Just goes to show how it’s important to keep up
with the news here in the UK. Fed up with politicians’ indecisiveness over
Brexit or/and Trump’s refusal to accept how he is responsible for stoking up
right-wing hatred towards people of colour and different faiths, so I find
myself these days reading books and watching too much TV. But today I decided I
should check out The Guardian online to read the cultural section and I see a photo of
Toni Morrison. It was just her face I saw but I was unable to see the caption
under the photo. I repeatedly press the keys to scroll down but my laptop is so
stupidly slow but eventually I get there and my worst suspicions are confirmed.
I discovered Toni’s books some thirty-odd years ago, in a popular black book shop in Tottenham. The first one I bought was Tar Baby. I must have been fourteen when I got this book; I have to be honest and say that I didn’t understand the deeper meanings but I felt it spoke to me in a way other literature did not such as, hair straightening, skin colour (being light skin or dark-skinned) and the ‘friendships’ between black and whites – whether they could ever be real? Issues which I experienced and wondered about, in my life.
But what was strange – Toni was writing about African Americans in America and yet some of the themes in the book I bought, resonated even though I was of West Indian parentage, born in London. I thought from the little I understood, how audacious and brave of Toni to write about our issues. Some years later I picked up the book Tar Baby again and just opened to a page to where the narrator explains the protagonist Jardine’s love for Son;
she came to feel unorphaned. He cherished and safeguarded her.
Reading this is similar to drinking my
favourite drink, then pausing to savour every moment.
The second book I read was The Bluest Eye. Now, this book, I was able to understand. It was so beautiful in its brutal honesty; making it clear to me it was not my fault I had an inferiority complex and that as a result, I disassociated myself from me. I understood clearly it had been imposed on me with neither my consent or permission! I found the book very moving and disturbing in how she was able to say, what was considered, the unthinkable, with ease.
Four years ago, I bought my daughter God Help the Child and she loved it, as she felt it was so pertinent to Black women and in particular to young Black women.
So, thank you, Toni, for all that you have done
and helping to put the struggle out there and thanks, for being unapologetic
because you have dedicated your talent and commitment to writing about Black
people. I know your soul will rest in perfect peace.
A Happy New Year! Yes, I am late, but it is better late than never. 2018 was an interesting year which happened very quickly, which I would like to reflect on.
My mother passed away three years ago, and sorting out the estate has finally come to an end. Due to inheritance tax, no Will provided by my parents and other accumulated expenses, me and my siblings have no choice but to sell the family property which has been with us for the past 38 years. It makes my heart drop each time I think about it, but I must accept this.
Whilst working with the solicitor, I decided to attend a writing course in my area to provide me with some distractions. There are seven of us which includes the tutor, and each would read out about six hundred words from our writings and give feedback.
The environment was totally outside my comfort zone and yet it felt safe and supportive. But what was more helpful, the group liked my work and were keen to hear more. Just before Christmas, all members of the group plus other members attending the classes in the college put on a performance evening which I attended. Unfortunately, I chickened out and did not want to read my work but after the readings, I met someone who was planning to hold a masterclass on appropriation and writing i.e., whether writers have the right to write or imagine experiences of people who are not of the same race or the same class as themselves.
I decided to sign up as what I was writing about involved race and included some aspects of class-ism. I also attended another writers’ group in Hackney which was just for women.
The point of attending this group was to still get out of my comfort zone and to listen to different points of views with regards to my writing. I guess when you are writing, it is a good feeling when someone says that your work is ‘nice’ but most times you want constructive criticisms, which I am always free to accept or reject. I have decided now to discontinue attending these groups as I want to get back to writing the remaining of my memoir and perhaps, I might return when the work is complete.
I celebrated my 60th birthday in 2018; my husband not only put on a surprise birthday party at a restaurant but also included a power point presentation to talk about my life! The weird thing is that I have spent most of my time supporting my family, (with no regret) but I feel the time has come, especially as the ‘kids’ have grown, for me to pursue my interests. And one of those interests is writing.
A week ago, I saw a documentary on the Black British writer Andrea Levy. I have four of her novels. I have also watched the drama Small Island and recently shown on the BBC, The Long Song. But towards the end of the documentary, I was saddened to learn that Andrea is undergoing cancer treatment. She has had cancer for some time and managed to chase it away but this time around, it has returned and is ‘incurable’. Hence why she has not written since The Long Song was published in 2004.
She had been rightfully focusing on her health and accepted her fate. She courageously stated on camera her outcome and did not want to elaborate any further.
