Images above: Suzette Llewelly; Suzanne Packer and their book Still Breathing – 100 Black Voices on Racism
One of the speakers at the Chiswick Book Festival 2021 will be Suzette Llewellyn, known better as an actor. She has played Patrick’s third wife, Sheree, in EastEnders since 2019 and before that played Estelle Vere in another TV soap, Doctors.
Suzette and co-writer Suzanna Packer (also an actor, best known for her role in Casualty) have put together Still Breathing – 100 Black Voices on Racism. 100 ways to Change the Narrative.
It’s a beautiful book, glossily produced as a coffee table book which you can dip in and out of, so you can absorb the various stories as and when the mood takes you. It’s also beautiful in the sense that it’s positive and inclusive. Yes there’s pain and sorrow and anger, but it’s mainly about ways to rise above and move on.
Images above: Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE; Sharron D. Clarke; pages from Still Breathing
Many of the contributors are well known Black people from the world of TV and film, such as Kwame Kwei-Armah (Casualty) and Sharon D. Clarke (Doctor Who, Holby City), which reflects the writers’ circle of friendships, but they’ve also included Black people from different walks of life – politicians, a Bishop and a civil servant among them.
‘We decided to tell our story … These testimonials would demonstrate the harm and damage experienced by the contributors and at the same time, show the way each survivor of racism and prejudice had managed to transform that trauma into strength and potency’.
The murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement were the catalyst for the book. Many Black people have said they have run out of patience and energy when it comes to explaining racism to White people.
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race quickly became a best seller in June last year. That sentiment is reflected by some of those who chose not to take part in the book, whose comments Suzette and Suzanne include at the beginning:
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to contribute to your project right ow because I am also wearied about reliving some of the experiences so frequently’
‘I found Black Lives Matter emotionally exhausting and I’ve lots of other stuff going on right now that I don’t actually have the brain space to dig all of that up too’
Images above: Michelle Griffith-Robinson, former international athlete and Olympian; Lord Paul Boateng, politician; Sharron J. Francis, politician; pages from Still Breathing
A conversation starter
Suzette says she hopes the book will be a conversation starter and will be read by Black and White people.
“Yes it’s good for Black children to see that what they’re experiencing is not new and to see how others have coped with it, but I hope White people will read it as we’re all part of this conversation. Racism is not helpful to this country”.
It’s as damaging psychologically to those who perpetrate it as it is to those who are on the receiving end, she says.
White people often don’t ‘get’ racism if it’s subtle or unspoken. Name calling and violence we can all understand, but an atmosphere which translates to a lack of opportunity for Black people is not as easy to pin down.
This is a book for anyone who thinks: ‘I’m not racist and I understand it’s hurtful but why must they go on about it all the time?’
And for anyone who says ‘All lives matter’ as it that were at issue. Of course all lives matter but reading this book will explain why Black people feel their lives are not held to be as important as those of White people, which is why Black Lives Matter needs saying.
Of the hundred testimonies in Still Breathing, here are a couple. The first from actor Rakie Ayola (Holby City).
Image above: Rakie Ayola’s account in Still Breathing
‘Six people walking down a street. Two teenage girls in front. Two pre-teen boys behind. On the other side of the road heading in the same direction, a 3-year-old girl and me. An adult. The only one of them known to me is the 3-year-old. I’m holding her hand. She’s my friend’s daughter. It’s a beautiful day and I’m taking her for a walk around the leafy neighbourhood.
From across the road I hear that word.
Large a large unwieldy stone, awkward and heavy, it manages to make contact with both my head and my heart. I reel internally, but keep walking. The 3-year-old is saying something about her shoes. As she witters on I try to remember the last time I was called that word.
I realise this is the first time I have been called that word.
My reaction springs from an emotional connection to it that runs deep. A connection that began the moment I saw its corrosive effect on others and felt the venom with which it’s used.
A boy of 9 or 10 has just hurled that word at me like a hand grenade and he’s walking away unscathed. And I’m walking away. Wounded.
