Brother Lee's Retirement Cake

Okay, encouraged by the fab response to my writing last week, and cos my mind ain't full of our Whitworth Exhibition, I'm gonna attempt to write my journey as a book, using the same headings Why Do I Write? 500 words, Belonging and a Sense of Place 500 words, and Past, Present and Future 2000 words, as rules. The final rule is I can't refuse what my subconscious hands me. I know my subconscious knows the truth. Rules make navigation easier. I'm gonna serialise it here week by week. Scary. Some weeks will be better than others. Some will be shit. Some will be fabulous. What will happen is we will all discover together why I made this journey. And why you made this journey with me. Exciting. Here is the second chapter. Last week's blog was the first. Pic by Karen Rangeley. <3

Why Do I Write?

I haven’t written for a long time. Not since 2010. Not in a structured way. I haven’t written because I no longer believe in writing. I no longer believe in writing the way I have been taught to write. I no longer believe that the structure in which my writing has evolved was right for me. I’ve spent the last 10 years unlearning what I have been taught.

In 2010 I was barred from my own rehearsal for suggesting the white middle class director was asking the secondary white characters what they think and telling the main black characters what to think. It seems ridiculous now. It began on Friday night. No it began on the day I first turned up for rehearsal late. No it began when she asked me to co-write the play. It began when I ended up doing most of the writing. It began when I gave her all the white tender meat off the chicken plate. It began in New York when there were 20 black actors and me and the two white directors: Polly and her co artistic director Nancy. Middle class. High middle class. And they asked the 20 African American actors to introduce themselves. They each introduced themselves with their school.

‘Stanford.’

‘Harvard.’

We went round in the circle. I had no bra on. I was wearing a red linen Hobbs top. It was my pretending I belong linen days. I had shared my room with Polly, the white middle class director, the night before, because she had been locked out of the place she was staying by accident: her New York mate hadn’t left the key. ‘You can stay in mine.’ It was a huge room, overlooking Carnegie Hall. My mind was swimming with name-dropping overload. Carnegie Hall where Billy Holiday sang: where all the greats sang, a couple of blocks from Central Park. The waitress had asked me did I want my eggs over easy. I was in a film. She refilled my coffee. I was in a film. Yellow taxi cabs. Central Park Lake. Breakfast with my director. I was in awe of everything. I was most in awe of Polly’s good quality white pyjamas. I’m wearing cream matching thermals now, they look as good as Polly’s white pyjamas. And her Green and Blacks chocolate in her bag. I eat Green and Blacks all the time now, but it never lasts long enough to end up in my bag. In Central Park Lake restaurant, it literally was on the edge of their huge lake, they put a little tower of delicious little cakes in front of us. These were complimentary. They could afford it because of the price of their eggs. I had coffee from a real coffee maker. Again, I now have one real coffee every day. Polly had English tea. We talked about our dramatisation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was gonna take all the religion out of it. It seemed a mistake.

‘Stanford.’

‘Harvard.’

These huge names meant nothing when the posh British women spoke. Polly and Nancy commanded the room effortlessly. They seemed to be wearing Georgian bonnets. Stanford, and Harvard seemed to be dressed as slaves.

Belonging and a Sense of Place

So yesterday, the 11th of January 2020, me, Reno 12 Suzy Mousah and our filmmaker John Lloyd went to London to the Royal Academy, and the Tate Modern. We want to learn how to paint. We want our own place.

‘I want to throw paint at a canvas.’

I want it to be huge like that. Imagine it huge like that.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’re gonna love this one Suzy.’

Suzy and John move away.

I’m still hurting from what happened in the Royal Academy but I haven’t said a word. We’d come out of Lucien Freud self portraits blown away: the brush strokes; the texture of paint.

‘I want to do that.’

‘Me too.’

I want to build up texture like you did Suzy.’

‘I wanted to take months to really bring out them colours.’

