Skip to main content

Witch Finder Phenomenal: Performing black queer resistances through hauntological film narratives, storytelling and communicating with ancestors

Published onMar 17, 2022
Witch Finder Phenomenal: Performing black queer resistances through hauntological film narratives, storytelling and communicating with ancestors

This article explores the making of a creative autoethnographic1 film Witch Finder Phenomenal by British black mixed-race queer outsider artist2 Maria Rosamojo during 2020’s COVID pandemic, the BLM protests and the spectre of George Floyd’s murder. Rosamojo conducted a hauntological3 self-enquiry by communicating with her past and future selves to reflect on these challenging circumstances, and to relocate a sense of ‘belonging-from-unbelonging’. As global events ricocheted in and out of her own embodied experiences of racist and gendered trauma, they also triggered flashbacks of her black father’s disappearance. By channelling trauma through her creative process as an Othered subject, she/thee utilises these memories and experiences by redemptively acting from what is elaborated as a superpower site of phenomenal black queer witch resistance as seen in the production of her film. Rosamojo posits that society’s need for patriarchal logic, order, and absolute obedience in all areas from schools to government, conjures up witch-finder spectres that perpetually haunt to disempower subjects who do not fit within normative realms. She/Thee reclaims their black Bajan/Spanish ancestral power and magic through her art to occupy previously disallowed space, and to haunt back the society that has haunted her.

Hauntology spells the condemnation of the antagonist postcolonial subject to always return to the colonial scene, to always speak from and to the colonial scene, and to define herself against it…Hauntology is a tragedy. To be haunted by colonial spectres means to be forced to relive the violence of colonialism.4

‘A Hauntology of Rosamojo’, Digital Art Recreation of Henry Fuselli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ by Maria Rosamojo, 20205

Once upon the queerest of times there was a girl who haunted herself back to life. That girl was me. I am a black mixed-race British queer female multimedia outsider artist with mental and physical health challenges. I am also the child of Bajan and Spanish immigrants who relocated to London during the mid to late 1960s. I am the outcome of their revolutionary race-defying love in that era, but also one of racism and gendered abuse while growing up in 1970s/80s Harlesden. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. But I am only just beginning to believe that I matter. My evolution from a shy troubled child, into a battle weary yet empowered individual, occurred despite trying to exist within a hostile society that made me feel like a cuckoo in a nest made solely for the occupation of pure white doves.

In my Masters film project Witch Finder Phenomenal I convey complex character representational stories in an attempt to produce a self-actualized agency for the accused among us today who are labelled as witches owing to our skin, culture, gender, sexuality and/or disabilities. The artist subject as Other is ironically privileged in working with limited resources to make art accessible, due to their own experiences of inaccessibility. When faced with fewer choices, struggles can be stored as an intelligent source of knowledge-through-experience in the brain, making them more creative at problem-solving because the subject as Other is an expert at trying to overcome difficulties. In the 1993 film Ghost Dance, Jacques Derrida6 spoke about hauntology as being “The art of allowing ghosts to come back” and also claimed that “Ghosts are part of the future”. Derrida’s deconstructive argument argues that there is a spectral presence of the past and future in the individual’s present. I began my film research by exploring my memory of past experiences, and from the probable imagined futures triggered by those same memories. And in the present, I identified that there were malevolent witch-finder spectres ever present in my sociocultural environment. I then discovered author Aya A Coly who also theorised on spectres, specifically colonial spectres.. She describes a Fanonian7 perspective of hauntology and investigates how postcolonial silences surround African discourse. Coly argues that global discourse is so entrenched in colonist white privileged systemically racist systems, that it is hard to think of her own black embodied female body and agency outside colonist structuralism. My own phenomenological experience of being a black disabled woman is to be perpetually at war with postcolonial silences, racism, patriarchal white dominance, and ableism. I could not hide from witch-finder spectres. My phenomenal magnetic aroma, that of an alienated Othered brown-skinned female body, draws them directly to me. Therefore, I have always concluded, I am a witch. Furthermore, these spectres were not only behind the racist, sexist, ableist discriminations and assaults I had battled against, but their presence is also a direct yet unspoken order from a postcolonial western society that needs to negatively identify, silence, and destabilise Othered subjects.

