Welcome to Thoughts on Things, our new series of essays. At Apartamento we try to feature people from whose experiences we can learn—not in a didactic way, but people who can give us an insight into whatever understanding they’ve picked up from their lives, which hopefully we can absorb along the way. Back at the height of Covid lockdowns, we published a series of texts by people who, for one reason or another, had experienced bouts of isolation or distance and were able to offer some perspective, however direct or indirect, on the entirely new experience we were living through. With so many changes in the air still, we decided to start this new collection of essays and will be inviting contributors to reflect on the overarching themes affecting their lives or informing their work or just the broader ideas they have on their mind at the moment. To get things started, we invited James Massiah, the London-based poet and musician, to outline those points. He got back to us with the following essays on religion, race, class, gender, and sexuality.
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe there is a god. I do still love all the gospel music I used to listen to in my teens, but that’s about it. I’m not anti-religion. Especially not insofar as it’s a part of a person’s cultural identity. I appreciate that we are where we are in part because of the impact of religion on us as a society and as a species, for better and/or for worse, depending on your perspective. It does sometimes knock me for six to think that people still believe this shit, but then that’s just me. Me and my life and my experiences. Perhaps if I’d survived a fall from a skyscraper or escaped a car crash before it burst into a ball of flames. I don’t know. I think I’d still just reckon I was extremely lucky. I suppose there is then the supernatural. Even then, I think a lot of the old stories I used to hear about ghosts and spirits were told to scare us into faith. Stories about seeing angels were maybe a carrot on a stick to keep us in faith, for hope of seeing one.
I watched The Exorcist recently. There is a theory about it being a tale of something much darker than plain old demon possession. The idea that human beings, unable to come to terms with their own guilt and shame and sense of powerlessness at the misfortune that life brings upon us, sought salvation in the belief that the evil, the neglect, the torture, the lovelessness, the violence, and the horror they experienced were down to strange happenings in the spirit realm. I think there is no spirit realm. Saying that though, I remember one pastor taking time out to speak to me when I was first starting to lose faith. We spoke about infrared and Bluetooth and mobile communication, much in the way that some of the other pastors at church or the elder brethren would talk about the wind. How it moves. How you can’t see it, but you can see its effects. I liked this analogy, but it didn’t take me back to god. It took me to physics and philosophy. Mathematics. Probability. Laws of thermodynamics. Quantum theory. Beyond. To nihilism. To egoism. To determinism. Determinism is not a religion. Neither is moral nihilism. Neither is psychological egoism.
They are non-prescriptive observations about reality, life, the world, and the people in it. They form the foundation of my current worldview. Amoral Egoism. At one point, I was really into Stoicism. Then life got really hard and all I wanted to do was scream and cry. I then realised that I was subject to a new religion that, for me, ultimately operated on the same premise. Guilt for how one feels. Shame for how one acts. Guilt and shame and regret have their place. But what are we to feel guilty for? What actions should we regret? What is there to be ashamed of? My lusts? My desires? My feelings? I’m not so sure.
I appreciate now, through my experiences with Christianity, Islam, holiness, and Stoicism, that having a framework to operate within can be helpful. Especially if one is trying to do something. Instructions and dos and don’ts become useful. When it comes to questions of, ‘What should I do?’, it can be great to have an answer—and an answer that works. Leaning not upon one’s own understanding. How to live a good life. How to be happy. Purpose. Direction. Meaning. Ultimately we have to find the answer for ourselves. For some people that answer is in religion. Or Stoicism. Or AA. Or straight edge. Or their career. Or football. Or a band. Or a place. A community. That may be the common thing in most cases. For most people, beyond any wranglings with the spirit realm and the unknown. My prophets are my friends. My church is my flat. Or The Haggerston. Or Ormside Projects. Or Venue MOT. Or Soho House. Or my lover’s house. Or the gym. My bible is a combination of the poems I read, the conversations I have, the songs I hear, the articles I read, the novels, the films, the lectures, even the Bible itself.
I just take what works and live my life according to what serves me. As we all do. No one should be this or should be that, but we are what we are. Until we aren’t anymore. There is no ‘hell’ beyond what one feels when life is killing you. There is no ‘right’. There is no ‘wrong’. Everything is natural. Everything that happens, happens. Life will do what it does, and we will do what we will do.
