To me, this picture says hope.
The surge of energy we’re currently witnessing is heartening. It’s uplifting to see diverse crowds of young people gathering all over the US, Europe and beyond to stand up for Black Lives Matter.
They are active and angry, courageous and joyful. And like the #MeToo movement before it, they will not be silenced. Not until there has been real change.
Yet I’ve stared at the blank screen for much longer than usual before writing this. I’m worried about saying the wrong thing, about causing offence. And about virtue signalling, playing the white saviour.
But I also feel we rarely progress and change without open discussion, without sometimes getting it wrong, and – this bit is crucial – learning from our mistakes.
So I’m jumping in with some random thoughts here, and saying what I feel. Comments are welcome: please post your thoughts below. All I’d ask is that we talk, not shout.
I’ve always cared about anti-racism.
I was lucky to grow up in Birmingham, a gloriously multicultural British city, and to have friends who were willing to call me out when I made assumptions or said stupid things. As I was born in the 1960s, there were an awful lot of assumptions made, and stupid things said. By me, and everyone else.
In my teens I joined Rock Against Racism, and so was at the centre of a boom in Midlands music, from reggae sound systems to 2-Tone, soul and funk to punk. Music opened out my world, made me see things differently. The Au Pairs, Dexys, UB40, Steel Pulse, The Beat, The Specials.. my formative years had a great soundtrack.
I wouldn’t be a writer if I hadn’t heard this music. I’d probably be a different person. The art we make, the songs we sing, the clubs we dance in, the books we read, the films we watch.. it matters. As creatives we have the power to influence and to change things for the better.
I had the luxury of choice.
But it’s important to note that caring about equality has always been optional for me, a choice. As a white woman, I’ve always had the luxury, the privilege of deciding when to get involved, when to think about racism – and when not to.
I’ve always felt oddly guilty when walking past a police officer, but I’ve rarely felt fear. I’ve never had to worry about my son, as some of my friends worry about theirs. If he drives around London, or walks about the city at night, he’s far less likely to be stopped by the police than some of his friends.
I don’t think any of us should feel ashamed of who we are, or wish that we were different. But if we are privileged, we do need to be aware of it, and open to learning.
History is fluid.
When statues come down, history is not being destroyed. It’s being made.
History is a living thing. We re-write and re-assess the past constantly, in the face of contemporary values. And we continue making it, every day.
Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the achievements of women slowly get rediscovered and written back into the narrative, as well as those of people of colour. There are always reputations to reconsider, different viewpoints to see, more stories to be told.
It can be disconcerting, to discover that what you were taught in school or books isn’t the whole truth. But it’s also exciting.
Memory doesn’t live in monuments and statues.
Germany has remembered WW2, without statues of Hitler. Instead it has the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where the very architecture of Daniel Libeskind’s building tells the story so eloquently it moved me to tears.
Berlin didn’t need to keep the whole of the Wall, to remember it. Indeed, the fragments that remain are all the more moving for the rest of it being gone.
Statues come down all of the time. Stalin and Gaddafi. Slavers and Civil War generals. This doesn’t mean we forget.
It just means we are changing, moving forward, becoming bigger and hopefully better. We can make new museums to commemorate the past, and inspiring new public art for those empty plinths.
Some statues belong in the water.
Edward Colston was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company, which transported around 90,000 Africans to north America as slaves. The crossing was brutal, with some 19,000 sick or dead tossed into the ocean like meat. Those who survived were sold into lives of unimaginable suffering.
This shameful trade made Colston and many others in Britain very rich, and he used some of that wealth to do good things in Bristol. Some call that philanthropy. I’d call it blood money.
Colston’s statue has stood in Bristol for years. It seems to me to be entirely appropriate that after years of debate and inaction, it was roped and brutalised, then cast into the water. And that the city’s main concert hall no longer carries his name.
We need to talk.
I understand the unease when art is destroyed. Where do we stop? How much do we purge? Is there anyone who is ideologically pure enough to deserve a public statue, once we start examining their lives closely?
Is it possible to make new public art that celebrates something good (the Scout movement, for instance), without glorifying its flawed founder? And is a statue celebrating someone or something unsavoury more worthy of preservation if it was made by a great artist, rather than a mediocre one? (We still stage productions of Shakespeare’s Othello and Merchant of Venice, for instance.)
Those are interesting discussions to have. But to me, the Colston statue in Bristol wasn’t any great loss, aesthetically or artistically. We could see these empty plinths as an opportunity, a way of supporting contemporary artists who are struggling.
This is already starting to happen, with Hackney Council commissioning new works to celebrate the Windrush Generation.
As creatives, we have a platform.
