An Interview with Writer and Documentarian Siana Bangura

Updated March 29, 2016 4:15pm PDT
Sianacropped

With a platform comes responsibility. 

I don’t have a massive platform, a few thousand words each week, but it’s an important to me nonetheless. Each week, I'm going to highlight and profile someone I think you should know: someone doing great and important and creative and inspiring work. 

This week, I’m highlighting the wonderful Siana Bangura, a writer and blogger and poet, documentarian, and fellow Afro-diasporan sister navigating whiteness and coloniality. I asked her a few questions about identity-informed politics, black womanhood, and her present documentary project 1500 and Counting, which you can support here.

How would you define your social and political ideals and the way your projects fit into them? 

My entire political philosophy is framed by the way I experience and interpret the world. The way I experience and interpret the world is inextricably linked to my identity as a Black British working class woman with an immigrant background. Before I even had the language or courage to discuss these things, I understood that my identity was a complicated one, one that meant and still means I am not English despite England being all I know, and I am not actually West African, more specifically Sierra Leonean, despite that being the place of my birth, my place of origin, the place it all began. I am just about 'British', but this identity is not mine either: it was given to me to make ticking boxes, gathering statistics, categorizing me, and traveling a little easier. 

It is an identity my mother toiled hard and tirelessly to 'earn' for me, for us, despite Sierra Leone being an important part of the British Empire, The Commonwealth, and this country's shameful history. But it is an identity borrowed. It can be snatched from me at any moment, the minute a white British person tells me to 'go home'; the minute a European on the continent tells me I'm not British because I am black; it is taken from me every single time they all demand to know where I am 'really' from, because to say I am from London is never enough.

I concern myself and my work with identity because I am searching for answers. To not know where you belong is a tragedy; it is a loss my generation feels acutely. When you feel like you don't belong you often make yourself smaller, fearful of taking up space. To be told your entire life that you are a minority systematically creates a minority complex. You feel like you should be grateful to be in the West because white people saved you from savagery in the global South. All my projects and all my work ultimately aims to create spaces in which marginalized voices and identities like mine can take up space fearlessly.

I founded No Fly on the WALL so that Black British women could have something of their own, for them and about them. The No Fly on the WALL Academy creates safe spaces monthly for black women to gather in and discuss what concerns them, face to face with their sisters. In that physical space offline, we are accountable to one another. We are a community.

The Salone Collective will hopefully one day become a vibrant network of young people of Sierra Leonean heritage, like me, who are making waves wherever they've found themselves. We hope to connect with young Sierra Leoneans living in Sierra Leone and forge meaningful networks and relationships.

I am out here trying to clapback at a society wanting to block my every blessing simply because I am not a white man. My generation is concerned with decolonizing everything, from the curriculum to the arts to popular culture to tradition and everything in between. I've also recently moved into publishing, another suffocatingly white industry. I'm publishing my first collection of poetry through the Haus of Liberated Reading, somewhere which I hope will grow over the years to become an important home for radical writing.

1500

What is your vision and understanding of blackness and Africanness and black Britishness (and whatever other salient identity you navigate or possess) and how do they inform your work?

'Blackness' just like 'Black Britishness' is not real. It's a construct, an amalgamated substitute identity. It has no fixed location attached to it like 'English', 'Indian', 'Nigerian', 'Jamaican' and so on. This then means anybody can appropriate it or undermine it at any time. It is a concept resulting from forcefully throwing a whole bunch of displaced people together, something harking back to slave ships. 

When in such dire straits, you must survive and adapt—your languages change, your foods change, your identity merges with other 'Others' and you evolve into something new.

British people do not even know what it means to be British. How can those of us who are hybrids know what on earth Black Britishness is? Africanness is also problematic and complicated. Too often we speak of Africa as though she were a country or a tiny Island like Britain, instead of the gargantuan and incredibly diverse continent she really is. Even on maps her true size and scale are not represented accurately.

