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Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

The Middle Passage

Louise Sims

The term ‘midlife crisis’ refers to a phenomenon where a mid-point of life can trigger significant identity, relational and lifestyle changes. Hollis shuns the term ‘crisis’ and instead talks about ‘the Middle Passage’ as representing a wonderful, though often painful opportunity to re-examine ourselves (1).  During the Middle Passage, there is an invitation for greater consciousness.

I am a white woman and a social worker in my own middle-age. I started writing this paper in the last week of February 2021 after a close colleague, a black woman, resigned. Two days later my son was banned by PlayStation for using hate speech. He had used the N word to refer to himself and his friends in an online game (he is white like me). In the same week I shared a draft of this paper with a trusted friend. He fed back instantly. Was I not aware that the Middle Passage is the name given to the forced voyage of captive Africans to the Americas? Oh… Of course I know about the Middle Passage. I had titled a paper on reflection ‘The Middle Passage’ thinking I was invoking a redemptive opportunity. Instead I evoked the second stage of the Atlantic slave trade and three centuries of horror for millions of African men, women, and children. Morgan writes that, ‘…thoughts that betray internal racist structures may hardly be noticed and rapidly forgotten. Attention is needed to catch them’ (2).

 

George Shaw

Scenes from The Passion: Ten Shilling Wood, 2002
Courtesy: Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London / Copyright: The Artist

This picture is a painting by George Shaw who was born in Coventry, in 1966. He studied at Sheffield Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art, London. His solo exhibition ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’, is a selection of works focusing on the Bell Green and Tile Hill housing estates where he grew up. I was born in Coventry in 1976 and these are the unconsidered landscapes of my childhood too. I worked as a personal carer to Simon, who lived in Tile Hill and we walked the streets together. Like Shaw I found Coventry and its surroundings to be, ‘a nice place to grow’(3)

 A postwar council estate on the edge of Coventry, with trees, grass and loads of woodland just beyond. The last built-up area before the countryside took over. I don’t think it has ever left me, that sense of possibility and familiarity and possible danger lurking out there somewhere beyond. I haunted the place and now it haunts me (4).

 

The National Game

George Shaw

The National Game, 2017
Courtesy: Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London / Copyright: The Artist

 

I love the ambivalence of Shaw’s Coventry. These are paintings (paintings!) that make space for suggestion. ‘A rope dangling from a tree, a lock-up garage left open, a broken goalpost: each one suggests possible youthful adventures – or traumas’ (5). This is the emotional geography of my childhood. The ball in the puddle could be mine. I was forged here. Shaw is unabashed about his art, his sentimentality and his ambition. He takes ‘…clichés of epiphany and the sublime [he puts] them in a place where great thoughts aren’t rumoured to happen’ (6). One critic described him as ‘painting the back room of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral’ (7).

 

Ash Wednesday 3pm

George Shaw

Ash Wednesday: 3.00pm, 2004/5
Courtesy: Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, London / Copyright: The Artist

Ash Wednesday: 3pm (2004–05) is part of a series of works Shaw produced around Tile Hill. This painting depicts a typical council house. The ‘almost photographic framing draws attention to the presence of an observer remembering the details of the scene’ (8). In this paper I am trying for something akin to Ash Wednesday: 3pm. I am trying to pay close attention. To hold a space for possibilities.

Frontline

Frontline’ is about my area in Coventry, but there are frontlines all around the world – London, New York, anywhere. Mum was a cleaner, she was a hard worker and out a lot of the time. So I helped, taking my brother and sister to school. You wake up, walk to school, all you see is fiends. That’s ‘Frontline’…My mum has been through everything in Cov, my mum had acid burn threats when she first came to Cov, my mum sacrificed her happiness in Cov, I’m gonna remain in Cov to help build the infrastructure (9).

Pa Salieu moved to Hillfields in Coventry from the Gambia as a child. He refers to the city as “C-O-V the city of violence” (10). His music tackles racism, African identity and social deprivation. C-O-V was not ‘a nice place to grow’ (11) but Salieu grew anyway.

School failed me. I’m dark… In those times it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be African – it was always cool to me. I was very proud of who I was, that’s what Gambia did to me. I’ve lived in a place where nobody gives you dirty looks because everybody looks like you. So when people at school dissed me about being African, I wasn’t gonna let it go. I didn’t take any of it. I started music because of Changing Trax, Susie (from Coventry’s Positive Youth Foundation) literally forced me on the open mic, I wasn’t a bad youth, I was observant (12).

Salieu attributes his strengths to Africa ‘I was very proud of who I was, that’s what Gambia did to me’ and the love of his family. His creativity was boosted by his friends and timely state support. Like Salieu I too was an observant child. I was aware of my class. I clocked the patriarchy. I noticed racism (out there and in others). I was blind to my whiteness. ‘The racist system and the privilege it brings is fully evident to black people in our societies and peculiarly invisible to white people’ (13). In C-O-V Salieu knew the construct of race and its violent implications throughout his daily life.

