Poetry and Racism – by Nicholas Postlethwaite CP

The poetry of Racism!  Juxtaposing racism with poetry will surely set teeth on edge in right-minded people. Viewing the poetic within a too limited romantic perspective –’wandering lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills’ – and then linking it to the violence of racism will at best seem strange – at worst be judged obscene.

If, however, poetry is understood as an important tool to help us confront extremes of human evil and suffering (as with the famous hymn, ‘Stabat Mater Gloriosa…’) then perhaps poetry and racism are not such strange bed-fellows. And when poetry can fly beyond the confines of mere words written on paper and become a living expression of courage unflinchingly facing massed ranks of evil racist forces – eg, “…taking the knee..” – then as never before it may be legitimate poetically to connect human souls standing strong and tall in stark contrast with the evil that is racism.

Kemi Ryan and her sister Natasha are two remarkable women. I am privileged to claim them as dear friends. While serving a long prison sentence together, they determined to turn their lives around in a new direction – Bonhoeffer was not the first, nor the last to discover that prison can sometimes uncover and set free the Spirit!

Seventeen years later, Kemi and Natasha remain true today to their decision. Unsurprisingly, their selfless commitment to what I think of as ‘action poetry’ spills over and effects the lives of many others too. Today they are the trusted mentors of countless young people in the city of Liverpool’s Black community. Young people who are frequently suspicious of adults – wary of betrayal – recognise someone who is genuine and who feels and shares their own struggles. They respond to understanding and respect from friends walking in solidarity alongside them to help guide through systems that all too often seem ready to penalise rather than support them. Kemi and Natasha have set up a project and drop-in centre – which they appropriately call “Reformed”. This offers a focus and security for young friends who are warmly welcomed with understanding and conversation over a cup of coffee – and occasional cake. Reformed creates oases for young people within otherwise hostile environments – creating a ‘poetry in action’ with echoes from deriving directly from a line from another Poet – ‘give us this day our daily bread….’ 

While preparing these notes I was interrupted by my telephone. It was Kemi, who shared through tears news of two young friends: one, only fourteen, had stabbed and killed the other. Both come from neighbouring families, both have been part of Kemi and Natasha’s Reformed community. Her tears sprang from sadness about the death of one friend and the consequent bleak consequences for the other. Listening, I had a sense of a deep lake of sorrows that feed these tears – tears for the many similar such tragic events experienced by this community – and so many other similar families and communities for whom today’s tragedy is but a reminder of the many others preceding it.

As well as grief, Kemi’s tears express her rage at the systems that fail to protect and support vulnerable young friends – as well as their families – and who find themselves increasingly trapped in spirals of seemingly endless violence. One life lost – another’s future now blighted – each symbolic of racism abroad in our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

“I am glad about current world-wide protests condemning Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who publicly executed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes till the last breath from his lungs,” Kemi continued. “But Minneapolis USA seems a long way from us here in Liverpool.I pray for George and for his children and family, as I do for two friends here today – the circumstances may differ, but underlying causes come back to one poisonous root cause – that of racism. Why isn’t the entire world standing in unceasing protest to condemn blatant racism everywhere and refusing to allow it to remain in our midst?”

Kemi’s rhetorical question cries to the heavens for responses. Black Lives Matter today is rightly generating anger and energy. But a background fear continues to lurk. Given short attention spans, will current calls for change bring only very limited and cosmetic outcomes? Once the “storm” passes and waves of frustration subside will the issue sink once more beneath apparently calm surface waters of what complacently is described as “normality”? Those experiencing racism at first hand fear they will be left coping as best they can with the continuing “status quo”. A small number will hopefully have become aware and go on to work for change. Some small changes may occur in social systems – penal, health, housing and education. A few racially contaminated statues will have been unceremoniously removed. All to the good! But the fear remains as a lurking presence so long as there is no significant systemic shift in regard to racism.

