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 know that it is considered taboo to speak or write about a member of family that you are having problems with. I remember some years ago reading an article in The Guardian, by a well known journalist, who had a troublesome son. She went into detail about his addiction with drugs, and I guess she was perplexed as to what to do about it. She probably felt that writing about it was cathartic for her. But there was a massive backlash from readers – it wasn’t just from Guardian readers or The Daily Mail readers, presenters from the tv programme, The View all complained and said it was completely out of order.
I also got up on my high horse and agreed with everyone else. But today, as I write this, when I just found out my Uncle, from my mother’s side has passed away, is also when I find out that my son has been disrespecting his Uncles and other members of the family. Threatening to hit them and abusing them. He is in his late twenties.
He might have BPD; he diagnosed this himself by completing one of those online questions but he doesn’t want to do anything about it other shut himself up in his room. His anger comes quickly to the point that he could physically hurt someone, so everyone has to step carefully around him when speaking to him. And I guess really, the most frustrating thing is, knowing what to do. He’s been to several counsellors but he doesn’t find them of use. We pray about it but we feel as though we are losing our grip on the situation. I just hope that this new year, will be kind to us; we hope that our son can find the peace that he is looking for.
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 noticed recently that the above title was placed in ‘Hot off the Press’ before the year ended. As the comments were closed, it occurred to me that I could scroll through my posts and see which one was my favourite.
My favourite post I wrote in 2015 was about Rachel Dolezal – the controversial academic who pretended her way – by darkening her skin and braiding her hair – into being somebody she was not.
I liked the story simply because it forced me to delve into an aspect of my past which I had completely shut down. It was a painful time. Lots of bullying, unsympathetic parents and more importantly, not understanding who I was or the environment I was in. The quick response as to why this was, my parents shaped me into something they thought the world would find acceptable. If my P’s and Q’s were all in place, why shouldn’t I be able to get along? But little did they know that it caused an offence to those in our community and others. It seemed I was a stranger to them. Having said that, moving around with or hiding behind a set of girls I went to school with, made up for who I wasn’t. It helped me to cope. X amount of years on, there is a stronger sense of who I am and accepting who I am. There are no judgments or forced questions upon myself.
Re-reading this piece, forces me to travel back and confront all that went on. It also gives me satisfaction and relief. Maybe Rachel should be thanked for enabling me to do this.