How should cities deal with legacies of guilt?

I wrote this back in 2017…

Dear reader,

I haven't been blogging in recent months. I don't feel I have much to say.

I have now moved to Bristol and I and my family are gradually settling in. The legacy of slavery looms large here and has loomed larger in recent years. The controversy of street and building names and, of course, monuments to slave-owners - most notably to Edward Colston - has arisen here, not with the overt violence seen in the US, but still with anger, passion, and division.



This morning, I attended an event entitled 'How should cities deal with legacies of guilt? at the Watershed in Bristol. The event was of the Festival of the Future City itself presented by the Bristol Festival of Ideas. It was hosted by historian David Olusoga who facilitated a discussion between Tim Cole, a historian of the politics of memory of the Holocaust; Madge Dresser, a historian of Atlantic slavery and its effects on British culture; and Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol-based writer and performer.

Most of this hour-long discussion was a historically contextualised exploration of the politics and ethics of monuments. Central, understandably, was the question of whether monuments commemorating figures or regimes of violence should be brought down and, if so, what they should be replaced with. I was pleased to hear all three panelists speak supportively for monuments or artistic interventions that open up space for public contribution. I too believe that any replacements, even when expressing desires or demands for justice, cannot be monological entities that closed down space, but must be open and dialogical inviting us all to contribute to the narratives, past, present, and future, that we as citizens, as common humanity, share.

At their best, however, such monuments or artistic interventions can only create dissensus and spaces for transformation. They cannot be transformative in themselves. What must come next, then, have to be concrete processes that enable us all to work together towards truth, justice, and healing. It was disappointing for me, then, that, only when it was opened up for audience questions, did the discussion shift away from 'ideas' towards the realms of feelings.

The first contribution from the audience came from a young black woman who was clearly in a huge amount of pain. As I interpreted it, she expressed feelings of 'humiliation' in living in Bristol and facing not just the continuing architecture of historical violence, but the continued racism of our city and society. Responding to her, Vanessa Kisuule acknowledge this woman's feelings. Kisuule gestured to her, by touching her hand to her heart and chest, telling her 'I know!' These were the two most profound and important words of the whole event. I was saddened, therefore, that, perhaps just instinctively, David Olusoga, the chair, responded himself by reaching out, touching Kisuule's hand, and, jokingly, said something like 'Careful! This could go deep!' To be clear, this is not a judgment of Olusoga's acts. I could well have possibly done the same thing. It felt like an articulation of an instinctive performance of regulating what can and can't be said at events like these.

Perhaps this wasn't the time and place for us to go deep; perhaps it was precisely the place. At some time, in some shared place, we have to go deep. We have to go far, far beyond ideas if we seriously want to deal with legacies of guilt. Yes, guilt can be defined merely in technical legal terms or, more ethically, in historical evaluations, but guilt is, first and foremost, a feeling. Where there are feelings of guilt, there is shame, there is violence, there is humiliation, there is vengeful anger, there is deep pain, there is trauma. Whether we like it or not, these are the 'deep lakes' of trauma, as Thomas Hubl calls them - personal and collective - that sit in our subterranea. The closer we are, historically and culturally, to their source, the more physically and spiritually we feel them, true. But, since we are one, we all feel them. There are hegemonic constructions not just of ideas but of feelings that lay the foundations and scaffolding for what Gloria Anzaldua has called our 'desconocimientos' - ‘The ignorance we cultivate to keep ourselves from knowledge so that we can remain unaccountable'. But, however, sturdy these constructions, those deep, wide lakes remain below.

A quick example of feelings. After the event, I spoke briefly with Vanessa Kisuule. What words were said are of secondary importance. Let me faithfully share my feelings. I felt like a white man telling a black woman about racism and injustice. I felt awkward. I felt like I was patronising even though I had no such intention. I felt like I wanted to be an equal human being with her, but I felt divided. I did not feel guilt. Please try not to judge these emotions. I've had a black woman tell me before that I should get over myself. She might be right. However, these feelings are not, as I understand them, feelings of self-pity at all. They are feelings of alienation from another human being with whom and for whom I want equality, justice, and solidarity.

I went home from the Watershed, cycling up those bastard Bristol hills in the drizzle. I got home, got my wet clothes off, changed into dry clothes, and sat down. I became aware of huge, powerful forces of feeling inside me - in my chest, my stomach, my throat. I decided to take 10 minutes to feel them. I sank down into them and images soon came to me. I was working some land by the side of a cliff which descended down into the sea. The grass was bright green, the sea bright blue, the cliff bright white. Suddenly, I was struck and cut on my shoulder. I saw a small beaten boy. He was dead. His body was pushed off the cliff. It bounced with thuds down to the sea below. Next, I was a man whipping the bloody, serrated back of a woman. Then, I was swimming in the sea through bodies and debris, fires from the cliffs. Was it a revolt? I don't know.

Wounds can be bridges, declares Gloria Anzaldua. We fragment, we can reunite. But, these bridges are conscious processes of healing that we as a society need to build. I am currently involved in a process of group work, inspired and organised by Thomas Hubl, that seeks to delve deep into our personal and collective lakes of trauma in preparation for its participants to facilitate and support other processes of healing. But, what I am acutely conscious of in this and all processes is the need for those most direct victims of violence - not just the gratuitously physical, but the humiliating, dehumanising cultural, symbolic, often unwitting, everyday violence - to be silent no more and to name that violence, their feelings. In such processes, not only do they pronounce their own humanity (always there, but denied by the system), but they shine a light out of the dark towards our own reclaimed, unified, more complete humanity. This, I believe, nay, I feel, is how we must and can go forward in order for us all not just 'deal with', but to overcome legacies of guilt.

Thank you for reading

Blessings and peace to you