Sola Olulode, Hold My Hand, 2019. Oil and ink on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Courtesy the artist.

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Solace

I lost my faith the year my Grandma passed away. She was here and then she was not, and my belief slipped away with similar ease. It was a year in which loss was rife: an aunt had passed several months before, and almost a month to the day later, another died suddenly, leaving behind a husband and toddler. I watched something break in both father and son. The boy stopped speaking and could only communicate his grief in actions. He was always opening and closing cupboards and doors, as if he was looking for his mother, or maybe he understood, and was searching for a space large enough to house his ache.

 

The day my Grandma died, something in me broke. I spent a long time not knowing how to say this, not knowing what language there was to say this, not knowing that it was okay to say this. I spent a long time not knowing. The only thing I know now is that I will spend eternity not knowing. There are no answers, but there are ways to cope.

 

Instead of language, an image: at the funeral of my aunt, standing slightly to the side as the casket was lowered into the ground. Watching my uncle take some crumbling earth in a closed fist, and hearing it scatter on the casket like light rain. Other family members were invited to do the same. Each fistful of soil felt like a soft hand against a door, knocking, knocking, knocking – knowing there could be no answer.

 

On the first day, my mother paced the house. She swept the corners of our living room, gathering all she could. I could see that with this simple act she was reaching into the corners of her own mind, gathering all she could there too, hoping not to forget. We had a small service in the same room a few days later, during which the pastor assured us that death was not the end. He was right. Time had taken on a different, hazy quality in which we seemed locked in stasis, moving in place. The days stretched, accented with memorial services and meals and cousins gathered on stairs, in hallways, and one aunt, a semi-permanent fixture, placing a tender palm to my elbow, always asking if I wanted a Supermalt. I would hold the cold bottle, swallowing, swallowing the ache. How it ached. When the limbo cleared, this is what remained. There was before and there was after, but I could only think of it as a time preparing for the ache, and that thing throbbing in my chest.

 

During that time, my mother asked me to film as people came in and out of our house, paying their respects. Through my lens, I caught glimpses of at least fifty people, friends and family. Some stayed for minutes, some stayed for days. Everyone wore black against a coloured canvas. I filmed the majority of this time with a camera stabiliser, so when I watched the footage back, each frame was like a daydream, the camera drifting through this limbo. I had plans to make a film cutting up the footage of our London home with images from the last time I was in Ghana, over fifteen years ago, but my hard drive failed. The images I had filmed of my Grandma many years before, sitting on a stool in a full kitchen, chopping onions and garlic in preparation for a stew, were lost. The images I had filmed more recently of my parents, sitting in our back garden in a purple dusk, holding hands just after they had finished praying, my mother teary, my father telling her that it was going to be okay, were lost. The images of the pastor in our living room, assuring us that death was not the end, were lost. I had sought solace in expression, and lost this too. The mourning continued.

 

*

 

In the year after my maternal Grandma passed, my parents sought solace in the church. They sought solace in familiarity and a stable place to hold their faith, in the face of a life they had been so sure of, crumbling. For my parents, prayer serves as a form of expression, a place for their innermost desires to emerge. My mother can be heard at the same time every day, just before lunchtime, praying for her sons or her daughter or her husband or her family; I see her sometimes, lost in the throes, really going for it, like a rapper in the booth, freestyling, hearing the sly smile in their voice as their truth rises to the surface, or a painter knowing the strokes are correct as they come. I see her sometimes, and know she is doing something honest.

 

I never saw it, but I know that the church my parents attend started in a living room in Peckham, where a group of West Africans, far from home, needed a house for their faith. They needed to believe there was something better, something more, than freezing winters and the longing for the comfort of home. I imagine a plush carpet, furniture with plastic covers, thermostat turned up high. The customary hi-fi in a corner playing gospel, the volume low as they prayed, littered with phrases such as where two or three are gathered, there you are in our midst. I imagine a group of people reaching for their innermost desires in a space where they could ask for anything. I imagine that when they were done, they would dish out food prepared with care, someone heaving jollof onto paper plates, drinks poured, laughter, unbridled joy, the music louder now. Perhaps they would gather around the TV for football on a Sunday afternoon, each person invested in the match, even if it was not their home team. I imagine comfort. A home away from home. I imagine community. I imagine freedom.

