Monday, 22 March 2010

The good old days

For all those cygnets struggling to become swans
and Tracey Ford, rather than a cygnet’s or swan’s,
your son will ever have angel wings

At what age can we speak realistically or even euphemistically about the ‘good old days’? We over 30s and 40s have decades behind us that make retrospection possible. But what about a 20, 17 or 10 year-old – are such portals available to them? I don’t think so; though arguably the 20 year-old is advancing thus. They are within their moment of experiencing what should become their ‘good old days’. But so are we. We are also within their moment of experiencing. The decades behind us do not only offer retrospection but also the maturity that enables introspection. Introspection is an honest, deep ‘examination of our thoughts and feelings’ – a serious (hence ‘examination’) looking within; and not only of our ‘thoughts and feelings’ but also our actions. This looking in for most of us is the most painful and ugly thing we can do, for which reason it’s often avoided.

In this Shout I want to think seriously (you might want to print this) about the cries of disillusionment from our children– or our cygnets, as I like to call them, struggling to earn their swan wings. Why do they cry? Why do they feel, as my 20 year old niece recently told me, that ‘there’s no point’ to their life when this is their moment of experiencing their good old days? Are we hearing them? Are we even listening? Or are we, as my 17 year-old nephew told me, from a generation that can’t understand them? I’m hoping that by giving some thought to the kinds of struggles our children are facing we might realise that despite their feelings of disillusionment this can be their good old days if we’re willing to extend our ears, hearts and hands to help them master their swan wings. This is why that honest examination of our own thoughts is crucial. Avoiding introspection can leave unattended those issues that hinder spiritual maturity. And how can we help our children master their swan wings when we have not found ways to perfect our graceful gliding against the torrents of our own lives.

It may not only be a ‘black problem’ but it sometimes feels like it is. Every knife or gun killing is despicable. I am certain most black people have some direct or indirect association with a child who has been the victim of a “knife crime.” “Knife crime” – a term spouted in the news so often, like that other “terrorism” (and the ‘war on it’ – in Afghanistan, in Iraq where lives are being senselessly destroyed every day) that we’ve become desensitised to the absolute and particular trauma each one holds for the families involved. When we see in real time or in a movie someone being shot or otherwise killed, this comes to us as entertainment. Deaths caused by disasters like Haiti are compellingly tragic; we’re truly moved; no longer desensitised – at least momentarily. After the opening disaster scene of Haiti – we return to our numbness, watching the news, hearing that another child has been killed, we ‘tut’ and that’s mostly all we seem able to do. But what if that child is yours or someone you know? What if the child who killed the child is yours or someone you know? Questions abound. And anger, frustration too; a part of you dies. You know that you did the best by and for your child – whether victim or perpetrator; you’ve supported them and loved them. You know too that your child was good, so why?

No matter how many ways you ask yourself the questions there will never be an answer that explains to you why your child died before you. Whether you support your child, are the best parent/s you can be to them; whether they are good or not, they are living within their moment. And their moment, however much or little it’s spread in the news is one where a life seems valueless; taking it easy. My 17 year old nephew – brilliant, loving, positive (one of those dream children) has repeatedly neared death (and only until writing it, have I admitted that it’s this rather than the ‘bullying’ it might otherwise appear to be) from boys and boy gangs who see him as some kind of easy target. A target of what? Of bottling, knifing, exercise of power and, disgustingly the Ninetendo game style ease of taking another’s life. The martial arts lessons have not prevented the attacks. Although he’s more confident, his smiles mask the very thing he tells me I cannot understand –‘it’s not like your time, aunty.’ I try to reason with him, that I do understand; that in my time we had fights but...As long as I have to add the ‘but’ his point is better made.

