Mom says “You have to work twice as hard for half of as much.” She means the odds are stacked against you if you aren’t a White, straight man. Even White women have to play the game. It’s episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage like ‘Soliloquy of Chaos’ and ‘If it Ain’t Rough’, ‘It Ain’t Right. ‘It was Moment of Truth’ and ‘Manifest’. Or episodes of Jessica Jones like ‘AKA Sole Survivor’, ‘AKA I Want Your Cray Cray’, ‘AKA 1000 Cuts’. Oh, and ‘AKA Pray for My Patsy’. I could take some punches back then. Man, Jessica did too.
Mom and Dad talked about their grandparents but they also talked of slavery — Sam Sharp, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nanny and the Maroons. They talked about Rosa Parks, Martin, Malcolm and Medger. They talked about people that lived life always on the offence. Back then I didn’t know enough about these people. Not slavery, America’s Civil Rights or the Windrush Generation. Stories that have been told and retold time and time again.
And in these stories there were Black martyrs but also Black villains. There were victims and guardians, like in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the black in Black Panther. Yet, by the time I heard these stories, the narrative of Black insurrection against White power was set in stone. We speak of it always, as if it’s all we are — just people that don’t know how to smile.
But what of the Black middle-class against the Black working-class? It’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta staring into the faces of Top Boy, School Daze, Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. And even there, division runs riot. The dark ones, the light ones — is it Naomi Campbell, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Akala or is it Viola Davis, David Harewood and Idris Elba? Or Lupita sticking it to Grazia on Twitter?
It doesn’t matter. I relate to all of them. I wander through our British cities. I relate to them in their own apartheid, the retelling of stories about race and racism in Britain, as most Black people I know have tales of punishment and pain.
Sometimes it’s about the subtleties in the workplace and at others, it’s racial violence, in an epilogue of Brixton ablaze and Enoch Powell. And the retelling of stories between people of colour is meditation. It’s inner peace that protects us, our souls at least. I was raised to talk. To tell stories.
As a Black person, I follow a set of unwritten codes (when talking to White people). Don’t walk too fast, don’t raise your voice… passion can be mistaken for anger. To be anti-White supremacy can be judged as anti-White or anti-Britain. To want to talk about colonialism can be seen as Black people just being bitter. And this is the dilemma of coming from immigrants from colonised countries, living in nations that did the colonising to begin with.
My cultural identity is in-part British, but it also swims in curry goat, calypso and reggae anthems. It’s in the stories of parties in my grandparents’ front room and grown folks liming to Candy at every. It’s cricket whites, Saturday rugby and match tea. And it’s my grandfather go-karting down the hills of St. George’s. These are the stories my parents carried, growing up in the late 80s early-90s but also in-part the memories my grandparents carried, ferried from the Grenada and Jamaica.
My cultural identity is macaroni cheese as a side dish, not a main course (blasphemy!). It’s curry chicken, rice and pigeon (or gungo peas) and veg in the Flora butter container. It’s plastic on the furniture and cups, glasses and plates that are just for show. But it is also church on Sunday’s, Catholic, something left behind in Grenada by the British. Something that became part of my grandparents, as they were taught to be British too — in all ways.
I grew up in the noughties, Northampton, educated at private schools around the shire. Prior to 2010, I was the only Black person at said schools and lived a boyhood that only acknowledged my existence in order to fetishize it — from comments about my skin colour to wandering white hands in vicinity of my afro hair. I had more of it back then.
I grew up quicker than what was natural. I saw thirteen-year-old White girls smuggle vodka cocktails into school in sports bottles. Imagine that! They called their parents unrepeatable names. I was around spoilt restless rich kids that had everything and didn’t appreciate its value. I was around people whose diction and vocabulary sounded like episodes of The Crown — Wolverton Splash, Scientia Potentia Est, and Paterfamilias, living it up like Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby).
I recall thinking if I treated any of my family like that, I’d have been knocked so hard I’d be staring at my ancestors.
I was apprehensive about inviting friends home, people who had it all, with their many acres of land… judging our terraced house in town or my grandparents’ on a housing estate outside of Northampton. That anxiety stayed with me for most of a decade. It had the ability to expose the class divide between us… differences that didn’t go beyond the surface in class — the musical accents of my mother’s parents in the landscape of fried plantain, dumplings, and fish cakes laced in Scotch Bonnet pepper.
Explaining the nuances of growing up in a non-White British household is exhausting. It’s something that holds people of colour together but it also creates a double consciousness, sometimes triple, in terms of identity. “People of colour” aren’t a homogeneous group but some things we share.
And I’m British though. Mate. Innit. Can’t you tell?
There was a plurality in my existence, that one friend remarked on. She said “You’re lucky to be different and English is boring.” I had calypso in my walk but the Queen’s sceptre in my voice and sugarcane in my bones. And this identity crises, even at ten, made me feel three times my age (at least).
