Though I’ve planned to write this post for a week or so now, today feels like the right time.
Today the writer and poet Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86. As a Black female producing poems that spanned the American Civil Rights Movement, she dedicated her life to expressing her sorrows (and the sorrows of her ancestors) not with sadness but with power, strength and wisdom. She gave a voice to millions of people across America and across the world, even affecting me, a (vaguely disengaged) white british 16 year old girl in Stoke-on-Trent. When I first heard her poems in my English lessons at High School I remember thinking how strong she must have been; to be able to overcome the horrors of her past and tackle the subject, let alone with the confidence and humour she displays. Of course back then I couldn’t articulate it that way. I noticed the feeling it gave me which was different from other poetry I was learning, a swell of ‘pride’ of sorts.
Back to the present, 14 years later I am looking again at sorrow, rather more closely and based on a completely different social trauma. This is the decline of industry in Northern England, specifically in Stoke-on-Trent where I grew up. Now this is a contentious issue that still ripples through the city, and is celebrated in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, banners that adorn every lamp post on the way into Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘City Centre’, The Gladstone Pottery Museum and many other establishments. But what of the people? With the closing of the pits, pottery factories and large steelworks in the late 70’s up until the early 90’s the majority of the city’s people found themselves without work, without vocation and with highly specified skills they could no longer use. Redundant. To this day there is incredibly high levels of unemployment, deprivation and residual health issues in the city caused by this massive trauma.
When I spoke to Mark Featherstone, Senior Lecturer of Sociology at Keele University, last week he spoke to me about the work he had done with the people of Hull- a city which, not unlike Stoke, lost it’s main industry in and around the 80’s. He spoke of a swallowing of loss that had affected it’s people, and even subsequent generations who have no primary link to the loss itself.
If we think of the grieving process, it is easy to recognise the benefits of marking the loss (with a funeral, a minutes silence, a memorial event), to gather together with others that have experienced the same loss and to eventually talk about it with others. To feel no shame in feeling vulnerable, bereft or alone. When deindustrialisation happened in Stoke-on-Trent, over a period of 20 years, this mourning was sublimated- that is to say it was channeled into different actions. For some this was ingenuity, conviction, social action but for many others it was anger, disengagement and apathy.
There is also a physical loss to be noted in Stoke-on-Trent, and in post industrial cities across the country, where there has been massive housing and industrial clearance undertaken in the past 5-10years. This leaves large areas of empty ground, huge gaping wounds in the landscape that, to anyones eye, can only signify loss.
So, how do we treat this problem? Of course we cannot brush aside the huge problems of unemployment and lack of skilled work available in the city, let alone the mark left on many people’s mental and physical heath. It is very difficult for artists to change policy and employment opportunities from the ground up, but we can start to give voice to these concerns and empower people to begin expressing their loss and their needs. This simple provocation can kick start big social action, as exemplified by the truely incredible ‘Homebaked’ project in Anfield, Liverpool. A huge opportunity for this sort of scheme in Stoke-on-Trent could come as part of Rebuild Middleport that is at once tackling the problem of waste ground with community and empowering social action to build houses.
It would seem that by acknowledging the loss and coming together to express that loss is an empowering process, and one that I think can help cleanse and galvanise communities to create their own futures.
I will finish with this video of Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’, narrated by the woman herself.