What makes him this target? Nothing perhaps; or something – maybe it’s his aura or his positivity? Maybe it’s the way he will say, when you least expect it, ‘love you aunty?’ Frustratingly, I can’t say for sure. I feel, however, that enmeshed in his moment of experiencing is the persistent edge of a knife against which he lives. His parents – the most supportive I’ve known – recently bought a knife vest for him because he insists that he must be free to travel wherever he wants without them driving him to and fro. It was a compromise –he didn’t want either - because his parents are also living his experience. His mother prayed, when he was born with a heart defect that threatened his life that he should live; bargained that she would be good if God kept him alive. She continues praying, because he yet does not have his swan wings. And until these extremely dire years of his experiencing are spent, when he has retrospective distance she will be solidly supportive, just there to return back the words of love he needs to hear to know that his world is not as bleak as it seems.

Another nephew, a good boy too - he was one of those round babies born with a big, cheery smile and evident love for life; a young Christian, who loved to write and draw. In his moment of experiencing those traits seemed impossible to sustain. Other things were demanded of him. He stopped the smiles. Not immediately, not obviously, he also wore a mask. But if you were reading him with your heart; if your ears were really opened to what he was saying or not saying you could perhaps intuit his good old days turning into a dodge and haggling for his life. Young Offender’s Prison only confirmed that he was part of his moment, properly living within it. After that ghastly term, the knife that missed his kidneys sharpened his credibility within his gang. They had become his new family, providing him with something we didn’t seem to know how desperately he needed. No amount of imploring could force his introspection (‘why are you doing this to yourself?’) because the retrospective portal is not yet available to him; he’s still within his moment. There is an enemy within his time but he doesn’t know who or what it is. Therefore it – the enemy - might as well be his life; the enemy might as well be himself. ‘This is how it is now,’s nothing,’ he told me when I cried, ‘but you nearly lost your life.’ ‘It’s nothing,’ he said without an ounce of emotion. How bitter a pill? I had watched his mother in agony- those 18 years ago – bringing him into the world. Her agony soon turned to elation when he made it; we were so happy that this blessed boy was my mother’s first grandson. Questions abound. And introspection, if pursued might lend answers about how and why ‘he turned out like that?’ And more importantly did he do it all by himself?

Clearly these questions should be posed to the society in which our children are born. But this does not change the fact that they are our children. So have we looked, retrospectively, at our time and sought answers there? Have we looked deeply, honestly within ourselves and acknowledged, however difficult, whether we might have played any part in the disillusionment our children are experiencing within their moment? If we haven’t, perhaps we’re not as willing, not properly ready as we think to understand why.

This is not to say that society should not be probed. If we glance back to the 1970s, 1980s what was happening in those ‘good old days’ of ours? I was not born here, I arrived in 1980. Enoch Powell had long before then confined me to a destiny of creating terror and violence; prophesising my vile, bloody impact on the imperceptible tranquillity that was English society. But I didn’t know that I was this vile, evil creature he had thrust into the minds (!) of his followers (the bold ones and the others). I was trying to deal with the emotional trauma of being in and adjusting to this new hostile environment, one that questioned the very point of my existence. I was unaware that I was considered the cause of its hostility towards me. A bizarre notion – that I should be the instigator of my own oppression. Those born into this hostility might have a different sensibility about belonging, feeling part of England. I know only that I had no perception of racism until I came here. I learnt how to read its signs. And they were everywhere. I learnt that I was a ‘problem.’ I suspected myself – that my attitude needed checking – all the time – it was me, always me who was the problem. What else could I do but try to prove how much of a problem I was. Someone decided that’s what I was and I wanted evidence.

