The quote was taken from the character Jean Slater (Gillian Wright), EastEnders, who leaves a devastating message for her family about her decision against having treatment for cancer.
Yesterday evening, my husband along with my son and daughter, were eating our meal while the soap drama, EastEnders was playing on TV in the background. As I ate and momentarily glimpsed at the program, I said how strange it was that when the first episode came out in 1985, I was intrigued by the character ‘Dirty Den’ to the point I could never miss an episode but after some months, I lost interest in the program. We went on to talk generally about the other soaps. Coronation Street was one I recalled, when we used to live in Manchester in the late 80s, seeing one of the actors enter the department store, Kendals in Deansgate. I remembered the staff and the way they greeted the actress with excitement.
As I continued talking, I noticed the character Patrick Trueman (played by the actor Rudolph Walker) appeared in a scene where he is hospital, looking quite ill. I wondered what was going on. Then in the next scene was another character, Jean Slater, doing a video call. The volume was not too low as I was able to listen to the family and the TV.
I was very moved to the point I was no longer listening to my talkative family as Jean, in a restrained and yet powerful monologue, expressed her concerns about her cancer returning and how she could not bear to go through treatment again. But what really locked my attention was her conclusion: ‘all we really have is today.’
Last week on Disney Plus, we watched the newly released animated movie called Soul. Without spoiling for those of you who have not seen the film, I would just say it was entertaining and heartwarming but again, the take-away message which remained in my mind: that life is meant to be lived as opposed to waiting for it to begin. Again, you only have today, it seemed to be saying.
This morning, I got up late (9:30 am…late for what?). My daughter promptly came into my room and said her father was upset.
‘Upset? Why?’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’
She took a deep breath and looked away from me as if suddenly there was something interesting happening in the garden. ‘You know Daddy’s friend….’ She mentioned his name. ‘…he’s passed away…’
‘Noooo! That cannot be true! He spoke to him just a few days ago…. why didn’t he wake me up…?’ I was about to put on my dressing gown when my husband walked in, we stared at each other in silence.
My daughter and I sat on the bed whilst my husband sat in the chair opposite. His head was gripped by his hands. He talked and kept talking about his surprise and could not believe how Covid had ‘destroyed’ his friend. I was also speechless. I was aware that our friend was ill, but as he refused to name the illness when asked, we decided that he must have contracted the virus. The last time my husband spoke to him, two days ago, he sounded as though it was an effort for him to talk. My husband wanted to ask more questions about his illness but left it, telling himself he would call him again – which would have been today.
As we spoke of this friend and his connection to us as a family, Jean Slater’s shattering video message in EastEnders came rushing in my mind, as did the Walt Disney movie Soul.
It is something I must be mindful for the rest of this new year: there is a difference between having a life and living your life. I am aware of having this fantastic opportunity of being alive, yet I have been living it as though I still expect it to start!! I need to really know, that all I have is today. As my life reveals itself in the present, I must not allow it to disappear by allowing time to past right by, screwing away precious seconds of my life worrying about the future. Life must be lived, right now!
Yesterday was the first day of the new year. I can write all about my hopes and dreams for 2021 but instead, I want to focus on what a year 2020 was!! We had and still have Covid, the build up to Brexit, (where we have now officially left Europe), the ‘live’ murder of George Floyd… where we have talked, dissected and tried to reassemble without satisfaction.
But not all has been bad. The key things for me during this year has been settling into a new home; doing various courses online via Zoom and Blue Jeans; having an essay accepted and included in an online anthology. Although I’m entering a later phase in my life, I cannot help but think that this is just the beginning…. It’s a bit of dilemma because how can things ‘begin’ to happen when we’re told constantly of how life ‘will never be the same again?’ How will the ‘new normal’ will appear? I’ve decided not to dwell on this as each time I think about it, I get into a loop where I cannot remove myself from so it’s best to leave it.
