Posted on November 10, 2016
The American Flag, Alcatraz, 2016
I say this to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
Martin Luther King
Today, on this historic day; a day which will surely be taught in future history lessons as a day when a nation lost faith in herself following the UK’s own crushing despair but a few short months before her; a day when wounds which were yet fresh and tender were ripped open anew, when hearts which were trying to heal were once more broken to find that once again, fear and hatred had won out over hope, and love. Today, on this average day in the school calendar of an average-sized middle school in England, in a poetry lesson with a class of year 7 students, a poem was read, and this poem was called ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou.
I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even given the lesson much thought, so wrapped up was I in the immediacy of my routine concerns. Yet, as we talked about the historical context: the civil rights movement in the 1960s, about Martin Luther King and about other issues of race and prejudice, I realised how significant it was that we were reading this poem, on this day. I wondered how Martin Luther King would feel if he could see what has become of his legacy; fifty years later and we are really no closer to finding the equality he dreamed of. I thought about how Maya Angelou would have felt today. Devastated, no doubt. If the children had questions about Trump and the future, they didn’t ask me. They listened and instinctively felt the power and importance of Angelou’s message. After all, it is more important today than ever. We watched this song version and they joined in as they worked, singing along. It was a positive mood, uplifting and life-affirming as this poem is.
My year 8 class, on the other hand, was more vocal. We are reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we came across the word ‘indignant’: “Many people are ‘indignant’, I said, about the results of the US election”. They were angry. They are angry because they know, instinctively, that it is morally wrong. Yes our young people are angry. Young people who are on the verge of adulthood. Young people who have questions, which demand our attention. It is my job – our job – not to answer their questions, because sadly, there are not always answers: whilst I can tell them what indignant means, or how to find imagery in a poem, I cannot alleviate their fears for the future. No. It is our job to listen and to encourage them to question. I will teach them about history so there is a chance they will not repeat our mistakes; I will teach them that words can have the power to unite, and inspire passion, or to divide and inspire hatred, but the most important thing I can teach them, is to ask questions. Because it is people like Angelou and Martin Luther King; people who dared to ask questions, who gave hope to those who were oppressed and did not have a voice, whose words were not heard. It is people who ask questions of those in power who themselves have the power to make people stop and think that maybe there is another way. It is people who ask questions and keep on asking them with dogged persistence and do not give up, who give us hope.
Today was a good day. Today I felt humble and at the same time as though my job was the most important job in the world. When I looked around at the eager, determined, inquisitive faces of the twelve and thirteen year olds before me, I felt proud. I felt a well-spring of hope rising up inside me.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Posted on December 30, 2015
I like to look back at photographs I have taken and make connections. Often I will find them, because even though it feels at the time when I am snapping away, that I am being quite random, I have discovered when I later trawl through my images that I am actually quite purposeful and even economical these days when I photograph, tending to hone in on similar themes and subjects. This is, unfortunately the sacrifice of having less and less time to get out and about, I might add, and when I travel it is never with the sole purpose of immersing myself in the art, rather a side line of stolen moments when I have managed to escape family duties. So, my holiday snaps are just that, really, although hopefully something more than that now as experience has trained my eye in what to look for; like a cat I have become quite good at pouncing on opportune moments, with a child hanging off one arm and wielding a bottle of sunscreen in the other. Often I will take a number of pictures of a space or place which is interesting and then work on them later at home to create something I feel I can be proud of, or even sell. Other times it’s a one-off moment, although these days I favour working with layers over anything else, because it gives me freedom and a kind of complex simplicity which seems to be where I am most content in my creativity.
