Trauma and Repair by Annie Stopford (2020)

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John Adlam Independent researcher, UK

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Annie Stopford (2020)

Trauma and Repair: Confronting Segregation and Violence in America

Lexington Books

200 pp

Hardback: ISBN 978-1-4985-6559-2, £73.00

Paperback: ISBN 978-1-4985-6561-5, £31.00

Electronic: ISBN 978-1-4985-6560-8, £29.00

 

There is a cinematic sequence in James Baldwin’s (1962) great American novel Another Country, in which two of the book’s main protagonists, Cass and Vivaldo, both White, are in a New York taxi, heading uptown, from Chelsea through Central Park and onwards, to attend the funeral of their Black jazz musician friend Rufus, who had killed himself by jumping from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

Baldwin depicts the changing scenes outside of the taxi window, the different districts of the city, bustling or thriving, genteel or down-at-heel, as Cass and Vivaldo journey towards their destination in Harlem: that great epicentre of Black culture and community in the inter-war period of the Great Migration northward and the more hopeful times of the Harlem Renaissance; now (in the period of the late 1950s in which the novel is set) a community – with a population in those days more than 90% Black1 – slumped into decay and despair.

Their taxi rolls out of the park onto Lenox Avenue in South Harlem and suddenly ‘nothing they passed was unfamiliar because everything they passed was wretched’ (Baldwin, 1962: 117). Cass has been telling Vivaldi that the bad things that have happened to him, downtown and elsewhere, ‘didn’t … happen to you because you were white. They just happened. But what happens up here … happens because they are coloured. And that makes a difference … You’ll be kissing a long time, my friend, before you kiss any of this away’ (Baldwin, 1962: 117, emphasis). Baldwin continues: ‘At one time people had cared about these houses – that was the difference; they had been proud to walk on this Avenue; it had once been home, whereas now it was prison … this indifference was all that joined this ghetto to the mainland’ (Baldwin, 1962: 118, emphasis added).

Baldwin’s anguished and impassioned description of social exclusion and urban blight is rooted in a grim history of racial traumatisation and structural violence pursued overtly as well as covertly, by legal as well as extra-legal means, and by dint of which Black populations have been (and continue to be) coerced into inadequate housing provision and then actively deprived of the kinds of resources and legal protections that would have made possible the improvement of such housing conditions. Harlem, for example, is one of the many urban areas of the United States (US) that in the mid-1930s was ‘redlined’ – designated as ‘hazardous’ and therefore as high risk for investment by the federally authorised Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. A distinct or dominant Black population would per se be held to signify ‘hazard’. Three quarters of urban areas thus ‘redlined’ in the second half of the 1930s are still blighted today (Jan, 2018).

If we take the italicised phrase from the previous paragraph and apologise appropriately for the inadequate mildness of its language, we might see how it stands also as definitory of chattel slavery itself (and also the confinement of Native American tribes on the Reservations). The American prison system affords a further grim example of how power is wielded by those in-groups who allocate ‘accommodation’ to out-groups. More African American adults are presently under legal coercion within the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, and one in nine African American children has a parent in prison (as against one in 56 White children; Resler, 2019: 5).2

It is this kind of complex psychosocial (re-)traumatisation of whole communities through racialised structural violence that is the theme and field of study of Annie Stopford’s powerfully constructed and eloquently written account of racial segregation in the US. Stopford takes an explicitly ‘experience near’ (p 2) approach in which she foregrounds the voices of lived experience of complex trauma in the quasi-officially segregated urban communities and neighbourhoods of Baltimore, Oakland and New Orleans, and also in Elaine, Arkansas, where, a century ago, the memory of one of the worst racial massacres in American history (of more than a hundred Black sharecroppers, in 1919) still dominates the psychosocial landscape.

Here, for example, is one of Stopford’s respondents, Gardnel Carter, commenting on segregation in the housing policy of Baltimore and the ‘school to prison pipeline’:

Baltimore put more of its focus into building things down town instead of building communities around town … they don’t want certain people down there, poor people, so it just shows the city would rather build a new prison or jail than open up the rec centers, so it’s alright for your child to go from middle school to elementary school to prison rather than to college. (p.49)

Stopford, with the help of her many respondents, shines a bright and steady light into those forsaken places and trauma zones and sacrificial sites of contemporary racialised violence that are to be found, hidden in plain view, just the other side of what another of her respondents calls that ‘wall of life’ (p 2): that invisible but next to impenetrable divide that separates (White-dominated) societal in-groups from those (Black and Brown) bodies that they (we) so violently exclude.