But I do however, want to focus on making sure that 2021 will be the year of completion and forgiveness. To finish writing my memoir – which has been going on, ever since! To repair certain relationships, especially within the family. I was not speaking to one of my siblings for an entire year, it is only just last month that we decided to speak to one another. I believe this was due to people we knew within the community, who have died. It had effect on me, knowing and growing up with these people – arguing with them, ignoring them, and then eventually embracing them years later. But I was shocked and moved on receiving WhatsApp photographs of these people which carried no comment, name, or caption but I automatically knew what it meant. Just before the lockdown, I was able to to travel to London, to attend the funeral of one of these people. The simple lesson from this is – life is too short to be holding on to tantrums and grudges!
But there have also been people who I thought were friends and for whatever reason, no longer see me or want me as a friend. I dug deep within to figure what I had done wrong . Years ago, I would have been disheartened at this but now, I don’t feel any offence and look at the experience as a form of ‘shedding’, i.e, removing those who no longer serve any purpose, perhaps. But what is interesting, these ‘friends’ have been replaced with people who have come into my life who are interested, who care: school mates who I have not seen for years suddenly turning up. The same applies to a friend I met years ago but unfortunately lost her contact details. Just last week, after Christmas day she called, telling me that she ‘hunted’ me down and was determined to make contact with me. I was so pleased. This also means on my own part, to respect and nurture these friendships and not take them for granted.
I really hope and want 2021 to be positive not just for myself but for all. To be able to realise our dreams, to achieve our goals and to be okay with ourselves and realise, we can only do what we can do, without beating ourselves up when we’re disappointed. I raise my glass to you all and pray that all will be well.
Happy New Year to you All.
So Liam Neeson has made headlines. We have seen and heard what he has said so there will be no point in repeating it. But what struck me was his question: What colour were they? As usual, if you read things, I’ve written you would know that incidents such as these remind me of similar incidents that happened in my past.
Growing up in North London, during the 60s, I had an English childminder, who conveniently lived next door to us. I believed I was ‘handed’ over to her when I was zero years old and I stopped being looked after when I turned 13. She was seen as a member of the family and to a certain extent, I considered her to be a second mother. I also believe that as she did not have children of her own, she saw me as a daughter.
When my parents decided to move and settle into a house, in the same area but quarter a mile away from the childminder’s home, she would visit on a weekly basis, and continued to visit and be a part of our lives right up until she passed away.
But I do recall numerous conversations we had, especially about incidents between people, or a fight had taken place where somebody was arrested, her immediate question would always be – what colour were they? As a young child, it was difficult to work out what exactly she meant but I sensed there was something wrong with the question. So much so, this line of questioning became a part of my own psychology. So, if there were incidents that I read about or discussed on the news, I would wonder, what race were they? Praying and hoping that the participants were not black. And my reasons would be that yet again, the black community is being demonized and blamed. In the same way, I’m imagining that Liam Neeson instinctively felt he had to ask that question because somewhere deep in his subconscious, black men constantly go out and do these things!
If anything good came out of this, at least he was honest about the way he felt. But I hope that I don’t have to worry about my son or nephews going out and coming across prospective Oscar-nominated, elderly white men, possessing a special set of skills (holding a cosh!) looking to ‘kill’ black men.
Mr. Neeson may not be a racist, but he needs to do more to set the record straight if he wants fans (or customers) to continue to patronize him.
I’ve finished watching the last of the documentaries on celebrating ‘Nelson Mandela, One Hundred‘; I thought I knew all I needed to know about the man, about the country, about Apartheid, the tortures and the atrocities, but I was wrong.
This time around I realise just how close he was to all the saints we know and that probably (although not in my life time), he’ll be made a saint. I also learnt that my other idol, Maya Angelou died not too long after Mandela. I wondered if when she wrote the poem His Day is Done that some six months later, it would also apply somewhat, to herself.
