In Frame | The Reno, guerrilla gardening and cherry blossom

By Elias Mendel

‘The white man is worth more and therefore he has more’ – in conversation with Linda Brogan

Elias Mendel begins our brand-new series In Frame, articles dedicated to hearing artists’ voices, revealing what is behind the canvas. Mendel interviews the artist Linda Brogan and what began as a brief discussion of their exhibit about the Reno Nightclub in Manchester quickly elaborated into a discussion between two people about an intergenerational exchange as activists and creatives. 

This is a series of excerpts of conversation with Linda Brogan. This is an intergenerational exchange on institutional battles, decolonisation, slavery and trauma. 

Beginning as a short interview about Brogan’s recent Reno exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, our Zoom discussion sprawled into a few hours of debate and discourse – an intergenerational exchange as activists and creatives. 

Much of the discussion focused on our identity and how it has influenced our practice. Linda Brogan is a playwright and artist, recently in the spotlight for her curation of this show. The Reno exhibition examined through interviews and images the lives of those from Moss Side in Manchester who frequented the Reno nightclub, a safe haven for those of mixed-race descent, labelled ‘half-caste’ by locals in the area.  

Brogan was a fellow club-goer, who is herself half-Irish and half-Jamaican. In our long conversations I enjoyed her quick wit, warm laugh and Mancunion sensibility. I’m a person of mixed identity (although white), part English and part South African Jewish, and I grew up in Hackney, East London. So her story and the parallels between Hackney and Moss Side, and of being from culturally disparate backgrounds struck many chords with me. 

On Black Lives Matter – not just a discussion of today, but of our country’s history 

Brogan: I think it’s [the murder of black people by the police] just the way that life is at the moment, if you go back to colonialism, that’s just expected…that the white man is worth more and therefore he has more.

And everybody is more upset if he dies, and that goes back to the Raj in India, it’s also in China, it’s back to all the other places that we colonised and especially back to slavery. Because unless they [the white man] could persuade themselves that a black man was a mule, their own humanity wouldn’t have allowed them to do those things to another human being. 

So that is parts of Floyd’s murder. That you could kneel on somebody’s neck when they are begging for their life, means that person has no value. Unfortunately, I don’t know how you would change those thoughts. 

On Black Lives Matter and on identity

Brogan: Even that question those thoughts is huge – even if you say you’re black, immediately you say identity. What do you mean? Like why is our native identity looked at? Why do we need identity? 

Mendel: It’s so hard on people what is happening, but the problem is we focus on individuals, on one person killed or one policeman murdering, but it’s about that system –  about the structures in society. How do we have that conversation without it being difficult or turning people away from supporting a movement?

Brogan: That’s why I want to say poverty’s bigger, I think poverty and class is bigger than colour. Sometimes I think that genuinely we shouldn’t focus on the problem at all, we should focus on the solutions. You know how mental health should be, not just about showing symptoms in the head, but about getting the mind to work properly.

You have coping mechanisms and you have skills to form a functioning process and you’ve had good food so your brain actually works. I think instead of focussing on what happens afterward we should focus on putting those things right, like mental health being part of schooling. 

My own belief is – intersectionality – without using the buzzword, that the method should be to approach them all together, class, race, gender and so on. Even just looking at race and class formation with slavery and colonialism, they’re inextricably connected, so we must stand in unity in opposition to all formations of oppression. What Brogan is so right about is to focus on the solutions – how to enrichen communities and societies, both psychologically and materially, to be better able to combat oppression. 

On slavery, the voiceless and decolonisation

Brogan: This is an enormous question and I don’t know if I spoke about this before, have you heard of Fredrick Douglass? 

Mendel: Yes, an activist, one of the old radical ones, anti-racist.

Brogan: He was also an ex-slave; so Douglass has escaped slavery, he’s jumped across swamps and run across fields and done whatever he can to get away from these people, but now he’s become an activist, which is the first thing you said, so he’s parted his hair like a white man, but he’s still got an afro because it won’t go proper and they haven’t got fucking hair relaxers yet, so when he becomes an activist they ventriloquize him, he speaks English, he’s not speaking his slave language, I don’t even know what that is. 

Mendel: Talking to you specifically about decolonisation, I want your opinion on a discussion that occurred during a workshop I was running as part of the Steve Biko exhibition, discussing the theme of decolonisation. A woman from the Ahmed Iqbal Race Relations Resource Centre got up to speak and objected to the term, stating that her being half-Jamaican half-white, that ‘you can’t decolonise me’. 

Brogan: For me it’s about the after-effects. It’s not about what happened, you can’t do anything about that, it’s trying to understand what grew from that. That Fredrick Douglass wears a frock coat and has parted hair, little sentences like that and looking at what that means. That means his voice was never his own. 

When you look at slave narratives, there are some fantastic ones, but because they’re so oppressed they probably can’t read or write, someone’s writing it down for them, so they’re talking oppressed, they are not telling what they feel, they are still talking as if some white person madly had the right to do that to them.

It’s not as explicit as I’m saying it, they don’t feel entitled to life, they don’t even know what to do with their freedom. With our brains, this tradition of civil rights from Georgian times and looking back and looking at those things for real and thinking about how that affects us today. 

Generational trauma and family 

Brogan: They’ve done these experiments where they get a mouse to smell cherry blossom and electric shock them at the same time, and the mouse gets frightened of the smell of cherry blossom without offering electric shock. So, six generations down the line, the mice are still afraid of cherry blossom. I’m only four generations from slavery. My Dad’s grandma was a slave. Great-grandma, grandma, dad, me. What’s ticking in me that makes me not feel entitled to things and all the other people of my generation?

I haven’t stopped thinking about this, it reminds me of a story from South Africa I was told as a child; there’s a valley in the Kruger park, a place which was infamous for the hunting and killing of elephants, that today, more than a hundred years since the last mass elephant hunts, elephants still run through the valley screaming.

I’m only two generations from the holocaust, my great-grandfather died in the First World War, on the German side, and in one of the great ironies of personal history, my great-grandmother died in a concentration camp. My grandparents fortunately escaped to South Africa. 

How do we know when we are screaming through a valley in the memory and trauma in our blood?

Postmemory, how trauma affects family far beyond living memory, must be examined if we can truly move beyond the oppressive structures of our society, be they formed in slavery, colonisation, or the holocaust. 

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