This might be the privilege of not living in a city or even being an essential worker but I have been (mostly) strangely calm through the Coronavirus pandemic. However, talking this through with a friend of mine, she noted that for Black people, many of our existences have revolved around survival since the Slave Trade and colonialism. The fact that I am so collected is that I derive from this history, but more so because I come from immigrants who are also working class who come from countries once colonised. Peoples that did whatever they had to do to survive. Here, is where race can also intersect with class, as the working-class can think in this state of “do or die” too.
As I wait out this self-isolation with the rest of the world, I am able live with the privilege of having a garden. I can go into the garden and watch the cats immediately scarper. I can sit out and have the sun rain on my face. Yet, Coronavirus shows how little regard many people have for the welfare of their neighbours. Whilst individually, you may not be showing symptoms, Joe Bloggs next door may be seventy-five years old in remission. Moreover, it has shown Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. We are all human and we are all at risk, regardless of class, creed, faith, gender or social standing.
My maternal grandparents are both Windrush Generation from Grenada
Growing up under parents who themselves grew up under Caribbean parents, we share this survival mentality. That we expect to struggle. Not to remain complacent, even when we have gained something. Even as a pre-adolescent living on St. George’s Avenue in one of those houses, we still had this struggle mentality. All creatures are wired to survive, whatever it takes, but there is something special within Black Britons who are ourselves products of European colonial ambition, passed down the chain like genes.
Yet, trans-generational trauma runs rampant, families living in the aftermath of colonialism still with a you-have-to-struggle-otherwise-you-are-not-living-properly mentality
Coronavirus reminds me of how Black people, and other ethnicities who have past histories of colonial rule, specifically those living in the colonisers’ country were always ready for a pandemic because we live in a constant state of survival. Growing up British-Caribbean under members of the Windrush Generation, it’s hard not to notice that Caribbeans survived on things like rice dishes and soups, things that last. Moreover, buying items with long shelf lives, including canned goods, and marinading meats.
Is this a trait in all immigrant households? Is it a trait in working-class households? Is it a trait in households who come from stories of colonialism? I grew up with tough love, as my parents and my grandparents did before me, as did their forbears all the way back to the Slavery – where we toiled and died on sugar plantations under the lynch and the lash of masters’ wrath. To stock up on essential items is fundamentally Caribbean, and speaking to my African colleagues about this too, it’s like-for-like.
My mother tells me about when she grew up, that Wednesdays were “feast or famine day” (corned beef and rice) and Thursdays were fried bakes and eggs. Bacon and sausage (if you were lucky). When I see my grandmother wanting corn beef now, I had no idea this was considered “struggle food.” I grew up eating cornmeal porridge, always when I’d go to my Jamaican grandparents house in the West Midlands, and my Jamaican aunties’. Cornmeal is struggle food. When I read about the African-American experience, I read about how dishes like Grits came from American Slavery.
When I talk to my Black friends and family members around the world, they are united in the idea that they were always prepared for a pandemic, because they grew up the same way I did. In many African households, they use hard chicken for stews, yet I didn’t realise this came from thinking rooted in poverty. This is low quality chicken we were left with, historically.
Not that I didn’t know already but watching an episode of Black-ish on this brought it all home, that irrespective of class, many of the foods so ingrained in the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean are also go-to “struggle foods.”
My grandparents have always been stocked up on tinned goods for the 24 years I’ve known them. They’ve always been stocked on cleaning products. Heck, as child at my grandparents’, I would bathe in Dettol. You can fry dumplings and fish cakes (saltfish fritters) if there’s a bread shortage. But growing up, some of the looks I would recieve at the foods I would eat would now be labelled as micro-aggressive behaviour. That these foods are an overhang of Slavery… ground provisions made from animal scraps etc.
Curry goat with all the bones, Saturday soup, fried bakes, cow foot, pig tail, salted cod, fried plantain, cornmeal, oats porridge, rice and beans, and the list goes on. Mind you, I do not enjoy all these foods but colonialism laid the ground work. This is what makes decolonisation and postcolonialism interesting spaces. You have to ask yourself, where is the cut off point on whether it matters that “survival mentality” has been inherited from these systems of oppression and power? Moreover, is it wrong that they have been absorbed into cultures, assimilated as valid qualifiers in said cultures?
My experience of blackness is one as child of immigration, born and raise in Britain. As part of the Black diaspora in the UK. How do Africans born, raised and living in Africa see this? Or Caribbeans living on those small islands, where you can really see the heavy imprints left by colonial rule? In decolonisation, there are elements of cultures that are products of colonisation and therefore could be picked apart and critiqued, right?
Where is the line drawn between culture and colonialism? You begin to see how ingrained food is in culture, and it’s not so easy to trim through the fat of race, nor do people want to deconstruct the things they love and enjoy. I grew up in households where we told each other to “stay safe.” And the fact of the matter is the language of Coronavirus is the norm for many Black British people. “Stay Safe” – “Text me when home” – “Don’t walk that way.”
I have nobody to thank for my calmness during a pandemic more than my grandparents (and ancestors) as our histories are written as pandemics, it’s only now it’s effecting the lives of the super-rich that it’s now an institutional global crisis.