On attending University of Bristol’s Gender Research Centre and Centre for Black Humanities joint seminar: A conversation with Dorothea Smartt, (30 Nov 2018).

The following blog post was written by Charlotte Hooper, a Senior Teaching Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. 

This seminar was billed as the first in a series of conversations ‘imagining what our curriculum might look like were it researched, taught, and learned from Black Queer-Trans perspectives’,

Dorothea Smartt is an accomplished poet so, yes, I was expecting some poetry, but mainly a stimulating, if principally academic discussion of such issues as who gets taught and cited, and who to ask and frame the relevant questions. The conversation led by Dr Nathaniel Coleman did touch on these topics, but what the seminar delivered was, for me at least, rather more of a transcendental experience than an academic discussion.

The poetry, inflected with ‘Black Londoner’; ‘Barbados’ and ‘Queer’ themes, was stimulating; ironic and playful at times; serious at others; always evocative and insightful.  Smartt’s voice rang soft, tender, and penetratingly clear, accompanied by the voices of sisters, lovers, mothers, aunts and ancestors – all emerging steadily through the performance.  At one point, Medusa came to life as a symbolic Black woman in a dangerous mirror-reflection with a turned-to-stone stare and snakes-for-hair. At another, a lover materialised as a goddess of the female form.

Later in the recital came poems originally commissioned as a response to ‘Samboo’s grave’ in Morecombe Bay, re-imagined the life of a captive African boy destined for an early death in Britain. This story reminded me of the young slave ‘Scipio Africanus’ –buried here in Bristol (at St Mary’s, Henbury), who met a similar fate, albeit ending up with the ‘Christian’ grave denied to ‘Samboo’, or ‘Bilal’, as Smartt named him.  The performance of this poetry paying homage to Bilal’s short and wasted life was made all the more poignant by the seminar setting: the Old Council Chamber, a court-like inner sanctum of the Wills Memorial building.  The back wall of this room is adorned with stone plaques bearing the coats of arms of the University’s wealthy benefactors, including the arms of the building’s namesake, H. O. Wills, of tobacco fame. There is no acknowledgment here of the many other, less illustrious, founding ‘benefactors’, whose plantation labour (along with that of assorted local factory women and labourers) also financed this building, and this University.

As Smartt invoked Bilal’s voice and spoke his story, the seminar was temporarily transformed into a reverential wake.  I could almost sense these unsung contributors crowding in as we listened to the resurrected voice of their African cousin.  Long denied entry, but now tentatively taking their rightful place in the pantheon of founding mothers and fathers – invited in through the medium of a poet-daughter.  The air of this fusty old room unmistakeably rustled and stirred, the atmosphere became charged, and the past seemed to momentarily merge with the present.

Speaking for myself, this felt like a transformational moment. Having Dorothea Smartt perform this particular material in this particular space was an experience that for me was stimulating, horizon-broadening, empathetic, politically challenging, and personally discomforting.  A vital (in all senses of the word) step on the road to our shared, enhanced and broadened educational future.

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