Andrea and I are the same age, the same generation, of West Indian descent and we are Black Britons. I felt Small Island, although applicable to my parents’ generation, spoke to me along with her other early novels, especially Never Far from Nowhere. She told ‘our’ stories with such beauty and dignity, but they are also stories which ‘speaks’ to those who feel that the term ‘British’ can only apply to the English population.
But the other thing which really hit me whilst watching the documentary is how life can be annoyingly short when you least expect it; that life, may not start at the beginning but can begin in the ‘middle’ or what some people may consider the ‘end’ (‘Oh! You don’t want to do that now…aren’t you too old for that!!).
So, although I don’t usually carry out my resolutions, my plan for this new year is to finish writing my memoir, take up some physical activity and improve my cooking skills. I want to continue with my prayers and constantly ask for guidance and support, but I’ve now merged my prayers with meditation. I hope to increase my sense of peace and understanding of myself.
If I am to summarize 2018 with two words, it would be change and acceptance:
Having to sell off the property that has been with the family, since – but learning to accept the inevitable.
Continuing with prayers but now including meditation. Embracing who I am and know I still have a long way to go!
Learning that age really is a number and life is too short.
Even if my writing will never be a good as my favorite writers, that it does not mean I do not have the ability to write. I should be more accepting of my abilities and have belief in myself.
That I am responsible for my health and well-being.
I am sure there is more. But this is what I will focus on for the time being. This new year will ‘move’ just as quickly as the previous year, but I intend to be more conscious of time, my health, my writing, and my life.
I will continue to ask for support and peace in my prayers. I also pray that for you, this year will be successful, peaceful, healthy and good.
I have just finished reading an obituary of Joe Jackson, father of The Jackson Five in The Guardian newspaper. But it is expected that such a monstrous article would focus on Joe’s lack of compassion and concentrate instead, on the cruelties he inflicted upon his ten children. Of course it would ignore that Joe had to feed his family on a paltry wage he received from working as a crane worker at a steel plant in Gary, Indiana; it would also ignore the everlasting poverty, the racism that was always there ready to inflict its hatred on anything which tried to be successful.
I guess what is probably frustrating for the author is how Joe was totally unapologetic and neither ashamed of his parenting methods. He was hard and unrelenting but as crude as he might have been, he basically did what he had to do.
I can understand Joe Jackson. If MJ were still alive, he would have been the same age as myself. My parents, in particular my father, was incredibly ambitious and persistent. He refused to accept that as he left the sugar plantation estate in the West Indies cutting cane, he did not leave for the UK so that I could become a typist or my brothers would be bus drivers. To him, education was the be-all and end-all. I was not allowed to go to parties, have boyfriends, my head had to be buried in books at all times. I can remember, gazing at my father with astonishment as he declared that he wanted me to go to University. Go to University? Was he for real?
Unfortunately, myself and my brothers experienced either lashings via the leather belt or had a copy of The Yellow Pages crashing down on our skulls! This happened several times to me and I decided that it was not going to happen again so I did what he wanted.
Yes, at the time I considered my father to be an unforgiving brute! He was aggressive towards my mother and his sisters. He did not suffer fools, whether they were as dark as he or any other colour. He was not scared. When the infamous Notting Hill riots took place some months after I was born, he participated. Clearly, depending on one’s point of view or politics, my Dad was far from perfect.
As a result of failing my exams and being really fed up of the whole thing, I mustered up the courage to confront my father and tell him that I wanted to go to work. My father was angry but accepted if I wanted this, then so be it but…whilst I lived under his roof and worked, he never gave up in continuously reminding me of the mistake I was making.
After a year of working at a job I found locally, I remember feeling bored, feeling how mundane and repetitive the job was. It was then, it occurred to me that if this was work or my future with regards to work, I did not want this. It was then, that my father’s ambition became my own. So while I worked I went to three evening classes per week. I did this for a year before applying as a mature student to a University. I never heard a whisper from my father again, instead I received his blessings and respect while I lived at the family house. And as for my mother, she played the ‘good cop’ to my father’s ‘bad cop’; she supported and loved his ambition and respected him as a good caretaker.
For those who want to crucify Joe Jackson for how he brought up his family, one thing that cannot be ignored, if Joe Jackson was not the parent he was, no matter how bad (Bad – such a great track) we most certainly would not have had the Jackson 5, we couldn’t have known Michael Jackson, and the latest Janet Jackson CD, the fantastic Unbreakable simply would not have existed.
