Black History Month picked a fight with me - or I fought with her (him?)
And it was (like most battles) a question of territory - and about naming
I said I had other names, other places to be - (everywhere, everyone)
I said I was too busy with technologies of fixing to be fixed - on a map or a month
I said there was more to see (and be) than - Black in October
And she (he?) said that I was being high minded - radical, idealistic
Instead of dealing, being - unrealistic, unfeeling
bad-minded - and treacherous
dreaming-selves shiver - imaginations dip
ready to run (yes they are) - for the hills of November
to escape - to live beyond
and out of time - we arrive
A year ago, in response to the October 2018 Black History Month issue of this magazine, I wrote a piece on Black presence in the world of therapy. I liked it well enough back then and emailed it to the editor, with no intention of reading it again pre-publication.
Initially, when publishing was rescheduled and I was asked if it could be included in the 2019 Black History Month issue, I said no. The idea of writing about Black presence in an issue set aside for Black presence frustrated me and seemed absurdly ironic. I attempted to edit my frustration away and ended up watching in horror as the minor tweaks I had planned to make avalanched into a frenzy of cutting and shedding. What follows is a conversation between excerpts from the original piece (that was not intended for here) and the frustrated imagination (that is averse to being here at all) – a version of aversion.
The excerpts from the original article are in roman type; the frustrated imagination speaks in bold.
In the Wake
In Christina Sharpe’s work In the Wake: on blackness and being,1 she locates herself – and all of us – within the Wake of slavery. She explores, using multiple registers of the Wake, Black lives as the unfolding afterlives of slavery. Having considered the ongoing abjection and exclusion of Blackness, she proposes thought itself as an act of care.
Being able to think of ‘the Wake’ as an act of care has supported a deepening of my work as therapist and teacher. Being able to ask questions about the different locations and positions that we occupy within the Wake has created space within which we can – affectively and effectively – address the past-that-is-not-past. We might assume that therapy acknowledges the importance of the past and how it manifests in the present, but Blackness, and slavery’s afterlives, test this assumption. If not, it would not be possible to hear it said that ‘things would be better if people could get over slavery’ or that ‘racism will disappear if we stop talking about race’.
Therapists are not alone in being discomfited by Black presence, but the refusal to explore this more fully becomes a hill on which therapeutic practice goes to die. Our best efforts to position slavery in the past are doomed because we cannot get over that within which we still exist. We exist within Black, Brown (and White) bodies. Race is a construct without any biological basis, but its impact is real. Being a Black or Brown body means carrying the past in our skin – literally signalling the past as present with our own presence. The extent to which we are able to express and be with these realities in therapeutic relationships is the extent to which those relationships can be therapeutic. What capacity do I/you/we have for establishing a therapeutic frame that acknowledges the Wake, and allows navigation of the-past-that-is-not-past?
Sharpe suggests looking to ‘forms of expressive culture that do not seek to explain or resolve the question of this exclusion in terms of assimilation, inclusion, or civil or human rights, but rather depict aesthetically the impossibility of such resolutions by representing the paradoxes of Blackness’.
Black History Month does not resolve the question of exclusion. We cannot assimilate, include or ‘civil-right’ ourselves out of the Wake. Sharpe asks about survival – how we do it and how art and literature mediate it. She tells of her mother bringing joy into the house ‘to make liveable all that was unliveable there’. Her words open spaces of imagination in me. I imagine Black History Month bringing joy by way of imagination; representing a space to explore the poetic, work across disciplines and blend genres; I imagine spaces to write about writing as a therapeutic pathway...
‘How much time do you want for your “progress”?’2 This is how James Baldwin addresses those who believe themselves to be White, in a 1989 documentary named after his essay, The Price of the Ticket. If you’ve seen this clip, you will recognise the frustration in Baldwin’s voice as he laments the time already taken – his time, his mother’s and father’s time, his nieces’ and nephews’ time. He is tired of waiting. I am tired too. How tired are you?
Perhaps we are all tired, even if the things we are waiting for are different. I am tired of being othered. I am tired of waiting for Whiteness to stop simultaneously centring and refusing to see itself. I am tired of waiting for an end to premature Black death. At times of peak tiredness, my disappointment and frustration make me cynical and I question my waiting. Is this wait for change – for the progress that Baldwin refers to – optimism or delusion? Is it keeping me alive or killing me slowly? Waiting might look like a passive state of doing nothing, but in fact it requires emotional space and energy. Presence while waiting is perhaps one of the under-researched practices of Blackness…
I don’t want to wait for Black History Month – not because I don’t enjoy what it brings, but because of all that gets lost in the wait. I feel them running out of me – ideas, desires, imagination, energy – irrigation waiting for a field into which to flow...
