Monday, February 9, 2009

Lemn Sissay

On Saturday night, I went with some friends to see Lemn Sissay perform his new one-man show, entitled "Why I Don't Hate White People" at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. While the piece posted above is meant to illustrate his incredibly lyrical quality (and perhaps ward off the miserable weather they forecast for the next couple of days here), the show we saw on Saturday focused on his personal journey to understand race relations growing up in northern England. Part Ethiopian/part Eritrean, and raised by white foster/adoptive parents after a bout with social services, Sissay chronicles the difficulties of being the only black person he'd ever known until he was eighteen years old.

Sissay hops around the black box experimental stage, wildly and beautifully impersonating key characters throughout his childhood--my favorites included the pub-going-rugby-playing meathead in Wigam and the old lady who sits next to him on the completely empty bus, lest she appear ignorant by not sitting next to him. The story that emerges is clear: Sissay grew up shouldering the burden of explaining to people what the other is like--answering questions about afros, weed, and anatomical sexuality that reveal the insidiousness of racism today—racism veiled behind curiosity, humor, and the arrogance of confidence.

D. emailed me a nasty review of the show that gets at the heart of exactly why this show is so important--namely, that some people think that we’re in a post-racist society because the lady on the bus didn’t accuse him of stealing her purse or because the meathead kept his fists tucked into his pockets. Apparently racism needs to leave some sort of physical proof of its brutality.

When B. and I were on our honeymoon in St. Lucia in July, we went to a ‘fish fry’ in a village across the bay— an attempt to market St.Lucian food and culture to a captive group of tourists who weren’t supposed to know any better (and we didn’t). The food was hideous and the same 3 dishes were served at every other stall: a combination of stuffed crab shells, overcooked garlicky shrimp and bland fried beignets. Point is, there were around 10 people on the boat for the 30 minutes it took to get over there, we were in close quarters in the market once we got there, and we joined each other again on the 30 minute trip back across the bay. Once we returned to our resort, B. and I went up to the office to get our bags, with the rest of the crew behind us, trekking up the 70-80 stairs it took to walk up to the cottages from the beach. I left the office to visit the bathroom and ran right into this obnoxious ball of lard who was from the States and had a sad new wife who used him for the money he threw around the place we were staying. He was drunk and panting profusely from 10 minutes of cardio, but he managed to stop me, place his six-pack on the bench and start mumbling about filling out a comment card and how we (meaning: staff at the resort) should build some sort of structure that mechanically lifted people from the beach. Quite honestly, I was stunned and walked away, leaving him speaking unclearly behind me. In the bathroom, I thought hard about what had just happened. For a stretch of 6 hours, this slob had failed to register any differences between myself and the resort’s staff--even the full uniforms that the latter wore around the clock weren’t enough of a signal. Because the only thing we shared in common was the color of our skin and that particular color made us invisible to this man. The shame that comes from feeling like you need to justify your existence or belonging at any place or point in time is still very much a serious racism—insidious because it seems impossible to legislate against humiliation.

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