Now, our mothers and fathers were used to repair post war Britain; stooping to do the menial jobs the poorest English person refused to do. By the time I arrived here those poor English people had cottoned on; they checked their exercise of pride; decided to muck in; after all those Caribbeans were buying houses, travelling back home– how? The exercise of pride switched, which is in no way to imply that our parents were not proud but we – the now over 30s and 40s were not prepared to stoop. Why should we? It didn’t get some of our parents far. We wanted in – wanted a bigger piece of the English pie (even though our parents didn’t seem to we knew there was no gold). Some compromises had to be made to sample it – compromises some of our brothers were not prepared to make; some of them loafed their way to jail, others played the entrepreneur, the loot of which is yet elusive, the big boys always seem to have the trumps. Compromising meant that you couldn’t quite be – couldn’t fully express yourself without seeming like ‘the problem’. It was hard to get over your vexation (knowing that you weren’t wanted, that you would never belong whether you were born here or not - a vexation exacerbated by that pivotal screening of Roots); so you carried the thing with you like a genie that every so often popped the hell out. You knew you weren’t going to be promoted, no matter how hard you worked – and some of you – worked very hard, so you never went for the promotion; a hapless white colleague went for it instead. What was the point? You were trying to control the ‘genie’ – the ‘attitude’ – if only to keep your job. So you bore a smile; played the game.

The 1980s birthed ‘buppy’ – those blessed black folk who managed to get a foothold in what Thatcher let us believe we all could have, upward mobility; a juicy, if tenuous stake in capitalism. Some of us stuck with the dole, though, (that sorrowful queue) because it was easier than having to play the bottled genie game – the pie could only be shared so many times before it ran out. Bags of weed were purchased (and hustled too like it was bullion) with the dole – it just wasn’t enough to do anything else with; to put down for a deposit on a house say! Besides, some of us thought it was money owed to us; some sorry compensation for being treated as the scourge of humanity. Others studied everything we could, framing certificates and diplomas for this and that course in social anything, in Accounts, in Business Studies and yet no advancement in our jobs – we still didn’t have the guts to go for that promotion. And while we were busy studying (for that better job and promotion) our white peers worked (you know - those you went to school with that weren’t as bright as you or maybe a little brighter); they got that job you went for with your ill-fitting face and attitude, knowing you were a ‘problem.’ What has any of this got to do with our children? Whether we acknowledge it or not in many ways we were experiencing our own disillusionment in our ‘good old days.’

Powell spawned the gargoyle Griffin who perpetuates the puke that I and my children are an ‘alien threat.’ The language of terrorism is used with subtle variations to define us and our children. So now that the goldless streets are repaired; the menial jobs apparently taken care of - not only by the poor English who are now willing to muck in but also by their harder working European brothers and sisters - what need has this society for our children? The sense of feeling, of knowing that you are surplus, (which you share with white working class children whose parents didn’t indulge the pride check), that before you were born it was prophesised that you were going to be ‘a problem’ can compel you to present the evidence.

My mum tells me she loves often now. I think I needed to hear it more when I was in my moment of experiencing – when I was being told at every turn that I was a problem. But with maturity comes the understanding that she too was in her moment of experiencing and struggling to master her wings; so I had to assume the love was there. But when you suspect yourself of being a problem, you turn in on yourself – which is adverse introspection. You agree that the enemy is you. Everyone says so. And you want them to know how right they are. You do what you can to present them with evidence. The prophecy is not only self-fulfilled, you become bigger and badder than the design.

If we want our children to appreciate their moment of experiencing despite its bleakness, we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Have we unwittingly transferred our own disillusionment and sense of feeling unwanted to our children? That feeling can make us aggressive, unloving and frightened –a fractured sense of self that we may not know we’re exhibiting to our children. Do we properly listen to our children? Do we know how to respect them? Do we know that we should respect them – that their respect of us might have to be earned- especially if you’re a ‘step-parent’? Or are we as ‘old school’ as our parents - exercising the harshest disciplines that are symptomatic of the brutal beatings of the slave whip? Do we always think we’re right, our children wrong? Have we forgotten the negotiations we had to make in our time to survive the hostilities we faced? Are we honest and open with our children (you will know the boundaries)? Do we tell them how brilliant they are? How much we love them? That love thing cannot be overstated. The fullest expression of it to our children manifests when we express it to ourselves – when we have properly accepted who we are – a place we might reach through some introspection. Frankly some of us know more about how not to express love than how to. Sisters might know the hardcore supermatriachal version – I’m strong- I’m a survivor-I stayed with you when he (your father) left me, so I obviously love you. It’s kind of messed up, though, and your child knows it- children are remarkably perceptive. You resent the weight of your supermatriarchy. Who can blame you; no one needs to be exerting that much strength all the time. But it’s not the children’s fault. The man you settled on to father your children was your choice. Brothers, this is not like expressing milk; women have that angle, but love man, you possess it too. So your father might have been part time, if even there; what of love did he teach you? You think your child cares about that? They need you fixed up, not messed up with your own cygnet issues. Some fathers who were there only knew the ‘old school’ version of expressing love. You might thank your stars he wasn’t there and that you earned your swan wings through higher guidance and, I think maternally (hopefully the balanced type). Ramping with your children, getting cutesy with them does not make you vulnerable. You might look at it another way, that being vulnerable is the slow flap, flapping and fall manoeuvre of mastering your swan wings.