Phenomenally Dancing with Spectres in the Time of Covid

Self Portrait at Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest, Brighton, 14th June, 2020

I employed a framework of hauntology and synchronicity by identifying what Raminder Kaur terms as catalytic signifiers8 to reflect on how certain events, conditions and notions had affected my autonomy. When I started my Masters degree, the words of Audre Lorde “Your silence will not protect you9 were one of the empowering mantras that kept me focused but little had I fully realised the emotional and physical impact making the film would have on my mind, body and spirit. Nor did I, like the rest of the planet, expect that 2020 was going to throw in the devastating curveball of a global pandemic. The UK, thrown into the surreal magnitude of lockdown, was closely followed by the U.S news of the violent and tragic death of George Floyd. My empowering cry became a whimper. But the BLM protests needed my voice, not my silence. So, I fitfully found it again and screamed it back into my creative process. Jacques Derrida further suggested that instead of remaining a subject of haunting, we should instead converse with our spectre to learn from it. Unable to move beyond a perpetual and temporal time loop of persecution, what better way to ‘dance the spectre out’ of trauma with one’s own autonomic agency? Despite being at greater risk of catching COVID as a fat, black, asthmatic, diabetic, I broke my shielding bubble to attend the BLM protests in Brighton. They epitomised the act of dancing the colonial spectre out en masse. I was staying with my partner and temporarily shielding myself from my Camden Town flat where I was most at risk of catching COVID. My partner was also supporting me as I was newly diagnosed with both diabetes and hypothyroidism on top of my other conditions and became unable to cope living alone during a pandemic. I was also being looked after as a kind of COVID-refugee by the Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre who were more accessible than my over-run London doctor’s practice. Feeling dislocated between my independent safe space, and the one my partner and Brighton provided was a tenuous yet cherished exchange. Thankfully, I was still able to keep my independence by working on my film and thesis. And, by protesting, I was reclaiming ancestral power and magical tools from both my Barbados and Spanish roots to defeat the postcolonial and witch-finder spectres. The thousands of people peacefully protesting alongside me and across the globe radiated the purest form of magic. Love. bell hooks10 spoke of seeing love as an action, one that owns responsibility rather than simply accommodating the emotion of a temperamental feeling. I similarly propose a radical love and solidarity that liberates subjects from adopting and internalised colonial modes of being. Radical love and solidarity promotes mutual support despite being conditioned to be in competition with one another. And as I marched and worked through themes of collective trauma shared by many, I reflected how lockdown had given the more privileged among us a mindful experience of what it may feel to be isolated and locked out of society. Maybe that’s why there were so many white allies on the march. Magic is real.

Honouring Bloodlines

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the good will of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination (Toni Morrison Mouth Full of Blood, 2019)

Toni Morrison (2019) wrote that writers, particularly politically motivated writers, are persecuted because they are the only ones who can translate traumatic acts and atrocities into tangible meanings11. Morrison appears to be suggesting that the informed writer threatens society by locating hidden meanings, perhaps in a view that there is a solidarity in grief? Does then, the writer, acting as a type of moral gatekeeper, recover lost or hidden meanings to not only inform but also help the grieving process of empathetic subjects? Another one of Audrey Lorde’s empowering cry’s to “dismantle the master’s tools” was now encouraging me to liberate mine, and other haunted voices through my storytelling process. But how can you empower the dead? By bearing witness, listening, sharing, and perhaps identifying with ghosts.

