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Transcript: Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City


Paul Gilroy:

In this episode of Short Takes, we’re joined by Joy White, author of the eagerly anticipated book Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City, published recently by Repeater, and Joy is going to talk a little bit about the arguments in her book and introduce the urgency of this intervention, particularly now in the context for our political culture created by the Covid emergency.

Joy White:

I’m a Sociologist. I’m a late life academic who came into academia via working in the public sector starting and running a small business, vicarious employment and minimum wage zero-hours contracts. I’ve written and researched on a number of themes including grime music, entrepreneurship and urban marginality. I’m going to talk about my new book Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City. I wrote Terraformed as a way to bring together ideas and issues that I had been mulling over for a while. Almost a decade of austerity underpinned by a government commitment to a hostile environment threw the issues and challenges of inner city living into sharp relief. Societal changes such as gentrification work well for some; for others though, often in historically poor neighbourhoods, some communities exist in a state of perpetual precarity. Terraformed is focused on the London borough of Newham – a place where according to recent reports, people are dying from Covid-19 at a much higher rate than anywhere else in the UK. Situated roughly five miles to the east of the City of London, Newham is an urban multicultural borough. Being a host borough for the London 2012 Olympics was supposed to bring benefits in terms of job opportunities and affordable housing. For most residents though, this is not the case.

The UK government’s shambolic response to the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the gaping cracks in our systems. We can see with great clarity what it is like to live with very little money, no back-up and few resources. We are becoming more and more aware that the interactions with state agencies benefit systems and the police are fearful and problematic for some. Dire conditions in the criminal justice system, the NHS and in health and social care have been exposed. Questions arise about who is an essential worker, which jobs really matter and who works on the frontline with the least resistance and minimal protection. We are more aware than ever that neighbourhood, community and sociality matters; where movements, friendships and associations are restricted, even for a short time - the impact is huge. And yet, for some young black lives in the inner city these are constant conditions – precarity, restriction and surviving in a hostile environment.

I wrote Terraformed at a time when neo-liberalism masquerades as common sense, inviting us to believe that only the market can deliver goods and services. Public services have been chopped up, sold off and outsourced. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, the idea of the state providing a safety blanket for the citizens in hard times has been an unpopular opinion. Hyper-individualism is now the name of the game. In these neo-liberal times, whether you win or lose at life depends on your individual efforts. The story is that anyone can rise to the top, you just have to keep at it and work hard. But meritocracy is a fabrication that masks enduring inequality. Our contemporary capitalist system is set up so that in order for some to make it to the top, the majority must remain at the bottom. Those at the bottom are then expected to take full responsibility for being in a position where the rules of the game are neither within their control or of their making. For many, the gap between those two positions has become an almost unbridgeable chasm.

Terraformed is my attempt to connect the dots to locate the struggles, the wins and the losses of young black lives in a structural, institutional and historical context. In this way, young people who have grown up under the influence of neo-liberalism can articulate their stories as part of a community, not just as individual losses or gains. Young people’s lives are increasingly informed by diagnoses of anxiety and depression – how does this relate to the lived experiences of being poor in an affluent world? Of feeling trapped and stuck? The sense of loss is palpable when people are removed from your life in some way or another – dead, deported, in custody or incarcerated. Student debt, invisible homelessness, custodial sentences, electronic tagging, surveillance, arrest and loss add to the sorrow.

While there is little doubt that young black lives are lived with and through levels of disadvantage, there is the hope that comes from creativity in all its forms; making, listening to, and sharing music is an integral part of young lives in Newham. As I have outlined in previous work, Newham was a key site for the emergence of grime music in the early years of the 21st century. Grime – and rap – both work as art, literature and ethnography in creating a sense of belonging. Social interaction fires the geographical imagination and allows for sonic imagining of place. Music becomes a force that defines place, and for black youth in Newham it is enhanced by Black Atlantic flows that fuse together the local, the national and the global. Black musical creative expression offers a form of flourishing and provides a way to hold out against a rendering and representation of black lives that implies they have no value. The social, economic and cultural significance of contemporary black British musical forms is woven into the fabric of this book. According to Toni Morrison, one purpose of writing is to translate sorrow into meaning. So I am writing about the sorrows and the joys of what I see in an East London neighbourhood, without the mask of respectability, politeness and gratitude that has us almost beaten and reluctant to demand more.

Drawing on Christina Sharpe’s concept of the wake, I’m keeping watch – observing and document how black being continues as a form of consciousness, illustrating how black youth survives and resists ongoing exclusion. Terraformed offers an insider ethnography of a square mile in a Newham neighbourhood, Forest Gate. It offers an up close and personal perspective on how a newly arrived kinetic elite is able to move freely in this urban space - but there is another less visible landscape where young people have been rendered out of time and out of place. Operating almost on a parallel plane, less than half a mile from the weekly artisan market frequented by the new residents, a 14-year-old schoolboy received a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Five months earlier, a few streets away, a 25-year-old man survived a drive-by shooting incident. Collective forgetting allows us to ignore the symbolic, structural and slow violence that occurs in young black lives as they seek employment, pursue leisure interests and try to step into adult independent life. According to sociologist C. Wright Mills, we cannot understand the life of an individual or the history of a society without understanding both. What I have tried to do in Terraformed is to contextualise the history of Newham and consider how young black lives are affected by the impact of racism, neo-liberal policies and austerity. To do this I have developed a theoretical framework, hyperlocal demarcation, as a way to analyse how the interaction between people, legislation, policy, the built-environment and the sonic landscape come together to shape a newly gentrified urban area in an affluent, but unequal society.