Creative Writing and Engagement with Contested Heritage

By Phillipa McDonnell – Research Fellow, Lincoln Conservation

As part of Black History Month 2021, an online event Ali & Morgiano: Exploring ways of responding to the imagery of enslaved people in historic houses explored the benefits of applying a multi-disciplinary approach when engaging with collections that depict slavery and enslaved figures.

The event centred around the re-discovery of the bronze plaster replica of ‘Ali’, at Burton Constable Hall, which was being conserved by Lincoln Conservation. The sculpture is a copy of one of four enslaved figures featured on the Monumento dei Quattro mori a Ferdinando II, in Livornoby Pietro Tacca. Two of these figures, Ali and Morgiano, are of particular interest as they are unusually individualistic and portray real people, as opposed to stereotyping the enslaved figure.

The event opened with an overview of the history of the sculpture by curator Philippa Wood of Burton Constable Hall. This was followed by creative artistic responses by Akeim Toussaint Buck and Malachi McIntosh and culminated with a panel discussion led by cultural historian Michael Ohajuru, in which Philippa, Akeim and Malachi were joined by art historian Sarah Thomas.

Replica of Ali, ca. 1760, Burton Constable Hall, Hull.
Giovanni Bandini & Pietro Tacca, Monumento dei Quattro mori a Ferdinando II, 1595-1626, Marble

As part of this event, Malachi McIntosh was commissioned to write a short story, using the sculpture of Ali and the Monumento dei Quattro mori a Ferdinando II on which it was based to produce a piece of creative writing.

Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 lockdowns, Black Lives Matter protests and the concomitant debates on public monuments, colossi subverts the traditional response to creating a fictional work inspired by an historic figure. Instead of taking us back in time and centring on the individual portrayed in the sculpture, McIntosh instead draws on the events, issues and emotions that both trigger, and are triggered by, reactions to public monuments and sculptures. These reactions occur throughout history, not least with the Monumento dei Quattro mori a Ferdinando II which caused visceral responses at its erection in the mid-17th century and persist today, linking us with history through emotive parallels both public and personal.

The original event was conjointly organised by The Burton Constable Foundation, and Lincoln Conservation, the Art History Programme, the Global and Transregional Studies research group & the Race, Ethnicity and Equality Committee of the School of History & Heritage, and generously supported by the HR Equality and Engagement Team from the University of Lincoln, UK.

Here is a recording of the original event:

Malachi McIntosh is the Barbara Pym Tutorial Fellow in English at St. Hilda’s. Prior to joining St Hilda’s, Malachi was the Editor and Publishing Director of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing, and created its podcast, which he continues to host, Craft. Prior to thatMalachi co-led the Runnymede Trust’s award-winning Our Migration Story history education project; lectured at the University of Warwick, the University of Cambridge, and Goldsmiths, University of London; and worked for Teach First — initially as an English teacher in a South Croydon high school.

Malachi’s research is primarily focused on Caribbean and Black British writing, in particular writing produced in the 1950s-1980s. He is also interested in inter- and post-world-war-era writing from the French Caribbean, and broader diaspora, world literature, and postcolonial literary studies. He writes fiction and criticism.


Malachi McIntosh

All he could think when he saw the bodies was that everyone was going to get sick. How couldn’t they? Bodies pressed into and over each other and so close they blended into one single thing, broken only by banners, by slogans, STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE SAY HIS NAME WE WILL NOT BE SILENT They’d get sick. LOVE BLACK LIVES THE WAY YOU LOVE BLACK CULTURE RACISM IS A PANDEMIC THE UK IS NOT INNOCENT They’d get sick. And then that actor, from the new Star Wars, working himself into tears and speaking with a passion undermined by clichés, pleading: – Respect Black women. Black Lives have always mattered. We have always been important. Then everyone sharing the video he didn’t want to see: the knee on the neck – eight minutes, nine minutes, whatever it was – the life crushed out of this guy in broad daylight as, he knew, everyone knew, he cried out for his mother. Mama. He watched the comedian in America who named his set after the exact amount of time it took for the guy to die — not one real joke in the whole thing. He saw the protests: in Germany, in Italy, in New Zealand, in the Netherlands, in Canada, in Sudan and Israel and Denmark. He heard the names, the incantations of names – Say their names! – some names you’d catch just once – Say their names! —; some names you’d hear again and again and all he could think, and he felt ashamed by it, was They’ll get sick. They’ll get sick and then they’ll say You see them, they get sick. They get too angry. They get worked up. They get sick. They make themselves sick. The reason we’re sick is because they’re sick. They get sick and make us sick. And that would be the end of it, and then—