Suddenly I stop. I cross the road. The 3-year-old ask where we’re going.
‘To talk to those boys,’ I say.
The girls are still ahead, oblivious.
The 3-year-old and I reach the pavement in front of the boys. They stop and peer up at me. I stop and stare down at them.
‘Do I know you?’
Eyes huge, they shake their heads.
‘Do you know me?’
They mumble, ‘No’.
I take them in. These children. I find myself wondering what circumstances led to this moment. I wonder what these boys have seen and head and been taught that made hurling that word any kind of option. I wonder if they know its effect. I wonder if they care. I’m a grown-up: why the fuck don’t they care?
I bend closer. Narrow my eyes. Reduce my voice to a low whisper.
‘I could be your new neighbour …
‘I could be your next teacher …
‘I could be your dentist.’
I realise they’re trembling. Terrified.
I realise I’m glad.
‘What’s going on?’
The teenage girls have noticed the boys are talking to a stranger.
With my eyes still on the boys, I say, ‘I’ll leave them to tell you’.
‘This is boring’ says the 3-year-old.
‘Yes, it is’ I say. We turn and walk away. I look back in time to see one of the girls slapping one of the boys across the head. He cries out in pain. I watch as he sobs.
I blink as my eyes burn.
‘I’m tired’ whines the 3-year-old.
‘So am I,’ I say. ‘So am I’.
I lift her onto my back and walk on’.
Image above: Veronica McKenzie’s account in Still Breathing
This second account, from film-maker / writer / director / producer / Veronica McKenzie, strikes a chord with me, having worked at the BBC.
‘One day I was in the toilets, fixing my dress. I worked hard to keep up a fashionista image on a budget.
Two colleagues came in and started talking. My name came up.
One said, ‘Veronica is so nice’.
The other responded, ‘Yes she’s lovely’.
The first girl emphasized, ‘She’s just so nice’.
Then there was a long pause. I held my breath to hear what they’d say next. The silence went on for a long time, but it was probably only seconds. I felt with every fibre in my body what they were not saying. They were not saying, for a black girl. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. They carried on talking as I pushed the door open. Their red faces! I joked about my wonky dress and they relaxed. They were nice colleagues, but clearly surprised to click well with someone who was ‘not one of them’. Someone different.
I went back to the main office and looked around properly, as if for the first time. There were perhaps 100 people. The fashion department with the very posh producer. The laddish news team. Forward planning. I looked for black faces. There were two. Of course, I had noticed them before. Though we worked in different sections, and sometimes had drinks with the group, we didn’t band together. It’s like we observed some unwritten rule when we joined up. Took on the mantra. Everyone for themselves! – somehow knowing it wouldn’t be cool to meet up separately.
Though nobody talked about race, I started paying attention to the unsaid. The silences. There was the black intern, who complained about racism and was let go the same day. The Asian producer, who left having been bypassed for promotion. The homophobia. The women crying in the toilets. Fearful conversations in the smoking room. The senior manager jokily wondering how I had a Scottish surname, and me having to laugh along like Oops! It just happened.
I saw that it was a toxic workplace, and that being desperate to work in TV meant many people were putting up with appalling treatment – me included. Soon after, I quite and never looked back’.
Suzette will be talking at the Chiswick Book Festival 2021 (9- 15 September), along with Gyles Brandreth, Clare Balding, Ed Balls, Mary Anne Sieghart, Anne Sebba, Sarfraz Manzoor, Emily Mortimer, Tim Marshall, Steve Richards, Dr Amir Khan, Andrew Lownie, Suzannah Lipscomb, Parm Sandhu, Stuart Prebble, Jim Down, Roger Hermiston, Jacqueline Riding and many more.
Still Breathing is available from Bookcase London at 260 Chiswick High Rd, (a member of The Chiswick Claendar Club Card scheme, which offers a 10% discount off all books), Waterstones and Amazon.
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