We want to build our own set for the next stage: the MIF commission. We want a place where we can make a mess. Where no one bothers us. Where we can make a brew in our own room. Where our paintings can hang till they are finished, even if that takes months. Where we can lock the door. Where no one is gonna say the word ‘marginalised’ to us. Or make us a cause. Where we are just be us. Ennobled. Having expressed our pain for 18 months. Having bared out souls, that John has filmed, and we have made public. After all the photos we have gathered, and curated. After making an exhibition that is half a social history project and the other half ticking boxes, we feel we have earned the right to express ourselves artistically. Artistically.  We loved our 4 weeks go at expressing ourselves artistically. We loved painting with Whitworth technician Paul in the bowels of the Whitworth.

“All paintings are a self portrait in a way.’

Suzy and John agree.’

‘Where shall we go now?’

The guy on the desk directs us. It goes over our head. ‘I’ll ask,’ I say as we reach the bottom of the stairs still none the wiser. ‘Wait there.’ They wait there.

I wait for the Chinese Royal Academy helper to stop directing the posh white woman. She knows I am waiting. They both know I am waiting. I’m getting anxious because Suzy and John are waiting. The posh woman puts one foot on the stair. I get ready to ask my question. She is aware that I am ready to ask my question, ‘so, can you tell me what else is on in the gallery?’

‘Excuse me before you get into that, can you just tell me what room I need to see the art that is for sale?’

He puts one foot on the stairs to join the white woman. ‘Would you like me to show you what else is on in our gallery?’

She looks back at me. ‘No, it’s all right.’ She does a face like I am a nuisance, like he’d better see to the nuisance first.

You wouldn’t fucking dare do that if I was another posh white woman. In fact, if I was another posh white woman that fucking Chinese guy suffering from internalised colonialism would have most likely said, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’

I go to the information desk and ask.

‘I’ve found it,’ I say to Suzy and John.

Past, Present, and Future

1968. It’s summer. July. I’ve sprained my ankle the day before jumping off a swing in Alec Park. My brother and sisters wheel me through the entry on my baby sister’s red trike. We go to A + E. Me, my mum, my brother and the following 3 sisters. They strap my leg up to the hip. It is proper painful. It’s my Uncle, Brother Lee’s 65th birthday. He has retired. There is a huge white cake with his name on and loads and loads of candles. There is a black woman called Joy in a purple see through top. Without a shadow of a doubt my handsome dad is, I wouldn’t know the word flirting then, but he is definitely laughing every time that she laughs. Her hair is big. I mean big. My mum starts shouting at my dad. At first no one takes any notice. She’s so fucking loud now there is no way to avoid what she is saying. ‘You think you’re fucking clever, you and your black bitch. Yes, I’m talking to you.’

All the nice black women, the church type, the homemakers, the workers,  pretend they don’t hear her. The progressive big haired black women are ready to fight. My mum is ready to fight. She rolls up her sleeves.

‘You’re not sleeping in my bed a raase tonight.’ My dad walks towards the door.

Brother Lee carries on cutting his cake.  ‘Peggy, see your piece der.’

She slaps it out of his hand. 

‘A married man him,’ Brother Lee means married to her.

‘Married.’ She snorts. ‘Like the rock stone he lay down on the night he followed the whore from his wedding.’

‘Take de cake.’

Joy follows my dad to the door. Without a shadow of a doubt, aged 9, I know a white woman would not dare. She would know her place in this colony.

My mum upends the whole cake.

There is an intake of breath from the nice black women, and a snigger from the big haired progressive kind.

‘You feel better now Peggy?’ Brother Lee asks.

‘Put dem coat on an' come,’ my dad is passing through the door.

‘Are they on your bed?’ I ask Aunty Jean, Brother Lee’s white ‘wife’ who keeps sweets for the real full black nieces and nephews in the top draw of her bedroom chest of drawers. My mum is screaming at Joy as I leave for the bedroom. Jean’s ballerina music box on top of the chest of drawers would be too noticeable, instead I steal Brother Lee’s blue Ronson lighter from his top drawer. It takes at least a month before my mum gets out of our bed and back into my dad’s.