His benevolence, tolerance and altruism reminded me that I still need to be more forgiving, to be a much better listener and more importantly, that it’s ok to have high standards, just as long as I realise to temper those standards when applying to people and situations.
What Mandela’s freedom did for me could almost be equated with being cleansed by the blood of Christ. If not for Mandela’s victory election, as a black person I would not have been able to live in South Africa and had all those incredible experiences. I am so grateful Nelson. Happy 100th and you should know, that we will never forget you.
I have just finished reading an obituary of Joe Jackson, father of The Jackson Five in The Guardian newspaper. But it is expected that such a monstrous article would focus on Joe’s lack of compassion and concentrate instead, on the cruelties he inflicted upon his ten children. Of course it would ignore that Joe had to feed his family on a paltry wage he received from working as a crane worker at a steel plant in Gary, Indiana; it would also ignore the everlasting poverty, the racism that was always there ready to inflict its hatred on anything which tried to be successful.
I guess what is probably frustrating for the author is how Joe was totally unapologetic and neither ashamed of his parenting methods. He was hard and unrelenting but as crude as he might have been, he basically did what he had to do.
I can understand Joe Jackson. If MJ were still alive, he would have been the same age as myself. My parents, in particular my father, was incredibly ambitious and persistent. He refused to accept that as he left the sugar plantation estate in the West Indies cutting cane, he did not leave for the UK so that I could become a typist or my brothers would be bus drivers. To him, education was the be-all and end-all. I was not allowed to go to parties, have boyfriends, my head had to be buried in books at all times. I can remember, gazing at my father with astonishment as he declared that he wanted me to go to University. Go to University? Was he for real?
Unfortunately, myself and my brothers experienced either lashings via the leather belt or had a copy of The Yellow Pages crashing down on our skulls! This happened several times to me and I decided that it was not going to happen again so I did what he wanted.
Yes, at the time I considered my father to be an unforgiving brute! He was aggressive towards my mother and his sisters. He did not suffer fools, whether they were as dark as he or any other colour. He was not scared. When the infamous Notting Hill riots took place some months after I was born, he participated. Clearly, depending on one’s point of view or politics, my Dad was far from perfect.
As a result of failing my exams and being really fed up of the whole thing, I mustered up the courage to confront my father and tell him that I wanted to go to work. My father was angry but accepted if I wanted this, then so be it but…whilst I lived under his roof and worked, he never gave up in continuously reminding me of the mistake I was making.
After a year of working at a job I found locally, I remember feeling bored, feeling how mundane and repetitive the job was. It was then, it occurred to me that if this was work or my future with regards to work, I did not want this. It was then, that my father’s ambition became my own. So while I worked I went to three evening classes per week. I did this for a year before applying as a mature student to a University. I never heard a whisper from my father again, instead I received his blessings and respect while I lived at the family house. And as for my mother, she played the ‘good cop’ to my father’s ‘bad cop’; she supported and loved his ambition and respected him as a good caretaker.
For those who want to crucify Joe Jackson for how he brought up his family, one thing that cannot be ignored, if Joe Jackson was not the parent he was, no matter how bad (Bad – such a great track) we most certainly would not have had the Jackson 5, we couldn’t have known Michael Jackson, and the latest Janet Jackson CD, the fantastic Unbreakable simply would not have existed.
I doff my cap to Mr Jackson, for his strength, his endurance, for his determination and ambition. It is clear that if he did not possess these qualities, the world would never have witnessed such a phenomenon as the Jackson Five which was and still is, the first of a kind.
Sometime in February, my husband and I went to see Black Panther at the Jabi Shopping Mall in Abuja, Nigeria. And what a turn out it was. Even when the film came to an end and we left, the waiting area also was jammed, overflowing to the car park area. It was interesting that the crowd were dressed in casual European clothing yet later at home watching the news, I was really surprised how the UK/US crowds turned out in Nigerian/African clothing.