I doff my cap to Mr Jackson, for his strength, his endurance, for his determination and ambition. It is clear that if he did not possess these qualities, the world would never have witnessed such a phenomenon as the Jackson Five which was and still is, the first of a kind.
I was talking to my husband this morning when I saw the banner running under the program on the TV. It said Winnie Mandela had passed away. This strong, defiant beautiful incredible activist is no longer with us. Her struggle had to be the toughest, fighting the oppressive apartheid system, immured in a jail cell and separated for years from her dearly beloved, the great Madiba – Nelson Mandela.
My slight contact with the Mother of the Nation was during the time I lived in Johannesburg in 1994. My husband and I owned a boutique in the Sandton area of Jo’berg and at some point Mrs Mandela visited the shop. Unfortunately I was not there but my manager was present. Another time when I almost was near is when we participated in a fashion show. The clothes from our boutique were used by the organisers to promote African wear and fashions. In fact, clothes were loaned from a number of shops.
Taking the clothes back stage to help with the models, I remember walking across the stage and someone calling out to me that Winnie is taking her place in the audience. I stopped to look. I could see in the distance, a woman wearing a long gown, her hair was a curly Afro and she was talking, smiling. When the lights went out and the show began, I took my seat in one of the front rows. It was a great show and I was pleased with the way our clothes were displayed and looked on the models. When the show had to come to an end, my manager went back stage to collect the clothes and I went to greet Mrs Mandela but when I got to where she sat, she had left.
Dear Winnie, you did what you came to do and made long-lasting achievements. You were truly a blessing to South Africans and will remain in their hearts forever. I offer my condolences to loved ones and know that your gentle soul now quietly rests.
In August 1997 I was in London visiting my parents, on holiday from Nigeria with my family. Prior to Diana’s death I had signed up for my son, who was nine at the time, to attend a summer activity and the location was not too far from Diana’s home. The day following her death was the day my son’s course began.
I remember there were lots of people in the Kensington area; flower shops were bare of flowers but fortunately we found a flower shop and bought a mixed bunch. We joined a number of people holding flowers, walking in unison to Diana’s home. A solitary gold coloured balloon was tied to the Kensington Palace gates, and on the ground were more flowers. We placed our own flowers on the ground and along with others, we bowed our heads. I believe we were there for fifteen minutes in silence. When we left and headed for the tube station, we met more people coming out of buses, more climbing out of the underground station and more on foot — all heading to the same place. It was as if they were attending a concert except their pace was slow and their mood, sombre.
I took my son to his activity and then we arrived to our home in the early evening. When I sat down to watch the TV, I was shocked at the volume of flowers that were now outside the gates. The balloon was still there except it was so far away from the public due to the sea of flowers. Like so many other people who were in deep shock, tears, strangely streaked my cheeks. Was I really crying for someone I did not know, or was I crying for myself? Crying for the all hurts I had experienced, for the mistakes I had made and worst of all, crying because I still had not made good the life which had been given to me.
My father who owned a news shop in Islington brought newspapers to the house. My mother volunteered to cook the children’s meals whilst I poured into every single article that was about Diana. Although I cried previously, I was now crying more. I did not realise she was so vulnerable, exposed, misunderstood and used. Her wealth and lineage was unimportant. The fact she was so open about her unhappiness was touching and relatable, that it forced me to forget her privileges. I was forced to see her stripped of any adornments, clearing the way to see her for what she was: a sensitive and caring human being. Her suffering and death humanised the Royal Family; it also made them to be vulnerable and to realise they cannot take the British public for granted. All of a sudden the whiff of revolution was in the air and smelling quite strong.
Next week I will be making my annual trip to London. I expect that as the country draws close to commemorate the day Diana died, they will be countless documentaries, articles, opinion pieces and so forth. I trust that as the country remembers Diana, we would have learnt during the last twenty years, there is nothing wrong in being vulnerable or sensitive. Diana’s death suddenly opened up and released a taut and reserved nation. I, for one, am happy about this change and hope that in next twenty years, we will realise more.
Just found out by browsing through WordPress that Darcus Howe, the black British activist passed away at the beginning of this month.
Darcus was an interesting character: he was fearless, intelligent and articulate and never suffered fools. He passionately campaigned against racism and injustice for as long as I can remember. Constantly on TV, and so able to defend himself, I saw him as Briton’s answer to Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. I would regularly watch his programmes and documentaries, and enjoyed especially those that took him to the West Indies.
I know in our family he was considered a controversial figure – you either loved or hated him but you could never dismiss him. He was a warrior devoted to stamping out injustice, a stalwart supporter of the black cause which he refused to compromise. I was just so glad, that he was there. To speak UP.