His son cried out. That then, whenever was then, all the times that had been then – all the days just one day now; all the nights just one night – when his son cried the only thing there was space for, the only thing the whole world was was the fact that his son was crying, that again he was crying, that again he couldn’t sleep. But when the father’s mind found a moment, sometimes many hours later, to reopen, he thought They’ll get sick. They’ll get sick. Please God just don’t get sick. Please God just get through this.

He creeps out of bed now, in his boxer shorts. Brushes his teeth as his son keeps crying, moves slowly to the boy’s bedroom, blacked out, white noise machine rushing, and the kid stops crying immediately.

Awake! he says.
You’re awake, the father says, rubbing his eyes.
Awake! Me!
Not Daddy, the father says, through a yawn.
The boy waits, then, Yeah! he says. Daddy awake!
Am I?

It’s five am, 5:05, which is better than his wake time yesterday but worse than last week, and much better than when he was a baby. He often thinks like this now, the father: the food thrown on the floor was less than last month’s, getting into the bath is better now than it ever was even though he always runs away. The boy knows colours, which is good for his age, can count to three, but often confuses white and yellow and says One Two One Three!

Toast, he says now. Toast. Toast. Want toast.
Is someone hungry?
Coming right up.
The boy laughs. Won’t stop laughing.  
The father smiles. Is that funny? Coming right up?
Yeah, he says, still laughing. Daddy funny.
He laughs harder. No Daddy, funny.

At the beginning of this he sent a lot of out-of-the-blue messages—DMs to people he’d been Following or Friends with but who he hadn’t exchanged real words with in years. He made the effort to properly reconnect with them, wrote to exes apologetically, saying that he was Sorry and it was strange but everything was strange now and were they okay?, were their families alright? He always wondered when he wrote if they’d just ignore him, but they rarely did, which triggered more thinking – did they think of him as often as he thought of them, were there the same aches? regrets?– but he couldn’t type that, obviously, and after the initial relieved exchanges, the efforts to rekindle old jokes and dive into a shared past that was always there but also always not – the relationships – with the exes, with the distant friends – returned to their old steady state of silence and distanced watching.

Every morning, the routine is smoother for the two of them, both more comfortable in their new roles: shared breakfast, ten minutes of the kid around and around on the carpet with his toys while his father runs the bath, the television on to the news and the boy practicing all the names he has for things – car! floor! me! while on screen protests, brushfires, bodies, hurricanes, police cars slammed into teenagers holding only white signs for protection and politicians at mics, at lecterns, clenching their fists in that half-clench they think signals strength and his son says:
Bath Daddy? No daddy. No!

He’s in a WhatsApp group of old university friends called Is it?, which until this year was a place for memes, arranging meet-ups, and sharing the occasional baby picture, but then turned, at first, into a space to check in and express hope and concern, then turned further, opening out into what it is now: something like a second, tighter, and more painful Twitter feed. Links to newspaper articles and thinkpieces. Recommendations of books to read and quotations from James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. His white friends on it have slowly gone silent, and he doesn’t know if it’s because they don’t like it, feel they can’t comment on it, or something worse; except for their posts elsewhere he wouldn’t even know that they’re all still alive.
            After he drops his son off at nursery, he has a half hour before he has to log on for work—just enough time to not know what to do with then lose in his phone, then he’s sitting still for the rest of the day, walks at most twenty steps.