C-O-V/ Coventry/ UK City of Culture 2021/ city of my birth is both a ‘ghost town filled with the spectres of conflict’ and home to Shaw and to Salieu whose ‘songs are exquisitely produced, with enough restraint for Pa’s voice to shine through’ (14). This is the city which provided the ‘breeding ground for one of the most socially aware, joyous, and eccentric genres to emerge from the British Isles’ (15), whose founder wrote an anti-apartheid anthem (16). In the 1970s Pauline Black, found her tribe in the city, with the ‘skinheads, punks, rude boys and rude girls’. A place where ‘people from the West Indies came to work and mingle with young white people in the car factories, listening to each other’s music and passing those records backwards and forwards’ (17). People made ‘music to tickle the brain cells and the soles of the feet’ (18).

Politics and Pain

In his chapter ‘The Gift of Pain’ Grosz (2014) recounts the work of the physician Paul Brand. Brand discovered that the deformities of leprosy were a consequence of infection, caused because the patient was unable to feel pain. In 1972, Brand wrote: ‘If I had one gift which I could give to people of leprosy; it would be the gift of pain’. In his treatise on the importance of pain Grosz reflects that;

At one time or another, we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why (19)

If pain is needed to learn, as Grosz argues, than we must consider the politics of pain. In 2020 during a zoom meeting my colleague (the only black woman on screen) told the team that she was exhausted. She was dealing with the outpouring of pain from people of color and having to manage the discomfort of white people. No-one responded. Not one person. Not me. Someone started talking about David Olusoga. I added Black and British: A Forgotten History to my reading list. I pushed the meeting out of my mind. It keeps coming back.

DiAngelo’s formulation of ‘white fragility’ has given me a framework to understand this event and these processes (20).  The discomfort evoked in white people when the topic of racism is encountered generates a psychic retreat. White people support each other in this retreat. In white liberal collectives the performance of anti-racism prevents the work needed to be anti-racist. James Baldwin and others have been interrogating whiteness for a long time. I have only recently become aware of the concept. That astonishes me. The penny is dropping, whiteness protects us from even seeing whiteness. My colleague tried to gift us her pain. We refused her gift. We were all diminished.

We can make different choices. The ‘missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void’  (21). The summons to us is the same as to Tennyson’s Ulysses:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world (22).

 

References
  1. Hollis, J. (1993) The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning. Inner City Books, Canada.
  2.   Morgan, H. (2021) The Work of Whiteness, A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Routledge, London.
  3.   O’Hagen, S. (2011) Interview Guardian George Shaw
  4.   O’Hagen, S. (2011) Interview Guardian George Shaw
  5.   Jonze, T. (2019) Anarchy in Coventry: George Shaw’s greatest hits | George Shaw | The Guardian
  6.   Kellaway, K. (2015) George Shaw, 49: ‘Every second, every ounce of time has to be accounted for’ | George Shaw | The Guardian
  7.   O’Hagen, S. (2011) Interview Guardian George Shaw
  8.   http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/collection/artists/shaw-george-1966
  9.   De Souza, N. (2020) On the ‘frontline’: (coventrytelegraph.net)
  10.   De Souza, N. (2020) The meteoric rise of Pa Salieu, Hillfields’ home grown grime star – CoventryLive (coventrytelegraph.net)
  11.   O’Hagen, S. (2011) Interview Guardian George Shaw
  12.   Mullen E. (2021) Coventry rapper Pa Salieu wins coveted BBC Sound of 2021
  13.   Morgan, H. (2021) The Work of Whiteness: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Routledge, London, p.135
  14.   Rapper Pa Salieu wins BBC Sound of 2021: ‘I am the voice of the voiceless’ – BBC News
  15.   Coventry: Walking in the footsteps of two-tone (faroutmagazine.co.uk) accessed 31.10.21
  16.   The Specials – Nelson Mandela (Official Music Video) – Bing video
  17.   From my city to yours: Coventry through the eyes of 2 Tone music icon Pauline Black | National Geographic
  18.   From my city to yours: Coventry through the eyes of 2 Tone music icon Pauline Black | National Geographic
  19.   Grosz, S. (2014) The Examined Life, Vintage. London, p.26.
  20.   DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility, Penguin. London.
  21.   Winterson, J. (2012) Why be happy when you can be normal? Vintage, London.
  22.   Cited in Hollis, J. (1993) The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning. Inner City Books, Canada.

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1 Comment

  1. I find this article very honest, reflective and – to use a word Louise explores – it must have been painful to write and put forward for publication. As a white man, it is painful for me to read but it gives ‘voice’ to my own thoughts about whiteness in a way that I have never quite managed to do, yet I have felt how Louise feels in how she describes it. I see and sense what she describes all around me and in myself. I think: can’t people of whiteness see it when it is so evident to people of colour? ‘White fragility’ and ‘the performance of anti-racism prevents the work needed to be anti-racist’: having participated in anti-racism training and taken that out into practice over the decades ever since the 1970s – when back then this was ground breaking and, within much social discourse, challenged territory – I think Louise’s article presents people of whiteness with what is today’s ‘frontline’: buried inside ourselves in a way which we have made almost inaccessible to ourselves.
    The illustrations of George Shaw’s paintings are rich and complement the article so well: ‘spaces for suggestion’ that are so inclusive that have the breadth to capture a range of ‘frontlines’, including those of Salieu.

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