Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
“Any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to go for broke.” (A Talk to Teachers, or A Negro Child and his Self Image, 1963)
Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded is a project I developed in collaboration with sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, a collective of young artists, writers and activists that I mentor and collaborate with.
Produced by agency for agency’s Teresa Cisneros, the project begins with Horace Ove’s 1969 film Baldwin’s Nigger, which records a dialogue with James Baldwin and Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Centre in London in 1968.
Hosted by members of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement, Baldwin’s polemic covers timely topics such as the legacy of slavery, black power and integration, the political conditions that led to race riots, religious extremism, American Imperialism and the Vietnam War.
With questions posed from people present in the room, the dialogue following his speech opens into an experience of the British post-colonial experience of the world and being black.
A provocative question is posed asking, where does Baldwin think the black man will be in 50 years time?
Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded is a performance work that reflects on the question posed by that audience member nearly 50 years down the line.
By transcribing and rewriting Baldwin’s provocation with a variety of people in different places and at different times, each new iteration invited people to bring their ideas, experiences and views to the table to rescript the text.
Below is an extract is from Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded at Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2015), written and performed by Barby Asante, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable’s Laurel Hadleigh, Anni Movsisyan and Deborah Findlater, with Karen McClean, Chantal Pitts, Albert Smith and Nathaniel Grant:
I have no specific ancestral home other than the place I was born.
Which is England.
Part of the United Kingdom
Part of Great Britain
The island in the surrounded by sea
The English Channel and North Sea separating us from mainland Europe
And the Atlantic Ocean the gateway to the world
My arrival at this place is a series of complex journeys and connections.
Which began somewhere before documented herstories began
Somewhere in the gateway
In the oceans
On ships that carried the ancestors of my father
To the auction block
And my mother’s people worked the land
And their births and deaths were not registered until they needed to use their bodies
To labour in factories
Turning iron ore into steel!
And I tell you that story, to dramatise the problem of racial identity,
I am black/mixed race British,
but the rejection from a significant portion of the white British community
whilst growing up here has left me feeling unable to be proud of my Britishness.
So I have searched elsewhere for my authentic racial identity.
Trying to find a place of acceptance.
Britain seemed to forget its colonial and industrial past
It seemed to not wish to own it’s vociferous need for power, wealth and land
Taken from people considered lesser than them
It seemed to forget the blood shed
The women violated
Deformed and desperate
Left without parents
For me the work comes out of a number of questions about how to speak about our presence as people of colour in the UK.
How do we speak about our histories, when they are erased and not officially taught?
How do we connect the stories and experiences of the different generations to develop a strong community that can move forward powerfully asserting their right to be here?How do we speak about our histories, when they are erased and not officially taught?
The speech in Baldwin’s Nigger, as with many of Baldwin’s writings, seemed to offer an opportunity to reflect, reassess and create propositions as Baldwin always seems to leave us with a call to arms, a question, a proposition.
His London speech ends with the words “We should figure out what to do”. This is what our young people are attempting to do and as a teacher and an artist who walks upon the shoulders of artists like James Baldwin I take the call from him I used at the beginning of this piece about working with our young people very seriously.
Click here to listen to the sound piece created by G-Marie as an intro to Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded:
Since first hearing them, in Baldwin’s simultaneously soothing and arresting rhythmic intonation, these words play at the forefront of my consciousness. They ring like revolutionary tinnitus. When silence overwhelms they remind me of my own voice. When I submit to making myself small they remind me to take up space. When I am drowning in the total climate of anti-Blackness, when I feel hopeless and terrified, Baldwin teaches me to breathe, to swim, that I am the weapon of mass destruction so feared.“When you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you had a right to be here…you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”
The last 4 years have been historic. Black and brown resistance is fresh, fierce, unapologetic and unrepentant. It is more radically inclusive than ever. Young Black and brown folk are doing just as Baldwin says. They are staring white supremacy right between the eyes and they are saying, ‘You do not know us. You do not define us. You will not rule us.’
And as the last 18 months in Global politics have shown, white supremacy is feeling very, very, attacked.
We, as Black, queer subjects are, to borrow Moten’s term, in a state of “ceaseless fugitivity”. Baldwin asks us to embody this state as a praxis of collective action. To rip the rotting heart out of the beast while it attempts to devour us. To be ourselves. For each other. And always with love. He reminds me that I am enough. That we are enough. And that we will win.
I came to James Baldwin in 2011 when a friend ‘had a breakdown’ and left school. Following this, his roommate moved to New York City where he made a living stealing books and selling his time as research participant to New York University’s department of psychology. When I visited he gave me a copy of Giovanni’s Room, saying it was the nearest explanation of what had transpired that year in their room.Young Black and brown folk are doing just as Baldwin says. They are staring white supremacy right between the eyes and they are saying, ‘You do not know us. You do not define us. You will not rule us.’
After moving to Baltimore I reread Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse looking for answers to personal questions. I thought she had damned the book but I was wrong and she was into it. I went through Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time that spring on the commute to work. Relationships were dissolving so I switched texts, returning again and again to this passage as though it could account for something or give a program for what should be done:
The white man’s unadmitted, and apparently, to him, unspeakable private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. (The Fire Next Time, 1963)
That summer I drove with my family to Memphis, Tennessee under the twin influences of my father’s love for Graceland and my mother’s for If Beale Street Could Talk. Like any good road trip, like Baldwin himself, it unsettled the question of what (and why) America is. The answer gained from the trip was that Americana was deathly.“But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction.”
From London, Baldwin appears retrospectively to crystallise my political education: an unrelenting announcement of this intractable antagonism– but, at the same time, revealing this founding to be a doggedly persistent “myth”. From here and at this moment, the movement toward the receding horizon of its dispelment (as constitutive as transcendental illusion) appears as the movement of freedom – what he would elsewhere call the “means of liberation”.
“Once I was able to accept my role— as distinguished, I must say, from my ‘place’ — in the extraordinary drama which is America, I was released from the illusion that I hated America” (The Discovery of What it means to Be an American, 1959)
Sometimes when I am sleeping or when I am minding my own business or when the music is very loud and very black and I am scheming about the revolution with the bridge of my back, Jimmy’s face pops up with its wise creases and wide smile and those big round eyes that make you rethink where you are and what your name is and the shapes you make with your mouth when you try to let somebody know who you really are.
James Baldwin, queer-Black-gift-unto-the-universe; vessel from God or some other unholy place. Have you read him? Read him again, or read him for the first time and dwell for a while in your transformation. Take some time for your eyelids to part and for the cocoon that wraps you now to gently loosen. Embrace infancy.
Jimmy says ‘Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.’ I think I have only ever found the love Baldwin is speaking about in freedom dreams, and even then I have to re-member it often. I dream about freedom, feel it on my skin. I watch as it jumps across my face. Sometimes I miss it completely.
I think I grow up every time I hear his words, and at precisely the same moment I feel just like a child – a child of all the Black revolutionaries whose existence came before me and who rewrote the meaning of life with their living.
Barby Asante is a London based artist, curator and educator whose work explores place and identity through creating situations and spaces for dialogue, collective thinking, ritual and reenactment. @barbyasante
Formed out of the Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded Project initiated by artist Barby Asante and curator Teresa Cisneros, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable is a collective united by a rejection of the idea that we are living in a post-racial, post-patriarchal, post-heteronormative and post-colonial society, and a desire to challenge and critique these dominant structures. @SYFUCollective
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite