In recent years I have increasingly found myself reflecting on the significance of home. This is perhaps an inevitable project for anyone who is estranged from their ancestral homeland due to the violent and sweeping forces of imperialism and colonialism. Questions of identity abound but often go unanswered, with official but sanitised historical accounts combining with the traumatised testimony of loved ones to create a fragmented and incomplete sense of self that is almost impossible to reconcile with.
Of course, beyond issues of identity, the legacy of imperialism and colonisation has had severe political and practical consequences for many groups of displaced peoples that further undermines a connection with home. As evidenced by the fire at Grenfell, deportation of the Windrush Generation, and residential reformation of inner cities through gentrification, this connection is perpetually precarious and vulnerable to violence and violation. This leads Joy White to ask in her book Terraformed: Young Black Lives In The Inner City: ‘If your status can be checked or challenged, how do you ever feel at ease? How do you ever feel at home?’ We might go on to ask, how does this impact on the way in which you conceive the very concept of home?
Despite the above, *the home* (however transitory) has historically been a site of joy, creativity and resistance for displaced peoples, which is demonstrated clearly – as White herself highlights – by the origin story of both Hip Hop & Grime, which takes place in the bedrooms and on the kitchen counters of council houses and high rises. The home has also been an important site of education, with women writers of colour especially highlighting how knowledge – practical, theoretical, affective – has long been produced in the domestic sphere by those who are typically excluded from formal educational institutions.
It is for that reason that Home has become a prominent feature in my own anti-racist work. Like Toni Morrison, I see the home as a compelling metaphor that allows us to better understand, negotiate and subvert the system of white dominance and anti-blackness operating in our society. In Morrison’s words (from The House That Race Built), home ‘domesticates the racial project, moves the job of unmattering race away from pathetic yearning and futile desire; away from an impossible future or an irretrievable and probably nonexistent Eden to a manageable and doable, modern human activity’. Beyond this though, as I move further away from the idea that decolonising the university is a possibility and that remaining within these mainstream institutions is wise or worthwhile, the potential of home as a physical site of alternative education and radical societal transformation looms ever larger.
It is for this reason that I find myself particularly enamoured with Otis’s concept of Mum’s House Philosophy. It seems to speak directly to this idea of locating higher thinking and knowledge production in the domestic sphere, whilst foregrounding the centrality of women’s role in the process.
It is important to note that for Otis, Mum’s House is more of an ethos or approach than a particular place. This further complicates the conversation around how we conceive home. Does home have to be a physical site, or can it be a more ethereal essence? If it can be the latter, is it possible to harness this essence and cultivate sacred spaces that provide the key components that comprise the concept of home. And then – what exactly are these key components? What is the role of imagination and creativity in identifying and replicating them?
These are the questions I took into the discussion for Otis’s next residency event, eager to hear from the ever insightful Awate and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.
What was precious about this conversation for me personally was how it both challenged and affirmed me at the same time. Discussing home on “our own terms”, as Suhaiymah put it, meant we were able to take solace in shared experience and perhaps better understand ourselves through the testimonies of others coming from similar places. It was not putting too finer point of it when Awate referred to the conversation as therapy. It also meant that we could get into the nuances and complexities of the issue without being inhibited by the need to clarify things or provide basic context for those who are completely divorced from the diasporic experience – and perhaps invested in misunderstanding, minimising or perverting it.
With that said, identifying the core components of home turned out to be a difficult endeavour. Fortunately I had been given an opportunity to seriously reflect on my relationship with home through Yvonne Battle-Felton’s creative writing workshop earlier in the day, another event that was part of the residency programme. Taking part in this workshop made me realise that for all my thinking around the theme of home, I had not yet pinned down what exactly it meant to me.
Through the activities that Yvonne set us – including reflecting on the sounds, smells, tastes, sights, words that we associated with home – I realised that at the core of my conceptualisation of home there was a curious paradox of movement and stasis. Home seemed to become most significant for me when I was running towards it – having been away for a long time, either after travelling or living in Sheffield – but then almost instantly became a site of regression. Remembering our conversations about nostalgia during Otis’s residency, a word that literally means “homesickness”, I wonder if this is an essential feature of home; as much as intimacy, comfort, safety and love, which seem to be much more commonplace associations.
Of course, our sense of and relationship with home has been stretched, changed and challenged profoundly by coronavirus in 2020, which has led to us being on lockdown within one domicile for the last four or five months. It was interesting to hear Otis, Suhaiymah and Awate reflect on this experience and how it had brought into sharp relief internal family dynamics as well as the political turbulence of the outside world. This was also something that came out of the second creative writing workshop we ran as part of Otis’s residency. Here, young writers were encouraged by Emily Hearne to assume the perspective of particular objects within the household and consider how they might have been troubled or changed during lockdown. We received fascinating and revealing insights into the world of televisions, footballs and books, in what was a fun and creative activity.
We were entirely unprepared, though, for the reflections of one young writer (13 yo) who took the weekend to further think about home in the context of COVID; producing a truly incredible poem which strikes me as the perfect way to end this post.
Shared with permission
6 Months Ago
6 months ago we all knew how the year would go
We all had our expectations, our perceptions of what 2020 would be like
As if we all had 2020 vision and knew
What was going to happen to us the next day, the next week, the next month
And that the next time we saw our friends wouldn’t be the last
And that nobody ever payed attention to the past and how despite previous years not being the greatest
We always thought our homes would keep us safe
We were never prepared to live like this
Hoarding food as if a doomsday siren had gone off
As if we were being attacked by a far of country, in a land far far away
But now the enemy we’re facing lives in corners and cracks waiting for us to crack
Knowing we all want to take a sledge hammer and break down the walls
Of a house we used to call home but now
It’s a jail cell with double glazed windows and locked doors
Looking out into a world we’ve always loved but never really known
A place full of hate, some of us feel ashamed to call home
But now I can’t do anymore than try and Stay Safe and Stay Home
Put on a Brave Face despite knowing that thousands of people are trying to buy a headstone
For a loved one they thought was never going to go
Now I’m at home with nothing to do, nowhere to go
Trying to find a time killer but end up staring at an illuminated glow
On a phone screen which shows me a little more to know about
A silent and invisible killer, we’ve all come to know but pretend like we don’t
Then everything’s open again, people begin to get back in the flow of high street retail and interacting with people they don’t know despite all signs telling them to keep distancing and leave them alone but the silence of your own home is begging you to call an have a group of friends over
To talk to you, to ask how things have been going
If you’re okay, if you want to take a road trip maybe even a holiday?
But the battle isn’t over and you need to stay at home
A building that seems even bigger now, and makes you feel more alone.