Dr Emily Kate Timms reflects on how discussions throughout the Black Health and the Humanities workshops led her to revisit a classic essay on Black ageing in Britain by Beryl Gilroy.

When I joined the Black Health and the Humanities Network, I was finishing my PhD thesis on postcolonial representations of age and ageing in Caribbean and Aotearoa New Zealand fiction, film, and television. I considered how postcolonial studies approaches might productively engage with age studies and critical gerontology and decentre these latter fields’ historical focus on white experiences of ageing, health, and wellbeing in the Global North.

How did I get to this thesis? Older people have been integral to my life: I learned so much about myself and how to relate to others through the nurture and care given to me by grandparents and grandaunts. I also bore witness to my grandfather’s experience of living with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and my mother’s and grandmother’s navigation of complex health and social care systems as they cared for him. Around 2014, I noticed how my experiences of cross-generational care contrasted with representations of age and ageing in politics and the media in which ageing was synonymous with decline and older people were figured as apocalyptic ‘silver tsunamis’ that threatened the ‘young’. From the portrayal of ageing ‘bed-blockers’ to blaming Brexit on an apparently homogenous group of the ‘over-65s’, the weaponization of intergenerational warfare in Britain was disturbingly apparent.

Critical gerontologists and age studies scholars have taken great strides to challenge such damaging narratives.[i] However, as Sally Chivers notes, such research usually focuses on white, middle-class experiences of ageing.[ii] The relative exclusion of non-white ageing in these disciplines is made more conspicuous given the health and wellbeing inequalities for older Black people and their communities. In Britain, the Windrush Scandal, increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and higher likelihood of developing early onset dementia are just some examples of the terrible effects of structural racism and health inequalities facing older Black people.

Writing in 2000, Linda Bellos reflects on the importance of ‘grey heads’ to younger Black people living in Britain: ‘it is the continuity and experience they represent which is significant […] generations speak to me of ancestors or wisdom – in other words, of history’.[iii] It was out of the disjunction between the representation of age and ageing in these texts; the circulation of objectionable contemporaneous narratives of old age; and the neglect of Black and Indigenous ageing in age studies that led me to take up my PhD.

As opposed to consuming these novels and ignoring the inequities of ageing and the study of it, I thought about what I could contribute. While positionality, ‘allyship’ and ‘solidarity’ are contested terms that I as a white researcher believe should not be thrown about lightly, I share the convictions of antiracist scholar Paul Gilroy that the struggle against the ongoing injustices of colonisation, imperialism, and its neoliberal presents is incumbent on us all.[iv] How could I (reflexively) use the tools and training that I have in postcolonial literary studies to centre these important resurgent narratives and histories of ageing while addressing the considerable absence of Black and Indigenous ageing in age studies and critical gerontology? Working with the Network required further reflections on my positionality and participation as a white researcher thinking about Black health and within a space mainly comprising of Black scholars. For example, within our workshops, a balance needed to be struck between contributing and giving space without becoming a spectator to discussions. It was crucial not to displace this ethical work onto Black Network members, and I am grateful for and acknowledge the conversations hosted by non-Black members where we discussed these issues and found our own (imperfect and developing) ways of navigating the Network’s spaces. As such, while remaining mindful of my positionality – which takes a daily practice of careful consideration, facing difficult truths and histories, and working through and with discomfort – I seek to foreground how Black and Indigenous creatives and critics represent ethical and equitable ways of ageing and intergenerational health.

I constantly recalled Bellos’s words throughout our Black Health and the Humanities workshops. In our last meeting, Stella Dadzie, co-founder of OWAAD, spoke powerfully on Black and Asian women’s health activism. This health work was intergenerational in nature, with Dadzie telling us about the importance of reminiscence work with older Black people and archiving activist histories so that younger generations might take up anti-racist struggles. Jacqueline Roy’s workshop inspired us to consider the ethics of intergenerational connection and care between Gloria and Merle in her novel The Fat Lady Sings, which they cultivated in defiance of alienating medical environments. The sessions emphasised the work undertaken by Black women creatives, academics, and writers in Britain to connect ageing, intergenerational relations, and Black health.

Our Network’s conversations on Black health, care in hostile environments, and intergenerational activism motivated me to return to Beryl Gilroy’s 1994 essay ‘Black Old Age…The Diaspora of the Senses?’, which appeared in Melba Wilson’s landmark edited collection Healthy and Wise: The Essential Handbook for Black Women. Gilroy reflects on her experiences as a 70-year-old Guyanese woman ageing in the diaspora. She migrated from Guyana to London in 1952 to pursue a career in education, and became Camden’s first Black woman headteacher, an ethno-psychotherapist, and an accomplished writer.

‘Will our old age be yet another diaspora? The diaspora of the senses? Have no fear. We won’t let that happen. We would not let ourselves be discarded, abandoned or left to fall into the pits of life like sediment.’[v]

When I first read Gilroy’s essay in 2016, I noted her concern that ‘some of our young black people have lost cultural respect for old age and the ability to recognise the needs of the aged’ (p. 256). As I saw it then, Gilroy’s rhetorical appeal to older black women not to allow themselves to fall into a ‘diaspora of the senses’ seems to refer less to the sensorial, and more to sentiment. The term ‘diaspora’ appeared to become a metaphor for affective estrangement and the threat Gilroy perceived of older Black women becoming disposable within Black communities, even as they navigate the ways ‘Western societies […] cast[…] aside the lives of the old’ (p. 250). Her appeal for older black women to not ‘let themselves be discarded’ suggests that the emotional distance between these women and their younger people could compromise the former’s ability to be agentic in their everyday lives. Instead of turning to the interpretive frameworks set out in age studies debates, I sought to foreground Gilroy’s concerns about older Black women’s agency and intergenerational relations in ‘Black Old Age’ to explore how older Black women created new forms of agency and intergenerational care in her novel Frangipani House (1986).