Consent not to be a single being
Fred Moten3 takes this phrase (from poet Édouard Glissant) to represent the communality of Blackness. Fundamental to transatlantic slavery was the denial and refusal of individual personhood to Black people that we continue to experience now, in the everyday. Witness the bewilderment of my sons and husband when, despite their individuality – their different ages, styles of dress and demeanours – people cross the street as they approach. No, I tell them, they have not noticed your designer glasses, your grey beard, or your shy expression – they have noticed Black. Witness the astonishment of a young woman attending a conference who is asked if she can teach a group of strangers to ‘twerk’. No, they have not noticed your quietness, your bag full of books or your anime tattoos – they have noticed Black.
The recovery of Black subjectivity must be a focus of therapeutic work. As therapists, we are witnesses – if we allow ourselves to see and hear – to our clients’ struggles to be seen as individuals, as someone. We all want to be seen by the world for who we are, and still too often to be Black is not to be seen past the body you inhabit. We live with the constant risk of becoming invisible inside a mass (a joint enterprise, a commodity) or visible only as a fixed, exoticised, homogenous other.
Accordingly, I bear therapist-witness to the man of Jamaican heritage who tells me how he must invest heavily in not being seen like a Jamaican, and to the young woman afraid to leave an abusive relationship because ‘people already think all Black girls are single parents’. In bearing witness to their (and my own) fights for subjectivity, I hold in mind the ways in which this fragile subjectivity – for all its cruel absurdity – also buoys a sense of collective agency. In other words, the insistent ‘we’ of Blackness within which lies hope – not just for we who are marked as Black but for humanity. This recognition is integral to my therapeutic practice and requires creativity, since – like many of us – I was trained in models that centre individual development, promote personal over collective agency and give scant attention to historical or sociological context.
I have experienced some stunning moments within collective and community over this past year – a broad range of psychological practices that support Black presence. I work alongside and am inspired by practitioners who recalibrate the therapeutic with literature, music, conversation and, in the words of Tisa Bryant,4 ‘talks and critiques assembled against hegemony, from across the kitchen table, from out in front, from across the street. Lens of the eye, Black and squinting’. My heart is open with gratitude for artist Barby Asante5 and all the women involved in the Declaration of Independence project. I imagine Black History Month representing a space in which I could say more about this…
Knowing what we know
These days, like Reni Eddo-Lodge,6 I am reluctant to show up to certain conversations about race and racism, especially where what is being debated is whether racism exists (short answer, yes) or what we can do about it (do you have the attention span for the nuance required?). Although I may choose not to participate, I remain painfully aware that witnessing these conversations (for example, at a distance on TV or social media) – is enough to impact what psychologist Guilaine Kinouani calls epistemic confidence.7
Kinouani illustrates this with a personal story – finding herself standing on the street, with her possessions around her, holding her newborn baby and being asked to prove that she is homeless. Kinouani recalls how the questioning of this reality – from a position of power – shakes her confidence in her ability to ‘know’. Reflecting on this, alongside research and clinical experience, she concludes that, for people of colour living within structures that are racist but that refuse to acknowledge themselves as such, confidence in our own knowing can easily be compromised.
My experience has shown me that experiences that present the past-that-is-not-past are highly likely to be questioned (‘But how do you know that was racism?’) or denied (‘You’re just being paranoid, angry...’). In responding to these challenges to knowing, these ‘situations of epistemic injustice’, Kinouani advocates taking a sociopolitical view of the situation by asking: ‘Where does the power lie, and who is it that is deemed to be the “knower” here?’ We can support Black presence by bringing these questions to our clients for consideration, thus giving permission to and encouraging embodied knowing. How are we supporting clients (and ourselves) to hold on to knowledge that powerful systems would diminish and deny, or to remember, as Kinouani says, that lived experience/reality does not have to be subject to approval or debate?
…the capacity to support/be Black presence relates directly to the capacity to know what Black knows – even when that knowing hurts, or when it disrupts established paths of thinking or operation. I know that part of me is pulling to get away from Black History Month and that my impatient imagination is leading the way. It imagines itself free to move beyond a Black month – beyond all the names it has been given, beyond identity and intersectionality. It reaches to embrace futurity and points towards Black feminist love-politics, practices of care and pleasure activism. I imagine Black History Month representing a space in which I could write of pleasure and ritual and revolutionary m(othering)…
Presence: the songs we sing
I’m not sure that what I am writing will ‘fit’ in Therapy Today, but I am aware as I write that a voice in my head is concerned that it should fit. The voice has opinions (lots of them) about what I should (and should not) write. It questions my language choices and my use of the personal. It warns me against being off-key and thinks I should be careful about the songs I choose to sing. At a recent conference, I listened to Jungian psychoanalyst Fanny Brewster8 relating a story of her experience in training – of being told by another student (a White man) that she only had one song, and that she sang it all the time. He accused Brewster of bringing everything back to race. In desiring an end to her song, it seems to me that he was really desiring her absence. I remember this from my therapy training – the charge that I was ‘spoiling-it-for-us-by-bringing-this (you)-here’. I wish Fanny had been one of my teachers, so that I could have known that I was not alone in carrying the past-that-is-not-past – the Wake – in my skin, and known that there is no such thing as a race-free song, and that the problem is not a limited repertoire but pervasive, unrelenting racism.