Jacques Derrida’s notion that ghosts were part of our future was becoming uncannily more poignant than ever in 2020 with the ghost of George Floyd. George’s ghost is now a part of our future. His silence did not protect him. But his last movements and desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe” are painfully ingrained not only with the BLM movement but in all empathetic human consciousness. ‘I can’t breathe’ is now written onto the fabric of societies ‘mostly’ collective grief.12 George, on the brink of death, was forced to speak the words, we wrote them and wore them empathically as masks, because we are the moral gatekeepers trying to find meaning in our grief. During my filmmaking process the spectre of George Floyd was also reminding me of my own father’s disappearance and these flashbacks were intensifying.

On the night my dad went missing in the mid-1980s I was a young teen. He hadn’t uttered a word. This wasn’t unusual. He was a quiet man. But this was a rude quiet. This silence didn’t belong to him, yet it seeped from him, filling the atmosphere with a cloying and ominous disturbance. I thought of George Floyd’s daughter’s future legacy of trauma. My lifelong episodes of dissociation sometimes protected me, but I needed to engage with the present, even if it was in my past. My silence was not going to protect me but liberating my voice was going to hurt.

Behold The Queer Black Witch Speaks

“The black woman was unworthy of the title human, she was a chattel, a thing, an animal” (Sojourner Truth, Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, 1954)

Behind the scenes about to film myself on set (aka living room) Witch Finder Phenomenal, 2020

bell hooks (2014) set the scene for Sojourner Truth's talk in Ohio at a women’s rights convention in 1954. hooks states that Truth was met with white women shouting, “Don’t let her talk, don’t let her talk!”.13 Rude ignorance considering her audience could have learned a lesson on female autonomy if they had only listened to the black empowered woman standing before them. A woman who had triumphantly survived the inequalities of being born a black female, and devalued both as a human and a woman. Truth continued her fighting talk in her own dialectic which I imagine would have been conceived by the racist audience as being animalistic. During the European witch hunts Stavreva (2015) wrote that British accounts record what they believed to be the phenomenon of ‘witch speak’.14 When a woman was identified as a witch, she would proceed to use fighting words and acts, which in turn would inflame her torturers to inflict even more pain with relish. I envisioned how this might have played out at the women’s rights talk back in 1950s Ohio. With Truth identified as a witch because of her black skin and fighting talk dialect, was her white female audience so afraid of her Otherness? Were they determined to keep her silent so she wouldn’t curse them? Truth knew her power, her phenomenal magic womanhood.15 Her integral autonomic phenomenal magic propelled her to carry on speaking the ‘truth’ despite hearing the angry white privileged female mob yelling for her to stop.

To find meaning I attempted to identify what I had lost in a society where I was forced to occupy space as an outsider within.16 I first positioned myself as a victim of traumatic flashbacks, I was sick, helpless, and dissociating to escape reality. My dissociative states were, and are, a way of escaping pain of trauma, but the cost is not being present in the real world. But when I positioned myself as a survivor, as a witch finder phenomenal, I could take control and still be grounded while attempting to find meaning within the dissociation itself. I grounded myself like a tree with my roots nestled within rich life affirming soil to time travel safely to my younger and future selves. I held them close, and responsibly took on their pain whilst dancing with their/my spectres. These sessions worked as a foundation for the character development of my 12-year-old self in the film, Aurora Mojo played by Maisy Stewart-Holland. In a world where the illusion of the white idol of femininity was perpetuated as an ideal to achieve, I had few visible role models. My 12-year-old self would escape into dreamworlds, fantasy horror comics, and books. She also found fulfilment and passion for alternative music sung by mostly rebel females like Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush and Pauline Black or androgynous males such as Bowie and Prince.

