This month, we invited a group of self-defining black men to join us at the No Fly on the WALL Academy and partake in our latest workshop. Following the success of We Real Cool – Part I, Jessie Bernard, one of our in-house workshop facilitators led We Real Cool – Part II. There is a myth that black men do not need safe spaces in which to gather and be open, honest, and vulnerable. Our workshop proved that this is really nothing but a myth.
In this post, No Fly on the WALL Academy veteran, Ogaga Emuveyan, tells us what he got from having a safe space in which to gather with fellow black men and explore blackness, identity, mental health, relationships, and more.
My Mother, an unshakeable Christian woman, always said to me from a very young age that “salvation is a personal race”. Growing up doubting my faith and religion, this scared me; knowing that the most righteous person I knew, who was surely God’s favourite, couldn’t put in a good word for me to save me from eternal damnation. I had to do it all by myself. This way of thinking has manifested itself into other aspects of my life over the years; into my method of dealing with personal pain, emotions and life in general. For me redemption didn’t look like Jesus, whether blonde haired and blue eyed or hair like lamb’s wool; my redemption came in a room surrounded by black men opening their mouths and hearts; healing and hurting, and being human in every sense.
The latest workshop ‘We Real Cool II’, facilitated by resident No Fly on the WALL writer and workshop facilitator, and all round beacon of hope, Jesse Bernard, was that safe space for black men to give words to their experiences and have a shared space of understanding and acceptance. Space is an important concept, and the ability to take space, create space and give space are all integral parts of growing and existing as a human being. Flourishing, thriving and evolving all need a safe space in which to happen. No Fly On The WALL has created that much needed safe space for Black British women to take centre stage, and has also extended the invite to black men and other allies – an invitation I’m all too grateful for.
The workshop was set up to tackle issues such as blackness, masculinity, feminism, patriarchy, mental health and sexuality as it pertains to black men, and how it affects us. On this holy Sunday, our temple was Common House, Bethnal Green. We congregated in a circle, facing each other to speak and hear our truths echoed. The tone of the day was set early with pre-workshop bonding over bedtime hair rituals. We discussed durags, head wraps and stocking caps as a solution to struggles of someone just starting their locs journey. Existing with one another in a moment of both sincere problem solving and genuine laughter was so beautiful. All too often as a black man I have known what it has felt like to be policed into a very narrow cis-heteronormative performance of self-expression, and this space wasn’t that. This space was safe from that.
Many of the faces seemed familiar; I’d seen them somewhere before, beautiful and bright, black and bold as I stared across the room. Twitter was in front of me, these men I now fellowship with, had crossed my path many times before online. Retweets and favourites which previously connected us in virtual reality, now transcended into the physical realm; we could share ideas while breaking the 140 character limit. We could speak our minds without a larger unwanted audience lurking on the periphery; no so-called ally with itchy thumbs and an onset of ‘well actuallies’ and ‘not all…’ syndrome. So how deeply could we delve into all the demons that plague us? As we set our troubles on the altar, we looked only to ourselves for absolution.
There are moments when someone shares their truth and it shakes you to the core because of how much it resembles that thing you previously felt was a unique cross for you to alone to bear. The wounds you thought had healed are reopened, as you observe yourself through someone else’s eyes and pain. This group of men, extremely knowledgeable and articulate, jumped from topic to topic with ease; tackling sensitive material with delicate tongues and unfamiliar scenarios with gentle and sympathetic ears. Of all the issues we touched on, the one that left an everlasting mark was when we candidly and openly spoke about issues of mental health within the black community.
“African Caribbean people are also more likely to enter the mental health services via the courts or the police, rather than from primary care, which is the main route to treatment for most people. They are also more likely to be treated under a section of the Mental Health Act, are more likely to receive medication, rather than be offered talking treatments such as psychotherapy, and are over-represented in high and medium secure units and prisons.”
We were able to speak clearly about some of the many issues we all face and are at risk of facing at some point in our lives. From sharing, I could gleam that most, if not everyone in that room knew a black person with mental health problems at various stages. This was a very necessary conversation that really opened my eyes to the magnitude of the problem we face. Many are still of the mind-set that says “suicide and depression are for white people”, even just acknowledging it was a sinful act in itself. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth and I had a group of black men (some with personal experience of depression and suicidal ideation) to counter that with an emphatic “no”.
With knowledge of all this, there was also an emphasis on self-care, and how to do so in a very constant and aggressive world. How do you shut off from the endless torrent of information, emotion and sometimes life itself? Points made to tackle this were, switching off from social networks that could trigger you with information overload and black bodies turning into hashtags.
Taking time to do things you enjoy, just for the expression, not the mastery of it, so play a guitar badly or paint a dinosaur that looks like a fire truck, as long as it helps you get out what it is festering on the inside. Take time for yourself. You cannot help others while neglecting your health and mental health. A sick you can help a few people, a dead you helps no one.
Having gathered with these men, I put my faith in safe spaces as a tool for unlearning, learning and communion. I was able to be vulnerable and shed a tear when I needed to, just that act alone was transformative for me. Salvation may or may not be a personal race, but decolonisation is a group effort. We need each other. Going forward, I have been emboldened and sharpened by this experience. I now wish to see unfamiliar faces next time. This is an experience black men need, even if you think it isn’t ‘your thing’.
Ogagaoghene Emuveyan is a Multimedia Journalism Graduate relearning to write. Previous writing roles has been as content producer for a radio station. He is a self confessed Twitter addict who attributes much of his personal growth over the past few years to the social networking site. He can be found tweeting at @Dandy_Lord
The No Fly on the WALL Academy is the outreach arm of No Fly on the WALL. It is the umbrella under which our offline work is done. We organise brunches, talks, panel events, workshops and masterclasses, and networking opportunities for black women and our allies to come together.
The No Fly on the WALL Academy takes a break in September to rest and regroup but we will return in October to celebrate Black History Month with you with a series of events. Keep an eye out for our next workshops, taking place in October and November.