by Anmol AhujaFeb 24, 2022
“Race” writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” Indeed, race does not need biology. It only needs a white man to have a bad day, people to be enslaved, borders to be selectively permeable, and the law to have everything to do with the idea and little to do with justice. Race is just an idea that dictates how the world will be defined, classified, and how its resources are allotted. Race is an idea that has evaded evolution. Race is a social construct, masquerading as science for we have awarded it that false precision. However, even socially constructed, race continues to be a destructive and lucrative idea.
The United Kingdom has made history, fortunes, and a legacy, by virtue of its deftness at ‘othering’. When we say ‘systemic’ racism—and we have been saying it increasingly often—it tends to project responsibility on a nebulous entity that holds immense power, one that is beyond tangible, one which cannot be held, let alone be held accountable. This isn’t to say the terms aren’t linguistically accurate or effective, but to elucidate that its actors become hazy—white, in black suits, unreachable, parliamentary (whatever that means), and besotted with running the (their) world, with no time for the grievances of us muggles. Systemic takes away the person(al). Much like the propagation and sustenance of racism necessitates a silo of whiteness that hasn’t experienced its sameness with the racialised, the word systemic removes the human from its frame of articulation, all the while speaking directly and primarily of them.
Still Breathing: 100 Black Voices on Racism. 100 Ways to Change the Narrative is all about the personal. The personal as the author of racism, the subject of racialisation, the survivor, the actor, the story and the narrative, the revolutionary, the ordinary, and most importantly the consequence of the systemic. Suzette Llewellyn, Suzanna Packer and friends put these stories to paper, and graphic designer Kieron Lewis designed and typeset them into a beautiful hardbound gem of about 300 pages. Created at the peak of a global pandemic, the project navigated every setback that came with the worries of hygiene and safety, with care and tenderness. The pictures of each of the voices, for instance, span from blurry selfies, and cropped family photographs, to professionally shot portraits—an indication of what was prioritised and how creative hurdles made the project come alive with even more veracity.
On refusal and assertion
The labour of regurgitating generational and lived trauma is never completely acknowledged. A racialised person, especially of African origin, is just expected to either not talk about race, or only talk about race, and eloquently. Both the acts of silence/censorship and articulation are to be done in ways that keep whiteness comfortable as if talking of another exceptional, radically violent and hence fictional body of raging white supremacy. The book honours this labour, and begins by acknowledging and empowering the refusal of some people to do the labour—“I am not going to contribute. Mostly because I think I have been very good at burying negative experiences,” says one of the multiple voices that are still breathing but refuse to dig up their pain. The editors get this and thank them for their honesty.
I had the privilege of speaking with Suzette Llewellyn and Kieron Lewis and was met with the same honesty, kindness, and spirit that the book encapsulates.
On the enthusiasm that emerges every ‘Black History Month’
Suzette Llewellyn: October is Black History Month in the UK. Suddenly you get knocked up with calls and requests to do something—often for free—like speak, teach, write, or educate. For a lot of companies, this is a tick-boxing exercise where they need to ‘do something along the lines of diversity’, which translates to just getting a Black person to come in and say something, without any trust, safety or thoughtfulness put into it. The book acknowledges that and how common it is to see pain being treated as entertainment, like ‘misery porn.’ The book is a homage to the spirit of resilience and solidarity in the diaspora and more importantly, as editors, we have tried to highlight the love and trust for the people who did speak of their pain.
On the design, typographic decisions, and discomfort as brief
Kieron Lewis: A book like this is supposed to make people uncomfortable. As the designer of this project, I knew clearly what was not to be done. We wanted none of the hiding, the skimming over, the euphemisms, but really highlight stories of everyone's truths, their lived experiences. The heavy deliberations on typographic elements and use of personal quotes are supposed to bring precisely this—the everyday lived experiences of people, how devastatingly commonplace they are, and how they obviously flow beyond the book—into lives still breathing, living, making a home, asserting, and thriving. This is also a book that one digests in small bits, it being impossible to read in one go, and so it had to be treated that way. Each chapter, each spread is a different vibrant colour, and the voices themselves are the graphic.
Whom do these stories serve?
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, known as Lady Phyll, asks the critical question— “who do these stories serve?” Challenging the notion of how sharing stories of pain builds resilience and solidarity among Black people, she admits to never feeling comforted by them. Adding on to her question, she asks, “Why are we not asked more frequently to share stories of tenderness, vulnerability and love? Why are we not asked to speak to our dreams and our desires? what of our imaginations and our longing? … moments of my greatest relief and release have always been in the arms of other black women who have never needed me to recant for them the particularities of racism. We know all too well the contours, the shadows, and the pain of racism.”
The book entails essays, poetry, art, memoirs, anecdotes, biography, creative nonfiction, and fictionalised truths by Black voices. Ranging from students, actors, doctors, artists, musicians, designers, CEOs, journalists, psychologists, parents, caregivers, policymakers, teachers, playwrights, politicians, scholars, sculptors, lawyers, academics designers, and chefs —spanning across ages and gender, it gives a diverse perspective into what defines ‘Blackness.’ For racialised people, especially Black people, simply existing is a form of revolution. Their living, thriving and ‘still breathing,’ is a form of mutiny.