Thursday, 30 January 2014

25. Something Old (Uniforms)

In keeping with the social media tradition of looking back into the archives every fourth day of the week (otherwise known as "Throwback Thursday"), I thought I would re-post an essay I wrote last summer, analysing Zadie Smith's Speaking in Tongues and exploring cultural identity.

We bonded over our mutual love of colourful cosmetics, Givenchy graphics and gold jewellery. Our attire echoed the other's - a uniform of statement blazers, jet black drainpipe jeans and jangling wrist adornments. Her hair was of an identical waist-grazing length and loose wave to mine, framing her caramel-toned face and moving with her hands as she spoke. Her accent was alive. Coloured with that unmistakeable melodic West African lilt that reminded me of childhood. My own replies were rigid, all indication of origin ironed out and replaced with elongated vowels and crisp, characterless Ts. As children, we had lived three thousand miles apart, placed in contrasting climates and cultures. Here and now as adults, over brunch on a sunny afternoon in West London, we were both incredibly alike and nothing like one another at the same time.

Their chatter filled the small but quaint restaurant as they shared stories about home. Faces lit up as one by one, tales began to correlate and correspond with each other and an unspoken but present alliance steadily formed - "Yes", their eyes said in unison, "we are one and the same". I could picture their gaiety, their nonchalance and wit, gliding between classes as the scalding African sun shone down on their tightly curled crowns. Chatter consisting of exotic lilts and jazz arpeggios were thrust into the air, where they lingered for a while like an expensive perfume on a beautiful woman who has just left the room. Electric. I tried to imagine their uniforms...did they sport classic Oxfords in whites or duck egg blues? Or perhaps theirs was of a more honest type - prints and patterns combining bright gold, greens and purples with negotiating greys, browns and blacks? They were happy, they were carefree. Surrounding each of them was a distinct certainty of self: of history, origin and purpose.

We resembled a rookery of penguins. Thick black coats, collarless white shirts and Dr Martens 1461s that weighed down our precious feet like bricks. No quirk. No candy coloured war paint. Close your eyes and you cannot tell us apart - we are a well-drilled chorus of South England drawl. Now open your eyes - only slightly. A tribe of males with short, waved hair cuts. Females all sporting silky, swishy locks.

I couldn't help it. I had been left out and I had to intervene. "I'm sorry - what is GIS please?" A wholly innocent enquiry which accompanied my own blank face was met with silence. A tightly knit cluster of eyes met mine, each pair tinted at first with disbelief and - as that sound of emptiness stretched its frame farther and farther into the future - ever so slightly with what I can only describe as pity.


I wrote the above extract following a brunch that I had been invited to a few weeks ago where I was able to network with a small number of like-minded young adults. Shortly after the episode which unfolded above, the atmosphere thankfully returned to normal and the topic of conversation widened from shared memories of a secondary school experience in Ghana to more general (and all-inclusive) topics on business, politics, and education. As I voiced my opinions on the stigma of a profession in teaching in both African culture and modern Western cultural society, I acknowledged two things. Firstly that each pair of eyes on that table were looking at me with expressions removed from those which they had displayed towards each other, and secondly that as I spoke I began to feel increasingly self conscious about my voice, my gesticulations, my ways of reasoning. In my mind, at that moment, there was nothing positive about sticking out in the way that I had done; there was, however, not much that I could do about it.

A few nights ago I overheard my mother talking about me on the phone to one of her friends (which in itself, by the way, is nothing new). When I asked her about it, she grinned and said (in Twi) that her friend had wanted to know "how my obroni daughter is doing." When I replied, defensively, that I could not believe that this woman had thought to call up just to ask that question, she laughed and explained that "she meant it in a positive way..." I left the kitchen confused. A week earlier I had accompanied my mother to a party celebrating a 60th birthday and was sandwiched between her and this friend, who would stare each time I made even the most mundane of remarks, or each time I lifted my fork to my mouth. It reminded me of the brunch from a few weeks back, although her gazes were ones of wonder and not estrangement; why then, I thought, could she have come to such a positively different conclusion about me than the conclusions I had imagined from before?