I think it’s important to know who you are. More important than it is to know what you are. I do think there is a difference. I feel more and more like my body is mine but it is not ‘me’. I don’t believe in a soul, so much. Or a spirit. These are the words we use to describe that intangible essence of a human being. Their life force. Them.
It’s funny because, as I’m writing this, I think of myself as a self. An individual. Perceiving reality as I do. An ego, if you will, but there are times when I have felt not so. Perhaps in altered states of consciousness, but also at other times when I’ve had conversations with myself. Generally at times when trying to work out who I am and a previous iteration of myself engages in an Oxford Union–style debate, with the new self attempting to take its position at the helm of the body-ship. Who are we? How many selves am I? Which one feels most like me? When am I them? When am I me? There is what I am told I am. Then there is who I feel I am. As much as who I want to be. I think it’s worth knowing. From that point you can make some informed decisions that might get you to where you want to go a little faster with each of these questions of identity, related to gender and race and sexuality and so forth.
There is that which I have felt and that which I have perceived and been taught. What it is to be black. I know what colour my skin is, but then it’s not just about skin colour, is it? Or is it? I know I don’t like being referred to as a ‘person of colour’. I really don’t like that term. Not for myself at least. I think there’s a subtle linguistic difference, but I remember ‘coloured’ being something we weren’t supposed to say. The phrases are so similar. Too similar for me. I don’t begrudge anyone else who identifies with that term. It just doesn’t feel good to me. Right now.
The more I think about it though, the more nothing feels right. I think I like black because of what it has always meant to me. What it evokes and what people generally understand it to mean. I do remember speaking with elder folk and having some say they didn’t like black. That they preferred to be known as African because that’s where they were from. Or collectively that that is where we were from. That sense of displacement from a land. My family is from the Caribbean. Afro-Caribbean. Jamaica. Barbados. Manchester. London. Who named these places? Language and nomenclature. Names. Titles. Definitions. How do I define myself? The notion of talking black. Or of black music. Being black. Acting black. I’ve been told that I act white. That was strange. So often I am the only, or one of a few black people in a room or on a set or in a magazine.
There is the question of what brings those people together. A shared cultural sensibility that unites those people on a level beyond complexion, perhaps. Who are they? Who do they think they are? I’m wringing my hands. I wish it didn’t matter sometimes and maybe it doesn’t. Things only matter if you think they do. I suppose it matters because it matters enough to some people what colour my skin is and which countries my parents are from that they would seek to exclude me or discriminate against me on that basis. People treat me in a particular way or expect things from me based on an assumption that people who look like this do things in a particular way. I think in some way we’re entitled to our assumptions. Insofar as they are all we have to go on. I assume based on my prior experiences that this will be thus until this is not so. I also think there’s something in acknowledging those assumptions and being open to being proven wrong. I say assumptions but we can say thoughts. Or beliefs. I am me. And I am in this body. This body has dark brown skin. Historically, people with bodies with skin like mine have been subjected to all manner of horrors purely on account of the fact that their skin is that colour. Things have been done to change that. An understatement. Some things have not changed at all. Another understatement. This may have provided more questions than answers. I’m just thinking here.
I wonder if social mobility means what I think it means. One politician once said, ‘We’re all middle class now’. I met that politician. Drinking at a social engagement in the countryside. I think it was the races. That he and I were both in the same place, conversing, sharing stories and anecdotes, says something about something but maybe not anything on the subject of class. It seems so arbitrary now. I feel like there are some things that might provide the answer you want about an individual other than what social class they belong to. That sounds so crude to say. The idea of a social hierarchy. Perhaps it’s one of those things that one could ignore for as long as one would like, but that the reality of will always come to remind you of what’s actually what.
Growing up I thought we were rich. We had a Nintendo 64 and we bought a new TV. We went on holidays and had two cars. I thought I was one of the lucky ones, and in many ways I was. That’s a funny notion. Luck. What it is to be lucky or privileged or whatever. In some way I think we’re all lucky or unlucky, relatively speaking. Lucky to be alive is one thing. To be alive in a disadvantageous situation though might not feel quite so. Do I consider myself lucky? Fortunate? For the most part, yes. State-educated with parents who would go the extra mile with tutors or au pairs or even just spending time out of their busy schedules to help with schoolwork or learning a poem. They both worked. A surveyor and a—what did Mum do again? She did a few things. Generally spanning legal advice, human resources, management positions. Both went to university. So did my brother and I.
