Settling in Our Skin: Gestures Towards the Frontiers of Human Spirit
An Extract of this piece features in the Khidr Zine: Issue 3, Frontiers as a commission piece
“The child in each of us knows paradise. Paradise is home. Home as it was or home as it should have been. Paradise is one’s own place, One’s own people, One’s own world, Knowing and known, Perhaps even loving and loved. Yet every child Is cast from paradise- into growth and new community, into vast, ongoing Change.“ – Octavia Butler
We are sat on a bench outside Tooting hospital and David1 says to me: “It’s like that part in Back to the Future, the bridge only appears when you start driving… you have to be thinking 4th dimensionally.” That’s when something unlocked and like Tetris, I could feel the different parts of me, those parts I don’t always know how to hold together, start to slot in place. A proper gotcha! moment. I got it. It was the same words I received from Gloria Anzaldua the last time I was embarking on new horizons that weren’t designed for people like me. Oscillating between unsure and excited. Is it possible that we may become more than anything we could even imagine? Can we actually give all that is unconscious in us voice? Those things that need to be heard, seen and felt? Do we really get to realise our dreams, the ones we cannot go to sleep on because they keep us awake and only come to us because we are awake and alive too? Can we really be this infinitely possible? I hear Gloria gently nudging me to the brink:
“ Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar/ Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks”2
Of course, they are both right. Nothing moves unless we do.
I’ve been watching myself move into new terrains and there has been much growth, some by choice and victory and some through leaving and loss. It’s the type of moving into yourself that pushes you out of your actual skin and you are left confronting: “What do you choose for yourself? What needs to go? Who do you want to move with? How are you creating a world you want live for? What will living this life feel like in your body?”
The blueprint of my reality is stark and I am admitting things I already know, this time more loudly. Everything has to be reconfigured, externally and internally too. After all, “Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.3
So I get real, I have outgrown many things: patterns, people, passions and I can no longer enable things that don’t serve me. That I have learnt death can honour life too. And though the trajectory is one I’m choosing for myself and the unmaking of existing structures is thrilling and terrifying in varying degrees, and even this act of constantly moving between emotions, makes me afraid.
I had already watched many times that if you live in between places, then you can even set up home there. And we as people of colour, growing up in ends, weren’t we already so many forms of homeless? And don’t even the birds show us that to take flight we must leap from a type of ground? From here you can spot the cycle of where things get stuck.
That sometimes you could fear choosing things, making decisions, because ‘bad’ decisions/ choices have been fatal for our communities and that ultimately choices were finite for us. So you’d always play your hand so cautiously if you wanted to bypass the stereotype or statistic you could end up as. That in precarity, between prevent and policing, taking risks could destabilise entire ecosystems we have built outside of the state, ones that were keeping you and others like you alive. So choosing becomes difficult, even more so choosing yourself.
And life, it never felt like it belonged to you, if it did how could so many things outside of you determine it? How is it that we could chart the lives of family, neighbours, friends and youth round ends and already see the odds stacked against them? That not everyone would ‘make it’, make it out alive, that is. How could it be that some of us would survive and others would not?
And like that through fear one could be kept endlessly between choosing and not choosing. But I cannot live between somewhere and nowhere. I can only be here. I share a facebook status encouraging the process. I know words set things in motion:
For those of us that cannot take steps towards an uncertain future, or see what is ahead worth moving towards. Do not rely on the oppressor’s eyes. Remember this is the space and time for the visionary. It’s time to see yourself what is needed to be brought in to the world. To en-vision. To see and create the world anew. The opening of our eyes must go hand in hand with an unfolding of a new reality. – 17th December 2016
While I’m committed to this truth, I’m not oblivious to the social constructs we are forced to live in: racial, gendered, sexual, class-based, islamophobic, abilist, and how they weigh on us and limit possibility – reducing life.
I joke and tell my black and brown middle-class friends: “One day I’m going to write a book called The Unbearable Heaviness of Middle-Classness.” Only I’m not joking.
Class violence in this country is British in character, seemingly unimposing, polite even but sinister and fatal to those it has already other-ed, and of course, class is racialized, gendered, and all the other -isms. Yet something about it feels relevant in our conversations on frontiers. Class being a dimension of oppression that gives the appearance of movement, that gives the promise that one day if you cross a certain threshold there is a promise of newness, of desired frontiers. That one day if you work hard enough, oppression too will have worked itself out of your life and you can live the better and successful life that you now deserve . Instead the reality being: you now have the resources and networks that could safeguard you from the repercussions of structural oppression. Only the DNA of oppression binds everything and nobody is free or safe or well under white supremacy.
Ideas of ‘better’ or ‘success’ here are rooted in capitalism and whiteness, so I’m unconvinced that foundations of injustice or imbalance can ever generate lives really worth living for. Lives that inspire us, or compel us, or grant us deep joy, pleasure, wholesomeness and health. After all, these ideas of success ask you to trade in, some part of your life for some parts of your dreams. They ask you to leave behind the ones you love, the ones who ‘who don’t ‘make it’ and paves the way for those in power to claim your personal triumphs as ways to validate systems of oppression. As ways to disinherit you from the things that really make you, you, and perhaps even some of the best parts of you. Like the prayers of neighbours in moments of triumph and despair,
or the bants of youth lightening poverty and precarity,
or the songs of our people which embraces you out of isolation,
or the courage of elders who brought you to this moment with a will to see life through even when you no longer want to.