Like Lin Manuel Miranda says:
“I’m only nineteen but my mind is older”
My bitterness towards British private school culture now, looking back on my life, is just how traditional it was. I recall a recent conversation with a friend about cricket matches (a game that I love) but only now analysing how it was a tool of colonising. It got me thinking about my teachers and how they waltzed around corridors in capes, caps and gowns.
The houses, the brotherhoods, the fellowships and the sports matches and tournaments — it was all a bit Victorian. One school I went to, on its plaque, states Since 1595. Where were my family in 1595? Likely in the hulls of slave ships or on the lands of West Africa, oblivious to what was coming.
The schools I went to, many families reeked of old money, whose ancestors may have had interests in slave plantations or distant ancestor cousins that were officers in India or Burma. They could see I didn’t look like them but when someone said “But you’re not properly Black,” what they meant was, I wasn’t living on a council estate near Grenfell Tower. To be Black was to be poor… on drugs… suffering… a victim. Thief, slave, comedian… a caricature. Is this a truth universally acknowledged?
Safe to say, I was somewhat offended; and this revealed the crazy super-rich White fear towards poor Black people. Is this also another colonial trait, passed down through the centuries? This came from the mouths of people that swore by Rudyard Kipling and could probably recite the lines to Mandalay word perfect. I knew this wasn’t representative of White Culture but these were the people that we have to keep an eye on, the super-rich White racists. Men like Nigel Farage, who Russell Brand called “a poundshop Enoch Powell.” That made me chuckle but “we gotta watch him,” — as Brand puts.
What’s unique is that I see people like Farage and Mogg as products of the education system that made me.
But I came from estates and small houses where shoes were left at the door and where there was plastic on the furniture and monochrome photographs of my grandparents not long after they arrived in the UK. Times where, and still do, aunties and uncles and friends pass in and out of our houses. My grandparents’ front room / dining room is the shrine. It’s the Holy Grail and once upon a time, you could come without calling ahead.
Grandma tells me about how her mother, (my great-grandmother) would prepare soup every Saturday. Aunties, uncles, cousins, my uncle’s friends — everyone would turn up for a bowl. Black people, White people — and this was in the time of Britain’s No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs – there was still community in those small rooms of Bostock Avenue and she cooked extra.
In 2004, I we wore this ugly shamrock green blazer. They were Old England like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton novels. It was coastal wrecks, horse-riding, and Summer Rig (an open-neck shirt in the summer). Why it was called Summer Rig is beyond me. Summer Rig was the most normal thing about schooling. It was the thing that placed that school in the land of the living, the land of society and civilisation, the land of real people of flesh and bone. Summer Rig was a cashpoint machine and a Mars bar. It was Pizza Hut, late brunch, Brits in Benidorm and Hyde Park Corner.
As a teenager, my relationship with myself centred around Britishness. My teenage years is when I was politicised. Thanks Auntie Luisa! I began to see myself as British first, and Black second and now I see myself as equally both. But my pet peeve is “You don’t look British” — since Britishness has been whitewashed. Britishness is not a pigment. I would argue it’s an ideology, a state of mind, more to do with identity than anything else. I’ve had “nice for a Black boy” — I’ve had “nigger” and “Go back to the trees you came from” — and “Has your dad been to prison?”
That last one was straight up cold! But it is in-part thanks to our racist media, or what Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED Talk calls “The Danger of the Single Story.”
Belonging, to me, is a psychological process. It can be about race and class. But my own narrative was more about finding people who share like-interests. And I have spent many years trying to find those people, doing my best trying not to comply with the needs of the rest of society. I have even relegated myself to tick boxes. Will you accept me if I don’t talk about arts or politics? And instead, talk about gossip media and things I don’t care about? That if I perched on the end of the bench and remained invisible, that if I became like Harry, the boy under the stairs, will you accept me?
And aspiring to the culture of the super-rich of my youth, I had neglected the other parts of myself. It required me to sever the links to calypso, steel drums and supporting the West Indies cricket team even though they’re shit! Haha!
Look at the child I could have been if I didn’t scour the Earth for validation. It was being told Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the Americas and the West Indies looking for India, by a White teacher despite the Arawak, Carib and Amerindian peoples living there before he arrived.
It’s that nothing exists until the European discovers it. And that my heritage is forever being whitesplained to me by White people that claim to know it better than I do…
Through having my existence contested, I learned how to smile, at the titles of those episodes like footnotes to the past. I smile at them like how my school had coined a term for an open-necked shirt. “Summer Rig” , capitalised, hilarious. That my experience was valid because it’s mine, sticking it to The Man. It meant growing up in a multiverse of childhoods.
My first coming-of-age was listening to the stories of my ancestors; the second coming-of-age was writing my own.