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière cites Joseph Jacotot’s observation that a human being ‘is an animal who can tell very well when a speaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ (Rancière, 1987: 31–2). As Stopford makes clear throughout this compelling text, it is one thing to theorise the racialised ghetto from the outside of it, as if one is not party from the outset to the erecting of that excluding wall around it; it is quite another thing to know profoundly, from lived experience, the essentially human being of it: what it is – not merely, what it is like – to live within its confines and in the shadow of its violence.

In order to make space for the voices who know, without patronising or otherwise ‘other’-ing them, the toolkit of the qualitative psychosocial researcher must include the personal authority and life experience that makes space for the possibility of being a respected interlocutor (and an ethical listener, p 4); that makes possible meaningful relationship-building within and out of which narratives ‘banished’ by the in-group to the other side of the wall can find their way back across the border, in ways that can be heard emotionally as well as conceptually by new audiences.

Here then, potentially, is Foucault’s (1976: 81) ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’; and that author’s warning, as to the risks of such re-emergent testimonies being anthropophagically re-colonised and re-incorporated back into the mainstream discourse, must then be kept actively in mind. That Stopford has been able to gather these testimonies and to show how she has learnt from them, rather than attempt to explicate or teach them the ‘true meaning’ of what they are saying, itself speaks volumes. To draw again on Rancière, hers is an emancipatory approach, rather than a stultifying one.

The structure of the book is simple and clear. Stopford’s introduction and the first two chapters set the scene and map the field of study. In Chapter One she presents a manifesto and mission statement for the ethics and praxis of psychosocial research and the foregrounding of voices of lived experience and she underscores the central importance of offering and upholding conversational spaces and eschewing ‘colonising’ approaches to such spaces. She clearly and concisely explains why ‘humble learning’ (p 25) is to be preferred to various kinds of ‘expert knowing’. The interpretation of the words of the interlocutor is one such ‘colonising’ kind of ‘expert knowing’ and Stopford delivers a penetrating critique of the ways in which the field of psychoanalysis has remained complacently settled within a racist status quo and has failed to rise to the task of confronting psychosocial trauma and structural racism, both in the ‘macro’ of the societal context and also the ‘micro’ of its own professional worlds and clinical practices. In Chapter Two she traces: the conceptual territory and myriad intersections of (complex and continuous) trauma, traumatic stress and its transgenerational transmission; violence (both behavioural and structural), the concept of ‘community violence’ and the terror and hypervigilance experienced by those whose lives are caught up in it; and societal policies and practices of (racial) segregation and the ongoing realities of ‘toxic inequality’ and ‘economic trauma’ for African American families in the long-deepening shadow of the Plantations.

Chapters Three through Six bring what Stopford calls an ‘interview-based psychosocial exploration’ (p 2) of lived experiences within the four traumatised communities already mentioned. The concept of ‘hospitality’ includes the obligations of the guest. It was these that this reader was particularly in touch with as we (and by this ‘we’, I suppose that I mean ‘we’ privileged, sheltered, ‘theorising-from-a-distance’ academics and practitioners) are warily and wearily invited into the ‘two B’mores’ (p 47) where Freddy Gray died a violent death at the hands of the police in 2015 (p 45) and where, a century earlier, the apartheid-style Residential Segregation Ordinances, the first in the US, were passed into law in 1911 (p 50).3 We also bear witness to testimony about the violent states of Oakland, outside San Francisco, and of New Orleans, that ‘little bitty city with a big ol’ murder rate’ (Jimmie, p 123); and we learn how psychosocial traumatisation passes down and around through the generations from the perspective of the current residents of Elaine.

Stopford and her respondents emphasise that these descriptors of ‘forsaken’ or ‘trauma zones’ should not be taken to signify that there is no life or vibrancy within these neighbourhoods – the testimony points to the deathliness of the forces hostile to these neighbourhoods and underscores the liveliness of the communities thus surrounded – and the possibility of repair follows the theme of trauma throughout the book. I think this means not only that it may be psychosocially reparative, intrinsically, to bear witness to psychosocial trauma; but also, that this is simply not enough – that having thus borne witness, with open ears, eyes and minds, reparative deeds are ethically imperative (as opposed to being dismissed under the heading of ‘acting out in the countertransference’ or other past, spurious apologia for inertia). In her closing chapter, therefore, Stopford juxtaposes psychosocial phenomenologies of injury with psychosocial practices of repair and the possible remedies and responses that her respondents, and our emergent obligations as their guests, might point us towards.