Darcus, you have been tireless in keeping up the good fight, but it’s time to say goodbye, and for us to thank you for all that you’ve done. Be at peace in knowing that we, the community will always be grateful and you will never be forgotten.
So Samuel L. Jackson is not happy about black Brits being cast for African American roles in American movies. He was interviewed on a radio show a few days ago and his comments about giving the role to a Black Briton playing Martin Luther King in the film Selma, he said: I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.
I think he was a bit provocative, making surreptitious remarks about how ‘interracial dating’ had been happening in the UK for ‘hundreds of years’ which I believe is another way of saying — the Black British community have sold out by marrying out! I could be wrong, but putting that aside, does he have a point? I believe he does. I know I shouldn’t agree with him as I am a Black Brit and would feel pleased that my own brothers and sisters are out there, making it in La La Land. We know Hollywood has a lot more to offer than perhaps what you’d find in the UK film industry, hence the reason why Black Brits are in Hollywood but we should use the opportunity to address the industry’s failure in creating parts or roles for Black actors.
But I also understand there are lots of African American actors who are finding it difficult to get a break. When this story was released, in the comments section of an article I was reading, a poster said they felt they believed the reason for hiring Black Brits was more than capability and experience, it was about the fascination some viewers had for the delivery of the English language and how it assuaged those who want to see something of themselves, even if it’s delivered from someone of a different colour or race. But is this a good reason to be hiring from abroad?
I’ve experienced something similar to this but it wasn’t acting, it was TV presenting.
The year was 1995 and my family had emigrated the previous year to live in Jo’burg, South Africa. We just had our first Christmas and I had just given birth to a baby girl. One day I was shopping at our local mall and I was with my six year old son who annoyingly was running up and down the aisles looking for sweets to put into the shopping basket. I called out to him, telling him to stop when suddenly, a man stood in front of me. He was slightly bald and had a round chubby face which was edged with a thick beard.
‘That’s a London accent…’ he said with an English accent and an impish smile. I stepped back and glared. ‘Are you from London?’ he continued.
‘Yes! I am.’ I confirmed. I was about to walk around him when he began to tell me that he was a TV director, currently working on a popular show on a TV station. He went straight to the point and asked if I’d done any TV work. I said no, wondering where all this was going. He quickly introduced himself as James and told me briefly, about the programme.
‘Have you seen it?’ he asked. No I said, I hadn’t. He continued telling me that he liked my diction and that I had a good accent and if I would consider presenting this show as for months they have been looking for new and suitable presenter.
Are you for real, are you joking? I wondered, considering I had not said much. He seemed to know what I was thinking as he removed a piece of paper from his pocket, apologising at the same time for not having a business card and wrote down his number. He said I should call him soon, then left. I stood in the middle of the shopping area, staring at the paper in my hand with people walking pass on either side of me. My son had managed to put all the sweets he wanted into the shopping basket. I went to the supermarket to buy some food items then went home.
I asked my domestic lady, Queen, if she had heard of this show and she shook her head. I waited patiently for my husband to come home and when he did, he said I should go for it, call the number and say that I’m interested. Internet had just come out, and we were waiting for our modem to be installed and although we had a telephone, we did not have any directories so I could not locate the studio.
The following day I called the number. James told me to write down the address and we agreed to meet in two days’ time as he wanted to discuss the programme plus introduce me to his crew.
The TV station was located in a quiet suburb and not difficult to find. James met me in the lobby area and took me to a room where I met his crew — the camera man, producer, assistant, researcher. We sat in a semi-circle and discussed over tea and coffee. They explained to me about the programme, its format, the episodes and locations. When the meeting had finished and I agreed to host this programme despite the fact I had not done anything like this and I was intrigued by the fact they had faith in me. They seemed impressed with my speaking voice and strangely made me feel as though I was some sort of phenomenon, as though they didn’t think it possible to speak the Queens English — that is, if you were black. But hey! I wasn’t complaining. After all, I was going to be on television!
I participated in about five episodes until it was time for my family to leave. My husband was offered a job in another country and the decision to move was sudden and we argued about it, as obviously I wanted to stay! But he was worried about the increasing crime; a week earlier, he had been mugged and earlier still, Queen had caught someone lurking in the garden during the night, so he was concerned. Of course, the intruder in the garden got to me so I eventually agreed that we should leave.