From Tragic to Magic

Zoom film still of Aurora Mojo played by Maisy Stewart-Holland and the white privileged hell witch Bealzebette played by

Ella Stewart-Holland in Witch Finder Phenomenal 2020

I channelled my young self to gain insight into how she was feeling. She couldn’t speak yet. Instead, she surrounded me in a toxic orchestra of man-made monkey noise and heavy panting. This was accompanied by a chorus of mocking voices “black cunt…coconut…wog…pussy…mongrel…paki…ugly…weird…freak”. Then, as if projected on a cinema screen, a wall of images, sensations and events flashed before me. Skinhead’s name calling and aggressively pushing me towards a waltzer at a fairground. Being spat at on my hair and face. Intruders urinating on my bed and writing half breed on the wall in their excrement. Being called a ‘coconut pussy’ and grabbed by my genitals. My mother dressed in black, shoe in hand, screaming in Spanish while chasing one of my abusers down Harlesden High Street in north west London. Half a bottle of Lucozade besides an empty packet of junior aspirin I had overdosed on at 9-years-old. Being offered coins at the sweet shop from a neighbour and refusing. Pain between my legs, heavy grunting, and a portrait of white Jesus opening his arms to me. Burning when peeing. Proudly wearing a ska two tone t-shirt on a daytrip to Bournemouth, only to then pee myself after members of a Nazi youth march menacingly jeered at us from the promenade. Mum and dad being refused a ride in a taxi at London Euston (but also of us being supported by outraged white people in the queue who yelled shame at the cab driver). The irony of my chief psychiatric social worker father teaching me to shoot a gun in our backyard to protect myself after we were burgled. Bang. Bang. Bang. But the witch finding spectres still found me. Tricky fuckers. But in my present, as a witch finder phenomenal, this time I was leading the dance. I was attempting to observe my traumatic memories, rather than being fully trapped in them, hoping to find a cure, an antidote perhaps in the trauma itself.

The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious. just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we call consciousness, so also it has a nocturnal side: the unconscious psychic activity which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy.

(Carl Jung, The Practical Use of Dream Analysis, 1934)

Carl Jung (1934) believed that the unconscious contained hidden aspects of yourself that could only be tapped into through dream exploration.17 When I couldn’t fit or be accepted into western society’s construct of the white idol of femininity or the angry yet stoic black daughter of slave’s, I experienced states of dissociation. I used a recurring childhood nightmare of mine where I was dragged into hell by a witch to identify my main antagonist Bealzebette in the film as the white privileged hell witch. I decided she was going to be a baroque type creature who epitomizes white privilege with red bow lips, delicate blue veins painted on to a white mask. Her creation originally stemmed from the start of my Master’s development in 2019 when I had conceptualised The Miss White Privilege Doll18 aka Dolly Wig to feature in a satirical commercial about blackface and appropriation. Dolly Wig is a white barbie who loves to dress up in gollywog ‘couture’ complete with an afro and clay blackface mask. As I was consumed with so much work, I asked my make-up artist friend Gozra Lozana to paint the mask for me with delicate fine blue lines and a red pout.19 Also, as I was in Brighton at the time, he was also able to deliver the mask and costumes to Ella Stewart-Holland in Camden (Maisy’s mum) who plays Bealzebette in the film. Bealzebette vampirically preys on the brown vulnerability of Aurora who perceives her as the white idol of femininity. But as Aurora becomes more resilient during her encounters with empowering Othered witches in the film, Bealzebette becomes more and more irrelevant and sets out to destroy Aurora.

Still from Miss White Privilege Doll Commercial by Maria Rosamojo 2019

I included a dream montage in the film where Aurora is having a nightmare of one of the assaults that had happened to me in real life. An older skinhead had pushed me towards a revolving fairground waltzer. In the 1954 film Imitation of Life,20 the agonized protagonist Sarah Jane passes for white and is damned for it. The tragic mulatto21 is a trope in stories that depicts the mixed-race individual as a desperately sad figure who doesn’t belong anywhere and is rejected by both white and black worlds. The tragic mulatto could be argued to be a mythical stereotype, but it was easy for me to identify with, because the racist abuse I endured from white people was also tempered sporadically from black people. I viewed this to be an identity crisis of metamorphic unrest, where I would also find relief and ‘empowering relatedness’, on realising I could identify with the power of the witch. The witch had a superpower of flight and elusiveness, and more importantly, she could turn her enemies into toads. Aurora, in my film, needed to be portrayed as vulnerable and haunted to show the reality of abuse, but also as a figure with a redemptive element by having witch-like powers that would lead her to empowered self-actualization.