I am teaching English now and when I teach children how to write I try to reveal it as a practice of layering. There is no neatness to writing really; just like art, it is a messy, but wonderful business. Behind that final draft there are layers and layers of crossing out and re-writing, different coloured pens, feedback and comments, where I have asked them to think about things differently, or to dig deeper and find the layers of meaning. I try to show them that writing, just like art, is not an end product as such, but it is a process. A process of becoming. There is no good or great writer for whom the words just magically transpose onto the page. Good writers will cross out, they will edit ferociously; they will be critical of themselves and they will agonise over every single word until they have hit just the right note. Because good writers know that words, and how we put them across, are important; they have resonance. Nowadays, of course, the word processor often erases the visible marks of the editing process, but even when I write an essay now I end up with six or seven drafts before I get to a final version I am happy with, and when the children are writing I think it is important that they see this. It is vital that they understand that neat does not always equal good content. I ask them to take pride in their work and to take time, but I do not obsess over neatness because I feel it is highly overrated. My own handwriting leaves a lot to be desired and spelling might be a challenge, but it does not mean that I cannot be a good writer. We plan and write together on big flipcharts so that they can see for themselves how this process works: I might go back and change a word or phrasing I did not like; I might underline or highlight repeated words and look in a thesaurus for alternatives, or star in another sentence here and there. It’s a thoughtful process of revision and it is important that children see it as such.
Educators like Ken Robinson have been telling us for many years now that creativity is the most important skill we can foster in our children in order to prepare them for a deeply uncertain future. And if this is true, which I believe it is, then neatness is not a part of that. The world we live in today is a mess. It is complex. It is sad, but we must not attempt to simplify things for our children and belittle their intelligence. There is no matter of black or white any more. As I look out on grey, uncertain skies and hear the wrathful winds lash relentlessly at the chimney, I fear that it won’t be long until those old Victorian bricks give away, but most of all I fear that these storms are hear to stay. We must allow our children to see this whipped up mess that we have created and give them hope that they can navigate the storms more successfully than us. For this is imperative. The world may be a mess; it may be a hopeless shade of grey, but it is a glorious mess.
And now I find, once again, that meandering words have taken me in a direction I did not intend to go on this stormy morning. These are words I did not intend to write, but somehow they have been written. What I wanted to write about were portals, magic and mystery. My two children are endlessly preoccupied with science fiction and other fantastical stories about magical worlds. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seems the battle is always the same: the age old dichotomy of good versus evil (although of course the details vary wonderfully). There is great comfort in these stories too, for them, because, although they usually begin with feet planted firmly in reality, they quickly move into a different realm where fantasies can be played out and indulged in a grand scale, and of course, the children know that good will always overcome evil. This is even more important for them now that they realise that real life is not like this. Our children need great stories like this which provide them with refuge from the grey fog of daily life. As do we, I think.
Often these stories contain some kind of magic portal or entrance which allows humans to access the ‘other world’, like the twister which snatches up Dorothy’s house and dumps it in the glorious, technicolour Oz; the great old wooden wardrobe which houses those wonderfully evocative fur coats through which Edmund, Peter and Lucy fumble to reach the winter wonderland of Narnia; the platform 9 3/4 which boards Harry on his train to Hogwarts; or the famous rabbit hole (and later mirror) which transports Alice to Wonderland. Sometimes they are actual doors or gateways, like the wardrobe, or the door in Monster’s Inc. which allows the monsters to enter children’s bedrooms, but other times they can be a small object, like the magic key which transports Biff and Chip into different time period in the famous phonic adventure stories which those in the UK with young school age children will know and love. These portals or thresholds which provide passage from one world to another are important features of stories like this, because they are physical symbols of transformation and transgression, but also because they allow us humans the possibility of fantasy and of something else wonderful – of hope.
Without realising, I frequently photograph ‘portals’ – usually doors and windows, and I think many photographers do likewise. They are endlessly fascinating, so saturated with symbolic meaning, as well as being visually intriguing. And so my wordy saunter brings me back (not too neatly I hope) to my photographs and travels. This summer I was lucky enough to visit Brazil with my family, a country rich with cultural diversity and with a sheer expanse beyond my capacity of conception. It was not my first visit, and for the second time I was captivated by the dazzling natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the impressive mountainous landscape of the countryside dotted with dusty little villages where locals sit on their doorsteps and lazily watch the world go by. Then there are the more touristy, but charming colourful seaside towns along the North East coast. I encountered many appealing doors, windows, and other less traditional gateways on our travels and have many tales I could tell, but looking back at them now makes me wonder about the prospect of exciting adventures to be had beyond the threshold of these portals, and the possibility of stories untold.
Without possibility, there is no hope.
© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015