Image courtesy of Alex Augustin

We grew up around council estates, on concrete parks and tarmacked playgrounds, behind steel school gates. Amongst vibrant high streets with chicken and betting shops. 

For decades, our homes have been characterised by media narratives of gun-brandishing young men going to battle, tormented long-suffering mothers, of embarrassment, shame and vengeful ambition that comes with being poverty-stricken. By very real worries about police harassment, inadequate schooling, gentrification and social exclusion. By a certain culture and rhythm, a loyalty and rebelliousness. By clichés that growing up in harsh conditions makes you tougher somehow. By fraught emotions, exclusion, carcerality, violence, family breakdown.

It wasn’t all difficult, there were plenty of times we caught jokes. There were times, knocking for my bruddas to play out in the estate, that the ends felt so close knit and full of love. There were times we enjoyed some of the (imperfect) fruits of the adaptive, creative, fertile ground that is our culture. But for too long, the ends have been suffering.

Image courtesy of Alex Augustin

It has been a gradual learning process to understand this pain. I grew up in this environment suppressing emotions, insecure, overcompensating, dissociating, hypervigilant, anxious and closed off. When I was a teenager I experienced what felt like insurmountable flatness/sadness. It started with pressures mounting – family members getting sick, slow growing resentment when noticing how starkly different my life circumstances were to most of the middle class white kids at my college, and attempts to find temporary distraction from upheaval and pressure in my home and school life.

I experienced the effects of a “cruel optimism” resulting from my investment and trust in neglectful systems and struggle to actualise aspirational selfhood (Yusef Bakkali), and ended up growing steadily more isolated, losing perspective on many of the good things in my life. At one point during this time I was contemplating whether I wanted to continue to live. The anger from these experiences continues to influence my politics.

The ‘munpain’

Yusef Bakkali’s sociological research on “the munpain” (coined as shorthand for “pain of the mundane”) tells us that there is a symbolic struggle at the centre of life on road. It’s a struggle for personhood and value, a struggle to escape the violences of class warfare while navigating the various violent ways we’re policed and socially stigmatised, the tensions of the social and cultural environment, and the exigencies of financial insecurity.

“The munpain” is an articulation of how road life feels – an everyday experience of a malaise, a pain that’s always there and difficult to locate due to being often too immersed in daily realities of our conditions. Bakkali’s work teaches us that in the ends we need to resist and find new ways to assert who we are in this currently antagonistic relationship to capital and neoliberal ideas of success.

Image courtesy of Alex Augustin

The ends is the only place I’ve ever felt any sense of belonging. There are contexts in which beautiful and important creativity, love, care and healing work is being done, such as food banks, community centres or the mandem working with kids, incarcerated people, people facing legal injustice and more. People working hard to help each other in the thick of struggle, epitomising interdependence. We are beautiful, as Nabil Al-Kinani says in Privatise The Mandem. There is usefulness, truth and value in our “endsness”. But as we know, and as Nabil also articulates, we struggle to find scaffolds in our environment for self determination; for us all to “win”.

The politics of distress

If you’re from ends, you instinctively know that experiences of distress are both political and personal. When walking past some police patrolling, forgetting your wallet in a hostile/upscale place of business, being on the bus and getting the wrong kind of energy or look from someone. For me, there’s a trauma response in my body when I experience these things (freezing or dissociating in the moment) from all of the times in the past that these experiences have meant immediate danger for me. Or if I’m in situations where there is a risk of punitive authority, I often spend extra mental and physical energy worrying about speech, actions or body language that could be perceived as threatening or defiant. These are embodied responses to the social and structural conditions.

Temi Mwale, campaigner and founder of 4Front Project, has said: “experiences of violence often […] disconnect you from who you are”. In the process, we often don’t feel safe enough to engage with our own vulnerability. Temi goes on to assert that we need to reconnect with the physical as a way to avoid “dehumanising ourselves”. A few years ago, I held an online discussion with working class Black psychotherapist Vivienne Isebor which highlighted so-called ends “cultural factors” that exacerbate trauma – including a culture of “not wanting to be seen as weak, because then you can be taken advantage of or people can mug you off”.

Image courtesy of Alex Augustin

Healing from oppressive systems of power

Reconnecting and recovering allows us to put energy towards community work and care. The term “healing justice” arose in the early 2000s from radical Black groups in the US. They used this term to describe a “politicised” type of healing – the idea that a justice-oriented approach is required alongside any attempts to address deep and widespread community trauma.

We can see a similar approach in UK history, in which working class racialised resistance has been spoken of in terms of sustainability, survival and the “collective health of our communities”. This is threaded through the work of OWAAD (Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent), Pattigift Therapy, UKABPsi (UK Association of Black Psychologists) and Imkaan, as well as wellness practitioners, doulas, researchers, campaigners and more. Some of this work and learning is taking place at Healing Justice Ldn, where I lead on community communications. 

In her book Divided, Annabel Sowemimo also tells us of Britain’s history of Black and global majority healing traditions: some considered a “threat to colonial powers”, some that were the basis of knowledge for a number of “breakthrough” ideas in Western medicine. In the context of historical oppressions, some of our traditions have practical functions that address our physical and mental needs – those that indicate how we should live together, care for one another, grieve, heal, organise and support ourselves. As we’ve been systematically eroded, we have utilised creative politicised healing responses that have led to our collective survival.

Images of the covers of FOWAAD!, OWAAD’s newsletter. Images via the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Heal, and then what?

We often end up utilising our political pain to engage in forms of art, culture change and resistance. D. Hunter tells us that economically marginalised people are “carers and warriors”, who “in many ways are the ideal revolutionary”, but often have our forms of resistance and care labelled as violent, or righteous, but misguided. This is part of the uncritical societal impulse to label most of what we do as vulgar, in bad taste, or morally wrong.

There’s a powerful clip of Tupac Shakur at the Indiana Black Expo in Indianapolis, 1993, in which he (tough-)lovingly reminds us that “the struggle gotta come from our heart”. This demand demonstrates that a love and care towards ourselves, and each other, is not about making it easier to sit passively in painful circumstances, but connected to how we get free.

I and everyone I know is grappling with this – with connecting to each other, love, and the struggle for justice. We are re-adjusting, looking inward, and asking: how much can I really change? How much can I work in community? How much can I protest or organise? How much can I find the roots for love in this – to be in it, to embody it, to live it?

As much as it feels disempowering when we’re treated ruthlessly, stereotyped and dehumanised; when we’re dismissed despite pursuing the hard work, desirability and achievement that we’re taught is supposed to free us in this society; as hard as it might be to be in solidarity with people or push through disagreements and conflict; we do have power within our communities. A power in exceeding our limitations, in “letting our light shine”. We also have the ability to build power where we lack it.

Though our contexts are not always similar, I can learn from Black working class uprisings, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, elders, bredrins, family, and traditions. They tell us we should aim to strengthen our communities, build power and find new ways to reclaim and fortify the fight for justice.

Through knowing ourselves and our needs, we make sure that we have a “fuller cup” to pour into others. We make sure we’re curious and creative when responding to these questions of how we transform society. We build the minerals for standing up to power, putting our comfort, finances, security, bodies, or freedom on the line. We make sure we have internal resources to support ourselves when working to dismantle the inequalities and forms of violence that affect our lives.

About the author

Alex Augustin (he/him) is Community Communications Lead at Healing Justice Ldn. He will be chairing ‘Rehumanising the Ends’, a panel with Dr Joy White, André Anderson (Freedom & Balance) and Dr Yusef Bakkali, at Rehearsing Freedoms festival.

Alex has been a communications professional for several years, with previous roles in non-profit and other sectors.