#thatendzlove where both familiar people and strangers helped you transition moments of absolute helplessness when you were set adrift into chaos. That their conviction in you felt like somebody had drawn constellations in your palms so you could become aware of your own touch, how your own hands could hold to together a splitting world and that you could navigate yourself back home to yourself. Because love is intent in returning you to loving yourself.
إِنَّا للهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَیْهِ رَاجِعونَ
These people who are rooting for you without agenda unlike those in power, tell you when you win, they do too. Reminding us that we deserve our gifts and when we fully embrace them, we birth entire worlds. Making more and more space for each other. But within this, I remain unsure of how to take up space or claim my stake in the world. That most honestly we don’t know how to do this, even with all the access and diversity clauses, there is still not enough people that like us in the arenas we are in. So we begin to draw strength in the earth of our people’s love, which holds us and says: power is not always an instrument of oppression or abuse like we see used against us. Power can be the centre of your self-worth, a grounding dignity and integrity. Power as conviction and self-responsibility to follow through with actions accountable. Power as roots deep enough to give you unwavering strength to do work of collapsing the unnatural barriers and boundaries, the ones that have been holding you back from yourself. To just do it and get it done.
But success is not valued this way, this does not bring us likes or hype or funding. And these days the breaking of ‘glass ceilings’ keeps showing up glass floors. That under white supremacy and classist systems, we cannot grow without losing our ground, tying us to lead balloons. That the claiming of our dreams requires losing parts of ourselves. Yet even if we left everything behind, where our people remain is still not something we can separate from, only something to compartmentalise or dissociate. Emotional amputation.
How does one forget the ecology of survival that was our ends?
The way in secret we made life worth living because there wasn’t a safety beyond this? That this over the years has made you so observant in things that collapse, like Mo’s4 lungs after being stabbed over and over again or baba’s heart and the star that went out with him.
Burnt out. Like the collapsing of your body folding in on itself, when you could not get up from exhaustion, a house that could no longer hold itself. Proving that living on the frontline is never about being ‘woke’ but getting home alive. That collapsing also included, no.11’s uncle when he held your face and said, “You still have a father in me”. Or when through grief you couldn’t feel your heartbeat and on separate occasions Maria Jahan’s mum and Aunty Muna from the gym, prayed over your heart. And it didn’t matter that you didn’t understand the prayers or was able to find God in things like usual. It was moments like this where you learnt how we could collapse time and space. Distance and separation. That we could through connection collapse I into we, becoming ‘the free wings of nahnu’ like in Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry and this would quietly make life possible again.
So what does it mean when we have a societal arrangement where the most vulnerable in society become more vulnerable by their proximity to the state? Where state ‘services’ are also places where we experience the biggest forms of neglect, harms and violence. Like when doctors lost documents which kept Karima overmedicated and nobody heard or believed her when she cried ‘I’m getting more sick”, so she starts hiding tablets under her tongue and spitting it out, recycling her body into more sickness, side effects, getting sectioned and suicide attempts. Maybe it was then as children we learnt how bureaucracy could hide the chain of actions that enable all of us to make each other’s lives fragile and then absolve ourselves from it. That the routine process of dividing and dismembering separates you more and more into I. Even the cell single apartments of gentrification remind you under oppression one’s own island is only ever existing in isolation.
Grenfell reminds us starkly of the disposability of poor lives, but those living close to the ground, know that the sum of violence enacted on the north Kensington community, is made up of everyday violences like gentrification, food poverty, surveillance, ghost prisons, the death of youth, deaths in custody, loss of homes, militarization of schools, cuts and privatisation of healthcare and so on. Making us sure social mobility is a myth, that moving along the spectrum of privilege, is neither justice or freedom, and we deserve both and better.
Yet those in power, still use the few of us who appear to have ’made it’ to ignore the fact that we almost didn’t, that we worked many times harder than our counterparts, that we gave up and left things behind that nobody should; like childhoods, our bodies and mental health and wellness. And though there are many days when you arm yourself with affirmations:
“The more I have, the more I can give”
“I get to choose me too“
“I will not normalise burnout and struggle for our people.”
These mantras are not enough. They are not enough too articulate that sometimes you do not believe it. That new horizons of moving along the “ranks of privilege”5 never come free.
That the violence of assimilation has become a necessary condition to false ideas of progress. That there are too many days you sit in rooms with people with extreme access to power but little substance or idea of the dimensions of human life and experience, and you begin to feel your soul.Shutting.Down.