On Is it? yesterday someone posted a link to an opinion piece and quoted from it: ‘slavery and empire are two quite different things’, the general gist of the article that empire was good and slavery was abolished and that was it. His friends on the group wrote ‘bullshit’ ‘wtf’ ‘lol’ ‘smh’. The father added his own comment, he can’t even remember it, remembered just tapping through to see the byline and author picture and knowing before reading it was by the kind of guy whose sole job it is to write that same article in different ways each week.
But still, on Twitter today, in one of the two windows he keeps open for non-work, there’s an unfolding scroll of people arguing about the article, attacking and defending the author and the place it was published, and he’s addicted – to this thing that happens whenever things like this happen – doesn’t add to it, but can’t stop reading and watching – because this always happens too – the thread shift into debates about, variously, structures, whiteness, Churchill.

It’s a bad thing for cultures to mix
This is literally why Winston Churchill said ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’ 😂
To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often – Winston Churchill
Why are you campaigning for white-washing and cultural amnesia??
This would be funnier if it wasn’t so pathetic

In his other non-work window, he has a web app of picture updates from his son’s nursery. They’re painting today and the kid’s got red paint on his face, red paint on his new grey joggers. They just got those.

On Twitter someone writes I’m a black man and I love Mr Churchill you lot NEED TO GROW UP!!!! Three people write about how other people need to get out of their echo chamber. A colleague emails, URGENT and then the day is over, was always over, and the father collects his son.   

The same bubbly nursery lady greets him every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evening. She’s dressed in the same purple tunic they all wear, the corporate nursery logo stitched over her heart. He knows her name but never feels he knows her well enough to use it, to even enter into the kind of conversation where you might need a name, even though she, and others who he also never refers to by name, have been looking after his son five days a week for the better part of a year.  

            She’s over-bright, the lady – bursting, he’d describe her as – speaks in that high, soft, slow and excited way that young kids seem to like, but his son is ambivalent about, and greets the father, as ‘Dad’, as in: Hi Dad! She hands over his son and in her eyes he sees a question about why it’s been him — for the last four weeks, five, only ever the father at drop off and pick up, never the mother, not once.

He’s been brilliant, she says. He’s had a very very good day.

Had you asked the father what fatherhood would be like before he became a father, he would have said it would be hard. Fathering without any clear sense of what it meant, when you’d dreamt what you’d be in life was something very different, something else. Fathering now, in this world, as it was, where it was going. He mainly cast his imagination forward back then when his wife was pregnant; imagined himself with a much older child, not a baby or a toddler, and that child doting on him. Most often when he imagined them together, him and his son – it had to be a son; he knew it would be a son – he would see the kid trailing him, the two of them walking into the city centre, rounding the corner from their flat toward the world. In those dreams the kid would be perfectly content in his father’s presence but always faceless, faceless but obviously happy. How he could tell he was happy the father doesn’t know. But he was. Had to be. And yet still, he’d think, This is going to be too hard. I don’t know if I can do this.

Online everyone’s still writing about Churchill. They’ve boarded up a statue of him to protect against vandalism and a group of BNP or EDL or NF or whatever they are now members are trying to organise 24-hour protection. They have one of them on BBC News in a clip everyone’s circulating saying the way some people are treating our country is a disgrace. Someone remixes it to a drill beat. Someone posts a fake video of the remix. Someone Rick Rolls it. Someone writes a thinkpiece about how the Rick Roll is nostalgic call back to the pre-pandemic era. Someone adds a post about that to Is it? On Is it someone writes ‘wtf’. The father ends up lost in an autoplay of videos on Youtube that night,  ends with one called STATUES OF SLAVEHOLDERS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE SEEING, someone posting in the comments that all images of ENSLAVERS show the West is no home for us, never will be; someone else writing who should we make statues of then, slaves?, someone else writing that most of those people achieved more in life than you ever will, someone else writing And probably you too

On the weekends he takes his son for long walks; both on foot for as long as his son can manage, then the boy lifted into his pushchair and wheeled with the pace picked up. There are so many beautiful parts of this city, places the father didn’t even know existed, wouldn’t have seen if not for this — the Vale, Cannon Hill, Lickey Hills.