 

I have forgotten about my stolen Lucien Freud postcards when we arrive in the Tate. The Central American security guard doesn’t look in Suzy’s bag. I joke that she is getting preferential treatment. He just pressed my bag on the outside. John’s the same. Laughing, to show us he has treated us all the same. We put them in the cloakroom so our viewing is more comfortable.

Fucking hell: Rothko, Picasso, Klee, Miro, Pollock name after name of possibilities. Ways you can paint. Dali, Carrington, I like her cos she’s a female surrealist.

‘Look at the size of these, look at the size of these.’

Me and Suzy pirouette in the room taking in the huge brown strokes on the huge red canvas.

‘You can do anything.’

‘Exactly.’

I love showing off. Showing that I know these names. I’ve studied these names. Since 2010 I have come to London on my own to see these names. For ten years I have been studying what makes them them. How do they go from run of the mile to totally distinguishable? I told Suzy and John in the Lucien Freud we’ve just left how Freud’s woman wouldn’t come back. ‘A broken heart changed his game. Look. That’s her on the bed.’ Not that they cared. Smiling. But I care. I’ve been searching, searching, searching. Great painters seem to have one thing in common: a broken heart. It doesn’t necessarily mean a broken love heart. It can be a heart broken by war like Max Beckmann. There is always a moment of change.

 

‘Stanford’

‘Harvard.’

The name roll of self-recognition ended 3 days ago. For 3 days I have watched these people direct descendants of slaves be humiliated. Like I am being. Anyone black in Jamaica is a direct descendant of a slave. My family cooking on rock stones just like they would have when the big house existed, and their little kitchen garden is probably the same soil they grew their meagre existence in back then.

‘So Eva is dying,’ Polly is so excited in her Blanche Dubois kind of way. ‘Topsy is so sorry.’

Come on it’s 2010. Topsy might really have been so fucking glad. We only have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s word for it that Topsy is fucking upset. What if Topsy was a slave like me who loved beautiful things? Who, day in day out, week in week out, felt fucking hatred for little angelic blonde Eva because of her beautiful things. Who was kneeling by Eva’s bedside thinking well Mrs nothing can save you now. Wouldn’t that be progressive? Wouldn’t that be inclusive? Wouldn’t that be radical? Wouldn’t that be? Wouldn’t that be? But no Polly can only conceive of the story the way it has been written. Stanford and Harvard mean nothing to her. These African Americans have killed themselves to be better, to get somewhere.

They haven’t told you their qualifications before they have told you their name for nothing. But you don’t have to take that into account do you? Do you? Do you? Not for one second. And the older woman, the one to your right, was part of the Civil Rights, actually crossed the Selma Bridge. But that has no relevance. How does she see Uncle Tom’s Cabin? But that is irrelevant. How she may read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great epic has no relevance to you Polly because you Polly are part of the ruling class. You are not doing us a favour, bringing to light a classic that has black people in because it is 2010 and the UK has begun the process of decolonisation: looking at your self to make the world more inclusive. As long as that means seeing the world the way you have seen it for the last 400 years. What you are really doing is ticking boxes to get funding.

Polly adjusts her bonnet she is real excited now, she has got to the juicy bit.

‘I think Topsy is missing her friend.’

‘Stanford. Harvard. From ancestors who probably did pick cotton. Are you for fucking real? How can she be her friend? How can she? They’re not fucking equal. Eva can be saintly because, because, because she owns every fucking thing. They can be, her dad can be a nice slave owner, but he is still a slave owner. I’ve just been laughing in the corridor with the girl who is playing Topsy that Topsy is probably well happy Eva is dying. But now Topsy is kneeling by Eva. You don’t understand. You simply don’t understand. We have different reference points. This story is written by a posh white woman who doesn’t have any of them.’