This is true whether you’re writing a blog for 100 followers or making Hollywood blockbusters. And you can use this to reinforce the status quo, or to disrupt it. Little things like the pictures you choose, the experts you turn to for advice, the guests you invite on webinars and podcasts – they matter.
It seems to me that anyone who has a platform as a creator could and should be quietly making sure that the people they are employing, portraying, performing with, or collaborating with are not all white men.
It also seems to me that if we’re creating content of any kind, we should be looking to see who isn’t there, who we’re missing out, what stories we are not telling. And seeing if we can make space for them.
Holding the space
We can use our influence to boost new voices and visions. And whatever our medium, we need to do all we can to make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe in our audience.
One of my favourite art exhibitions last year was Steve McQueen’s Year 3 at Tate Britain. The concept – like so many good ideas – was simple. He set out to create class portraits of all of the year 3 school students in London.
The pictures were lovely, capturing thousands of smiling kids aged from 7-8, of all classes, races, areas of the capital. It was a hopeful, optimistic portrait of the London of the future.
But the main art wasn’t in the photographs that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. It was what happened in the space these pictures created. The schools all bought their Year 3 classes to visit, and the normally silent gallery echoed with the laughter of excited, happy children.
By covering the walls with children just like them, McQueen had made Tate Britain’s imposing space comfortable and welcoming. I’d like to think that a whole generation of new British artists got their first taste of what art could mean on those day-trips, and I can’t wait to see what they make as a result.
We need to stand together
When actor John Boyega made his empassioned speech in support of Black Lives Matter in Hyde Park in early June, he said, “I don’t know if I’m even going to have a career after this.”
Such fears are real, and they can stop us speaking out. Look what happened to footballer Colin Kaepernick, after he took a knee. And for years, Harvey Weinstein was able to silence women he abused by threatening to destroy their careers.
So when people do make their voices heard, we need to stand with them. To support them. To make sure they get to speak their truth and continue to make their work.
A huge array of talent – black and white, British and American – stepped up to say they’d be honoured to work with Boyega in future. This is what solidarity looks like.
The mirror and the light
One of our important roles, as creatives, is to reflect the world as it is, with all its flaws and foibles. Art and stories can show us things we might have overlooked, and shine a light into dark corners where we might not want to look. This is hugely important.
But it can also help us get comfortable with new ideas, help us envision a different future. To tell stories about who we are, but also who we could be.
Sometimes, we get used to the idea of a female president, a gay pastor, a black CEO, a disabled model because we saw it on a TV drama, in a comic strip, in an advert or a music video. This matters, too. We can create the world we want to see.
We can choose what we amplify
In June, I had an angry middle-aged moment of retweeting comments and video clips of a few tragic, drunk old white men rampaging through central London, screaming out their bigotry and enciting violence while pretending to be ‘protecting’ statues.
The next day, seeing images of large, peaceful, happy multicultural BLM gatherings in cities and towns across the UK, I realised I’d been sharing the wrong story.
Patrick Hutchinson showed how to change the narrative, carrying an injured member of the ugly mob to safety while his friends clustered around, protecting the man’s head from further harm.
In the end, that is the image that went viral. A group of strong, powerful black men working together to save another human being – and make sure that the story of the day didn’t become one of violence and hatred.
This is what real leadership looks like.
Not Donald Trump with his tiny hands, his shrivelled heart, his massive ego and his easy bigotry. Nor Dominic Raab smirkingly suggesting that taking a knee is subjugation, a gesture taken from Game Of Thrones.
A real leader looks like grime artist Stormzy, pledging £10 million over the next decade to help British organisations and charities tackling racial equality and campaigning for justice reform.
She looks like Bernadine Evaristo, who won the Booker Prize with Girl, Woman, Other, a novel that teems with compassion, humour and love, interweaving stories about flawed, endearing, endlessly surprising and changing humanity.
He looks like Marcus Rashford, a footballer speaking from the heart, telling his story and forcing the government to make a U-turn and offer meal vouchers to feed impoverished children over the summer.
Or she looks like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ardern, admitting her government made mistakes over Covid-19. Then setting out not to spin and cover up, but to learn and correct those mistakes.
A real leader can also look like you, if you want it to.
Now is the time
Right now, what I see – and please tell me if I’m getting this wrong – is a huge opportunity. Brands, media platforms, retail outlets, museums, civic bodies: they all know they need to do better. Some are more sincere than others, but there’s a window here.
Let’s use it. Let’s open it wide, and welcome new talent in. Let’s listen and learn, try and fail and try again. And let’s make something good and new from this difficult time. 2020 could go down as a terrible year. Or it could be pivotal, a time of real change. That’s a choice all of us get to make. Because we’re making history.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.