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.
Some years ago I worked in a high-end department store in West London. It was a great experience working in an environment where the customers served never seemed to blink an eyelid at the prices of items sold. The majority of the customers were famous – whether they were politicians, Hollywood actors and actresses as well as the British ones’, and then of course the musicians – whether pop stars, opera stars or divas’. But there was one lady I served, Faith Bandler, an Aboriginal activist who campaigned against the plights and sufferings of Aboriginals in Australia. She did not tell me who she was as I recognised her from a documentary I’d seen on TV.
Ms Bandler successfully campaigned for the indigenous Australians to be recognised as full citizens and to be given rights under the constitution. She was totally humble, warm, intelligent, passionate and possessed a quick and easy laugh She was also curious about the black community in London. I am really happy that she will be given a full state funeral by her country. May her soul rest in perfect peace.
2014 was sort of an okay year. I say this as it sped past in a single blink, and added to that, I’m guilty of not having done too much! There has been the daily routine of work (I manage a shop), I attended several conferences, managed an exhibition, attended meetings, and travelled to London. The year ended with the family coming together for Xmas and the New Year, and each moment was a treasure which I thoroughly enjoyed (my kids study abroad). But I feel as though I should have done more. So now that 2015 has begun, I’ve decided that I want to learn something, not something that will contribute to my work, but to me.
Of recent I’ve noticed how my mind likes to do its own thing. By that I mean, it likes to chat endlessly. It likes to tell me what I can’t do, what to worry or whine about; it leads me to believe that I can experience my past, which has long since gone, or experience the future, which is yet to be. It seems to feel threatened by the present and so far, has managed to convince me that happiness is obtainable, even though I know it’s a fleeting experience. It fights the belief, ‘nothing is ever permanent’ and therefore keeps you stuck in the notion that ‘things remain the same’. I get some relief when I’m with family/friends or at church.
It is said that ‘a mind can be a humble servant or a dangerous master’. It is how you use it that will decide which direction it will take. If you don’t ‘direct’ it, you are just left confused and unfocused. There is a lot of information on courses where you can learn to study the mind such as Psychology or NLP; or you can learn to quieten it with Mindfulness Meditation. My rule for this New Year is that besides improving my health, I have to look after my mind. Has anyone taken a course in Mindfulness or NLP? How did you find it? If you live in London, which courses did you take and where? I would love to know.
If 2014 was a great year for you, then brilliant. But if it wasn’t, then I hope, for you and I, the New Year brings us what we want and surpasses our expectations.
The new BMW i8 vehicle was launched in August, this year. Whilst I was in London the ad was shown regularly on certain channels. It impressed me. I thought, why should this poetry be used on a vehicle when it can be rearranged and used to uplift us humans, in a positive way?
Perhaps it had something to do with the way the ad was presented – slick, stylish and smooth, with a different narrator each time you saw the ad. The narrators, two male and one female were used but what they had to say was the same. But it was convincing, convincing enough to believe that a car can possess such beauty and invoke such poetry. and this is how it went:-
I am the impossible. I am the idea, too bold to be chained. Too powerful to be tamed. I am the big bang. I’m changing the game for all you worriers, doubters, preventers. I am the idea that has to be born, the revolution that has to be won, the story that has just begun. I am unstoppable: a rocket, a cannonball; a carbon fibre body lighter than wind, stronger than storm. I am born electric. I’m sheer energy, the force of tomorrow. I am possible I am – i8
But this is my take on the ad which I’ve titled The New Me
I am the impossible. I am and have always been, the created, too bold to be chained.
I am changing the game of those of you who have doubted, prevented and decided who I am, refused who I was.
I am – that has to be born, that has just begun.
I am unstoppable
I am born
I’m sheer energy, the force of tomorrow
I am possible
I am – God created.
Are there any ads you’ve seen where you are not interested in the product, but just the words? Then let me know!
Just last year I bought her latest book Mom & Me & Mom. I put it away in my library telling myself that at some point I will read it. January of this year I went through my growing number of books yet to read and saw this book and decided to read. It was simple, beautiful yet deep; it touched me as it made me to stop and pause ever so often to reflect on my relationship with my own fractious mother. In fact, if I’m honest, I found it shaming as it showed how Maya, over time, learnt to understand and forgive the shortcomings of her mother, Vivian Baxter. It made me realize I have a lot of work to do and that as I get older, I must make sure I tie up all those loose ends. I believe Maya successfully did this.
I was introduced to Maya not through her books, but I was somehow coerced to listen to her, each time she spoke. She had this incredible facility to speak, so much so it stopped me dead in my tracks when she spoke. When I lived in London, I would see her on TV programs such as The Michael Parkinson Show or on Channel 4 News when she was interviewed by the presenter Jon Snow, and countless other shows I saw her in. She was profound, and had this warm, compelling, charm about her. Not only did she possess wisdom but had control over the English language – she could use it to say precisely what she wanted it to say. In my mind, she was a sort of alternative Margaret Thatcher where in place of the cold politics was a spirituality; and just like Thatcher, Maya’s sentences would flow without the intrusion of hmm’s or aah’s, her beliefs would be stated in not too many breaths; and with her naturally deep voice, she spoke with a quiet authority giving the impression that despite talking to the audience, she was speaking to you, directly. This is a weird thing to say, but I always felt she sounded as though she was speaking on behalf of God, that she was the chosen one, sent on a mission or an assignment to complete. There was no one like her.
I’d like to think that God feels she has successfully completed this assignment and she is now in His warm embrace. I ask God to rest her gentle soul and give her family the strength and support they will need in this time.
there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you… Maya Angelou