 

These spaces are beautiful acts of defiance. Three years since my Grandma passed, I continue to wrangle with my own faith, but cannot negate the necessity of church community to Black people. These spaces are not without flaws. They often reflect the systems which oppress: an institution employing a hierarchical structure, where gender still rules and power remains the currency of choice. But I gaze at my parents and see the Church as a place where they might gather with others and not have to explain themselves. Where they can engage a community and see themselves. Where they can feel beautiful. Where they might feel free.

 

This freedom emerges from acts of refusal. Through ritual, such as the praise and worship in which a congregation might become so frenzied they approach ecstasy, or in the breaking of bread and sharing of refreshments after a service. This freedom emerges in the quiet, the quotidian, the practices which have become the everyday, actions which, according to the scholar Tina Campt, register on a deeper, lower frequency, meaning these quotidian practices, in addition to being seen and heard, are things that can be felt. Campt’s work focuses on quiet and interiority as a metaphor for the life Black people live in full, beyond public stereotypes, a life which taps into our desires, our vulnerabilities, our truths. The interior is understood to be the source of human action, a choice, a place one surrenders to, rather than going to after rejection: a place to which we lead ourselves, rather than one we’re forced towards. A place of quiet. Silence usually comes about from suppression or repression, or having to withhold: it is absence, it is stillness. It is being looked at and not seen. Quiet, in this instance, is something different altogether: it is presence, fullness, it is motion; it is ritual, it is frenzy, it is ecstasy.

 

And this kind of life is an act of refusal.

 

Refusal is a heavy practice, considering what lies on the other side.

 

Refusal is a necessary practice, considering what lies on the other side.

 

Refusal means everything when to refuse brings you closer to freedom.

 

I was raised in the church. I was raised in a place where Black people converged upon whatever space would hold them – a community hall, an industrial warehouse, someone’s living room – and would praise and worship and say things that were honest and true, God-like even, to themselves or to others. I was raised in a place in which Black people built small worlds for themselves to exist within; in which they could refuse daily atrocities and unrest; in which they could love and feel free.

 

I was raised in the church, but I lost my faith the year my Grandma passed away. My own personal grief became something much larger in the context of a collective grief, a mode of mourning Black people experience on a global scale, which overcame any belief I had in anything, really. I could not see. I could not hear. I could not feel. I did not write. I did not pray – I could not pray. But I know what it means to pray. I know what it means to speak a truth and go towards it, through words or actions. I know what it means to raise your hands, not in surrender to an early demise, but in surrender to your freedom.

 

I saw this freedom one Sunday, that glorious Sunday, a few days after my Grandma had passed, in my parents’ family church, now housed in a building in Forest Hill. A group of men came over to where I stood with my family during praise and worship, when the drums were at their quickest and the bassist plucked notes I could feel in my chest, and with these sounds, the melodies, the percussion, the bass, we, the congregation, approached frenzy. The men took each of my father’s arms and led him to the front. He danced, how he danced! I saw him turning with the ease of a child, his face contorted in cheeky disdain, taunting his dancing partner (a man of similar age); I saw the pair of them waving handkerchiefs, moving with such little effort, watching my father move past pleasure into joy; I saw him unlock a part of his identity he doesn’t entertain all that often. I saw him free.

 

To show up on Sunday for a service is a prayer in itself; a display of faith in something better, something more. A Black congregation engages in the collective dream of their freedom. It is hard to dream when you are always so close to death. Gathered together, seated in twos and threes, this is a room full of God-like beings, trying to be honest, reaching towards something further, deeper; reaching towards themselves. There is a cultivated safety that encourages truth. There is a cultivated safety that encourages surrender.

