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Nadine Deller: 'Red Wall Walk'

Published on 18th May 2020

We spent school mornings walking past the wall, repainted several times over in a muddy red. Years later, I would remember it as Tarantino-red, the kind of red DC uses for the blood of the hero’s nemesis or the protagonist themselves. Untainted by any other colour: pure, bright, blood-red. Batman’s blood. It was never that colour, though, not really. The paint — a thick membrane, worn and flaking — was always used to mask two things: graffiti, the usual local tags in a Greater North-London estate, and hate speech. As a 5-year-old it was never called that — at least not on the estate — I just saw letters from the English alphabet: N, F, B, N, P. It never occurred to me, in my hand-me-down school uniform, green as summer grass, a spring shoot against a foul forest of words, that those letters were meant for me — or people who looked like me. It wasn’t until I was 8 or 9 that I knew what the letters meant, what the National Front was, that B-N-P stood for British National Party.

‘But, aren’t we British?’, I thought, looking at my British skin, full of melanin.

I was never specifically told I wasn’t British. Yes, my mother referred to the British, as though we were something separate, safe in the fortress of our semi-detached; but I was born in a British hospital, and went to a British school that espoused British values. I remember that house, on that long street; in those days every door you would pass felt like a shield in a military defence formation — a door to keep out strangers, not welcome them in.

Image courtesy of Nadine Deller

As years passed my relationship with that wall changed. No longer indifferent, innocent, ignorant; that muddy bloody red — no matter how many coats, no matter the shade — never hid anything. Neither did the trees in front of the ‘WHITE POWER’ sign on the side of a neighbour’s house. In the absence of those letters, the words they represented — which were once so abstract to me, which meant nothing compared to the excitement of the school-day ahead — in their submergence, omission, immersion, they became more real to me. I could see them, beneath all the layers and layers of scarlet, vermilion, ruby and dirt, bright as the white they loved so much.

I could see them when my school-teacher, who called me her ‘star pupil’, smiled at me one summer and said, ‘I love that golden-brown skin, I wish I was that colour.’

I could see them when, the interminable encounter would repeat, and I would be asked, again, ‘But, you know, where are you really from? What’s your origin?’

I could see them when, as an adult, I would silently cringe as so-called white liberals, after hearing that I had been called a nigger in the workplace, would rub my shoulder and reassure me, ‘Yes, I know exactly what you mean, I completely understand’.

That wall became a blank canvas, a clean slate, a chalk board, onto which I could inscribe all the violence words had done to me over the years. Soon it was overcome with words, scribbles, expletives, ellipses...

When words could not be found, my silence remained; every inch of brick was covered with text.

I think about that wall of red, that wall of words, that red-wall-walk which I made every morning for so many years. I think about dismantling it, brick by brick.

Big Bad Wolf.

Huff and puff.

One, two, three.

Too late, I see it.

Batman’s blood, freshly painted.

Reborn.

Resurrected.

Born again.

And again.

And again.

Ready for new words to submerge, omit, delete.

Over and over.

Write and repeat.

Nadine Deller is a PhD candidate undertaking a Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the National Theatre. The aim of her project, ‘Deviancy and Potential in the Heterotopias of Black Women Playwrights in Britain’, is to shed light on the position and work of black women playwrights in the National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive.



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