Thought for the Week

Needful Facts

8th June 2020
BY Richard Stillman, English Don

I’d like to start with a poem by the American poet, Ross Gay.


Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.


Those haunting words, "I can’t breathe," connect Eric Garner with George Floyd, the latest in an all too long chain of black men who died while being detained or in the custody of the American police. His death has led to many nights of violent protests over this last deeply-troubled fortnight.

We have to be careful not to moralise in Britain: black people are proportionally far more likely to live in poverty, to be excluded from school, to be stopped and searched, to be imprisoned and to be the victims of hate crimes than any other ethnic group.

In Why I No Longer Talk to White People about Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge outlines the difficulty in discussions about race. White people, in her view, often just cannot understand the day-to-day experience of racism. They cannot understand the subtle structural racism that pervades society; they can become defensive and uncomfortable on hearing that argument. This institutional racism was laid bare in cases like the police failures in investigating the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It is evident as well in the way black people can be excluded from positions of power through covert bias, and long-standing environments of cultural hegemony. More than half of FTSE 100 companies don’t have a single person of colour at board level.

The legacy of slavery, of prejudice, stereotyping and hatred has created inequalities in many countries. We strive for progress but as James Baldwin said, ‘How much time do you want for your progress?’ When a predominately white lecture audience was asked by activist Jane Elliott, ‘Stand up if you would be happy to receive the same treatment as a black person in this [American] society?’ Of course no one stood up. Who would want to lose their own privileges?

So how to make progress? We need compassion, which means to suffer with; we need to understand and try to make a difference. In these febrile days it’s just not enough to not be racist. We have to be anti-racist. We need to start this by doing what we do best: educating ourselves. What do we do as people to understand the black experience? What more can we do as part of a school to reduce the ignorance that fosters racism? These are urgent questions.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, written in 1952, was the book which changed my perception of race forever. Similarly powerful was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the greatest American novels. Studying black writing is not tokenism: young black poets like Inua Ellams, Raymond Antrobus, and Kayo Chingonyi are some of the best young poets writing today, and you could not have a more angry yet beautiful collection than the TS Eliot Prize-winning collection, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson. I would like to finish with another poem, one from that collection. Recently, we have all been celebrating key workers, especially those in the NHS, and this tender poem celebrates a black nurse who helped to care for Robinson’s premature son.


That year we danced to green bleeps on screen.
My son had come early, just the 1kg of him,
all big head, bulging eyes and blue veins.

On the ward I met Grace. A Jamaican senior nurse
who sang pop songs on her shift, like they were hymns.
“Your son feisty. Y’see him just ah pull off the breathing mask.”

People spoke of her in half tones down these carbolic halls.
Even the doctors gave way to her, when it comes
to putting a line into my son’s nylon thread of a vein.

She’d warn junior doctors with trembling hands: “Me only letting you try twice.”
On her night shift she pulls my son’s incubator into her room,
no matter the tangled confusion of wires and machine.

When the consultant told my wife and I on morning rounds
that he’s not sure my son will live, and if he lives he might never leave the hospital,
she pulled us quickly aside: “Him have no right to say that—just raw so.”

Another consultant tells the nurses to stop feeding a baby, who will soon die,
and she commands her loyal nurses to feed him. “No baby must dead
wid a hungry belly.” And she’d sit in the dark, rocking that well-fed baby,

held to her bosom, slowly humming the melody of “Happy” by Pharrell.
And I think, if by some chance, I’m not here and my son’s life should flicker,
then Grace, she should be the one.


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