 

And when was the last time you surrendered? What Church have you built yourself where you can surrender? And what does it mean to surrender in this position, so close to death, always needing to protect, always needing to survive? What does it mean to dream when you know a grief so extraordinary, it’s hard to imagine healing?

 

It is hard, as a Black person, to feel safe in the face of extraordinary grief. We are all mourning. The grief is extraordinary. It is difficult to comprehend such loss when it goes unspoken. It is difficult to comprehend such loss when it does not stop.

 

*

 

British rule in Ghana ended in 1957, when Ghana achieved independence within the Commonwealth. The gold jewellery and artefacts looted during colonial rule, between 1867 and Ghana’s independence, remain in possession of the British and are housed in various museums and gallery spaces across the UK. Much of this gold was acquired during a British Punitive Expedition to Kumasi in 1874, whose primary motivation was to gain control of gold and slaves. Following pushback from the Asante people, an army was deployed to prevent the British from seizing the area surrounding the Elmina settlement, which they had purchased from the Dutch. With a war impending and negotiations failing, the British commander, Sir Garnet Wolseley, gave orders to ransack Kumasi; several days later, after having taken all they could, the town was burned down, reduced to a cinder. According to one British officer, Henry Brackenbury, ‘The town burnt furiously… blazed as though they had been ready prepared for the bonfire… Slowly huge dense columns of smoke curled up to the sky.’

 

What of the people? What of those who lost more than their homes in the fire? And what is this slow ache in my chest I feel on reading this information?

 

In January 1981, a fire blazed through a flat in New Cross, where Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her sixteenth birthday party. Thirteen people were killed, and another committed suicide two years later. Twenty-seven others were injured. In June 2017, a fire blazed through Grenfell Tower, a block of flats in West London. What started as a spark from an electrical fault spread due to wilful ignorance and lack of care from the local government.

 

In September 1985, Dorothy Groce was in her bed when police raided her home, looking for her son. She was shot, the bullet piercing her lung and exiting her body through her spine, causing paralysis from the waist down. Protests ensued, as a large group gathered outside her house, then moved to the local police station, demanding answers. When none came, the crowd grew angry and upset. They had nothing to lose. They were not being heard, and so violence grew, not from bloodlust, but from desperation.

 

In August 2011, when I learned that the catalyst for the riots was the murder of Mark Duggan, a Black man, a husband, a father, I was not surprised. Mark was subject to what is known as a hard stop: where three police cars surround and engulf with the intention to subsume those whom they suspect. A witness, watching the commotion from his ninth-floor flat, described the event as an execution: the carrying out of a death sentence on a condemned person. Wherever he had been, Mark Duggan did not have a chance; the sentence had been passed. Like a building damned, he had been marked for destruction. The riots which ensued followed a similar blueprint: a family searching for answers. No effort made by the police. Stories being read over. Erasure. Desperation. Necessity. Nothing to lose. Nothing to lose. Otherwise, what else is there to do but wait for the next time?

 

Maybe this is where I lose my faith, between the last disaster and the next. Maybe this is where I lose my faith: in the waiting.

 

*

 

After a preview screening of Queen and Slim at the BFI, I remained still in my seat, locked in stasis. I told my friend I didn’t enjoy the film because I had spent two hours waiting for two Black people to die. I told him it hurt to watch because I spend much of my life waiting, waiting. I told him it hurt because, even knowing that this couple would die, the frame in which Slim holds Queen in his arms, both of them sprawled on the ground, both of them slain where they stood, surrounded by a wall of police, gutted me. I told him it hurt and he understood.

