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 eight 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 bunches of flowers, walking in unison to Diana’s home. A solitary balloon was tied to the Kensington Palace gates, and on the ground were more flowers. We placed our own flowers on the ground and stood with others, with their heads bowed to pay their respects. 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 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.
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.
Well, in the next 5 hours it will be finally over. I cannot believe how this year has travelled so quickly. I’ve not done all that I wanted but as my teachers used to say, I could have done better. There have been key moments as I’m reminded by my diary and journal – being more and more spiritually connected; reading books by Debbie Ford, Dr. Eben Alexander, Jerry and Esther Hicks (Ask and it is Given) have had a profound effect me that I know there is no turning back. There is seems to be an urgency to write more, especially about how I feel and what I want.
Resolutions I’ve not always stuck to but –
I look forward to reading a lot more spiritual books
to learn about Physics;
to most definitely lose weight;
determined to make progress with my family, with friends, with everything!
And that all in all, that the New Year will simply be great. Likewise to every one of you out there, I wish you a peaceful, prosperous New Year!
Mr Mandela, sadly, you have now left us. I want to thank you for all you have done for your people; for avoiding a civil war and allowing peace to reign. But I also know that if it were not for you, I would not have been allowed, as a black woman, to emigrate to South Africa in 1994. I had the pleasure of living in your beautiful country for two years, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
You will be missed and you will never be forgotten. Go and enjoy your well deserved rest and may the Almighty Father bless your wonderful soul.
When I was in London, I went to see my life coach, Pat. She has clairvoyant abilities but does not believe in telling you the future, so to speak; as she believes that by integrating her coaching methods and intuition, that it is a more practical way of helping you with your problems.
We chatted about our families and she talked about how she’d successfully landed a role in a production in the West End, plus she had written a play that was seriously being considered by one of the popular TV networks. As Pat talked, I glanced over to her loaded bookshelf and noticed a particular book. It was the only one that was standing with its back against the shelf and title in full view, whilst the other books lay flat, leaving you to wonder what their stories were. The other thing was its colour. It was a striking, deep purple and its title was in a large font dressed in silver. It said: Ask and it is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks. My attention was taken by Pat who suddenly stopped talking about herself and began to ask me about my problems.
‘You know…’ I said to her, ‘…it’s the same ole, same ole. Am I on track, what is my purpose?’
‘You know I don’t tell fortunes…’ Pat scolded politely, ‘…but all you have to do is ask! Ask for what is your purpose. Ask if you are on track. Your problem is that you don’t ask!’ She said with emphasis.
‘Ask? But I do!’ I responded, hoping that it didn’t seem like we were having an argument. ‘I meditate and pray constantly and with that I ask but…I don’t know.’
She lowered her head in thought then looked up at me. ‘Have you heard of synchronicity?’
‘Synchrowhat?’ I gushed. Something to do with swimming I thought but did not dare say it.
Pat smiled and gave me an explanation. She ended by saying that I should believe when I pray and mentally state some affirmations towards the end of my meditation. My time was up but as I left, she told me not to worry. It will all work out. Hmm, I thought.
About an hour later in another part of London, I was in a bookshop, looking for a book on Physics for my daughter. Walking towards where the science books were kept, I abruptly stopped as there was a book staring right at me from the spiritual section titled Ask and it is Given. I went and picked up a copy, opened to the intro, read two or three paragraphs and said yes, I must get this!
I’m half way through the book and clearly, I understand synchronicity and realize this is how the Almighty/the Universe communicates. Synchronicity is when either, ‘a single event or chain of events’ produces a ‘meaningful coincidence’. An example of this is early this year, I found myself constantly thinking about an old school friend, someone I used to move around with in the early 90s. A month later, as I was driving to the supermarket, I spotted her ex-boyfriend, who also I had not seen in a while. I quickly stopped and parked the car, and chased after him. Wheezing out of breath when I caught up, he instantly recognized me, stretched out his arms and gave me a hug. About ten minutes into our conversation, I asked him about our mutual friend. He removed his mobile from his back pocket, scrolled through the names and when he had found her number, he gave it to me. That evening I called her and we agreed to meet at her house the next weekend.
You ‘ask’ for something and you receive answers in a manner that you do not expect. It could be in the form of an ad in a magazine, or the ad on a bus, a bill board or a comment from an actor in a movie, a sentence in an article or a conclusion in a documentary. Likewise, seeing the book on Pat’s shelf and then seeing it again in the bookshop, it’s clear that this book ‘came’ to me, making me to realize that I will find my answers there.
Now, for those of you who read my piece on Debbie Ford’s book (The Dark Side of the Light Chasers) will say I’ve spoken about this before, so what’s the big deal? But please, spare me. How was I to know that this was synchronicity? The point is, I’m learning. Again within a few chapters I’ve realised that ‘asking’ is not only just believing or placing a pair of hands together to pray. But I have to ‘desire’ it, believe that I’ve already received it and to act as if ‘it’ is already in my life. In the case of my long-lost friend, my thinking or constant thoughts of her, wanting to see her played a part in me actually reuniting with her.
Negativity does not play any part in this. In fact, if I ‘desire’ something but in the next second fill my head with a lot of doubt by saying ‘Nah! It’s not for me. I can’t have this’ then the thing is now cancelled as instead of being eager for ‘it’, I’m asking for the lack of it, which is exactly what I’ll will receive, if you get my meaning. If you want to know more about this, then please get yourself a copy of this book to get a deep simplified explanation.
As I said, I’m halfway through. The first part I’m reading gives a thorough explanation of how it works. Some reviewers complain that there is a lot of repetition. Perhaps there is. But how I look at it is that sometimes to make a point loud and clear, you have to keep hammering it home. The second half, I’ve not looked at but it is composed of exercises which I can’t wait to do. I will keep you posted.
If you can imagine it, you can create it. If you dream it, you can become it.
50 years ago I was two years old. Other than the stories my parents told me, I was a playful, boisterous, forthright child and generally, quite happy. I had no idea of what my parents suffered on a day to day basis, or would have absolutely no idea of what our relatives in Flat Bush, New York experienced. It was as I got older, there was a clear understanding that we were different; I was forced to realise that our skin colour made us different. It was the reason why we would run (or sometimes stand and fight!) when we were confronted by skinheads or when the careers teacher at school laughed in your face after telling him you wanted to go to University.
Having just finished watching Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (BBC2) it reminded me of when my parents told me of the time they listened to this speech on the radio. They were moved and inspired; it gave them hope and in particular the strength to be hopeful for their children. I’m grateful for this but I’m also grateful to Dr. King and the other leaders that contributed in breaking the back of the injustices of those times, and those, who still today continue to fight those problems which are still present. Some people would argue that racism is rife and there is still a lot of work to be done, but for myself, my parents and their generation made it possible for me to achieve more, experience more and ultimately to continue, to dream more. Thank you Dr. King.