            Tree! his son says. Car! Crane! Van! Dada — van!

            He can’t, the father, remember what it was like to be a boy. Most of his memories are so merged with with images from photo albums he’s not sure anymore if they even count as memories. So far as he has anything, he has his feelings – of warmth with his parents, of joy when he rode his bike, of fear in the cinema when someone – and he doesn’t know whose idea it was but his own father was there—took him to see a horror film too young. It all seems soaked in sepia, his childhood, a past too perfect when everything online says there was no perfect past, that the only hope comes after now.

            Dada! Birds! Car!

            He read, when his son was young and he’d read anything, everything, to give him advice on what to do, a blog that said the biggest challenge a new parent faced was to feel the joy and awe for your children when they’re awake that you feel when you see them asleep. He didn’t get that initially but now he does; he does feel it – both joy and awe – not always, but in moments that swell up in him out of nowhere, out of air. It’s what he feels about himself as a child, awe at the impossibility of that time—that state of being suspended untouched by the world, until you are.

At drop off it’s the same lady, the ginger one with the voice, whose eyes hold questions she never asks and he never answers.

Good morning, you! Any messages, Dad? she asks, her eyebrows raised above her mask, her red hair roughly ponytailed, loose hairs springing. Her accent is Midlandsish, her height is average. There are pictures of her without a mask on the nursery website but in real life he’s never seen the bottom half of her face.  

            Early on, very early on, when his son just started here, after the confirmation that because of his wife’s job he could attend, the father got a sense that this woman didn’t like him or his son, and he told his wife, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’

            ‘You think she’s racist? He’s just a baby.’

            ‘I dunno,’ the father said. ‘I just want him to be treated the same way as the other children.’

            ‘He will be,’ his wife said. Then she didn’t speak for a very long time before she said, like an echo, at the dropped volume of an echo, ‘He will be.’

            And she was fine, the woman, overall, as fine as anyone else with the boy—he was cute, he won most people over, but with the father himself it was different, felt different.

            No, no messages, he says.

He’s thought a lot about the coming conversation, wondered when it will happen, how:

            Are we—? his son would say, or

            Someone at school called me—, or

            Because we’re … does that mean we…

            And he doesn’t know what to say, what he could say. He thinks about it always, the fact of it always waiting. Once having walked through trees and streets, happily – whenever it is, was – standing with his son outside of a hotel to take a second to catch his breath, their walk good – plenty of things for the kid to see – the father spotted a statue of a man he’d never noticed cemented there: the statue’s stone eyes on the horizon, arms spread, two women draped at his feet. The plaque below the man read HE LABOURED TO BRING FREEDOM TO THE NEGRO SLAVE THE VOTE TO BRITISH WORKMEN AND THE PROMISE OF PEACE TO A WAR-WORN WORLD

            Man! his son said. Man there! And lady. Two! Two lady!

            And what will he say, the father? What will he say?

What will I say?

Like everyone he wonders a lot now about dying, about what it would be like to die: gulping and grasping but never enough air; your lungs compressed by this thing with a name that doesn’t capture at all what it does to you. What does it feel like in that moment to see the last faces you’ll ever see, and hear, or not—their words? This body that so long carried you, held you, that was you, now not yours at all—taken.

            And he thinks, the father, his mind filled with images of his son: I can’t. I can’t go. I have to survive. And in those times, whenever those times are, in those moments that are always, including now, he thinks of slogans STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE SAY HIS NAME WE WILL NOT BE SILENT LOVE BLACK LIVES THE WAY YOU LOVE BLACK CULTURE RACISM IS A PANDEMIC THE UK IS NOT INNOCENT sees bodies pressed into and over each other so close they blend into one single thing—all they are made into one single thing.  

        And his son cries out.

And he checks the time.

        And in the boy’s room. In his boxer shorts. The father rubs his eyes.

        Awake, Daddy. Dada.


Birmingham, April 2022