Nikita Gale and Alexander Provan are joined by Derica Shields, a writer, researcher, and cultural worker living in London. She speaks about her book-length oral history of Black experiences of the welfare state, “A Heavy Nonpresence,” and the value of listening to Black peoples’ accounts and analyses of their own lives. Shields reflects on her effort to share the stories of Black people who are mistreated and monitored by the state, while also being made to feel that they should be grateful for receiving the assistance to which they’re entitled. Her work shows how, in Britain, liberal nostalgia for the so-called care of the state is premised on not listening to those who receive benefits—and how politicians and journalists enable Black people to be shamed for doing so by upholding the age-old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor (as if colonialism never happened).
Shields, Gale, and Provan listen to and discuss excerpts from “A Heavy Nonpresence,” which includes accounts of seven Londoners whose lives are entwined with the welfare system and was recently published by Triple Canopy. Shields advocates for oral history as a way of enabling marginalized people to be heard—and to hear each other—as well as to mitigate shame and circulate survival strategies. She notes that government assistance for Black people tends to be thought of as contingent on “good behavior,” but observes a recent shift in public opinion and political discourse, due to a reckoning with Britain’s history of colonialism and racism. Rather than act thankful for the rewards of navigating an inhumane bureaucracy, more and more people are saying: “We are here, and the same rights accrue to us.”