Still of Aurora in front of waltzer before just she becomes aware of the skinheads, witch finder phenomenal, 2020

I needed to show how Aurora occupied space under traumatic circumstances, while also trying to resist the often volatile and confusing landscape she stood on. I believe all my chronic physical and mental health conditions to be caused by a mix of biology, hereditary conditions, ancestral trauma, lived trauma and witch finder spectres. My dissociative coping mechanism is to stay still when I feel in danger. Finding safe spaces in public consumes a lot of energy, from choosing the right chair to looking for a quick exit. When I panic, my hope is to become invisible.

Due to lockdown and my COVID-refugee status in Brighton, I filmed Maisy and Ella via Zoom. I also made them co-producers of the film. They made phenomenal efforts to engage not only in their performances and setting up, but also with their creative input in such a surreal situation. It was important for me to be radical in an ethical way by making them co-producers, so they would always have an executive say on how the film is shared in the future. I positioned Aurora as a spectre-haunted individual whose own lived experience remains in limbo. During her interactions with Bealzebette, I asked my child actor Maisy to remain as still as possible and I experimented by freezing only her in the frame.

‘Black & British’ still image of Aurora being pushed by a nazi skinhead, Witch Finder Phenomenal, 2020.

Background 80s photography of National Front Skinheads by Chris Steele Perkins.

During Aurora’s interactions with Bealzebette, I asked Maisy to remain as still as possible and I experimented by freezing only her in the frame. For the dream sequences, I filmed Maisy as Aurora falling to and away from the camera, so that I could later position her in the waltzer/skinhead dream sequence. After an exhaustive time of keyframe masking, I eventually was able to place her in front of a photograph of skinhead’s holding a British National Front flag which I had animated. The skin’s photograph was taken in the 1980s by photographer Chris Steele-Perkins.22 I had found it online and then contacted him and thankfully Chris gave me permission to use his work in my film. Having already applied the stop motion effect to Aurora’s movements, the scene began to take on a surreal life of its own. A week after the BLM protests, I serendipitously found a waltzer in the exact place the BLM march had ended at The Level in Brighton. I filmed it with my iPhone but felt conspicuous. In her art photography Pastoral Interlude, Ingrid Pollard23 spoke about being a black face in the countryside, and I must admit I felt very exposed and conspicuous filming in a white crowd with no other brown faces to be seen. But I also felt the presence of the frightened 12-year-old that I was, now feeling excited and emboldened.

It’s a Question of Hauntological Time (& Space)

The outside is not empirically exterior; it is transcendentally exterior, i.e, it is not just a matter of something being distant in space and time, but of something beyond our ordinary experience and conception of space and time itself Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016

Edited footage of Aurora falling towards the waltzer I had serendipitously filmed in Brighton 2020

The late postmodern hauntologist Mark Fisher24 recalls Freud’s theory of Kant’s theorem that time and space are necessary forms of thought. Freud in Beyond the pleasure principle argued that the unconscious operated beyond Immanuel Kant’s transcendental structures of time and space in trauma patients. Fisher implies that - as Freud suggested the unconscious does not recognize earthly rules of space and time - trauma is a type of “transcendental shock” Researching my queer mixed identity was literally bringing back the ghosts of my past, present and future selves. While I had released my past child-self at the fairground in the dream sequence, my inner child was cheering and supporting me. She could be free as she flew high on her broom. In the creative process, I was utilizing the trauma in my memories, and was now investigating how the shock of them could be transcendental. Like human memory, time is complex. It appears to be linear but is in fact elusive and non-linear. As I am typing this article, my past, present and future collide and fail in an attempt to make a chronological meaning of time. The Now is never clearly tangible. Although I have a vague recollection that I started this sentence in the past, it will not finish now but in the future, which is also now my past. My memory recall, in much the same way, can produce flashbacks to a traumatic event from the past that affects the present as if it is simultaneously occurring in the now to also trigger future anxiety. Back at the fairground, instead of having a traumatic flashback, I was greeted by my excited inner child. As I write this down as the future me, I am expressing it in a curative nature of a disempowering incident in an empowering way. Something remarkable is at play in the universe. Again, as I now re-edit this paragraph weeks later, I feel more in tune with my past and future selves within the ever-expanding universe that can be accessed as an elixir that is curative in nature.