I found presenting nerve racking as well as interesting. It enabled me to see more of Johannesburg and to engage with all sorts of people. There wasn’t an auto-cue to follow, just a speech prepared for me which I had to rehearse; I practiced pronouncing African names of areas and asked Queen to help me with pronunciation. The response from viewers were positive, to the point that producers/directors from other programmes and advertisements approached me. I realised it was possible for me do voice-over work, something I would have not considered if I’d still been in the UK. Around about this time my mother joined us from London to see her new grandchild. She was amazed as well as proud that her daughter’s presence and voice on this TV show could be heard across the land. She would be on the phone to my father daily just going on about her granddaughter and her daughter.
Some months later after we had emigrated, my husband had to return to Joburg to attend a conference. He told me whilst being there, there was a demonstration by Black South Africans, as a programme on the same TV station had hired a black presenter from the UK. She was well-spoken and experienced but the local people wanted her removed. Their argument was that white South Africans should make do with black talent and not hand the jobs to black foreigners just because they ‘speak better’.
At the time, when I heard this I thought it was unfair and felt bad for the presenter, as she was promptly taken off air. But when I returned to Jo’burg some years later, there were a number of South African born black presenters on a variety of TV stations. They were good; they were able to switch with ease from English to the indigenous languages; their English was accented but it made sense that they should speak and sound like the environment there were in. It does not make sense to speak in a voice that is too dissimilar to the majority of the population. If they want presenters to be more polished, then education and training should be provided. The viewers or audience should be made to accommodate and accept.
I could understand why James did what he did and why he wanted me. Hiring me was his way of holding on to his ‘standards’ as explained previously but at the same time when attending the station’s board meetings, he had to meet the criteria of having ‘black’ people on his programme to justify it be shown on TV.
The Black Brits that S L Jackson refers to are good actors, and were ‘good’ well before they began doing American movies. This should not be dismissed and we should be confident and proud that if they are called to play a part, we know they will do it justice. However, home grown talent should likewise be exploited and never overlooked. African Americans have truly had it tough and it would be crazy if they are not considered because directors prefer an actor purely because they are from abroad and speak a certain way.
I never liked boxing. I still don’t but my parents were hooked onto it. When the forthcoming fights were announced, they would make sure they were home early from work, giving themselves enough time to get the meals for my brothers and I. Once that was done, we were put to bed promptly and out of the way. When the fight began, nothing could interrupt. From my bedroom, I would hear shouts and screams from my parents, which I imagined occurred towards the end of the fight or when someone had been knocked out.
My brother’s held a mild interest but Muhammad Ali only came alive for me when I watched him being interviewed. I was intrigued, I was shocked and I was fascinated. Here was a black man who showed confidence, perhaps arrogance. I didn’t understand it! How on earth could he like that? Why did he not show fear? This high-esteem was something I had never seen before. It was self-actualisation at its best. Added to all that, he was full of clever witticisms and impassioned by injustices dished out to his community. I remember watching him being interviewed by the British interviewer Michael Parkinson. He passionately articulated the problems experienced by the black community. It was an awakening for me; it also illustrated and answered questions about the racism I experienced in London.
The other incredible thing was his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Wow, was I transfixed. This was somebody who was able to say No, without any difficulty. He had the courage to use when necessary, and used it as a safeguard against mistreatment. Hearing him resist war, racism and injustice, it was refreshingly cathartic.
My fascination with Ali, stayed with me. Years later, whilst at school, I would visit a popular black bookshop called Headstart, where I came across books about Martin Luther King jr, Bobby Seales, Angela Davis, George Jackson and of course, Malcolm X.
Ali was not just important because of his boxing but of his impassioned commitment to racial injustice; his outspoken views made him unpopular with the press, liberals and the right-wing alike; even the Civil Rights establishment did not forgive him for being a member of the Nation of Islam, and of course, his loathing of Lyndon Johnson’s war. While being surrounded by this sea of resentment, he remained true to himself.
I will always be grateful for the presence of Muhammad Ali, of what he gave to the black consciousness movement, and eventually gave to everyone. Parkinson disease is a cruel disease which does not discriminate, and it took away Life’s favourite son. My heart and prayers are with his family, and I ask that God rest his soul in eternal peace.
In the past month there have been many think pieces on the controversy of Zoe Saldana; a light-skinned black actress playing the role of a dark-skinned artist Nina Simone, in the movie Nina. It is regarded as controversial because Saldana possess features which betrays and contradicts what Simone was all about. Nina Simone’s artistry and success took her way beyond the boundaries of beauty making it impossible for her to be ignored. But she clearly felt she had a responsibility to use her platform and protest about the treatment of black people and speak the unspeakable – being black and dark-skinned.