How relevant is any of this to a conversation on class? I once filled out a questionnaire which told me I was middle class. That was based purely on my food choices, I think. I sometimes wonder if our working-class identity is tied together with our ethnic identity. I don’t wear working classness as a badge of honour. I have friends from across the world and trying to pin down their class identity gets tricky. I suppose the ones who went to art school you might say are posh or middle class. Some of them are from places where their social status was secure and then coming to the UK, to London, it doesn’t feel as fixed. Maybe owing to intention sometimes. I think some people don’t want to be seen to be from wealth or from a social group where access and power are a phone call away. It implies more merit for their hard work or skill or innovation. It’s mixed up. It’s not straightforward. Maybe it is for some. They’re definitely this. Or definitely not that. It might help to know in some instances.
I know where I like to eat. I know what clothes I like to wear. It changes and has changed over the years. How I speak has changed. And changes based on who I’m speaking to. I do wonder what it might’ve been like to exist in a culture where doing well was not only important but expected. Academically and professionally speaking. I couldn’t say that was expected of me. Desired perhaps, but not expected. I think there was a sense in school and throughout my education that I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I did a coding course recently and felt the same sort of feeling I used to feel in school. Like the tutors and the teachers didn’t understand me or how to educate me. How to relate to me. It was like they couldn’t figure me out. How to get this subject into me. I think there’s a racial thing going on, perhaps. But who’s to say.
I almost think that more than race and class what brings people together is culture. Music, art, food, fashion, their likes and dislikes. Their taste. The idea of snobbery comes to mind. It’s funny that things I wanted to distance myself from in order to be perceived in a particular way became the things that the people I was trying to placate and ingratiate myself with at a particular time were drawn to. I take people as they come. And as I come. I want to present and represent myself in a way that says something about who I feel I am inside. There are some things that I wish were different about my life, but then I remember that I have no control over it. I wish sometimes that people would relate to me and my work in a particular way, but then I remember that I have no control over that. Whether I like it or not we do have these groupings, these classes, these hierarchies, these cliques. One might do well to acknowledge them and fit in, but sometimes fitting in doesn’t feel good. Doing what you were supposed to do and just being where you were supposed to be.
I think you always are where you’re meant to be. Always doing what you’re meant to do. I think that you are always you. It’s only in relation to a value system that one can then say a person has exceeded or fallen short, but who’s to say which value system is the right one? According to who? Who says I have to shop here? Or wear this? Or talk this way? Who are poets? Where have they studied? What subjects did they read? What grades did they get? Who are artists? Which artworks are of value? Does a person’s class have an impact on the quality of their work? How do you perceive it? How do you critique it? Probably. You hope sometimes that people would just take you and your work for what they are. If they like it and they like you, that’d be all that mattered. Then they find out you’ve had this kind of upbringing or have this much money in your bank account or are from this family or whatever. It’s interesting. Or rather it can be. Sometimes it isn’t. I hope this is not one of those times.
I suppose I am a man now. And that I was a boy before. At least that’s what I was told. I was told what I was and what I should do because I was that. I didn’t always. And I don’t. I remember at a very particular point not only feeling like I wasn’t that, but that I was unable to ever be that. Owing to biological realities about my physical body as much as to ideological ones about my mind. My self. The way I perceive myself in relation to that ideal. Those standards of this and that and whatever else. I don’t think we’ve got it quite right. I suppose we’ve gone with what made sense up until a point, based on the best of our knowledge. I just think we’re maybe not doing as good a job as we could with accepting new information on the subject.
I say we. Who am I even talking about? There are so many different societies and cultures and groups and individuals who view gender in so many different ways. I can’t speak for anyone else, only me. I know what my body looks like and I know how I feel inside. I know that they haven’t always been in sync. Medically in some instances, but then in others it’s less about a given physical or psychological issue, so much as being about a definite unwillingness to fall in line with a particular perception of who I am and who I should be and what I should do because of this body. I prefer not to have to say one way or the other. On forms or in conversation. For some people it’s an undeniable scientific fact that my gender is one thing or another. I wonder whether they take into account that, at least for me, how I feel is also undeniable. I can’t deny my feelings. I can’t deny that some of these roles and norms and expectations have felt oppressive.
