On change, belonging, and the other

Last week I thought a lot about change: Changing attitudes, experiences, the ever mutating zeitgeist.

I ran into town along the Thames, and felt the first stirring of belonging in this city that has been forced upon me, as I stepped into the street to dodge the tourists taking photos on the bridge by the Houses of Parliament.

A train took me South, across rolling fields and through gentle woodland (I’m sure many a poem has been written here). We walked and cycled through Swinley forest, bathed in February sunlight (oh vitamin D, come to me!). So all in all, a great day already.

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It was on the way back, chilled to the bone but with a smile plastered across my face, that a theme began to develop. I was reading Americanah, my curiosity having been piqued by Adiche’s talks, and was being rapidly drawn into a familiar yet alien depiction of being a foreigner in one’s own land. Adaptation to a new world (in the main character Ifemelu’s case America), that appeared complete, but left the soul wanting. A return to home, only to find that it is you who are found wanting, foreign, strange.

Although shivering, I kept my gloves off to turn the pages, instructed and delighted . But my concentration was broken by shouting. It was angry, fierce, ugly, but coherent. At first it did not appear to be directed against any one person in particular, and only the sense of aggression came through. But as we all changed trains at Clapham, the voice continued ahead, and was waiting on the platform as I walked up the steps. It had concentrated its anger at foreigners. Visible foreigners. Or actually, anyone who wore a headscarf or who might think of wearing one (I couldn’t see anyone present who outwardly fit the description, but that didn’t seem to be an issue). The voice had a large, solid body and an angry looking face, and a space had built up around it. I was sad that no one was challenging it, and in my mind went through ways to do so while protecting my back. While I schemed, a young man stepped forward. He had cornrows, a checkered hoodie, sneakers and a backpack hanging low. He took one headphone out of his ear and stepped forward.
-enough
The voice continued. Hate spewed forth.
-do you know where you are? You are in South London. We don’t feel this way, you have to stop now.
The voice was upset. It was Polish. We were not understanding that it belonged, and that we were all making a terrible terrible mistake by allowing these people into our country.
-you are wrong. It is their country too. We don’t think that way. You have to stop.
I wanted to cheer. The voice started shouting that he should go back to Africa. At that moment, when the hatred coalesced against an actual person, everyone got involved.
Two women stepped forward and shouted
-ENOUGH
All along the platform a murmur had gone up; enough, stop now, stop it right now.
When the voice rounded on one of the women, the first young man stepped closer and berated him for even thinking of talking to a woman like that. The voice was shut down. I wished that he could understand, and not feel like an outsider without making some other group his ‘others’, his ‘outsiders’.

We don’t think like that here. He is not the other. We belong, he belongs, they belong (sometimes). Our national imagining now includes different ‘I’s than it did 100, 50, 30, 20 years ago.

I walked out of the next station, happy to be part of this new national identity (with the caveat that it obviously has a long way to go).

I then walked into the representation of a very different national identity, memory, and recent lived experience.

My friend doesn’t feel much emotion, and when I said that I thought Selma was going to be a very sad film to watch, she looked at me in bewilderment: but it is a happy ending, why would it be sad? I thought of the events of last year, of police shootings, of New Orleans, of continued institutionalised racism…but voting! But Obama!

I thought of change, and such rapid change that it must be difficult to take in when it touches your own skin. I thought of those who were beaten, who died, or who never got to vote. I thought of Martin Luther King, of his family, of Malcolm X, of Maya Angelou and all the young black people today who have less opportunities, and more likelihood of arrest.

I thought of caged birds and broken promises, of divided countries and forgotten histories.

I thought of all these things and smiled sadly. I watched the film with a lump in my throat and a trickle of tears down my face.

But it was beautifully done. I would highly recommend it. The actors go from strength to strength, the costumes are fantastic, and the cinematography divine.

But it was very sad, and I can only imagine the debates and memories that it is (should be) stirring in America right now.

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