As a black female born in the UK I consider my experiences as a dark-skinned woman a little unique. I know one cannot generalize as I have come across light-skinned people who see themselves as undeniably black and dark-skinned people who have not experienced negativity from their light-skinned mates. However, my experience is not just the usual standard racism but I have also experienced this from those who are a lighter than me; from those who consider themselves black!
Being defined by people and the environment takes a psychological toll, so much so that you cannot help but create a space between you and this shadowy edifice. In my case, I created an imaginary person, where I’m able to install this ‘dark skin’. So whenever I meet this negativity, I redirect it to this ‘person’, as a way of protecting me!
I would seat it at the back of the class or make it stand firmly against the wall at discos; it would have to wait until it was spoken to at college and sit politely among others in the conference room at work. It is used to being invisible and ostracised when in the company of its so-called betters. But in general, it has always depended on the kindness and acceptance of those into the exotic and curious.
If I am to look elsewhere for other examples of such experiences, it’s used to taking on cameo parts in movies, and if it has a major role then it is flawed in some way. And in literature, it has made appearances in novels such as A House for Mr. Biswas. Or if you check The Bluest Eye, the protagonist Pereola Breadlove is considered ugly by everyone including her own mother. She escapes this situation by imagining herself to be beautiful – by having blue eyes, white skin and blonde hair, feeling that her life would improve.
I know for those who are not black will think what’s the big deal, after all the lead role in Nina is played by a black woman in the same way the role of Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady was played by a white actress. This is true but it’s also true that when Othello was played by a black actor for the first time, the critics said how the play began to make sense. The nuances and details of racism suddenly became alive and clear.
Where did this all begin for me? How did this experience affect me? I think it’s best to look at my family situation to see how it evolved.
My mother told me early on in my life that my hair was my beauty. It was her subtle way of letting me know there was no point relying on my looks. Yes, my hair was abundant, long and thick, and twice per month I went to our regular hairdresser where he was able to create a Shirley Temple look, that is, big drop curls which hung to the middle of my back. Later on, when the salon began to use chemicals such as straighteners, he abandoned the press ‘n’ curl routine leaving me with patches of burnt scalp.
Clearly, I was no Shirley Temple and could never be, as I owned two deadly sins – a dark complexion and a wide inflated nose. My mother’s disappointment though, was enduring; I simply did not meet her criteria of what she expected, so regular visits to the salon was her way to compensate for the things she felt I lacked.
This endeavour reached fruition, when after a year of attending dance school, I had to perform on stage a solo tap routine to a popular song sung by Shirley Temple, On the Good Ship Lollipop. Followed by an enthusiastic applause from the predominantly white audience, my mother beamed. She acted as though this audience had been conquered and converted by the weighted ringlets bouncing all over the place while I did my ‘step ball’ change and ‘brush hop brush drops’.
Of course, I was clueless about what was going on at the tender age of eight, realising later given the interests of people who surrounded me, my purpose was to help dismiss a part of myself which caused offence.
But it was not just my mother’s incredible expectations as well as disappointments which loomed like a permanent grey cloud. It was also her. For my mother was beautiful. She was haughty, glamorous and intelligent, and believed her looks surpassed well-known black actresses of the day. I knew at an early age I could not reach such dizzy heights and would spend the rest of my days acting as a shock-absorber when people realised I was her daughter.
My mother carried a light brown complexion; a Joan Collins-esque nose, with high cheek bones, heart-shaped lips and a thick set of hair. She was always well presented and her make-up was meticulously applied. My mother’s mother was Indo-Guyanese with European features, and her grandfather was near enough white.
As we were the only black family in a North London road where I grew up in the early 60s, the neighbours deified my mother; it was an enigma as to how her features found their way in this black setting. You’re black but you look white, but how can you look white when you’re black? Their gazes seem to be asking. Not everyone was convinced for it did not stop the name calling and abuse from the other residents, nor did it stop the jealously from the witch-like sisters of my father. But my mother’s popularity forced them to make sure we were always well presented, whether at school or church. With our white ankle socks, starched hankies and our polished shoes it was almost as if a standard had been set and we had to keep to it. Each time we went out with our mother, the neighbours came and gathered around us.
For my father however, it was different. Dark-skinned with strong big features, he did not query my mother’s behaviour and possibly received vicarious satisfaction from all the attention, even though it did not fall on him. But there was no doubt of the racism he experienced – the fights he got into with the Teddy Boys and the insults he received at work. He left Guyana as a carpenter but prior to that, he worked on the sugar (plantation) estates. With determination he managed to leave the country and find his way to London, and then a year later, he was joined by a woman who would eventually become his wife and my mother.