 

I came home from the cinema and my mother was on the phone to her best friend. I sent a greeting in Ga. Miiŋa bo. The women laughed. My mother said my Ga had come in a suitcase. We all laughed at this. I was saying the right thing, but I still sounded like a visitor in my own language. I speak Ga that has travelled. My Ga came in my mother’s suitcase, when she arrived in London, in the early Eighties, and on pulling it out to wear, the garment had taken on a different quality. I speak Ga that has been warped and muted and emerged different; my Ga changed, long ago, when the British, hearing of the Portuguese success in a region of West Africa, then known as the Gold Coast, decided to join in the trade of Ghanaian gold and slaves. This is how I came to English: through an act of violence. I came to English by force. I came to English through British invasions and the sacking of towns and the burning of Kumasi.

 

I mourn the loss of my language and wonder what language there is for me to mourn in. What language could there be for such extraordinary grief? It is difficult to comprehend such loss when it goes unspoken, when it is suppressed and withheld and rendered silent. It is difficult to comprehend such loss when my languages have been warped and mutilated by violence.

 

I do not go back home. I haven’t returned to Ghana in fifteen years. I couldn’t return when my Grandma was being buried because my last connection there had been severed. I did not want to accept this. I do not go back home. I am not at home in Ghana. I call London home but I also know that this is not my home. I know I am, through the workings of various systems and institutions, not welcome here. This is not my home. I am not at home here or there. I am in limbo. I don’t believe there is a word for this in Ga.

 

There is not a day in which I don’t lose my faith in some way. There is not a day in which I am not mourning. There is not a day in which I do not believe. There is not a day in which I am not celebrating. There is not a day in which I am not tested. There is not a day in which I do not walk in my truth, yet know the way I am seen is a lie. I have lost my faith. I am losing my faith. I will lose my faith. I am stuck. I am in limbo. This existence becomes tiring. Etomi. I am tired.

 

To be Black is to be deliberate, lest you become spoken for. Your body is not yours; often, it is just a home for the fear of others. I come dressed for the cold and you still see danger in the shadows of my hood. I come to protest and you see a riot. I come with my hands up, and still you shoot. To be Black is to intend. It is to refuse. It is to lose your faith and still believe beyond the mourning. Otherwise, what else would we do but wait?

 

*

 

There is intention in expression. I shoot portraits on film, mostly of Black and Brown people. The last set I took were of my younger brother and sister, on a bright Christmas afternoon, where golden hour came down thick and heavy, the glow of a setting sun gorgeous and comforting and whole. There is a set of portraits I took on that day, one frame each, where for a moment, the limbo ceased. They were grounded. They were firm and sure and it was because they had surrendered. I asked them to step into this place of safety and they did so, on faith. They were both gazing towards the lens, something casting soft shadows across their faces, perhaps a fence. They held the gaze, staring towards the world in quiet defiance. I know they were both tired too, and that sometimes there are no words for what they can feel. And I know that these spaces are few and far between, but there was another frame where they are both laughing at something my sister said. Moving past pleasure, towards joy. Solace in expression. Intention, a language.

 

Language is the servant of meaning. Kamasi Washington said this, flexing broad fingers over a closed fist, this hand decorated by rings on each digit. When asked what kind of music he makes, he replied, ‘Like most of the musicians around me, I’m making the art which is closest to the expression of who I am.’ There’s an image which I’ve seen only once in person, but many times on a screen: Five Men by Roy DeCarava. He is described as a ‘jazz photographer’, as someone who might subscribe to the principle of spontaneous improvisation, as someone who might have wandered the streets of New York with quick feet and a sure heart, as someone who might have captured sounds to be seen, images to be listened to, voices to be felt; who might have encouraged us to feel the blues and jazz, the beat and bounce, the beauty, the ache, the joy. When I see this photo, of five Black men emerging from a memorial service held in Harlem for the children killed in the bombing of a church by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, I see what Roy might have seen, or rather, I feel that pull that he did, to pick up a camera, and let those in front of the lens know that they are seen. When I see this photo, I see one man with a direct gaze, another looking away, another looking down, another slightly obscured, another broaching the frame with the top of his head. Each figure is arresting in their gaze, or in their lack of one; each figure is mourning and celebratory; each figure is quietly defiant. Not silent, but quiet: full and present and in motion. Not being looked at, but seen, and allowing themselves to be so. It is difficult to comprehend this kind of loss, but in these moments, where one is not being suppressed and withheld and rendered silent, where one is allowed to express and grieve openly, it might begin to happen.

