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Culture Literature

Problematising martyrdom of NHS workers

CW: anti-Blackness

Gwendolyn Brooks’ marvellous poem Negro Hero is a dramatic monologue for Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller, a Black American sailor honoured ‘for distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on Pearl Harbour – December 7, 1941. The poem is significant as an early entrance of Black and women’s voices into the Western halls of war poetry, and eschews moralising patriotism to ‘insist that wounds be uncovered, that the horrible be acknowledged’. Though arguing from a Black American perspective, Brooks’ writing is a timely reminder to the patriotically inclined in any country today of hero worship’s propensity to cover over systemic injustice and to diminish with idealism the very real work of the heroes it claims to uplift. 

Heroism has had a public revival in the wake of the coronavirus; who can forget the scores of families and their beaming middle-class matriarchs proudly clapping away on our doorsteps; the sense of comfort it gave us to recognise as heroes those who had worked, and were about to work a great deal more, to save uncountable lives? It takes a certain type of dogmatic left-winger to deny any value whatsoever in this kind of patriotism; I merely wish to show, as Negro Hero does, how its volume and seductiveness can obscure unpleasant truths, ‘the chipped teeth’ and ‘knife’ of our society’s failure to reward its heroes. 

There is a musicality to the sloganeering which has accompanied (or rather formed the most substantial part of) government action on coronavirus: ‘Stay Home, Stay Alert, Hands Face Space’. Resembling the world’s worst haikus, their poetic qualities ultimately derive from the fact that no one knows quite exactly what they mean; their ambiguity creates a space in which a speaker is detached from responsibility for their words’ exegesis. In the ever-unmincing words of Keir Starmer, ‘there’s a very, you know, basic issue here about communications’. Pithy. It’s also a musicality which drives Negro Hero’s rhythmically racist stanza beginning ‘In a southern city a white man said’, and lends weight to a much less savoury message. We should be wary of language; it always has an agenda. So too should we be weary of who is using it, and what they manage to cover over.

Rather than patriotic messaging, Brooks’ poem gives us access to the individual, with all their muddy motivations and grey questioning. Yes, healthcare workers are partially motivated by heroic, humanistic concerns, but is it really ‘their white-gowned democracy’ which gets them out of bed and sends them into intensive care wards, to witness death and loss every day? The answer is, outside of the blurry, totalising oversights of official discourse, a resounding and stifled no. The no of those who know that ‘drowning men […] will haul themselves and you to the trash and the fish beneath’, who feel our pandemic-ridden, deeply unequal society’s ‘black air dying and demon noise’, and are forced to go on with the less glorious but far more essential task of late-capitalist self-preservation. The speaker’s repeated ‘Of course’ refrain explains his much less heroic motivations (‘my blood was / Boiling about in my head’) and reminds us of the inconvenient truth that people need work, will starve without it. The poem questions whether this is a pleasant thought to think, whether it might be easier to merely drown it out with applause from the chilly threshold of the suburban terraced driveway. 

Ifra Ismail notes how, despite the apparent lionisation of front-line medical workers in the first weeks of the pandemic, ‘there was no Black representation in terms of frontline workers on the news’. Often, ‘the people who had been demonised by the racist rhetoric of Brexit and the actions against the Windrush families – Black people – were also the frontline workers dealing with Covid’, and suffering a Covid mortality rate calculated by the BBC as ‘3.7 times higher than might be expected by geography and age’. In such a situation, it is a very legitimate question to conclude, as the poem does, ‘that it was hardly The Enemy / my fight was against / But them’. When race becomes a matter of life and death, or is more clearly seen for this sorry truth, representation and the power to access personal narratives is crucial for establishing a natural, human level of relations. It is the same issue which arises when minority social workers are informed that their employer Frontline ‘is standing with you’, only to receive identical, apparently copied-and-pasted replies to their individual racial grievances. “It was like, listen – we just need to appease everyone now, that’s how it came across”. This patriotism – just flowery language, poetry and not politics – might make some feel nice, but only by eliding the personal experience of the heroes it should maintain. 

Consider likewise the postponement of a bill designed to protect the right to remain for migrant frontline health workers. As the Guardian writes, ‘NHS workers on non-permanent visas have had to work knowing they and their families could be deported if they are struck by Covid’. This jars with the heroic discourse; the government is rewarding the kind of sacrifice we claim to extol with potential deportation and inescapable uncertainty. This is the ‘part of their democracy’ which Miller and other black heroes in the West have found themselves economically bound to save; the partial, atomised, bordered thing which works smoothly and profligately for the rewarding of contracts to powerful allies (and the deportation of migrant workers), yet runs aground in cancellations and inefficiency when the rights of those same migrant workers, the ‘heroes’ of our NHS, begin to be considered properly. 


Lastly, the cataloguing of which groups are most maltreated in the pandemic is an unending task. I chose to highlight migrant and minority workers to more closely follow the racial slant of Brooks’ poem, but Negro Hero is revolutionary, intersectional and unifying at the same time. As a woman’s voice in the genre of war poetry, heavily male-dominated ‘on the basis of an authority of experience not available to women’, Brooks reminds us that you do not have to be a soldier to feel the casualties of war; they are inscribed in the absence of loved ones, the wounds of friends, and the trauma which remains in the mind long after. The same is true of the pandemic; you do not have to be a medical worker to know someone who is, and to feel the very real effects that mistreating these people can have. We depend on them, in a far different and yet more intimately valid way than how we depend on legal fictions like democracy, floating ideals in white dresses and their fatal flaws, the knives we ‘would not remember entirely’. The pandemic may end, and one day we may see a new dawn break over billboards extolling the heroic work of our faceless NHS heroes. But Negro Hero teaches us that heroes are also real people, despite what you might have been told, and for as long as this government continues to erase their voices, to reward the saving of lives with the removal of rights, their war is not over.

Image: John Matthew Smith via Flickr