Whilst in Guyana, my father grew accustomed stepping aside or lowering his head when a light-skinned person came his way. When he met some of these people years later in London at a function, he behaved in the same manner. They quickly but jokingly said ‘Hey, you na know me?’ My father was speechless. When he shared this story, he laughed saying the experience was ‘positive’; it proved to him that London was a great equalizer and he had no regrets leaving Guyana.
Growing up as a teenager, I realised that having long hair had its advantages even though I was ignorant to its drawbacks. Styling and wearing it in the latest fashions gave the illusion of beauty. The black guys who were attracted to me ‘believed’ I was pretty. Just as milk in coffee makes the drink palatable, my hair helped dismiss and divert attention from my skin tone. One of these guys even said they liked my hair and how ‘it would be better if I kept it straightened’. So I did. Just to make sure my approval ratings remained high with those that mattered.
As a married woman with young children, my focus was on my family where I had to set myself aside. So for twenty years, I kept (or hid) my hair in braids. What I love about it is the multitude of styles which can be created and the practical reasons, as it does not take up time and gives your hair a rest from the chemicals.
But it was a fight guiding my daughter in self-acceptance while witnessing her confidence being extinguished, as she battled with white images of beauty from the media. With the increased number of skin lighteners and the more ‘creative’ ways of having long hair, unfortunately it has become easier for black girls and women to perpetuate the notion that white beauty is still more desirable. Unlike me who had to do as I was told, the children of today clearly know their own minds about what they want. The same applies to my daughter who would argue that she doesn’t have an ‘inferiority complex’ and the ‘younger generation don’t think that way, and besides, what’s wrong with experimenting?’
But ever since my daughter began her degree course, she has a new attitude towards her looks. She proudly wears natural hair styles as opposed to relaxing her hair and uses natural organic products. In fact, she says she never wants to relax her hair again or go near a skin ‘brightener’. As a result, she has received compliments from other black students as well as those from other races. She realises there is no need to ‘change herself’ as it is more important is to accept and love who she is, even if, the image of a celebrated top model is bearing down on her.
After my mother passed away and I look back on our relationship, it occurred to me her thinking and the conditioning she received in the West Indies had an effect on me. But I understand she was the product of an environment which shaped and created her thinking and she could not be held responsible for how she wanted me to be. Several years before she died, her manner changed; it was tolerant and accommodating. She complimented me of how I had turned out – something she had rarely done – and how she was proud. Just after she died, a friend of hers told me that my mother believed she was not a good parent. Strange to say but upon hearing this, it gave me some relief. I always wondered if she was conscious of her parenting methods and the effects it had me. It was never confronted when she alive as I felt that if I had, she would have denied it. But it gave me some respite from thinking all along she did not care.
I still carry the scars of my upbringing. My ‘scars’ come in the form of self-doubt and a low self-esteem. The positive thing about this I’m living in a time where due to the amount of information available, I realise that I’m not the only one with doubts; as there are lots of souls battling daily of how to embrace themselves. So whether I visit a counsellor or do a course in meditation, or simply study the Bible, at least it’s a start in defeating the pervading images and stereotypes and not to be dictated by them.
And as for the controversy surrounding the movie Nina, I am glad that this discussion has been brought out into the open. If anything good is to come out of this, at least it has allowed me to share my experiences, and for me to feel they are most certainly valid.
I was thinking of my Pastor the other day; thinking of how I found it difficult to reconcile the inconsistency of his spreading the Gospel and what I consider to be his disdain for his flock. When I’m in church, I look around the congregation at the faces to see if they see what I see, but it’s either they are oblivious or believe it’s just typical human behavior.
It bothered me, this. My mind churning, telling me that it’s wrong to judge and depersonalise, it goes against the reason I go to church in the first place, but there are strong factors getting in the way that counters that.
It all started when I found the problems of my son were becoming too much. With a husband/father, who was abroad, it wasn’t always easy when a problem arose. My husband and I would Skype each other, but that would be several times a week. He could not do more as he was busy. So a member of the church, and a friend suggested that I should see the Pastor, Pastor John. I went to see him and told him that for some time, my son has been experiencing depression; a talented writer, a polite person and for reasons unbeknown to me, dropped out of his final year at University. My mind picked all over to see what I had done wrong.