Questions abound. When was the last time you went out with your child, to see a movie –(the pirate DVD’s not the same thing) - to the park, to a shopping centre, to other family members – don’t shriek - to the library? Are we interested in our children and their interests? Do we know who their friends are? Have we invited those friends round (or is our house out of bounds to our child’s friends)? Do we know where they are (they might pretend they’re some place they're not, but do we know where that place is – at least)? If they find themselves incarcerated, do we throw hands up and leave them there – because that’s the way they’ve made their bed? If we can see, somehow intuit something’s wrong – do we let it go because we’re too wrapped up with our own issues to bother?

Troubling questions abound and I feel pressed to ask them – of mothers, do you put your child first – always – before any man, even if he’s their biological father? I mean, does you child know how much you have their back; that they are like cubs a lioness would defend against any lion, even her king? Of fathers – have you properly considered the enormity of your responsibility as a father – and if so, can you handle it? Do you refuse to raise/mind another man’s child? If so, hmm - galang is the only thing that springs here! That child don’t expect you to play daddy; they want you to come correct, to earn their respect; they’ve been mopping up their mother’s tears when their father or another ‘sailor’ stepped; watching her working round the clock to feed and clothe them- then you come along expecting some kind of unearned honorary position and prize. The child’s just watching you, man. You have to prove your distinctiveness? You have to try real hard at being a father (not in your mind simply a ‘step’ one) or at best someone who shows them the respect they deserve and who truly loves their mother. The single parent emphasis is not intended to suggest that problems of disillusionment are only experienced in these cases. The examples earlier cited are from children with dual parents. So then of mothers and fathers are you perhaps still living in the clasp of your own disillusionment; failing to do the kind of introspection that would assist your own movement from cygnet to swan and thus have the wisdom and maturity to extend to your children?

Society must take its shameful share for the disillusionment our children are experiencing, of that there’s no doubt. Society will spit them out; make them feel unwanted and valueless. But it’s our responsibility to help them recreate their worlds anew and give them fresh sensibilities. They have been saddled with the burden of being surplus –our young boys stuck in prisons – some of them ironically ‘for life.’ They are fighting a war where the enemy is themselves. We must adopt a warrior stance that attacks with love every time they flare up. We let them cry. We show them we can cry with them. We tell them we will try to understand. And we must mean it. We do some introspecting because they need us fixed up – now; and they need us to be their friend. I don’t mean the kind of ‘friend’ they ‘roll with.’ This friend is shelter, comfort, support, love, understanding, trust and consistency. If you assign the label ‘generation of vipers’ to young people, they will strike because that’s what vipers do. It’s impossible to love a viper. How can a viper love itself when it knows it’s a viper? Our challenge (that’s what warriors face) is to direct them towards mastering their swan wings. This is possible only if we haven’t subscribed to society’s labelling them as ‘a problem’ long before they were conceived. We can watch them being pushed around, perhaps do some of our own pushing them around. Or we can take full joy in helping them slowly flap flapping their cygnet wings until they’re finally able to perfect the swan’s graceful glide through their own tranquil waters.

Shout Out