Oh, man, am I the fucking hero in that room. From left, from right, from fucking centre 20 African Americans with Stanford and Harvard educations begin to rip Uncle Tom’s Cabin apart.

Nancy Meckler, Polly’s co-artistic director, throws off her bonnet when we are outside. She’s fucking furious with me. ‘When, we are together. Jews. We don’t show you what we are like together either. We don’t show you our reference points.’

I can afford to be benevolent. ‘I don’t fancy your chances,’ I say laughing. ‘You won’t get out alive.'

 

Me, John and Suzy have seen the whole of the second floor, in one room out of another.

‘Look at this.’

‘Look at that.’

‘Wow.’

‘We have to try sculpture.’

‘Any one of us could make that.’

‘I like that colour with that.’

 ‘Look at that light.’

 ‘No that’s really good.’

‘D’ya think so?’

‘I don’t like the painting, I just like the light.’

We’re on the third floor. There is a bright orange wall made of carpet. People have written in the carpet pile. Someone is rubbing some out with her hand to make room for hers. There is a tall Chinese girl doing a really odd pose for her Chinese boyfriend who is clicking away. John and Suzy stop to sign their impermanent name and strike a pose. I don’t feel like it. I walk off thinking they have seen me enter the room on the left. They don’t follow me. I’m going from room to room. The artwork is a bit like the Tate Modern is scraping the barrel. The paintings and sculptures are missing finesse. I’m thinking, d’you know it’s just someone deciding what is art and what it is not. It’s not the artist who needs reprimanding but the person pushing this as art. And these rooms aren’t even well curated. And the reasoning in the write ups are well stretched. I’m learning to look and just see if I like what I like just by sight alone and not because anyone is telling me why I should like it and who made it and why.  I’m lost in myself. I’m well lost. But I’m just thinking they’ll ring me when they want me. Then I walk up on top of them.

‘Where the fuck have you been?’

‘Where the fuck have you been?’

We’ve been up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs shouting LINDA.’

We’re pissing ourselves laughing.

‘SSSSSSH!!!!!.’

‘What?’

It’s a young girl.

“What did you just fucking say?’ It’s Suzy who engages.

‘Shhhh!!!!.’

‘Are you fucking mad?’

‘Have some respect for the building.’

‘Have some fucking respect for me.’

She’s maybe 25. She’s working class, second generation something.

‘It’s internalised colonialism.’ I say to Suzy and John. "She's ashamed of us, because she's a shamed of herself.'

‘Ssssh!’

‘I’ll fucking ssssh, you in a minute. It’s not a fucking library.’

A part of me wants to explain we are artists in resident in the Whitworth Gallery, and part of our process has been getting to be ourselves in buildings like these.

 

We’ve entered the best piece of art now. Babel: a huge tower of radios, starting with the oldest at the bottom. 1920, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s boom boxes, each reading a radio signal and playing what they hear.

‘An overload of information,’ John says. ‘Pure noise.’

At that precise moment the working class, second-generation girl enters. Knives are drawn.

‘Noise,’ Suzy says, ‘in a gallery.’

‘Oink, oink,’ the girl says.

‘Noise,’ Suzy repeats.’

‘Oink oink,’ the girl repeats.

‘Any time you come near me I will make more noise,’ says Suzy.

I’m smiling as I write it. It is a brilliant reply. The girl is struggling to contain herself. She wants to fight. Her friend pulls her away. Her friend is embarrassed.

 

Polly rang me for my opinion 3 weeks after we got back. I answer valiantly, even though I need the money, ‘sincerly. I don’t think you are equipped to do Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There is a whole different way a black company could reinterpret it. You don’t know how to reinterpret it. You never will. And I can’t go along with that.’ Arrogantly, foolishly, I think I have won a huge battle in her, and in me.

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