Is the shock the cure? Are traumatic earthly experiences a result of transcendental shock? And does trauma hold its own antidote? I believe in some ways, they do. Yet transcendental shock feels too distanced from my embodied anguish. However, it is here I am reminded that the unconscious operates beyond my human understanding of time and space. Maybe the dissociative part of my mental health is not just from my earthly experiences of trauma, but a result of an ironically curative part of transcendental shock.

Still of Aurora rising from the flames into the fairground, Witch Finder Phenomenal, 2020

My experiences of feeling otherworldly, dissociative, unreal and out of time have led me to self-harm because I took too much notice that I am viewed as an Atypical Other in society. However, I posit that the shock of trauma can hold a curative antidote in it because it not only acts as a coping mechanism against the harsh reality of traumatic pain, it also helps us transcend spiritually through creativity to see the bigger picture. The transcendental is the witch’s aura who exists out of time and space. At the beginning of the dream sequence Aurora is an identified witch running in the woods, chased by crows, and set on fire by unseen puritans. In the dream sequence I transported Aurora out of the witch burning scene, with crows still cawing around her as death threats. She reappears in a fairground scene, a magical nostalgic reflection of childhood, only for her to be hit by reality again through my real lived experience of racism. The eerie fairground music changes into an alarming tone when Aurora first notices the skins behind her. I edited an illusion of Aurora being pushed by the ‘heil hitler’25 salute before she begins to fully disintegrate. Before this, she senses the skins behind her before seeing them in much the way she senses the evil presence of Bealzebette before ever seeing her. On turning to see the skins, her intuitive fears are confirmed and a slight disintegrative process is shown as Aurora’s sense of identity shatters. As she feels unwelcome and a sense of ‘unbelonging’ envelopes her, she wants to disappear, but with no options, she finds the strength to remain resolute and defiant. She then completely disintegrates (dissociates) after one of the skins shoves her towards the waltzer, only to reappear in darkness, and in witch form, she shakes off her oppressors before flying away on a broom.

Still of Aurora flying away on broom, Witch Finder Phenomenal, 2020

I continued to ponder on my flashbacks and how transcendental shock on the individual could be represented in my film within the context of the wider worldly historical and future figures, events and landscapes. I then envisioned this notion singularly as an evolving child (individual) standing on the ground (figures/landscapes/events) under a transparent umbrella (the unconscious). The umbrella holds a temperamental but relatively safe and ordered representation of thoughts, time and space but can only protect the child from the rain, not the lightning. The rain is the medium between the ordinary (human) and extraordinary (alien) notions of time and space. Depending on the weather in the unconscious, the rain can be either curative as a form of nourishment or toxic and poisonous to individuals and the environment. The lightning occurs when the rain turns toxic, it acts as the transcendental shock conducted through the umbrella to the child to disrupt the fabric of the umbrella (the universal unconscious and human notions of time and space). However, the transparency of the umbrella operates as a redemptive form of human instinct and intuition providing shelter as a coping mechanism and way of releasing trauma. When Aurora first notices Bealzebette (lightning) she is frozen, so she never looks at her directly until the end. It is her ‘umbrella’ instinct that knows the witch is there as the ‘lightning’ strikes. Having experienced the racist abuse from the skinheads in her dream, she is also hypervigilant and constantly on guard. But with this hypervigilance she is forced to stay still. Bealzebette’s presence acts as a curse; she can only sense (toxic rain) damning her to a catatonic state (sleeping beauty). Later in the film, Aurora becomes emboldened (healing rain) by her higher self (fairy horse mother) to challenge the witch and as a result, through the process of recognition, both find solace and empowerment.

