Last week I was at an amazing concert by Rhiannon Giddens, at the Royal Festival Hall, at the Southbank Center as part of the #wearejazz EFG London Jazz Festival . Rhiannon brings together musical influences from Africa, America and Europe to create a sound which is captivating.
Rhiannon has researched the history of the musical styles which influence her; she talked us through the origins of her favourite instrument, the banjo, now a favourite of the Country Music scene, previously used in black face minstrel music, prior to that used by black slaves who were sometimes sold with their musical repertoire song book, and right back to the African origins on the banjo. She plays a replica of an early banjo. She is not afraid to look deeply into some uncomfortable and troubling aspects of music history, to pull out musical gems and hold up the human stories.
(Main featured image of Rhiannon Giddens by Paul Slade.)
When introducing her song “At The Purchaser’s Option” she talks about researching the history of Slavery. She spent time reading through adverts for slaves, which were regularly placed in newspapers of the day. It can be easy when confronted with human suffering to feel overwhelmed or to tune out from the trauma represented by the words. Our story writers, and film makers know that if you want to tell people about a tragedy, follow a single person or family and make the audience care about them. As Rhiannon read through these advertisements, one 19th Century advert caught her attention:
Rhiannon tried to imagine the human suffering behind this advertisement, the life of this lady with her baby who would be sold either together or wrenched apart “at the purchaser’s option.” She was moved to create a song about it:
“I’ve got a babe but shall I keep him
‘Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’
But how can I love him any less
This little babe upon my breast
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul”Joseph Edward Ryan / Rhiannon Giddens Laffan (2017) At the Purchaser’s Option , © BMG Gold Songs, Joey Ryan Music Publishing
Knowing the story behind the lyrics, and then hearing Rhiannon bring it to life through music, the whole audience seemed in that moment to be joined in contemplation and compassion.
Thank goodness that slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833 and in America in 1865; putting an end to the suffering and tragedy of humans being sold as commodities; modern women like this unnamed “wench” do not have to fear being sold and possibly separated to their infant children.
Except for 46 million people worldwide, slavery is not a cruel part of history, it is a living nightmare they are trapped in.
“I sang the song at a gala for an organization that helps to free women who have been trafficked,” Giddens shared. “Modern slavery is huge, and there are still women who have no control over their bodies and their children.”Kevin Gosztola (18/04/2017) Protest song of the week: ‘At the purchaser’s option’. Interview with Rhiannon Gidden’s. https://shadowproof.com/2017/04/18/protest-song-week-purchasers-option/ (accessed 23/11/2019)
A search through the news for “modern day slavery” in the last week alone brings up articles about people freezing to death while being trafficked, people working as slaves in the UK beauty industry, in the car wash industry, in care homes, in drug sales, modern slavery being so prolific that even the most ethical companies can not avoid it in their supply chains.
There are stories about people living in poverty, forced or tricked into selling their children. Stories about people being kidnapped and forced to be soldiers, brides, gang members or workers. Stories about people, often vulnerable people, seduced by the promise of a better life only to find themselves the victim of intimidation, violence, shame, assault and forced labour.
Too many stories to take in. Too much suffering to comprehend. Too detached from our own lives to even imagine some of what it is like. But look again. Find the one story which speaks out from the many cries; see the person behind that.
We have to start seeing people. Asking questions about how our food and clothes were produced and shipped to us so cheaply. And within our own society,knowing that many people are trafficked into the sex industry it is asking questions: about the person leaving calling cards in public places offering massages, or who the people are online offering services “better than tinder”. But it is also knowing that some modern slavery (as if there is anything modern about slavery) is in jobs like cleaning, caring for children, begging, street crime. Tackling it means breaking down some class barriers and stigma – not looking down or looking over people doing service jobs but knowing who they are.
There needs to be support offered to those who finally escape from slavery; for people who have experienced high levels of trauma.
Here are three ways that creative therapists are supporting people who have escaped:
1. Creatively engaging with their trauma story.
Finding ways to use the creative arts to enter into the story.
Perhaps using song as Rhiannon Giddens did. Perhaps using art as in the recent exhibition by Sara Shamma, King’s Artists resident.
Perhaps through films such as the recent ‘Harriet’ biopic.
Perhaps through a novel such as the Human Rights Career‘s collection of five human trafficking books everyone should read.
Perhaps through theatre such as the National Theatre‘s two upcoming shows on slavery.
Find ways which make this real.
2. Exploring the trauma from a safe distance.
Dramatherapy can allow us the creative distance to approach what may feel to overwhelming to face on directly. The statistics may overwhelm but the story behind will move us. Maybe like Rhiannon Giddens that is exploring someone’s real story and imagining how it would be to walk in their shoes.