 

When I see this photo, I feel the pull from both sides. I am both imagemaker and image. There is an exchange which takes place that escapes language but can be seen, can be heard, can be felt. I feel it. I feel it in that moment, when I have given the person on the other side of the lens a moment to breathe, a moment to be, just before I depress the shutter, when we are both whole and sure and grounded and gorgeous and defiant and free. I feel it. I feel it when the image emerges from development and the frame feels so rich and full, reflective of that aforementioned moment and everything which brought us to that brief infinity in which we could be anything, could be free.

 

When I see this photo, when I see my own, I understand that we all have our churches. We all have our places of surrender and solace; we all have our modes of defiance, we all have our modes of refusal, and I see how important it is that our sounds are seen, our images listened to, our voices felt.

 

*

 

These days, I spend my time using sentences like passageways, trying to build a small Church in which I can surrender. I am trying not to protect so much. I am trying to dream a little more. I am trying to find somewhere to house this ache, this beauty, this joy. I am trying to express, wholly, who I am. I am tired of waiting.

 

I think this is how I found myself in a living-room full of poets, a few days before Christmas, celebrating the holidays with jollof rice and drinks poured generously. Later in the evening, we clustered together in a loose circle, some seated, some standing, and reflected on the past year. We spoke of our visions for the future, near and far. We were saying things that were honest and true, God-like even. I would like to say that all our parents had come here from elsewhere, and if not our parents, then the generation before. I would like to say we are all tired of waiting. I would like to say we are all looking for our own language. Or, we are all looking for our own meaning, and trying to find the language that suits.

 

I’ve had the problem Solange Knowles described in an interlude on her album: the singular expression doesn’t feel available. I used to think it was because I didn’t know myself too well, but I’m wondering if there’s too much for me to manifest in singular form; an enormous amount of matter has crushed into an infinitely small space. So I build churches in other places, where I can surrender. I build churches in other places to house my faith.

 

There is a place in south-east London, where, on a Wednesday evening, we converge to worship. We gather in quiet reverence, arriving early, waiting for friends to arrive. Perhaps a trip to the shop before we fill with conversation the void made by anticipation, waiting outdoors in the queue. During summer months, brown skin glowing in the lazy dusk, the meeting of people you know, because this is south-east London, and if we don’t know you, we probably know someone who does, and if we don’t know someone who does, then perhaps, on laughing at that snippet of conversation which spills from one exchange into our sphere, the point pushed further, some more laughter, a back and forth, perhaps at this point, there will be an introduction. We are gathered here for many purposes, but one is shared by all of us: to breathe, to live, to be.

 

Inside, there is music. The voice of the MC introduces and hums, dances, pierces, floats. There is a drum which knocks, knocks, knocks, inviting you forward and back, forward and back. I find my faith somewhere in the unknown, the unknowable, in the gap between the drums where a trumpet might sneak through, towards me, towards us, a joyful horn, a jubilant croon. I find my faith, gathered in a dark room under a set of railway arches, in the calls and responses, the laughter, stepping with strangers, in the frenzy of an extended solo, in the whoops and cheers, in the joy of a collective dream of freedom. I find my faith here, where I am mourning the wayward glance in my direction or the loss of life or the incomprehensible grief, where I am mourning but I still believe. I still believe there is more because, otherwise, what else is there to do but wait?

 

Afterwards we say things like ‘I didn’t know I needed that’ or ‘That was a spiritual experience.’ We follow each other into the night, beautiful people splitting off at bus stops and train stations, waving goodbyes through windows and ticket barriers, towards the safety of our homes, touched, once more, by something larger than us, something divine.

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

CALEB AZUMAH NELSON is a 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and the BBC National Short Story Prize 2020, and won the People’s Choice prize. His debut novel, Open Water, is out next year.

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