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Bantabaa - From the Mandinka which means meeting place – I came to know this word living in the Gambia. We lived there for 11 years, raised 5 children, played a sound system, taught in schools, ran out of school projects, and eventually opened a school/children’s centre, which is still in operation. Most compounds, villages and communities have a Bantabaa – a meeting space – which could be a structure designed and built for the purpose but could equally take natural form in a cool spot under a mango tree.

I wanted to make a Bantabaa – a meeting place – for Black men. I have written a piece that I hope gives you a flavour of this work including some of the context surrounding it and informing the ways that we share and practice together. To the word Bantabaa I have added an extra ‘a’, a signal and reminder of the centrality of breathing and breath work to any contemplative practice. Bantabaa…

Marcus…. perceived as a bad boy…aged 9 …one day in school, he looks out of sorts…so I ask if he’d like to talk about it…he declines…I offer plain & lined paper giving him the option to draw or write …he decides to write…

I have spent many years working in schools. I have encountered many Marcus’s – so called ‘bad boys’ on their journeys to being men.

‘Marcus sit down and pay attention!’ - comes the scream of his teacher. Marcus is struggling to focus on the current topic – Beowulf & the Anglo-Saxon era. Beowulf, archetypal hero, dragon-slayer, king. Bad man we might say. But Marcus, whose gaze is too slow to turn back to the teacher is not a hero but a trouble – a trouble that the teacher is now threatening to send out of class. Teachers talk about not letting children ‘get away with’ things, about zero tolerance, about stamping out and cracking down. The behaviour policy is tough, implicitly we come to understand that what boys need, and black boys, in particular, is tough.

Something I have learned, working with black boys in so many different times and spaces, is the value of tender. I create spaces that allow me, and others, to be more tender…

Tender adj

Soft, easily injured –

Kind, affectionate, loving

Tender verb

To offer formally, to hold forth, to stretch

Tender n

Person who tends another – a small boat used to attend larger ones,

Attend verb to be present…

The word masculinity is not as clear a steer as we would perhaps like it to be. We are bombarded with numerous philosophies of what it is (and is not) to be a man. What exactly is manhood? Masculinity? Maleness? What is its’ relationship to vulnerability? Can it include permission to turn inwards? To turn toward each other? I know what it is to be a boy/man trying to find themselves in a world full of distractions, full of thoughts and chaotic feelings. I know what it is to have others misconceive and fail to recognise me and try to shoehorn me into the shape of what they think a black boy/black man is or should be.

I got tired of trying to guess which environment/group would be accepting of my more tender moments and parts. I grew tired of the continual hide and seek of my emotions and frustrations

Marcus is frustrated, maybe also tired when he eventually finds me. He hands me the paper and stands back while I read ….it says, ’Yesterday I was told off because I was sleeping in assembly…because I was stressed and had a headache…. people came saying I’m a rude boy and I should just leave the school”. Who they see as a rude boy is a stressed boy, a tired boy, a boy with a headache.

Sorry if I misbehave but I have too many thoughts and emotions and feelings to control….I lose my mind can’t focus and get distracted all the time. Marcus cries…

Bantabaa is a space to listen to what an antiblack world refuses to hear or know. To listen to the quiet of ourselves

As Kevin Quashie might describe this… a quiet that is the expression of our interior… a quality of looking inward …beyond the public face of stereotype and limited imagination.

the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, ambitions that shape us as humans….

Marcus says, it’s annoying and I can’t speak out cause I just freeze up and say it’s nothing, I thought that year 5 was a new start

Bantabaa is a space where we invite ourselves to suspend judgement, and what we think we know about being men/man/masculine/manly long enough to witness…acknowledge experiences and feeling, stay close to ourselves, meet the parts of ourselves that ‘just freeze up and say it’s nothing’ and speak the unspeakable – speak into what we are still finding words for.

we (me, you, Marcus) invited to breathe…. accept our discomforts…. breathe… our brokenness…..move….into our woundedness….pause….be tender with our dis-ease …sit…

…in a sanctuary from the oceans of anti-blackness. Going deep, beyond the surface, feeling what Christina Sharpe calls the wake; the afterlives of slavery; the past which is not past. Feeling how, as black people, we inhabit this wake.

Marcus says, I’m trying to behave but I got people saying I’m a rude boy. I just hope everything gets better. I don’t want to be excluded

To feel excluded rather than cared for. Marcus knows this. I know this. Many of us know this. What if, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs says, “school was the scale at which we could care for each other and move together? What if schools operated under an ecology of care?”

What if we can come together and bring all the parts that this system wants to send into exclusion - the bad boy, the tender, the fearful, the desiring, the imaginative – and share and witness and receive each other lovingly and create the world in which it is possible to be black and human being and man and more than all of these? More than all of the categories that have been created to enclose and control and exclude and deny us?

Bantabaa is a what if space; a contemplative space; a belly laugh space, a tender and creative space. A space in which we get to define and make ourselves…and remake a world in ways that allow us to breathe and live?

Artwork by K. Ghandour

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