Following the killing of George Floyd and the protests that are now taking place around the world, playwright, critic and former British Museum Trustee Bonnie Greer explores the ideas of trauma and reclamation, and how we need to use the past to build our future.
Bonnie Greer: what we have saved from the fire
6pm, 4 April 1968.
I was styling my hair in the bathroom mirror.
This was when Black girls and women made monthly trips to the hairdressers so that we had hair like Twiggy or Rita Hayworth. This involved a concoction whose base was lye, which rested on the head for an hour. We had all been brought up to endure the pain and there was always the music coming from the radio in the salon and the gossip to distract you from the pain.
This always happened at the salon your mother frequented, so the style you got was too old, which made it necessary to re-style at home.
Maybe I was listening to Motown that warm spring evening and maybe not, I don't recall. But I do recall the bulletin which broke in on my music: Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis.
He was dead.
I said to myself: 'this is it.' And that was the only comment I made about Dr King's assassination for over 50 years. I could not listen to his voice for a half century, either.
Trauma can happen to a person, to a people, to a nation, probably to a continent too.
It is inter-generational, and it can be hidden. It is unconscious repetition. You cannot flee from trauma.
It has to be faced.
Trauma is the reason why the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and that he might have had a racial epithet hurled at him as the last thing he ever heard, make it almost impossible for me to look at a picture of his face.
So you go through life and time holding this trauma inside you. There are gestures and constellations that can reactivate trauma.
We humans, we are fragile.
I thought that I might make something about reclamation – the re-claiming of what we have lost, what has been lost, what has been taken. The effect of the loss.
I thought about my own ancestry. The story and the arc of the enslaved African in the so-called 'New World.' The captured African who became Someone Else.
But that journey for me from that evening in the mirror has been long and hard and never-ending. It came back again when I realised that I could not look at the video of the death of George Floyd. I saw this big African American man, muscular, with a confident smile on his face, being handcuffed by four white policemen.
In Minneapolis, they have a policy of restraint. They put pressure on the neck. Pin you to the ground. Combine that with the unspoken: we Black people have a higher pain threshold because our ancestors were considered machines. Farm animals. Machines and farm animals were treated better.
And also, as that line in The Godfather goes, 'the dark people, they have no souls.'
Back in the late '60s, like now, we burned down our own communities. This was the result of being born and raised and living in a ghetto. Your allotted area is all you have, all that you can safely imagine. All that you can affect. We burned a hundred cities. The parts we lived in mainly.
There was no one to talk to us like we needed to hear – no one to soothe us. 'Burn! Baby! Burn!' my generation insisted. Our 'I can't breathe.'
Like George Floyd's immortal words as he lay on the ground under the foot of a cop, whose own working class ancestors did not know that they were 'white' and what that meant until they came to live in America.
'I can't breathe.'
So it goes on and on through the generations. As Americans say, 'You can't put lipstick on a pig' because it's still a pig, and one day it's in front of you. Again.
My late uncle ran a boys' club on a housing estate much like Grenfell Tower. He and my aunt and cousins lived on the top floor, and the playground seemed like a tiny dot below and always crowded.
My uncle, a small man, spent his nights during the 'Burn Baby Burn' uprisings with other male community members standing in front of angry young men. Trying to get them to go home.
He out-talked the local police, preventing them from using their typical tactic when confronted by Black men, take them down. Investigate later. Maybe.
The question is: did we all actually survive that summer?
Have we actually survived at all? Or have we become 'something else' that we cannot yet name? All of this in the heart of a pandemic fuelled by a brand new virus.
What will we do? What have we done in the past?
The bacterium Yersinia pestis, or 'the Black Death', arrived from perhaps the Crimea on board an Italian ship from about 1346–1353. The plague caused by this bacterium lasted until about 1654 in Europe.
1353 brings Boccaccio's Decameron written in the vernacular, the language of the people. Young people telling each other stories to connect with life, to keep life inside of themselves, to look to their own salvation.
A ravaged Europe raised its head from devastation and looked out. It looked wide. It learned to navigate what was called 'the ocean sea'. Navigate to Africa. Perhaps to reclaim its humanity through the dehumanisation of others.
One of the purposes of the curation, 'The Era of Reclamation', which I am developing in collaboration with the Director of the Museum, Hartwig Fischer, is to look for linkages and the questions that they force on us.
An example, what trauma arose from pandemics like the Black Death, from great famines, from climate change? What did humans fashion out of them? What did they make in order to express and heal themselves? What did they pass on to later generations? Did their idea about religion change and what did they create out of this? Did they become bigger as political entities or smaller? Did the position of women change? Did cultural expression change? Did it even survive?
Can we find, through The Era of Reclamation, something that can help inform and most importantly heal us? And show the resilience of the human spirit. Even now.
Show that out of all the chains and broken glass and burning bodies and stolen land and just plain grief, that we humans have survived. That we have built something: the continuity of human triumph over trauma. We are doing it.
Even now. No matter how long it takes.
History demands witnesses. It is essential to be one now, a witness of the past living in the present. It is necessary now to say that I have seen things, felt things done things, been things, am things that are so close to what is happening now. That I have saved some things from the fire.
What use, too, is it to have lived and not be able to say that there is pattern, that there are arcs.
Museums hold arcs. They hold them in the people who work there, in the objects, in the scholarship, and in the building itself.
Reclamation becomes an arc in which truth can be discovered. And perhaps, if we are all lucky, trauma healed.
We have a window now. It is augmented by social media and all the new technologies at hand. They have their own lives, they morph, they grow.
Young people now have a much larger political and cultural palate than my generation ever had. They will prevail.
We can reconstruct museums as places in which we can claim more and more of our common humanity, face our common trauma and do one of the things that we do best: tell stories.
Just as Boccaccio's people came together in a plague-infested Florence to talk to one another. Talk is a method of healing.
As is music.
I'm listening a lot to the music of that Burning Time, of the entire '60s, including We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. It is a kind of reclamation for me.
It enabled me to finally look at those moments leading to the death of George Floyd, yet another African American man being killed by the police. The music helped me face down my own trauma.
It has become my reclamation.
A daughter of a friend asked me to tell her about Martin Luther King.
I had to listen to his 'Mountaintop Speech', the one he made the night he was assassinated.
He said: 'I don't need to get there.' Because he had made a reclamation himself. He had seen what he called 'The Promised Land' of freedom, of equality, of peace and joy.
And I had seen it too. With the help of a child who had asked me to remember.
Read Bonnie Greer's blog on The Era of Reclamation and her blog exploring the concept of reclamation through three journeys in her life.