I do feel that Africans living in Africa or having a strong lived experience of there have a cultural privilege that we diasporans do not. Africans from or strongly connected to Africa are more likely to know where exactly they are from, their true histories instead of the downplayed whitewashed stuff taught in British schools, and are more likely to know what home is. They are more likely to know what 'Africanness' is. They have that strong sense of pride. My generation is just catching up now to all of that and starting to find a sense of pride in originating from or being born in Africa.

What representations of black womanhood are most important to you? 

Sadly, black womanhood is rarely represented at all. When it is, it is more often attached to pernicious and one-dimensional stereotypes. When we speak of blackness we mean black men. When we speak of womanhood we speak of white women. bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde and other prominent African-American Black Feminists and womanists have written about this. A fair, multifaceted, honest, unpatronizing, intersectional representation of black womanhood is important to me. We are not homogeneous. We each have our individual stories to tell and our unique experiences inform how we see, understand, and navigate the world and our place in it. A cisgender heterosexual able-bodied working class Cambridge-educated Black British woman like me will not have exactly the same lived experience as a Black Trans or queer or disabled woman or a Black woman with a middle class upbringing in America or a Black woman with a white parent or parents.

I want us to do away with the single narrative of black womanhood. I want black women to speak for themselves and have the platforms on which to do so and be heard and listened to.

What does it mean to you to be a black woman in the Empire (i.e. Britain)? In the United States, many black folks are constantly trying to compare prison systems and conclude British and other European systems are better – how accurate is that?

Britain is the motherland of racism and intolerance. Britain exported racism to America. Patriotism in Britain and America is so deeply tied to white supremacy. To be accepted in these places you must constantly prove how 'British' or how 'American' you are.

To be a black woman in Britain often means to be invisible, and in a constant state of negotiation. You have to negotiate your identity at work, at home— to survive you often have to be a chameleon. We are politicized by everyone: our beauty, our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our skin color, our hair, how we raise our children, our pain, our anger. Everything is up for debate. Everyone has an opinion.

As for this belief Americans have that Britain is some sort of Afrofuturist black utopia, please stop. It's dangerous to belittle the experiences of other parts of the diaspora living in contexts you don't understand. 

That rhetoric adds to British complacency that America is the only place you find racism. 

White people in the UK have not come to terms with their colonial history. There is still that denial; we're steps behind America in this sense. Nobody is dealing with their white guilt in a meaningful way. Most people try to distance themselves from racism. Here, talking about race is like declaring war. White people get defensive and upset and all up in their feelings rather than engage with black people on our painful shared history in a meaningful way. The conversation isn't where it needs to be. And because of that, racism is insidious here and not as 'out there' as in America.

In your piece about Sarah Reed, you wrote that you are "tired of feeling numb, tired of mourning, tired of bearing witness to a war declared on black bodies." What was your reaction to the news of her murder in custody? What inspired the documentary project 1500 and Counting that you’re working on with Troy James Aidoo?

Upon finding out about the death of Sarah Reed I was saddened. I felt a similar grief to what I felt when I learnt of the death of Sandra Bland. Sarah was a black woman failed by every single institution and authority she came into contact with, again and again. She was extremely vulnerable. Her suffering reminded me that black women's lives don't matter until they are dead—even then they must fight to have their humanity recognized. 

I am tired of mourning black bodies everywhere. There is no respite in Babylon.

It was the death of a Sierra Leonean British mam called Sheku Bayoh which pushed myself and Troy into action. Last May he was killed by police in Scotland. There was very little media coverage or uproar. It feels like when we say Black Lives Matter, we mean black cishet African American men's lives matter. It feels like there is no room for other stories of blackness in other parts of the Diaspora. The erasure is very deep. Sheku and Sarah's deaths pushed Troy and I to take action. Most people don't even think police brutality in the UK is an issue. It is. We must all hold the police accountable for their failings.

You can find out more about Siana and stay updated about her upcoming projects at http://sianabangura.com or www.dontgotheresiana.com, and @sianaarrgh on Twitter and Instagram.

 

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Zoe is a womanist INvested in black communities and continually DIvesting from the violence of respectability politics and all things pertaining to structural whiteness.