Or perhaps it feels uncomfortable to imagine someone’s lived experience which is not part of your cultural heritage. Perhaps it feels safer to explore the theme side ways rather than head on. This creative distancing can allow someone to explore in therapy material which may be wrapped up in shame, blame, fear, anger and other overwhelming feelings. Approaching the material through a story allows someone to explore the “me and not me”.
If I were to select a story to use, I might consider Thumbelina (AKA Little Tiny) by Hans Christian Andersen. In this tale a tiny child born is from a Lily and cherished by her parents until one day she is stolen from her family by a toad:
“Tiny woke very early in the morning, and began to cry bitterly when she found where she was, for she could see nothing but water on every side of the large green leaf, and no way of reaching the land. Meanwhile the old toad was very busy under the marsh, decking her room with rushes and wild yellow flowers, to make it look pretty for her new daughter-in-law. Then she swam out with her ugly son to the leaf on which she had placed poor little Tiny. She wanted to fetch the pretty bed, that she might put it in the bridal chamber to be ready for her. The old toad bowed low to her in the water, and said, “Here is my son, he will be your husband, and you will live happily in the marsh by the stream.”
Thumbelina escapes the toads but that is unfortunately not the end of her suffering, cast adrift she is snatched by a cockroach who calls her ugly. She appears to find happiness when she is taken in by a field mouse, but in exchange for safety she must do several chores and just a few months later the field mouse arranges to pass her to a friend:
““You poor little creature,” said the field-mouse, who was really a good old field-mouse, “come into my warm room and dine with me.” She was very pleased with Tiny, so she said, “You are quite welcome to stay with me all the winter, if you like; but you must keep my rooms clean and neat, and tell me stories, for I shall like to hear them very much.” And Tiny did all the field-mouse asked her, and found herself very comfortable…
When autumn arrived, the field-mouse said to her, “In four weeks the wedding must take place.”
Then Tiny wept, and said she would not marry the disagreeable mole.
Nonsense,” replied the field-mouse. “Now don’t be obstinate, or I shall bite you with my white teeth. He is a very handsome mole; the queen herself does not wear more beautiful velvets and furs. His kitchen and cellars are quite full. You ought to be very thankful for such good fortune.”
This story includes several themes which could be explored, feeling small, being taken from home, having your wishes and emotions ignored, not being in control of your own body, not having the support to leave, being called names, not knowing who to trust, repeat episodes of trauma and finally finding the support to escape which for Thumbelina comes in the form of a blackbird who flies her away.
There are many other stories which could also explore the issues for a client group; sometimes choosing a story with more distancing and a less obvious metaphor may be preferable.
3. Re-experiencing what was lost.
People who are trapped in modern day slavery are deprived of choice, time, resources, dignity and creativity. Part of the journey to healing is reconnecting with what was lost. The free person can choose how they spend their time and money. They are free to feel, free to laugh, free to be themselves.
In creative therapy there may be opportunities to play games, use art, music and dance to express joy, to feel connected and to explore the potential of freedom.
Sometimes it is about offering the materials and being alongside the exploration. A choice of musical instruments may be used to bang out anger but they may also be used to jingle joyfully
Therapy does not always need to focus on the hard things, sometimes the most therapeutic gift is laughter.
4. Working with inter-generational trauma
The impact on slavery can be so great that it is not only those who have personally experienced it who may need support, their family members may also need support with their mental health. Current research also indicates that trauma can be passed on genetically through several descendants, each showing an increased fight, flight or freeze response even 7 generations on from the traumatic event.
Dramatherapist Andrea-May Oliver used theatre to explore the ongoing impact of slavery for modern descendants.
“I have created a performance which communicates the ingrained generational trauma and on-going difficulty that descendants of survivors of the slave trade face in the tumultuous times of a Brexit Britain.
The performance will reference this trauma through the working theories of post traumatic slave disorder, following the emotional trauma that is passed down generationally and reinforced, though altered, through the hardship and discrimination faced through an ever-changing modern society.(2019 Annual Conference and AGM of the British Association of Dramatherapists, from https://badth.org.uk/sites/default/files/content/pdf/dramatherapy_conference_2019_online_programme.pdf accessed on 23/11/2019)
Our brains are wired for survival. Sometimes throughout human history one group will assert their power to dominate and degrade another group; sometimes this is a single traumatic event, sometimes it is lasts for 400 years and multiple generations (as with the Transatlantic Slave Trade). Physically freeing people is not enough, we need to create a society where everyone can be truly free. Free from bondage, free from prejudice, free to express their reality, free to heal within a supportive environment.
People for sale. At The Purchasers Option. @southbankcentre @RoyalFestival @RhiannonGiddens @LondonJazzFest #Slavery #Trafficking #ModernDaySlavery