Pastor John listened and watched, as I held my head trying to understand. The Pastor talked of how he saw my son walking ‘up and down’ the high street, which suggested his behaviour was odd considering the ‘good family he came from’. It was not something he expected. Then he recounted how he led his own son from an episode of apathy towards his studies, where he ended up getting a good degree. I looked up at his face, only to be met with a smile which tried not to be smug. Great, I thought, for his son but failed to see how this helped me with mine. Then I said to him something which quickly popped into my head, how my mother would always tell me that God does not always give you everything. He holds back on some things just so that you don’t forget what he has done for you. When a problem presents itself, you have to find a way of dealing with it. I wondered why this comment did not enter my head before. I raised my head and looked at the pastor; the look he gave was one of astonishment. Didn’t he think my mother was capable of meaningful statements? Our time was brought to an end and the pastor prayed about all that had taken place, and for my son.
I left the office, forlorn and worse than when I went in. all of a sudden, my vulnerability was apparent. I felt as though there was a glitch in my family leaving me with no choice but to feel embarrassed.
It was time to flag this experience as I reminded myself that I had experienced something like this before but dismissed it. About a year ago, I attended a bible studies group; there were five of us, plus the pastor. After the meeting, we raised a sensitive subject about the progress of the church. I say ‘sensitive’ because the Pastor took it personally when you criticized the church. I said how the church has always been humble, something I was proud to be a part of, but a few things needed to be changed. The Pastor smiled briefly, and then asked what I meant by ‘humble’. I had to stop and do a quick inventory. Did I say something offensive? No I did not, I told myself.
The church was built seventy years ago; it has a small congregation made up of predominantly elderly people who seemed to be at a place in their lives where the mortgage has more or less being paid, where visits to the Doctor are frequent, they see their grandchildren and hopefully they get a holiday once per year. I should add that in the years they have attended, they go with their partners but in the last three years, quite a few have lost their partners to ill-health. For the widows and widowers, single parent families, the church plays an important role. If you go to the church, say, on a Tuesday morning, you can see them enjoying their game of cards or dominoes, keenly waiting for the tea break along with the sandwiches.
I also say ‘humble’ because unlike many other church services which uses PowerPoint to support the sermon and has a resident band, this church struggles. The church assistant struggling with the projector to find the hymn the same time the congregation is about to sing or, the music (The Music!!) is meagrely supplied by a sole musician, a pianist, struggling to make up for every instrument that is not there! The choir which struggles to sing in unison rather than four point harmony. Perhaps I’m asking for too much but the point is no one complains, the congregation is happy with this. So yes, ‘humble’ it is, but I feel that it could do with some changes.
He said he was confused with the word ‘humble’. As far as he was concerned it was progressing, and up to date. But I added that perhaps the reason why the church failed to attract new people, young people was that it was just too…serious. I realised that it was superficial for a church to have technology in order to present itself as professional, but the church had reached a position that it did not want to leave, sort of trapped in its comfort zone. The other members looked on, thinking I had said too much. Pastor John shook his head wearily and made a frown. He said he would think about it and that we’d have another meeting to discuss the matter. As I said, this was a year ago.
Leaving the Pastor to get ready for the evening session, another thing that came to mind. A few people talked of when he or they are outside the church, say shopping or on the local bus, he has tendency to ignore them. I’ve not experienced this but then I realise I would not because my husband is a lecturer and he respects this. As I head towards my car, I pause and inhale this new revelation. I should have realised. When he subtly drops the hint of wanting to visit us, I always say, ‘Yes! Come around. I’m home most evenings.’ But he never does as he wants to be invited, and I’m not formal like that. I get into the car, start the engine, allowing the engine to run as I marinate these new thoughts.
I like my church, despite its humbleness. I like the people; some of whom I have known since school or they have lived in the area for some time. So I’m not looking to leave even though some people will probably feel that is my best option. But I go to church for a good reason: to hear the Word, to hear God’s message. Something that will help me to cope with the new, up and coming week or some ongoing problem. Sometimes I win the jackpot where the sermon delivered hits it right on the nail i.e. I hear my message or answer. But there are other times, I go and I leave, empty.
As I find parking space just outside the house, I learn that what has become problematic, is seeing a side of the Pastor that I feel, should not be there. I hate that I’m aware of it to the point that I fail to realise he has been ‘sent’ to do a job; and I hate the fact that it is likely to get in the way of receiving the good Word.
It would make life a lot easier if I liked and respected him. But still quoting my mother: people are people are people. They may not be perfect but they were meant to strive, be good and to auto-correct themselves as they progress. I guess there is still a lot for me to do.