I’ll See You in the Stars, Goodbye….

“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root… Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees..” (Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit, 1939)

Still of my performance as Billie Holiday singing to Aurora, WitchFinder Phenomenal, 2020

In 1939 American blues singer Billie Holiday recorded the song Strange Fruit,26 a chilling and haunting song about the public lynching of black people by white southerners in the USA. The BLM movement was founded in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martyn27 by George Zimmerman who was aquitted. But it can be argued that Holliday was one of the first Black Lives Matter protest singers if we truly see that she was singing about black lives mattering. Many have been haunted by the potency of Billie singing Strange Fruit ever since. And many are also appalled by the early photographs of hanged black men surrounded (in darkly stark contrast) by gleefully cheering white mobs. Through storytelling and performance, I began to draw out the witch finder spectres that haunted me from childhood.

I performed aspects of myself as The Witch Finder Phenomenal who narrates the story, and the Fairy Horse Mother28 who brings the witches to Aurora through her bedroom mirror. I then filmed myself performing as the main witches who share their stories to Aurora in song form including Anne Boleyn29 who delightfully revels in the fact she scored a goal for matriarchy in producing the greatest queen in history Queen Elizabeth Ist. Then Mexican artist Frida Kahlo30 sings I am The Bull to Aurora to show her how to use her phenomenal magic by respecting her autonomy and the earth “Monkey’s in the trees are my religion, don’t let anyone steal your vision”. The most elusive of all was Billie Holiday. She was coolly reluctant to sing the song I had written for her. Billie informed me that she wasn’t a performing monkey. I had programmed orchestral strings and set the tone, but she was just staring at me quietly. I started humming an old song of mine ‘For my Sins’. Billie leaned forward but was still quiet. Surely not I thought. I had written the song for my Best Friend Velda Lauder31 who had died suddenly in 2013. Why would Billie want to sing a song that wasn’t written for her? I reprogrammed the chord changes. Then Billie rose up to the mic and started singing it. But as she sang, she kept drifting in and out. She wanted me to sing my own blues dammit. She smiled and left the room quietly, elegantly, accomplished.

I performed as Yemaya,32 a complex vengeful Caribbean mermaid who drowns what she perceives to be colonial pirates in revenge for them killing her mother. As I began singing her song ‘Skulduggery’, I felt the Bajan grandma I had never met singing with me, and then all my ancestors joined in in the chorus. However, Yemaya’s memories are confused by trauma which is revealed as she remembers the horror of plantation rapes and realises what she is. Springfield (1997) wrote that the control of the female body was documented on slave plantations in the West Indies. Historical records show that slave masters controlled the reproductive pattern of women's births to produce more or less ‘labour’ depending on the climate. This control ironically intensified after the abolition of slavery in 1807.33 White governments, having lost their ability to own black men and women as slaves, sought legislative powers to prevent too many babies being born to black women.

In the film, Billie's/my last words to Aurora are “I’ll see you stars, I’ll see you when I die, goodbye....” When the film was finished, I believed I was empowered enough to finally visit my father’s spirit. I first saw him as a baby and held him close to my chest. I tried to see him as an adult but couldn’t quite work my magic yet. So, I time-travelled through the veils of trauma with my young teenage self to understand her perspective first.

On the night my dad went missing, Mum was in hospital about to get a lump removed from her breast. I was terrified and thought that my dad’s silence was due to being worried about mum too. But when I looked over to him lying on the sofa I froze. A visibly dense black shadow hovered over his face. He was repeatedly muttering “This blasted34 country”.

