Being your authentic self when that has consequences. What do you do?
I’m involved in a project with a magnificent team which includes bringing your authentic self to work. It’s also something I spoke about at the AHTV: Exploring research in Television digital event in February 2021.
Du bois captured the essence of this way back (see here) about black folk straddling different societies. Today, online, perhaps another persona is evoked leading to a spectrum of embodied characters within.
Which part of you lives and interacts online? How do you navigate social media, which is so quick to judge? Yesterday a post to a comment was widely misread. There seemed little sense in explaining in the limited words available. Move on I said. Not everyone speaks of this triptych experience, but I’ve heard some as a journalist.
It’s generally unwanted. Double consciousness occurs in unusual spaces. Growing up I lived with foster parents in the UK. Tick. Then my siblings and I were whisked from the UK to Ghana for eight years. My Ghanaian step mother was unwelcoming to her new British children, so we had to mask our behaviour. Tick.
At boarding school the true you could excel. Some of my brothers today, an unstinting network prepared to do anything for alumni, come from this experience. Tick. Then back in the UK in my late teens, I remember having to re-learn racism. How to understand and rationalise how someone simply disliked you because of how you looked? Tick.
In South Africa in their dying days of Apartheid, as a reporter, different encounters added to the library and layers of the growing self. There was the Afrikaner farmers in Orange Free state who first disbelieving I was British, we spoke about rugby after the interview, then accused me a Brit of being responsible for concentration camps. We fled the scene swiftly by car. Then there were the police who couldn’t make out whether I was from the putting it on. Seriously, in 1992, you could count the number of Black brits, who likely lived in the more liberal part of Joburg, Yeoville.
In the gaps of these unwanted conflicts lay the seeds of stories and their own conflict.
How much do you expose, talk about yourself that is both curative and cathartic? What makes you tick? Resilience? Straddling different environments is one of them. Surviving another. Learning to be yourself. Which one?
My career covering conflicts, yearning for adventure is less so now as a lecturer. In the above film by an old friend Rob Chiu, he asked if I could relive my time covering conflicts for his incredible animation. I did so in dense woodland around me running at pace, and remembering skirmishes in townships. The voice you hear at the beginning is me.
I park those memories and interactions, elsewhere which has had its knock on effect. I recall some students in the past, and one in particular berating me for not revealing more about myself. “I know nothing, if not very little about you?”, she said and I know she meant well.
Over time, I could see how autobiographical storytelling could have an impact. The story thread would be for some struggling: it’s rough, it’ll come to pass, but there are somethings you could do that even net you, shock, awards. Some of my charge see this as braggadocio misunderstanding that you’re not competing to impress them. Remember that piquant scene in Saving Private Ryan when Hank’s character says officers gripe upwards, not downwards.
He’s right. As an artist, you can often be your own canvas, so autobiographical stories are important. Remember Tracy Emin’s My bed in 1998 featured at The Tate, which provoked a storm. As such navigating these spaces of different personas is a constant dynamic negotiation. Tread softly and cautiously is what I tell myself now.
The two images above, thanks to Jonny, illustrate this bicameral self. We reified the images as journalist and artist and perhaps seeking the different receptions they draw out.
I was prompted, strangely from a wandering mind, watching Barry Jenkins’ superbly made Underground Railroad. Jude Kelly who I served under as an artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre would call this a collision moment. An idea sparks another idea, collisions, sparking tangential thoughts.
There’s no comparison, and no other meaning to extract my end seeing the Jenkins’ characters trying to live their lives in the eviscerating, dehumanising system of slavery. Jenkin’s film is as searingly excoriating as it is a masterpiece of aesthetic and scripting.
However its unnerving conflict has its metaphors in the present, that the unseen deserves to be seen, that the need for stories to move thinking dials is paramount, and that above else conversations like can you be yourself are spoken of and about more readily.