Thursday, 22 October 2009

IT'S BLACK CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER, AND I'M ON MY KNEES TO NICK GRIFFIN

“South Africa is a different country, an awful long way away”.
I’m sure that’s what I heard Nick Griffin, the BNP leader say, when asked if he had supported South Africa’s apartheid regime, on Radio 4’s Today Programme on the morning of his election to the European Parliament in June. As if to say, “Nothing to do with me, guv.”

My vote for the Greens in Liverpool was wasted, and Griffin is now my MEP. I remember thinking at the time that there was some potential for me as a Black writer to write an interesting script about his new position, and sure enough, an idea for a screenplay has formed in my little head. I can’t start developing it until after Christmas though, i.e. sometime in November at the earliest. No; that wasn’t a mistake, because for me as a Black performer in the UK, Christmas is the month of October, when councils and venues seek out Black artists to help fill their Black History Month calendars. So I, like thousands like me, am going to work like hell earning as much as half my annual income in October alone, and then trying to live as frugally as possible until next October.

Of course, I’m not complaining about the relatively full diary in October. I also understand why many theatres, in these hard times, look to schedule “Black acts” in the particular month when they are surest of increased awareness and interest about Black History. But what about the rest of the year? Why does “Black History” not offer enough entertainment or educational value, enough spiritual uplift to keep us Black artists in gainful employment all year round?

For example, picture a finely woven story set in say, 6th Century Mali, at a time of plentiful harvest, when regular feasting is accompanied by dancing and storytelling. One evening’s stories would be folk tales describing why and how food, work and power was always shared equally among the people. The next evening’s would be stories told to people by birds who made annual pilgrimages from far off lands where people’s skins were fair, where they have seasons when the ground was covered in something thick and white, which looked like cotton, but when you touched it, it felt cold and then turned magically into water. And when the people slept, they slept under blankets made of gooses’ feathers? Imagine this being devised and performed by a racially mixed group of so-called disaffected youngsters in Liverpool, under the direction of a talented black artist, say sometime in May, as part of a vibrant year-round programme of events designed to keep youngsters engaged in creative activity and engaged with people of different races? Imagine it being funded by the local authority and the police? What idealistic rubbish! Political correctness gone mad!, the BNP would say.

I suggested May because I won’t be available in February: I’ll be performing a play in America – taking advantage of their own Black History Month. And since my play is about one of the finest Americans who ever lived – Paul Robeson, who happened to be black - I’d be crazy not to. Robeson imagined a world where resources would be shared equally among all people, of all races, but was branded a communist and a traitor, and has been practically written out of history. In his country today, as we see a new form of racism emerging in response to the inexplicable mistake of the election of a Black President, Robeson’s story needs to be told all year round, but I’ll settle for February.

Now, in order to evenly distribute my annual earnings, I need to find somewhere to perform the play in June (that Nick Griffin script had better be finished by then). Where in the white world is Black History not celebrated? Belgium? Now, here’s an idea: I can approach my MEP to help promote my Robeson play around Belgium in June next year. Surely, he would be happy to carry out his duty of representing my interests in Europe? Unless of course he decides that it’s about an American, and as we know, America is another country, an awful long way away (nothing to do with Belgium). Maybe I should write something about King Leopold. Now, that’s one hell of a story!

Mr. Griffin, I love you, and I’m really, really glad you’re my MEP. You just have a way of getting my creative juices flowing...

Friday, 21 August 2009

SONGS OF HARMONY FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE: ROBESON AND PATCH

The last surviving World War 1 veteran was buried in England on August 6th 2009, having died aged 111. Harry Patch, born July 1898, never spoke publicly or privately about the horrors he had witnessed until he was 100, when he realised that there were so few veterans left to tell their stories. He devoted his final years to speaking about the futility of war, describing it as "organised murder". He also told then Prime Minister Tony Blair that Remembrance Day celebrations were nothing but "showbusiness". Blair wasn't at the funeral, nor was he one of the many politicians and pundits who paid warm tribute to him, and I fear that some of them hope to bury Mr. Patch's wisdom with his body.