I stumbled across Zadie Smith's 2009 essay Speaking In Tongues as I was trying to find materials to use as reference for this essay and for the first time in years, I truly believed that someone out there got it. Got "me". For weeks I had yearned to locate that unique central magnet to which all of my thoughts, my "metal shavings" would immediately align themselves. In referencing Smith I guess in a way I'm cheating, but Speaking in Tongues is that central magnet (as I'm sure would have become apparent to anyone who follows me on Twitter and experienced my "live tweeting" as I lay wide awake in bed at 4am, furiously typing out my favourite passages whilst constructing this essay on my Blackberry).

Having read the essay (which I would highly recommend), the sequence of past events forced me to ask the following question: what is our obsession with clothing these words, "black" and "white" in equally opposite connotations? In our current society such an act should be almost impossible, as Smith manages to communicate in the following passage:

...the reality of race has diversified. Black reality has diversified. It’s black people who talk like me, and black people who talk like Lil Wayne. It’s black conservatives and black liberals, black sportsmen and black lawyers, black computer technicians and black ballet dancers and black truck drivers and black presidents. We’re all black, and we all love to be black, and we all sing from our own hymn sheet. We’re all surely black people, but we may be finally approaching a point of human history where you can’t talk up or down to us anymore, but only to us. He’s talking down to white people —how curious it sounds the other way round! In order to say such a thing one would have to think collectively of white people, as a people of one mind who speak with one voice—a thought experiment in which we have no practice. But it’s worth trying. It’s only when you play the record backward that you hear the secret message.

What then, from the text above, is the unifying factor or "magnet" pulling all of those professions and personalities together besides the word "black" itself? When considered from this basic point of view, is it not then absurd that we should carry presumptions of one or the other in our minds? Of course, having been dictated to us through literature from as early as the nineteenth century, pop culture and - perhaps most notably - through newspapers and other media publications, certain presumptions have stood the test of time. Smith thinks otherwise, but I would say that they're not going anywhere any time soon. What I do think though, is that such presumptions (as any legal mind would phrase it) must be thought of as "rebuttable".

There are, however, points at which I am dubious as to Smith's own conviction of such illustrations as the one above. Only a few paragraphs later, she recalls an episode which further embodies my point on the problem with charging one label with ideologies radically different to the other, separate, label:

I was at a lovely New York party, full of lovely people, almost all of whom were white, liberal, highly educated, and celebrating with one happy voice as the states turned blue. Just as they called Iowa my phone rang and a strident German voice said: “Zadie! Come to Harlem! It’s vild here. I’m in za middle of a Reggae bar—it’s so vonderful! Vy not come now!” (...) But wait: all the way uptown? A crazy reggae bar? For a minute I hesitated, because I was at a lovely party having a lovely time. Or was that it? There was something else. In truth I thought: but I’ll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating. It’s amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment.

Smith's clothes her description of that first party in words like "lovely" and "happy", and quite contrastingly imagines the second party as "crazy" and "crowded". I was initially saddened by this account whether deliberately phrased as such by Smith or not, but then scolded myself for doing the same. Had I not felt embarrassment at my own "silly" voice, and presumed in my own second paragraph above that the uniforms of my new friends would be quirky, colourful, and entirely distinct from the monochromatic attire of my own school? (Disclaimer: they're not.)

I do not identify myself using nouns such as "black" or "obroni", because I cannot stand behind the opinion that in doing so I would be accurately representing who and what I am in the face of the various presumptions that exist . Yes, I am black if I am acknowledging the colour of my skin, or ticking a box on a job application form, or confirming that my parents are both of Ghanaian descent, but "black" - as a noun, what does it mean? Going back to Smith's extract, does that mean that I must be a computer technician? A ballet dancer? A liberal or a sportsman? In such context then, the noun fails. There's no point in using it. As Stephen Fry wonderfully puts it, "We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing - an actor, a writer - I am a person who does things - I write, I act - and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun." So instead, I am "Jasmine", or whatever increasing combination of verbs my name has come to represent, including (but not limited to) a conglomeration of the people that I have met, places that I have been, books that I have read and past experiences I have encountered...all sprinkled with influences of my origin, nationality and culture. Surely this mishmash of factors cannot be dressed in one uniform?

GIS: reference to Ghana International School, Accra
Twi: native dialect of Ghana
obroni: expression in Twi pertaining to Englishness or whiteness

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