Mr & Mrs. Mojo, London, 1969

In the 1960s my dad came over from Barbados to London armed with psychology and science degrees. White students were landing well-paid related jobs with similar qualifications, but the only job my black father could get was as a bus driver. He eventually became a chief psychiatric social worker after meeting my Spanish mum in Springfield psychiatric hospital in London where they were both nurses. Dad would disguise himself in her spare nurse uniform to sneak into the female staff quarters to woo her, which resulted in my mum being six months pregnant at their wedding. Before the wedding, she had been instructed by the priest in no uncertain terms that she must not wear white. My mother showed up to the church in full veiled ivory splendour with a huge defiant grin on her face. No one could tell my mother what to do or how to be.

On the night my father disappeared. I had questioned my sanity after seeing a dense black mist obscuring his face. But it wasn’t imagined. It was as real as I am writing this now, which is your future, as you are reading this in your present. I had put my youngest foster baby brother in his cot before returning to the living room. My other foster brother and sister ages 2 and 3 were squabbling on the floor over who got to sit on a My Little Pony beanbag. Then my dad shot up from the sofa where he had been laying. He walked out to the hall and put his coat on. I asked him where he was going and he replied that he was sorry, he had to go, he couldn’t stay, and that this country made him want to kill himself. I begged and cried for him to stay. He apologized, stumbled, and then ran out the door. I collapsed on the sofa. My foster brother and sister were smiling gently and cooing at me not to cry, their pairs of tiny white hands reaching out to comfort me. Numb, I held a glass of water to my lips. I tried to drink, but choked, until eventually I was able to sip. I then felt something strange flapping in my mouth. A moth.

As an 8-year-old I started to believe my dad was the news at 10 reader Trevor Macdonald. He worked nights and looked and spoke just like him. I imagined my parents were keeping this secret from me because they didn’t want it to go to my head. After all, if my dad was hiding the truth that he was rich and famous, it would explain why we lived just above the poverty line in a little flat in the notoriously rough Harlesden. It would also explain why they both worked long hours. I was the perpetual latchkey kid letting myself in after school, an only child, making toast for tea, and locking myself in their bedroom with Doctor Who on the TV, and praying a Dalek wouldn’t magically rise out of the floor. But there was more to fear than an exterminating Dalek in Harlesden.

I’d let myself into our flat once to find it had been broken into. They had pissed on my bed and written half breed on the wall in excrement. Dad’s answer to our troubles was to teach me to shoot a gun in the backyard. My dad was actually a pacifist and even at a tender age, the irony of him teaching me to shoot a gun didn’t escape me. But I’d been born a war baby, one of the few mixed-race kids growing up in the 70s/80s. My mind could have survived a megalomaniac metallic Dalek but not society’s cruelty. Or the child rape I had endured by a neighbour.

A week after my dad went missing, my mother had come out of hospital. I had looked after my foster brother’s and sister by myself, and had kept it from the social services. My mum had good news. The lump was benign. But I had to break it to her that dad had gone and the police had no news. Finally, my mum answered the phone on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and my dad was speaking to her from Barbados. He couldn’t remember much, apart from being on a boat for a very long time. But he was now safe. Safe away from this blasted country.

My Spanish mother became an even bigger warrior goddess and worked hard to keep us going. Due to our limited finances, my dad only returned to visit London twice in his lifetime, but during those times I was proudly bemused on hearing his broad Bajan dialect replacing his socially acceptable Trevor Macdonald voice. He was still eccentric, funny and intelligent, but still only a shadow of his former self. The only time I returned to Barbados since he left was to arrange his funeral in 2017. He had died of heart failure due to diabetes complications. My mum and I had opened the door of his run-down shabby hut to see the sorry pattern of his dead body remaining on the floor. I cursed at the billionaires who owned properties on that island, and the sunburnt holiday makers and celebs who bask in the sun while the majority of Bajan people in poverty.

A huge dead rat lay beaten in my father’s kitchen sink. My dad done died.35 But he died in battle fighting the venomous colonialism that had stolen his and my family, and our ancestors’ lives.

Daddy, guess what?

What?

Black lives still don’t matter.

Tsk! I knew all along, but you matter.

And you too Daddy. You matter too.

Daddy & Me, Harlesden, 1982



Comments
0
comment

No comments here

Why not start the discussion?