I think about this White man, and his dream that a Black woman’s silence might free him from the complexities and challenges of race. I wonder what he might make of Black History Month. Would he be frustrated to see a month set aside for the singing of the same song? Or would he take comfort from the month as a container – within which at least pesky singing can be corralled? Contained or not, race-as-detachable is not possible from within a Black body. Effective therapeutic practice relies on race-as-detachable not being possible from within any body. If Black presence sings, it is not to a single song but to a soundtrack – one that belongs to us all. I imagine Black History Month representing a space for the soundtracks that illuminate our various knowledges, therapies and methodologies of fixing…
The verb ‘to presence’
Psychotherapist, academic and Black feminist Gail Lewis9 explores how Black women are rendered visible and invisible – frequently bypassed, except where our visibility is needed to illustrate diversity or to demonstrate ‘how much lack needs to be charted, or how much the neoliberal project of fairness is falling short’. Lewis proposes a praxis of presencing – of being ‘found and recognised’: ‘presence, or the verb “presencing”… as a process of “hereness and aliveness”, is a decolonial move through which counter-histories, counter-spatialities, subaltern epistemologies and modes of being are created and announced.’
In my own life and work, the praxis of presencing consists of multiple actions: finding, reading and citing Black therapists and scholars; recognising and engaging with the past-that-is-not-past; connecting with others to support each other’s confidence to know what we know. Presencing includes recognising that I/we are more than single beings and continuing to make spaces and places where our ‘hereness and aliveness’ can have expression, attention and respect. Presencing includes appreciating that, without these practices, my presence in this field would have long since faded. If I had not enacted a transdisciplinary gathering of teachers, guides, companions and resources, my attempts to make up for what was lacking in my therapy training would have faltered. Black presence needs ‘verb-alising’ – that is, to be understood as a set of actions rather than a wish list; not just something to wait for. Black presence is what we do while we are waiting and what we must continue to do – a praxis of survival.
Could it be that the undoing of my first article was not just an act of editorial destruction but also a praxis of survival? Could it be that creativity operates as a technology of presence? I will say yes and cite the work of Paul Gilroy,10 who says that Black music production is a manifestation of the ‘changing same’ of Black Atlantic cultures. Gilroy focuses attention on dubbing, scratching and mixing; on borrowing, displacement and transformation; and on continual reinscription and production of versions. As someone who grew with versions – transmitted via dub plates and sound systems – I hear and appreciate the question he poses: ‘How does the memory of one version transform the way in which subsequent versions are heard and understood?’ In the writing of this article, one version has transformed the way in which I heard and understood the next. This version riffs on Baldwin’s question ‘How much time do you need?’ and asks in addition ‘How much space can we make?’ The answer, for now, is ‘as much space as we can imagine’, and this becomes a starting point for the versions to come.
I imagine Black History Month as a space supporting Black presence in the form of never-ending versions, imagined and reimagined. I imagine – visualise – a space that has expanded across territory and time into all of our months and days; a space capacious enough for the pasts that are not past and the dreaming of possible futures; a space dynamic enough for we who are so much more than history. May the presence – and presencing – be with us.
Foluke Taylor is a counsellor/psychotherapist, writer and educator. Through transdisciplinary scholarship and practice, she continues to explore the blended ‘fixing methodologies’ that are therapy, art and activism. Foluke teaches at the NAOS Institute in London. Her memoir/bio-mythography How the Hiding Seek was published in October 2018.
1. Sharpe C. In the Wake: blackness and being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; 2016.
2. Baldwin J. The price of a ticket. [Documentary film.] American Masters; 1989. www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCUlE5ldPvM
3. Moten F. Black and blur: consent not to be a single being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; 2017.
4. Bryant T. From our whole self: an intraview of black women writers’ experimentation. In: Hunt E, Lundy Martin D. Letters to the future: black women/radical writing. Tucson, AZ: Kore Press; 2018.
5. Asante B. Declaration of Independence. Storyvault Films; 2019. https://vimeo.com/326049910
6. Eddo-Lodge R. Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. London: Bloomsbury; 2017.
7. Kinouani G. Epistemic homelessness. TEDx Talks; 1 December, 2017. www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoKBLPbkB5I
8. Brewster F. Binding legacies: ancestor, archetype and other. African-American Jungian analysts on culture, clinical training/practice and racism. CAP Conference, London; 13 October 2018.
9. Lewis G. Questions of presence. Feminist Review 2017; 117(1): 1–19.
10. Gilroy P. The black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness. London: Verso; 1993.