I also think there’s something beyond what we have initially thought and taught and been told about gender that we haven’t fully accounted for. In society at large. I was trying to avoid using that word. Society. It’s so amorphous. Society feels so much bigger than what it felt like when I was younger. Globalisation. Homogeneity. I think that in many ways we are all becoming more like each other. We always have been. There is less difference about us than we might have thought. I think that as time progresses there will be evidence of even more things that we haven’t accounted for. That I hadn’t accounted for until I started to feel a certain way. How important is my gender? Who is it important to? When is it important? As with the other topics being explored here, I feel like there are often other more pointed questions that might bring about the exact information that someone may want about me beyond the assumptions that will come about if I were to give you an answer one way or the other.
I suppose we think and speak in general terms for the sake of ease. There are exceptions though. And if you have an exception, you have no rule. You will get it wrong. Maybe that doesn’t matter so much for selling products to groups of people. If you want to target a particular kind of person who isn’t similar to everyone else on the planet, who has a specific need or sensibility that you are hoping to exploit or cater to. How much of it is about marketing? How much of it is about control? How much of it is about social order? How much of it works for me? Versus how much of it works for society as a whole? Which society? Am I even in the right one? Should I find somewhere to be with people who see it like I do? Should I fight to change how people see things here? How much of myself am I supposed to repress to make you feel alright about yourself at the expense of how I feel about myself? Why define it at all? How are the details about my body relevant to anyone but my doctor? Are they relevant to my lover? Do they love me? Do they want to hang out with me? Do they enjoy my company? Do they find me interesting? Sexually attractive?
I feel like those things might be more important than my gender. Again, how much of it is about marketing? And who are you marketing to? You want to sell an idealised version of a self to someone. How much does your audience see themselves as one thing? And then society at large. I’m glad we’re speaking about this. I wonder where the conversations will go.
Maybe it’s been a while since the last time. But I distinctly remember a period of my life where someone asked me what my sexuality was as much as what felt like every week. Going out and partying. On set. At work. General chit-chat. In fact, I remember the last time. It was on a form. For something or other. A job or funding application maybe. Or was it to join a new GP? In any case, I always wonder about the relevance of the question. I always wonder what people are trying to ascertain through the enquiry. What difference will it make to your life or your perception of me and mine? I’ve maybe been asked throughout my life, but I think it was in my early and mid 20s that it peaked. Who I fuck is my business. Who I love is up to me. How relevant is their gender, race, or sexuality to that equation?
I understand that people want to know things. We are a curious species for better or for worse. Statistics and data have all manner of uses, and information has brought us to where we are. Some people just want to know things though, for knowledge’s sake. Others for more malicious purposes. It can be dangerous in some places, around some people, to be one thing or another. Some people are so concerned with that question of who I have or have not slept with to the point that the answer will determine whether or not they let me into their home, invite me to their party, involve me in their project, sit with me for dinner, or even call me a friend. It starts to seem absurd that it should matter so much, but then I understand that that is absurd to me. For others it is completely rational, and I suppose to each their own. It starts to feel more important. As a matter of principle. To say, I am attracted to all kinds of people. That I have had romantic and sexual encounters with all kinds of people. That I intend to continue doing so and that I am not ashamed.
It feels important to say. I am not ashamed of who I am. Maybe I am not even truly ashamed of anything I have ever done because at each point I was acting to the best of my knowledge and ability and experience up until that point. Maybe I regret things that happened to me. That weren’t my choice. Sexual experiences, if you could call them that, as much as anything else. I am who I am because of everything I have witnessed and experienced and seen and heard and tasted and it will change. Who I am. What I am. Who I see. When I see them. Why I see them. Where I see them.
Some people will understand and some won’t. It’s important, as I may have said elsewhere, to know who you are. I think lying to others is one thing. Lying to yourself is another. I wouldn’t advise it. I think being true to yourself about yourself is one of the greatest things you could do for yourself. I think it’s a great starting point for whatever it is you want to do. In the world. In life. With yourself. Or about yourself. I think it’s important not to be ashamed of yourself. The things we feel shame for vary from person to person. I felt ashamed of my sexuality and my sexual experiences and whatever else might be fair to say on the topic for what I now believe to have been far too long. It’s even true that people are ashamed about other parts of their identity. I call on Descartes here as I distinguish between shame for the physical self as distinct, in at least some regard, from the shame for the emotional, ethereal self and its being. Wow, I’m not sure what else to say.