Is this overly pessimistic? Kemi’s tears indicate sadly it is not. As an organisation, Reformed remains as a positive sign both for those who experience racism first-hand and for those of us ready to stand alongside so we work together for systemic changes. But is this enough?

To presume there is a single silver bullet capable of instant eradication of racism would be naïve in the extreme. What is needed is the support for many and multiple actions like Reformed, that collectively combine to challenge the deep virus that is racism. As a small contribution towards this dynamic, I borrow a philosophical insight – recommend a recent TV documentary – and record my own deep personal gratitude for the Black friends who continue to educate me and help me examine all that I need to change in my own attitudes.

A philosophical perspective

The eminent Canadian academic Charles Taylor rooted his philosophical reflection in his own mixed political culture of Quebec. An English-speaking father and French-speaking mother encouraged him to research the complexities and tensions inherent in human community with its sub-surface challenges which can either inhibit or enhance human harmony. Charles Taylor views philosophy from within – not apart from – contemporary human social realities.

In his book A Secular Age he coins the term ‘social imaginary’. Social imaginaries, he explains, are those deep personal convictions which – pre-theoretically – underpin our life and actions. Social imaginaries are pointers – often unconscious and instinctive – indicating how we see our world. Social imaginaries are receptacles for our stories, our myths and legends and our social habits. They are those instinctive atavistic images that come unbidden in our dreams – day or night. (See A Secular Age pg. 146 ff). Social imaginaries reassure us in our self-awareness and make up our personal self-legitimacy. Our social imaginaries not only highlight how we see ourselves but most importantly too, how we view the “other”. Inherited from family and early cultural experiences, they mostly lie quietly beneath our self-consciousness. Taylor suggests their potential is enormous in influencing us for good or ill. Unless social imaginaries underpinning racism are acknowledged and challenged, systemic change will remain little more than a pipe dream.

Kemi’s rightful rage at the world – or in particular Liverpool’s failure to end the ever-widening circles of racist violence – is about a need to confront deep-seated racist social imaginaries.  Unrecognised, and frequently denied in many neo-liberal contexts today, racist social imaginaries remain protected within seemingly impregnable defences constructed by those with power.  When racial social imaginaries are further confirmed by social leaders who exercise power, then the individual personal crime of Police Officer Charles Dauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis reveals an even more frightening systemic social logic at play. It reveals the complexity and depth of systemic racism. It reveals its true horror as much more than merely personal individual human sinfulness. Unless the systemic perversity of racist social imaginaries can be eradicated so racist defences are breached – then Kemi is entirely right to continue giving vent to tears of righteous anger and rage.

A television documentary

A positive attempt to address deep seated racial social imaginaries in young children is currently screening on Channel 4 UK TV. The School That Tried To End Racism is a documentary of an imaginative project in a London school based on a programme first developed in the USA. A mixed group of eleven-year old children participate in experiments designed to detect and help them recognise, explore and reflect on their own social imaginaries about race. Staff engage and observe reactions each step of the way. 

Facing racial social imaginaries in an authentic and honest way is never going to be easy – particularly among those of us who do not admit our culture has already inculcated us with negative attitudes without us realising they are there. Particularly those of us in white communities who have never directly experienced racist violence, quickly become defensive and uneasy when asked to talk about our racial stereotypes and pre-suppositions. It is interesting in the TV documentary to see how the children – though in a safe place – nonetheless struggle when they begin reflecting on how they see themselves racially – and how they see others. If it is difficult for children – how much more so for those of us set in our ‘adult’ ways! This uneasiness and anxiety is clear in the documentary with bright confident eleven- year-olds – particularly among, but not only among the white pupils. However, encouraged to voice their fears in a safe place – we see immediate growth in self-confidence. The children themselves help each other take personal responsibility for their social imaginaries with an encouraging increased respect for one another. 

Despite limitations, the documentary is a good example of how it is possible to help young people uncover and take responsibility for their personal social imaginaries. But good as this programme may be, I am sad watching it. Welcome as all good practice is, I ask whether the documentary shows the norm or rather proves to be the exception in most current educational practice?