Patch was born three months after Paul Robeson, the African American actor and singer, who despite having been one of the most famous people on the planet in the early 20th century, is probably unknown by most Americans - of any colour – under the age of 50. Robeson achieved worldwide fame selling millions of records, and for his stage and movie roles: from Showboat (in which he sang Ol' Man River) to Othello, for which he still holds the record for the greatest ever number of Shakespeare appearances on Broadway.

Another thing Robeson and Patch had in common was peace activism, which for Robeson ran in parallel with practically all his performing career. At a rally in Madison Square Garden in 1946 for example, he sang a peace song at the end of a speech in which he said:

'A year or two ago, the British Foreign Minister said, and I quote, "If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace." For once, I agree with him. But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.'

Outbursts like this cost Robeson dearly. Within a few short years, he found that most concert halls and theatres in the country had closed their doors on him, and his passport was revoked, preventing him from leaving America to perform (and more importantly, speak) abroad. The State Department even denied him permission to travel to Canada! In a spectacular show of defiance, he nonetheless held a series of annual concerts at the U.S. / Canadian border, at the aptly named Peace Arch. The first time, in May 1952, a crowd of about 30,000 turned up on both sides of the border.

This episode is recreated in my play, Call Mr. Robeson, which I'm due to perform at the Philly Fringe in September. I've already performed it in America several times over the last two years, having come in on the visa waiver program which British passport holders enjoy. (I refer to my other, Nigerian one, as my passport of inconvenience).

I fear however that the honeymoon may be over, for I find I now need a visa, because I am working. My application went in a while ago, but I have this nagging, uneasy feeling. Is it unreasonable to think that there might be a file on little insignificant me somewhere in the State Department? If only I had declined invitations from "subversives" to speak and sing at an anti-war gathering in Detroit in April 2008. Or to share a platform with Angela Davis in San Francisco last February campaigning for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Troy Davis and other black death row inmates. I was pleased to see photos of me on the web after both events. And last January, two days before travelling to the Inauguration in DC, I quietly went to New York's Union Square to stand alongside about fifteen anti-war protesters. It was there that I got my first experience of being spat at. I haven't seen photos of that demonstration on the web, but isn't it conceivable that my face was photographed from across the street and emailed to State Department?

Friends tell me that being spat at and having a State Department file are badges of honour in liberal circles (I understand that the word "socialist" doesn't translate too well across the pond these days). Robeson, who died in Philadelphia in 1976, earned several honours in his lifetime for his campaign work for civil rights, for independence movements, and for peace and friendship among nations. Patch too, amassed an impressive array of medals over several decades, even after becoming an activist in his twilight years. At his request, the theme of his funeral was peace and reconciliation, and this was reflected by ceremonial weapons being banned, and by his coffin being accompanied by private soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany.

A Nigerian girl also sang the anti-war song Where Have all the Flowers Gone? Seeing the vile criticism this particular item generated on a white nationalist website I stumbled upon, my resolve to tell Robeson's story of peace is strengthened, even if I have to sing from across the border in Canada.


Postscript: The date of re-publication (Aug 28th) is almost three weeks after this article was first written. The "premium processed" approval notification was apparently lost in the mail in the U.S. We paid for a duplicate to be sent by FedEx, and I ended up flying to Belfast with my passport for the visa, delaying my departure from Liverpool to Philadlephia. The passport (and visa) are now with me, so Philadelphia, here I come!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

NO BLACKS, NO GREENS, NO HAWKS

Multiple Barriers to Honest Working in 21st Century Cosmopolitan Liverpool

As a building designer, I have always found it fascinating to see how traditional peoples worldwide manage to create beautiful and functional buildings using whatever Mother Nature surrounds them with. I myself will now try and construct a narrative of some recent life experiences out of three short phrases:

NO BLACKS
I am probably about £100,000 worse off than I would have been, had certain individuals in Cosmopolitan Housing Association Liverpool been as honest and well-meaning as I - in my naivety - mistook them to be. I contend that I have been double-crossed on not one, but two occasions, where the concepts of mutual benefit and good faith would have resulted in two beautiful buildings being added to my portfolio of work. The needlessness and illogicality of those individuals' actions have led some to speculate that their motives were racially motivated. I am, after all, an African man in Liverpool.


