Space and history are frameworks that have taken new precedents in my work. In my drafted publication, I began to explore how these themes have always been present in my photography. With a newfound awareness however, I have been able to develop this.
Even just as a reflection over the project, I think it’s interesting that I opted to take a narrative approach, filling the publication with anecdotes and whatnot. I think it was mainly because my work often addressed things I was unable to articulate at the time. Often times I was going through things I couldn’t unpack until years later. I remember reading bell hooks’ The Oppositional Gaze for the first time. I had to get over myself over and over again before I could accept that she was talking about me. After all, it’s weird having someone understand you better than you could understand yourself. That’s what this whole process has been like.
I began my introduction by professing my inclination towards anger. I posited that my anger is righteous, and that anyone who seeks to invalidate that will not enjoy reading the catalogue. That made me begin to think about certain things that are demonised when associated with Black people. Like anger. For men, it is seen as this animalistic reaction, and for women, almost a gimmick. It’s not that Black women aren’t even seen as animalistic when angry, but the assumptions around said anger are often to do with some kind of bitterness. It reminds me of when the Suffragettes were called spinsters, because surely only single women – women who have been left to get out of control – get angry. That spinster energy is present in the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman, and I believe that it is there to prevent Black women from using our anger to get things done. I mean, look at how watermelon and fried chicken has been reduced to racist tropes too. It was those two foods that enabled Black Americans to be socially mobile after emancipation. What else is demonised? Rap music? Black hairstyles? Protest and activism? The clues are there.
I also mentioned Becky, a white girl from my GCSE English class who disagreed with the antiblack statements I’d been making. I feel like at the time I had a point in including her in my introduction, but now I don’t know what it was supposed to be. Reading it back now, this section of the catalogue reeks of white saviourism. Like, it took a white girl called Becky to bring me to where I am today, when that is very false. Yes, I’d been making antiblack statements, and yes, Becky told me that those statements didn’t make logical sense. But I’d only begun to unlearn things after I’d left that school. I was giving it some thought the other day, and I feel like rather than reducing myself to a “coon”, I think I was just responding to the limited information I knew. Literal ignorance. I say this because I don’t remember desiring proximity to whiteness. I don’t ever remember wanting to be white, or wanting their acceptance. And when racist issues arose – and believe me when I tell you they did – I never found myself playing devil’s advocate. I just felt frustrated because I hadn’t realised that, just like every institution in the West, there was an agenda being pushed in our curriculum. I still thought that if Black people had made valid contributions to humanity, then surely it would have shown up on the syllabus. I still thought that we’d come so far that racism wasn’t so bad anymore. But the moment I learned the reality of structural racism, my beliefs changed too.
Whether it was my college teachers, my friends, or Black Women on Twitter whom I didn’t even know, someone taught me to question the things I took for granted. What makes something normal? And what are the antitheses of those norms?
What happens when normal is synonymous with ‘white’? What does that mean for those who are the opposite of white? This is how violent assimilation is. And this is how ‘Ceilings’ came about. The name refers to the ‘glass ceiling’ concept, as well as the ‘Three Heavens’ in Christian Theology.
‘To Heaven I’ is the main piece from ‘Ceilings’ that has inspired my next step. It essentially depicts an oppressed demographic living in a place of stagnancy and suffering. What I want to argue in my current project is that we either get out of these spaces ourselves, or we don’t get out. When white women campaigned for the vote in Britain, did they sit on the sidelines and wait for white men to mercifully grant their rights to them? Lol, of course not. If they waited for their oppressors to see their humanity, they’d never have gotten the vote. Likewise, for any oppressed demographic, it is up to them to organise amongst themselves and work towards their goal. Begging one’s oppressor to see their humanity is – in my opinion – a waste of time. There is limited time and limited resources, and it is my job to teach an oppressor how to undo the nonsense they started. Just like how I had to do my research, and allow myself to be uncomfortable, they do too. I would much rather spend my time working with Black people for Black people, strengthening our respective communities and growing in autonomy. Power is in our money and our allegiances.
In ‘Ceilings’, I called for Black academics and creatives to keep documenting and responding to what is going on in the zeitgeist right now. If we aren’t careful, our triumphs may be reduced and belittled, just as they were forty years ago. In ‘Ceilings’ I wanted to remind myself that one’s oppressors will never free them. In Britain, Black people do not “belong”, and such belonging will never come from whiteness. It must come from within. Just like in ‘To Heaven I’, unification is needed to break through the ceilings.
My new call is to every Black person in Britain. It is to stop relying so heavily on Western journalism and framing. Just like my secondary school syllabus, there is an agenda. My call is for Black Brits to start looking at the diaspora more. The protesting and activism of the moment has encouraged many to start researching British history, but there is so much more going on in the world, and we have to be unified to effectively address it. Currently, I’m beginning to learn Portuguese, and have begun to follow more non-Western media outlets, like Al-Jazeera. Even doing things like watching foreign language films and television shows can help you see things differently. Our parents and grandparents thought that Britain’s streets were paved with gold before they came here, but we know better. Britain isn’t the centre of the universe (despite what many may think), and it is up to us to ensure that it doesn’t become, or remain, ours either.