So you remember sitting on the curb at 1 am, on the outside of your estate with Ashraf, and though his eyes were closing on you from too many back to back shifts. You both came to the crux of it with ease and obviousness, in ways, that all the reports, theories, research, media, and PhDs could not. That is, as long as our worth is determined by those outside of us, then we will always be in part or in sum unworthy and disposable. Then there is no way what you are feeling is actually imposter syndrome. Really it’s a survivor guilt, one that is crushing and also a sickening type of indulgence too. That no matter how much people consciously or unconsciously use meritocracy to show that this system works or to forget that it does not. You can’t help but return to the centre of it.
What were the algorithm that let you survive and others not? Didn’t we already know what conditions help people thrive and what conditions take people further and further into vulnerability?
It becomes even clearer that it is not enough to reform parts of our society because there are places in it where some of us might find safety. Instead, we must be active in dismantling it and being honest about this work too. That the choice cannot only be between a life of struggle and a life of success by way of suppression, but there must be a third space full of unfolding possibility. Which becomes more possible by admitting through everyday acts of unmaking: that this world as it is unsustainable. That we will no longer stretch these social constructs to fit around our skins or try to repress our vastness in it. Instead, we will shed, shed all of it. We who have been invisibilized and denied a world safe enough to exist as we are, are compelling each other to show up as ourselves, expanding out what it means to be human in defiance to oppression.
How could I make myself less, to be in some part more? Or pretend that Cherríe Moraga doesn’t live in my bones as though in dhikr chanting: “ I am a woman with a foot in both worlds, and I refuse the split. I feel the necessity for dialogue. Sometimes I feel it urgently.”
So perhaps this is our greatest desire, not to exist somewhere else more freely, but to exist in all moments as we are? To be our most authentic and capable selves without risk of danger, harm, violence. From here we might move towards a place where our dreams are not deferred to futures, frontiers or the promise of someday, where so many working class and marginalised people have stored their hopes. Meaning part of our strategy is that we won’t keep ourselves in longing for another world if we don’t get to be living our fullest right now – we cannot forget this is the very way so many of us placated pain for too long. We do not need to be kept in a failure of imagination by settling for a someday but, instead we will do the work of becoming more ‘human humans,’ expanding choice and possibility for each other right now. Risking 6 vulnerability, making it safe and worthwhile for us to commit to becoming the people we have been waiting for, for the worlds we will not sleep on.
While I don’t know how we will get there or what it will look like, or what will give our lives meaning and I have more questions than any answers. I think we only ever long to be the most human versions of ourselves wherever we are. To show up stunning and fearless in between our fumbling and figuring out. So I’m learning part of my personal work in expanding humanness is that we don’t have to pathogise it. That we can articulate our uncertainty and unknowingness. That we don’t have to or even can resolve things on the page or in life, all the while being committed to the process of bringing each other closer to the truth of dynamic possibilities which honours where we are. That perhaps these breakdowns are also our breakthroughs. So even the holding together of conflicting aspects – tension, can propel us to new emotional, physical, spiritual landscapes and frontiers.
That this very act creates space within us, sometimes just breathing space, the pause, the break that becomes the bridge, which sets up the courage to internalise liberation in order to shift things outside us too. I share this piece and my personal commitment below as a gesture towards the frontiers of the human spirit:
For when you feel wild and reflective in all the inner and outer transformations you are undergoing. Note that a world that requires us at instant also denies us our own presence. That outgrowing survival mode means a sense of self-responsibility that will no longer let you betray your body with burnout/overwork/ struggle/ transgressing your own boundaries or normalise that for others either. That the power to create my reality and expand consciousness is always about dreaming in and honouring ways of being outside of oppression. Not adapting within it. So that I’m practicing every day staying in truth and loving myself enough to do that (which is hard but getting easier). That I reject the sense of misery and lovelessness systems of oppression create and we as hurt people recreate. I commit myself to move from abundance because there is always more, we are deserving better. And that the change we want to see in the world is not a single action or miraculous radicalmoment rather the releasing of harm, the insight that comes from processing it truly. Freedom from the wound seeming bigger than the possibility of healing, that then you can only move from there – fear. Liberation not only from abuse but also from becoming our abusers. It is cellular transformation on outer systems and internalised belief systems. A courage that cannot be witnessed, praised or invalidated because it is unseen and in the unseen. That no one can walk or talk you through it. It’s all you. Recovery as uncovering your spirit even on days it feels unending and impossible. I believe in ‘Me/We’ (Ali)7 so bad and perhaps like we found in the dispossessed ‘Paradise is for those who make Paradise’ I think we will do it.-3rd February 2018
This is compiled from series of personal notes and reflections, as I am learning to navigate spaces that try to herald marginalised people as ‘success’ stories, “breaking stereotypes”, “pioneering frontiers” to maintain structures of oppression instead of working to undo them. As a love note to working-class folk who battle with uncharted territories that do not come without risk, loss or false choices. I know that we are capable of better worlds, so I keep alive what makes us truly free, thriving and in joy. I am curious about what comes into being because we did.
4 Real name altered.
5 Mia Mingus, How Our Communities Can Move Beyond Access to Wholeness: “ We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.”
6 Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change. “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”
7Muhammad Ali, poem Me,We