How might our Network’s conversations, coupled with my development as an early-career researcher, inform my approach to Gilroy’s essay today? I question now whether my brief engagement with ‘Black Old Age’ could perpetuate the tendency by academics to concentrate on the painful aspects of Black experience. Indeed, there can be an ethical risk in focusing on Gilroy’s troubled experiences of ageing and care, even if it informed a more affirmative reading of older Black women’s agency in her fiction work. What is being obscured in utilising a specific reading of Gilroy’s essay, even if it is part of a decolonial attempt to address bias and decentre the methods used within critical gerontology and age studies?

It is against this question that I returned to ‘Black Old Age’, and it became crucial to (re)read the essay on its own terms and in recognition of the intersections of age, race, and gender that Gilroy works through. She doesn’t just explore the ambivalences of ageing but considers how some older Black women could choose to adopt new roles and resist what she saw as the consumerisation of intergenerational relationships influenced by the globalisation of (white) ‘American’ values (p. 255). Although Gilroy does write about the affective disconnection between young and old, she sees opportunities for intergenerational connection, comfort, and shared wellbeing. For example, she recalls a chance meeting with a recently widowed middle-aged ‘sister’ at a bus stop. Despite having never met before and taking into account Gilroy’s reservations that ‘I could find nothing appropriate to say to this stranger’ (pp. 251-52), the two women do connect and begin to heal, with Gilroy reflecting on the power of listening: ‘I listened as I had never done before’ (p. 252). In moving between historical overview, personal experience, and community vignettes, Gilroy’s essay holds space for and listens to complex negotiations of older Black women’s ageing and their caring relations with younger people.

Another concern we discussed surrounded the ethics of textual analysis itself: in English literary studies and humanities scholarship more broadly, to what extent is dwelling in the textual removing us from the materiality of Black experience – in Gilroy’s case, of Black old age and intergenerational health? As I turn back to her essay, I believe that Gilroy connects her aesthetics with the materiality of older Black women’s wellbeing. These links seem most apparent when she dispenses with prose and writes in verse:

‘We resolve

to keep as active as we can;

to treat each day of life after three score and ten as a gift;

to share, to love, to affirm;

to create in ourselves all that is joyous;

to know and enjoy the tangibles of creation – such as valour and sacrifice.

We are a whole people. We have survived. And when the years pass and everyone else has succumbed to mindless change, we shall be the same. Black.’ (p. 257)

Why does Gilroy change form? I suggest that it is within the poetic form that Gilroy decentres the pain and ambivalence of the present and imagines new health futures for older Black women. The health that is envisioned here is capacious: predicated on fostering new bonds based on love and reciprocity; manifesting joy by Black women for themselves and others; and balancing appreciation of the complexities of life lived with the possibilities embedded within everyday living.

These affirmative aesthetics carry through to the essay’s closing sentences. Gilroy’s invocation of ‘we’ here holds a special resonance in the context of Wilson’s collection, as the essay brings both itself, and the collection, to a close. The ‘we’ extends beyond Black old age to address Black women in an affirmative stance on Black joy, survival, collective wholeness, and confidence. It is in mediating between the aesthetics of verse and prose that Gilroy suggests new materialities for ageing Black women’s wellbeing and the health of collective generations of Black women.

As I move into a new stage of postdoctoral research, in which I hope to think about the intersections of anti-racism and anti-ageism in Black health histories and fiction, paying attention to how writers register ongoing structural inequalities but also imagine multiple futures for Black health is crucial. It also requires us to continually think and rethink the ethics of what we, as literary studies scholars focusing on ageing and Black health more generally, are using texts for, how we work with them, and to what end. Hence why centring Black British meditations on old age itself throughout history is so important to attend to the metaphor and materiality of Black (old) age and intergenerational health.

As for this post, rather than finishing with my journey as a researcher, it is vital to finish by centring Gilroy. This move underscores the importance of emphasising the creative and critical work undertaken by Black authors on Black ageing and health which (white) researchers work in respectful allyship with. As much as Gilroy’s essay testifies to the difficulties of ageing as a Black woman in Britain, the aesthetics of her writing attempt to invoke a new materiality for Black old age, intergenerational wellbeing, and health. She issues a forceful demand for Black women to age otherwise: an otherwise that centres joy, care, and the possibilities brokered by intergenerational negotiation; an otherwise that has the potential to change the very structures and experiences of Black old age in Britain itself.

[i] See Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Aged By Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Lucy Burke, ‘On (Not) Caring: Tracing the Meanings of Care in the Imaginative Literature of the “Alzheimer’s Epidemic”’, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, ed. by Sarah Atkinson and others (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), pp. 596-610. For more from Gullette see [https://twitter.com/gullette_mm?lang=en] and Burke see [https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lucy-Burke]

[ii] Sally Chivers, The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), p. 28. For more from Chivers, see [https://sallychivers.ca/research/]

[iii] Linda Bellos, ‘Age’, in IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, ed. by Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), pp. 30-35 (pp. 31-32).

[iv] Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 53. See also https://www.ucl.ac.uk/institute-of-advanced-studies/professor-paul-gilroy

[v] Beryl Gilroy, ‘Black Old Age…The Diaspora of the Senses?’, in Healthy and Wise: The Essential Health Handbook for Black Women, ed. by Melba Wilson (London: Virago, 1994), pp. 249-57 (p. 257). See also https://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2022/march/british-library-acquires-archive-of-beryl-gilroy