Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Black British Experience, at the V and A

From Series Black Beauty Pageants, by Raphael Albert, 1960-79

Hairstyles of Nigerian women, by JD Okhai Ojeikere

Diary of a Victorian Dandy, by Yinka Shonibare, 1998

Westbourne Park Tube Station, Charlie Philips, 1967
Call me stupid, but it took a passionate discussion of the relevance and place of hair and hairstyles as cultural markers from my black students, to bring it home to me just how complicated African hairstyles are. Actually, I still don't completely get it. But my lovely students explained to me and an open-mouthed, very diverse classroom, that if they let their hair grow out, it would simply grow out and up. That it takes taming, straightening, weaves, braiding, hair extensions, and many, many hours to create the beautiful, complex confections that they wear to class. It reminded me, too, of how normative ideals of white beauty continue to impact people of non-white heritage - the hair straightening, the face bleaching, the tucking in, epilating, waxing, narrowing, tweezing, anorexia, liposuctioning, lip-pulling in, that happen behind the scenes to conform to mainstream, capitalism-prescribed aesthetic and performative norms.

The Black British Experience exhibition at the V and A brings home the exceptional, yet completely everyday, place of black beauty and experience in Britain. A history that is often missed, misplaced, displaced, ignored, misunderstood, or simply turned a blind eye to in British life. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Road to Shimla

“The first time you saw me, you handed me a glass of bubbly and punched me in the face,” Alice says. She turns to study her husband – if he is still her husband.
Jacob pauses in the act of doing nothing at all. “Nostalgia? You? Shocking,” he says. “And anyway, I did not punch you in the face. You took one sip and only bloody choked on it. I was trying to give you a neighbourly thump.”
“More like a neighbourly hump, if I’d only known,” Alice says virtuously.
Jacob reaches out a hand to her, then stops, takes out his phone and starts doing heaven knows what on it. She clenches the steering wheel, and stares out at Kalka, the last town in the plains before the road climbs up to the Himalayas. Life presses in hungrily on both sides of the car. The rain has formed gullies, and there is garbage swimming its way down – onion peel, soggy cabbage, Band-aid, a plastic bag of Amul Milk, a half-dead lizard, hair scrunchies, a child’s pacifier, known locally and succinctly as a “nipple,” a dirty sock, assorted life debris. continued...
The Road to Shimla was published by Inkspill magazine in 2011. Read it here
The Guest Editor Eleanor Perry says, "The Road to Shimla is a delicately-crafted snapshot of cultural displacement, capturing by turns both the caustic and the tender moments in the disintegration of a marriage."

Marmite and Mango Chutney

Auntie’s stroke didn’t seem to have any lasting effect, except for a slight droop in her left cheek and the tendency to talk in aphorisms.

“Such is life,” she would say. She would puff out her cheeks like a hoary toad fighting against the march of cynicism. “People only look out for themselves. It has to be said.” In her more positive moments, her favourite was, “You can only grow old if your heart ages.” And then there was the cryptic and all-encompassing, “Young people.”

The last was a flexible one, and could be adapted to many situations. “Black people,” or, “Chinese men,” or “Accountants,” or “Those homeless,” were all versions she used regularly. It was difficult to know where her sayings came from. If they were a product of experience, or if they defied encounters and conversations, and emerged triumphant, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When Auntie’s daughter, my cousin Veronica, announced that she was going to marry Gary, a mixed-race, half-black, half-white “mongrel” – as Auntie labelled him – the after-effects of the stroke became more pronounced than ever.

“The West is full of divorce,” Auntie said, her face drooping to one side, elongating the speck of Marmite that lingered on her cheek after lunch. Marmite and Amed’s Mango Chutney were Auntie’s two favourite foods in the world, and everyday at lunch, she ate two slices of bread, each with a layer first of Marmite, then mango chutney, the kind with bits of sweetened, gloopy mango in it. “He will leave you within two years,” she continued, as if she had performed a risk analysis of the time it would take for a mixed-race accountant to leave a second-generation part-time blogger. “And then where will you be?” As she asked the question, she combed her hair with a thin comb, over and over, slowly, rhythmically, like she was stroking a cat, stopping only to pull out coils of oily hair from the comb and rolling them into a tight and ever-expanding ball that she would hand over to whoever had the bad luck to be sitting next to her when she was done combing.

Read the short story here