Kemi and Natasha Ryan have proved over and over their own professional educational creativity in their Reformed project. But despite this, they find it a constant uphill struggle to find even minimum resources to develop their programmes to benefit and challenge more groups and to promote other similar initiatives. There are many invisible walls protecting the status quo – in education settings as elsewhere – walls that often seem insurmountable. Systemic racism is a multi- headed beast: our social systems operate with their social imaginaries just as well as do we all as individuals. 

The TV programme I describe was evidently well resourced. Staff from the USA programme were flown over to help train the local teachers. Undoubtedly there would have been many other additional significant costs in making this programme. I applaud all who made it! But walking alongside Kemi and Natasha Ryan, I see two talented educationalists – learning from their own hard-won personal experience – but operating with pitifully few resources. They receive little payment and constantly need to beg for financial support to sustain their work. Systemic social imaginaries to do with racism come in many and varied forms.

An autobiographical post-script

Next year I look forward to celebrating my eightieth birthday. I have been wonderfully blessed in life. I was born into a catholic working-class white family in the north of England with two loving parents. After school I joined the religious Congregation of the Passion – popularly known as Passionists. I was ordained a priest in 1964 and given opportunity for further study in Rome and Paris – truly years of very privileged education.  In 1971 with another Passionist priest friend Father Austin Smith we received permission to leave our traditional Passionist setting and go to live in Toxteth – an inner-city Liverpool neighbourhood. This is the long-established part of Liverpool where the oldest UK Black community has created a wonderfully rich and unique history – and this despite the racism that has so often failed to appreciate the richness this special community brings to Liverpool.

My move with Austin from a religious monastic culture into an entirely different setting was the best life decision I ever made. Toxteth continues to remain the personal focus for my life – sadly now without my friend Austin – and where I have continued my ongoing educational personal development – a process as stimulating and enlightening today as when it began in in October 1971 as Austin and I opened the door of Flat 3 in 7 Ducie Street, Liverpool 8.

I remain forever grateful for all the previous years of education. But my real education effectively began as I was faced with this totally different cultural context. We were still the same people – we were still two Passionists and priests. But the new context required a radical review of most previously presumed suppositions and principles. This was the beginning of a radical re-educating process of my social imaginaries. Somewhere in his musings, Wittgenstein talks about sending words analogically to the “dry cleaners” before reusing them. He suggests we need to remove accumulated accretions that time and overuse put on words and confuse their meanings and how they are understood. I happily accept this as an analogy for the educational process I was beginning to undergo in 1971 – and hopefully continue to this day. All my social imaginaries – whether religious, philosophical, theological, psychological or (most importantly) racial – needed some serious “dry-cleaning”. It has been a challenging ongoing educational programme – at times alarming – but always liberating in its eventual outcomes.

My self-understanding as a person and of my professional roles, I would like to claim, have been immeasurably influenced through this radical experience. It is due to the support and love of many friends, neighbours and colleagues – like Kemi and Natasha – that has enabled this to happen for me. The heart of the Toxteth neighbourhood is the accumulated experience of generations of Black Liverpudlians. It is this community of friends in its welcome that enables me better to see and feel – albeit indirectly – the pain of racism and to remain determined in the fight against it.

Kemi and Natasha Ryan’s Reformed project: a documentary on UK TV: a couple of Passionist priests going to live in the Toxteth community: none of these singly and alone will eradicate racism. But if a world-wide solidarity continues to grow – if creative fresh educational good practice is the new normal – perhaps then a process of imaginative poetry in action will begin to bring positive outcomes. Inspired by the courage of Kemi and Natasha – and all the others they represent – and by the communities from which they come – racist self-imaginaries can be confronted and eradicated so the tragedy of the death of George Floyd or of a vulnerable young person on the streets of Liverpool 8 or in any other city – can and will be prevented.