Maria Casely-Hayford on Black Lives Matter: It is a cultural wake-up call such as Ive never seen before – British GQ

Deja Vu (Ive Been Here Before). The 1979 track by the soulful singer-songwriter Teena Marie that my husband Joe Casely-Hayford and I loved and played during late nights working in our studio says much about our life experiences with the question of race.

I wonder what Joe, who died at the beginning of 2019, would have made of this years traumatic events and the subsequent demands for racial justice and systemic change. Joe was a compulsive follower of politics and current affairs, and would have been profoundly affected by the racial tragedies and the societal changes hurriedly put in place as a consequence. He would have wondered, like me, if Black people are now truly able to hope for the meaningful transitions we have waited centuries for.

As teenagers, we had cause for hope in the mid-Seventies, 45 years ago, when we thought it was a time of reckoning, of change at last. We were young, gifted and Black. We felt we could do anything if we had the talent. In 1975 we celebrated Arthur Ashes historic winning of the Wimbledon trophy. Ashes win was symbolic for Black people and we revered him as an exceptional athlete and an admirable role model. It was a step towards visibility and a momentous cultural and social move towards inclusion in worlds from which we had previously been excluded, or in which we had been unacknowledged.

That same year, Joe and I were admitted to Saint Martins School of Art, where we were happy but not surprised to see a number of other people of colour at this most prestigious art institution. In 1978 Trevor Phillips was elected president of the National Union of Students, and we felt empowered seeing him and other young Black people like us speaking eloquently and confidently on television, on the radio and in the print media.

The backlash came all too soon in the late Seventies. Racial tension was at the forefront of current affairs: the daily news programmes covered the increasingly controversial SUS laws, which saw a disproportionate number of Black men stopped by the police, particularly on their way home at night. Home Office statistics issued in 2017 stated that men and women who identify as Black British are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white counterparts, and it is still happening in the UK today.

In the Eighties and Nineties, we fought hard to make multiculturalism work against the backdrop of the Broadwater Farm riots, the Brixton riots, the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Stephen Lawrence and many other devastating incidents which threatened our human rights and our pursuit of justice and equality. But on an everyday level it was, and continues to be, the chipping away, the slights, the casual racism that starts at a very young age and becomes second nature, that does the ongoing damage and is the most difficult to rethink.

The way in which pernicious racism seems to have played a notable part earlier this year in the resignation of a Credit Suisse chief executive (the only Black chief executive in the top tier of global banking) was particularly distressing to me.

But I do believe that the paradigm shift engendered by Black Lives Matter (BLM) after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is real and has already caused seismic changes. What happened this year with BLM has impacted society globally. It has been a cultural wake-up call such as I have never seen in my lifetime: political and business leaders have been removed from their roles, institutions have rushed to implement diversity credentials. Of course, there will be virtue signalling and insincere gestures, but we can live with that if it helps to facilitate a genuine re-evaluation and honest quest for change.

It is heartening to see now that many of the ugly faces of bigotry, anti-Semitism and racism have become socially condemned, though at the same time it is shocking to acknowledge that these institutionalised markers of a divided humanity could ever have been allowed to exist with impunity. Jim Crow laws, apartheid, miscegenation, Blackface (still a part of light-entertainment repertoire well into the Eighties) and hugely disparaging references to Jewish and Black people in the Western canon by highly esteemed and relatively modern European writers, philosophers and artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries are all, rightly, now publicly denounced. With our white allies, we continue our endeavours for a better future. A future of liberation.

Liberation is being allowed to misstep without letting down the entire Black community. Liberation is not experiencing a lifetime of daily microaggressions whilst trying to stay positive. Liberation is no longer seeing that flicker of unconscious bias in our daily encounters with liberal white people.

We will have liberation when our part played in global society is valued. We will have liberation when we are free to be treated as individuals. As the African- American playwright and director Robert OHara said last year about the first play he scripted, Black people are not a monolith. There are so many different ways to examine who we are. The more we acknowledge that, the better we are.

I remain hopeful for my grandchildren and Black and white descendants. And I believe that Black people and Black cultures rich contribution to the world over the centuries will gradually be honoured and appreciated by the global community. When we look back at this time in 100 years from now, it will be with disbelief that terms such as white privilege, or negative pigeonholing such as not Black enough, or not white enough were a real and damaging part of our human existence.

The future of change will be difficult. It will be countered by self-preservationist individuals and institutions, and by those threatened by the prospect of sharing in a more balanced and fair society. The journey will not be linear, but it will definitely always be hopeful.

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Maria Casely-Hayford on Black Lives Matter: It is a cultural wake-up call such as Ive never seen before - British GQ

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