passengers who were quietly – it seemed to me lapping up the experience. Again Steve Martin narrated as we made our way from Brixton (Black Cultural Archives), noting sites such as the location of Claudia Jones’ newspaper headquarters – The West Indian Gazette which was the first significant Black British newspaper (1958). We also learnt of a ‘black woman’ who relied on the then social services to alleviate her of poverty (or being destitute) – and later industriously lifted herself up enough to repay (oddly as noted by Steve Martin) the fund she’d been given. We drove through central London, noting Black History sites all along the way – including that of the location in Piccadilly Circus where Sarah Baartman was cruelly exhibited as a spectacle for European gaze and its objectification of the Black female body. We also touched on the area in Clapham where there was much activism on abolition and we also learnt of the work of Dr Harold Moody – in whose honour both Cruise and Tour was in part initiated. Among the many stories Steve Martin shared with us I enjoyed hearing about Guyanese Andrew Watson who was the first Black footballer in Scotland. Not only did he play professionally he also Captained Scotland when they thrashed England 6.1 (c.1882). He seemed to vanish from history soon after. The more we do our Black History Tours, the more we hear the fascinating stories of those ordinary or prominent lives that contributed to British social, cultural and economic life. In the case of Andrew Watson, it’s noteworthy that he had sound financial means – just as Mary Seacole (contrary to the belief that she didn’t, Steve Martin relayed the fortune she left upon her death) and Olaudah Equiano. Much more could be said but you need to do the tour and experience them for yourself. It was wonderful to see the happy smiles dismounting the bus at the end of the tour, including some who had done the River Cruise the day before! We were also joined by Mark and Charmaine Simpson of Black History Studies.
The Blue Plaque for Dr Harold Moody Unveiled
The circle – or part thereof – was completed with the installation on March 13th of the Nubian Jak Blue Plaque in honour of Dr Harold Moody. This was on the 88th anniversary of the founding of the League of Coloured Peoples by Dr Moody and others at the first YMCA in central London. He was born in Jamaica and travelled to London to study medicine at Kings College London. He qualified top of his class, but due to colour prejudice couldn’t find work in the profession and opted instead to set up his own practice in Peckham. There are memorials to him in the area, which we learnt about on the Bus Tour. He campaigned against racial injustice and became the president of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) which was set up in 1931 to advocate for Civil Rights and equality. Members of LCP included, Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya’s first President following independence), CLR James, Una Marson (first black female to be aired on British TV) and Paul Robeson (I dream that some progressive, conscientious filmmaker somewhere is making a film about him, as he was such a formidable force of the civil rights movement, appearing hither and there in accounts about others – he needs his own sound narrative).
When it was his turn to address those gathered on the chilly Wednesday afternoon to pay tribute to Dr Moody, Tony Warner remarked that although he had been advocating for Civil Rights in the UK decades before Martin Luther King in the US, the latter is taught on the British Curriculum but not Moody. This must change. During the River Cruise and Bus Tours (there was another on 9th March) Tony Warner thanked all the passengers for making it possible for the installation of the plaque which is located at the Central YMCA on Great Russell Street, London. It was touching, I thought, that this was the YMCA where Tony Warner once had refuge – being able to sponsor the Plaque must have been a remarkable homage for him. Tributes were also made by Councillor Jenny Headlam-Wells, Mayor of Camden, Councillor Louise Hyams – Deputy Lord Mayor of Westminster, Mrs Tracey Blackwood from the Jamaica High Commission, Rosie Prescott Chief Executive of the Central YMCA, Neil Flannigan MBE, Marc Wadsworth (Founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance), Raoul Dero (reading a poem for Harold Moody). A surprise speaker was introduced as a relative of Moody, David (his last name I didn’t catch), who had only heard about the unveiling that morning and turned up to give a brief tribute. Jak Beula was moved by the experience, as he told us, because he had hoped there might be some member of the family to take part as is expected at such momentous events. Such, he observed was the ancestral vibration that even in the nth hour and Divine Order his call was heard.
More on Mary Prince
And such it was that my moments with Mary began to take on ancestral vibrations. I wasn’t satisfied that we didn’t know anything more about her life after the abolition act was passed, and her appearance in court in two libel cases in the early 1830s. I shared images of us in our costumes on Instagram and facebook. Jak Beula commented in one of the posts that some years ago he was contacted by a descendant of Captain John Ingham to whom Mary had been sold and against whom they committed ‘heinous’ acts of inhumanity as documented by her in her book. The descendant – Mark Nash offered to pay for the installation Jak Beula was putting up on Senate House for Mary Prince (she lived in the Bloomsbury area of London ) – which was unveiled by the Bermudan Premier (Mary was born in Bermuda). In an interesting twist of history the descendant works for the equivalent of the Commission for Racial Equality in Bermuda. This is what he shared with Jak Beula: “as a descendant of slave holders and as someone involved in anti-racism efforts here in Bermuda, I feel a responsibility to acknowledge and make amends for our history and also to advocate against the systemic racism that continues to result in disparate outcomes here in Bermuda. In my mind, white Bermudians have never truly acknowledged this shared and painful history and certainly not offered any apology. I believe that reconciliation and healing will come from honest and open dialogue between descendants of enslaved peoples and descendants of slave holders. I hope to help move these discussions forward in the coming years.” This is a powerful account of the impact of the work being done by organisations like Black History Walks and Nubian Jak and the Blue Plaques to acknowledge the many Africans who struggled for social justice, equality and civil rights not only in the UK but throughout the world. These lives, for whatever reasons remain veiled and it’s up to community activists/leaders/educators to excavate and elevate them to the honours they deserve.
The ancestral vibration persisted as we learnt that there is some work afoot to have a national holiday in honour of Mary Prince during the Emancipation holiday in Bermuda.
Next River Cruise
June 1st (Fast selling out)
Next Bus Tour
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