Combining memoir with ethnography, Joy White’s Terraformed offers an intimate exploration of the effects of racism, neoliberalism and austerity on young black lives. Drawing on research undertaken between 2015 and 2016, the book is an anthology of seven essays, which explore the interconnected themes of politics, culture and physical space. Using Forest Gate in the east London borough of Newham as a starting point, the author asks: what does it mean to be young and black in inner-city communities?
Despite being a stone’s throw away from the wealth of the City of London, Newham is one of the more impoverished boroughs in the capital. For many, life is precarious. Alongside stagnating wages, student debt, zero-hours contracts and high unemployment rates, the borough’s young people have inherited a legacy of surveillance, institutional racism and exclusionary policies in all areas of social life.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric and increasingly restrictive immigration policies through successive governments have given legitimacy to racist hostility in housing, work, schools and on the streets. Newham saw far-right mobilisations in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small number of British National Party candidate won up to 30 per cent of the vote in the south of the borough in the 1994 local elections. Despite this, black communities in Newham have established themselves and built strong community responses to hold the state and police to account. These include the Newham Monitoring Project, founded in 1980 as a response to police harassment and racist street violence.
White extends our understanding of the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants beyond the association with Theresa May’s policies and the 2018 ‘Windrush scandal’. The past 40 years have seen increasingly restrictive immigration policies and an expansion of the detention and deportation regime in Britain. Large numbers of people have been left with insecure migration status and contact with the criminal justice system can result in deportation. It can also be fatal: we are reminded of Edson de Costa, a black man who died in Newham following restraint by the police in 2017, aged 25.
For young black people in Newham, life is wrought with anxiety. This is in stark contrast to newly-arrived gentrifiers, for whom Newham is marketed as a place of opportunity and affordable housing. The street-level reality, often at odds with Newham Council’s regeneration plans, is explored in chapter three (‘Why music matters’), where White dissects the relationship between music, black youth and gentrification.
She provides a rare positive commentary on drill and grime, emphasising youthful creativity and expression in difficult economic circumstances. Music is one of the few accessible creative forms for working-class black youth in an age of limited youth services – often music videos are shot with no budget on the street on smartphones. Despite its popularity, the music that areas like Newham has contributed to British culture has been demonised, used as a scapegoat to blame for a youth violence epidemic in London.
One of the most captivating elements of Terraformed is the author’s relationship to the community she is writing about. White grew up in Newham and has family there. Its history is reflected in her personal story – she refuses to separate herself from the community she is writing from, giving her a rare perspective. The most powerful sections are where she is addressing violence and trauma, exposing black vulnerability when talking about her own experiences.
The book is both deeply personal and political, examining the other side of violence often left out of the mainstream conversation. One of the questions she considers is what is it like to survive being shot? One chapter is dedicated to her nephew, Nico Ramsay, who was stabbed to death in 2016, aged 19. Sharing the stories from her own life she invites us to reckon with the social and emotional cost of structural and interpersonal violence: ‘Planning a funeral for a teenager – who does that? How do you come back from that?’ This may be academic work, but it’s not an abstraction.
White offers a sophisticated portrait of inner-city life, weaving together interviews, cultural commentary, historical records and her own personal recollections. While she does not shy away from the brutal ‘everyday adversity’ faced by many black youth, her analysis does not pathologise or remove their agency. A message of hope runs throughout her work, emphasising resistance and creativity.
Angelica Udueni is a socially conscious writer, researcher and content creator. You can follow them on Twitter @6ngelica
This review originally appeared originally appeared in issue #228 ‘Climate Revolutions’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.
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