Stopford’s book explicitly confronts racial segregation in the US; however, readers in the psychosocial studies community here in the (dis-)United Kingdom will need no reminding that racialised housing segregation is not some distant phenomenon to be observed ‘over there’, across the Atlantic, through a telescope. The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a magnifying glass to structural violence and racial traumatisation in this society. Black and minority ethnic people in the UK are at increased risk of infection because they are disproportionately likely to live in urban areas, in overcrowded households, in deprived areas, and to work in settings that expose them, and by extension their own extended families, to higher risk, especially to higher viral load (Lawrence, 2020; Public Health England, 2020). Black households accounted for 26% of all overcrowded households in the UK between 2016 and 2019 and a further 22% were identified as of either White/Black African or White/Black Caribbean mixed heritage; only 2% of all overcrowded households were classified as White British (Cabinet Office, 2020). Housing provision in the UK is as much about social exclusion in practice, as it may notionally be about social inclusion in theory.

Williams et al (2018: 2) define racial trauma as ‘a traumatic response to an accumulation of negative race-related experiences’. We, of the in-group, build ghettoes (a term Stopford carefully and pointedly reclaims as commentary on those who build them rather than those who live in them; p 12) for the racialised other, deprive ‘them’ of resources and opportunity, and then are unduly mystified when these racial trauma zones that we have created start to feel like ‘no-go areas’. The ruling elites of the two old Anglo-Saxon democracies either side of the water have continued (shall we say ‘at least until recently’? No – let us not (yet) make so bold a statement!) to grapple with the aftermath of the practice of slavery, on which their wealth was built, mainly by not bothering to grapple with it at all, but by seeking to continue it, covertly (but only semi-covertly), by other means. This is a book with the power to shatter any illusions on this score that yet may linger.

Stopford concludes with an exhortation that is also a warning, observing that ‘[l]osing white blindness, and just as importantly, middle-class blindness, is a life-long process’ (p 155). I want therefore to offer in response one last, personal word, of confession; perhaps, of expiation. I am writing as a White, middle-class, male practitioner/researcher, and I know there is no moral high ground here that I can claim. I have never been to Baltimore; but in my time, as it happens, I have got myself scared wandering the streets of some of the ghettoised parts of New Orleans (as well as of South London, for that matter, where now I occupy a fairly gentrified perch atop Brixton Hill, and do not know the names of my many neighbours who dwell in the ‘housing estate’ behind the flat I own).

Why do I thus venture to trouble you, the reader, with this possibly feeble- and solipsistic-sounding statement? After all, most likely you do not know me, and my personal angst is perhaps neither here nor there, when it comes down to a question of whether or not you might invest in this book. Well, I do so partly because I had better rise straight away to Stopford’s closing challenge to shed my several intersectional blindnesses; and partly because I know in my bones that I was, in such moments of caution or alarm, fully caught up in the racist tropes that are my own cultural inheritance. I know that this my own subjective sense of threat has been contingent on fearful fantasies of the racialised Other that long pre-dated and, in a self-reinforcing cycle of violence, largely led to the ‘objective’ considerations of, say, the percentage probability of being mugged on such and such a street in such and such a neighbourhood. In the same way, I am very well aware (now!) that when, in January of 1991, I drove the ‘Blues Road’ up and down Highway 61, from Baton Rouge to Memphis and back to New Orleans, chasing the ghost of Robert Johnson through the flatlands and the derelict crossroads of Mississippi – the epitome, if you will, of the hip connoisseur – I was buying myself, immersing myself in, a carefully packaged portion of White Romantic mythology; one from which the realities of slavery and racial hatred had been almost entirely expunged. In short, wherever it was, and whoever it was, that I imagined myself to be, I was in fact firmly and squarely on the White side of ‘the wall’: I had almost literally no idea what I was doing. I am sorry and ashamed about this.

It is perhaps above all at this visceral level – although nowhere does it preach or proselytise – that this book confronts me. Not for nothing is the active verb ‘confronting’ used in the book’s title. It confronts the atrocities of the racialised structural violence of segregation; and it confronts those in whose name this violence is promoted and perpetuated. I wholeheartedly commend this book to the readers of this journal and I trust that Stopford and her respondents may find the widest possible audience for the testimony they bring.

Notes

1

In 2018, the population of Central Harlem was still 62% Black (and 9% White) in the context of a city-wide population that was 22% Black and 32% White (Hinterland et al, 2018).

2

Another contemporary example of the systemic or structural deprivation of a population clustered into inadequate housing would be the phenomenon of the ‘food desert’, as described, for example, by Bell (2017).

3

I must here declare an interest. I had the honour to act as editor to Stopford and Gardnel Carter in their collaborative piece (Stopford and Carter, 2018) that was the earlier version of the Baltimore chapter in this present volume.

References

John Adlam Independent researcher, UK

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