NO GREENS
We all now acknowledge the seriousness of the issue of Climate Change. It is likely that even Cosmopolitan will have reserved some seats on the environmental bandwagon. When I invited them to climb aboard my modest little car in 2005, I looked away briefly, only to find myself reeling in the gutter, with bruises all over my bank account, and no car to be seen: they had gazumped me! The car is probably being fitted with new number plates and its solar-powered engine being replaced with the most noxious type of gas-guzzler as I write.


NO HAWKS
An employee will be on his best behaviour if he knows that he has the kind of boss who watches him like a hawk. In this case however, numerous attempts at formal complaint and appeals for investigation were met with deafening silence and blinding darkness. I am happy to credit my African ancestors with this newly-made-up proverb: "When looking into the sky for the hawk, be mindful of the ostriches on the ground". With scrutiny of this level of intensity, would it be unreasonable to fear that if one searches behind Marybone House's clean facades, one might find festering there much more malignant malpractice?

As I continue to rebuild my life from the debris of broken dreams, I think of a Spike Lee documentary I have recently watched, about 4 Little Girls murdered by white racists in Birmingham, Alabama, the year after my birth, and also of thousands in other parts of the world whose lives are still being shattered by mindless cruelty of infinitely greater proportions than I have suffered. I am thankful for the timely reminder that harder trials have been, and are being endured by braver people than I. I am also inspired by the fact that by galvanising the civil rights movement, Alabama led to Obama.


I am thankful to Cosmopolitan too, for teaching me the kind of lesson I missed in University when preparing for what used to be the gentlemanly profession of architecture. They have also helped me discover an apparent gift for words, in the process of penning numerous plaintive paragraphs, seemingly in vain, to the powers-that-be. On the rare occasions that they were responded to, the replies were constructed with lines not notable for their elegance or sincerity, but which, if there is any justice, will surely help mark the positions of one or two professional graves.


Gifts are meant to be shared, so I have sent notification of this tale far and wide - to friends, construction and housing professionals, council officials and members, journalists and broadcasters, etc. Please feel free to share it with others too. I will take full responsibility for any embarrassment or offence caused, and will happily stand up and be counted. It's time somebody did.


I would also like to share another gift with you: the story of the giant whose example inspires me to "keep laughin' instead o' cryin'". Paul Robeson's story is much more worthy of your attention than mine is, and his detractors were far more numerous and powerful, if no less unsophisticated, than mine are. My play, Call Mr. Robeson attempts to tell his epic story in a nutshell. I have also decided to publish this blog on the sixtieth anniversary of a notable visit he made to Liverpool, about which I once wrote in Nerve Magazine. He and other gifted people inspire me to keep dreaming of a world of justice and fairness, to keep believing in humanity, to realise that it is infinitely more fulfilling (even if often frustrating) to be creative and cooperative, rather than destructive and selfish, and finally to remember that though the road may be long, the climb steep, a change is gonna come.


Correspondence between Cosmopolitan and me
(zoom in by following instructions on the "view" tab):

1. Overview - TA to CHA: Unanswered appeal to board -
page1; page2; page3
2. TA to CHA. Oriel Rd. Next Steps?
3. CHA to TA: Waiting.
4. TA to CHA: Oriel Rd. first complaint
5. CHA to TA: Not interested in Langdale Rd.
6. TA to CHA: Langdale Rd - What's goin' on?
7. CHA to TA: Good faith re. Langdale Rd.
8. CHA to TA: Sorry, no complaints procedure.

Posted 25 June 2011: Notes on Report commissioned by Cosmopolitan
Posted 27 June 2011:
Special Thank you note at Everyman Theatre Closing Performance, 24 June 2011
Link to comment written in response to Architects Journal article, 15 June 2009