But whilst watching the film, I have to say that as I am constantly surrounded by people wearing traditional attire, I was disappointed in how the protagonist, King T’Challa was dressed. I couldn’t help but think that what he was wearing was no different to what my boss’s driver would wear. No disrespect to my boss’s driver but the point is, the clothing of the King was simple, with the exception of his superhero suit.
If you take the outfit he is wearing in the above photo, yes, it fits his fine frame, but it seemed as if a simple fabric was used. I was even tempted to write to whoever was in charge of wardrobe department to send ideas of what the Chiefs (such as my husband) wear so that they can see how absolutely gorgeous and beautiful the fabrics and designs are. The inventiveness and creativity that has manifested plus the level of tailoring has greatly improved in the twenty odd years that I have lived here. I am always amazed when hubby brings home yet another outfit his tailor has made. As it bound to be so unique, so creative and tailored.
I did enjoy the film; I loved Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya (as I totally loved him in Get Out) and the rest of the cast but I would have liked the King’s clothing to be a little more luxuriant, liberal and more padding which would have certainly given him the right amount of pomp. Remember when the Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall characters in Coming to America, arrived at the airport were wearing those killer coats? Exaggerated, yes they were but the coats were so appropriate.
And talking about Coming to America, I have just learnt that a sequel is likely to be made. I very much look forward to seeing this. Can’t wait to see the costumes in this!
So Samuel L. Jackson is not happy about black Brits being cast for African American roles in American movies. He was interviewed on a radio show a few days ago and his comments about giving the role to a Black Briton playing Martin Luther King in the film Selma, he said: I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.
I think he was a bit provocative, making surreptitious remarks about how ‘interracial dating’ had been happening in the UK for ‘hundreds of years’ which I believe is another way of saying — the Black British community have sold out by marrying out! I could be wrong, but putting that aside, does he have a point? I believe he does. I know I shouldn’t agree with him as I am a Black Brit and would feel pleased that my own brothers and sisters are out there, making it in La La Land. We know Hollywood has a lot more to offer than perhaps what you’d find in the UK film industry, hence the reason why Black Brits are in Hollywood but we should use the opportunity to address the industry’s failure in creating parts or roles for Black actors.
But I also understand there are lots of African American actors who are finding it difficult to get a break. When this story was released, in the comments section of an article I was reading, a poster said they felt they believed the reason for hiring Black Brits was more than capability and experience, it was about the fascination some viewers had for the delivery of the English language and how it assuaged those who want to see something of themselves, even if it’s delivered from someone of a different colour or race. But is this a good reason to be hiring from abroad?
I’ve experienced something similar to this but it wasn’t acting, it was TV presenting.
The year was 1995 and my family had emigrated the previous year to live in Jo’burg, South Africa. We just had our first Christmas and I had just given birth to a baby girl. One day I was shopping at our local mall and I was with my six year old son who annoyingly was running up and down the aisles looking for sweets to put into the shopping basket. I called out to him, telling him to stop when suddenly, a man stood in front of me. He was slightly bald and had a round chubby face which was edged with a thick beard.
‘That’s a London accent…’ he said with an English accent and an impish smile. I stepped back and glared. ‘Are you from London?’ he continued.
‘Yes! I am.’ I confirmed. I was about to walk around him when he began to tell me that he was a TV director, currently working on a popular show on a TV station. He went straight to the point and asked if I’d done any TV work. I said no, wondering where all this was going. He quickly introduced himself as James and told me briefly, about the programme.
‘Have you seen it?’ he asked. No I said, I hadn’t. He continued telling me that he liked my diction and that I had a good accent and if I would consider presenting this show as for months they have been looking for new and suitable presenter.
Are you for real, are you joking? I wondered, considering I had not said much. He seemed to know what I was thinking as he removed a piece of paper from his pocket, apologising at the same time for not having a business card and wrote down his number. He said I should call him soon, then left. I stood in the middle of the shopping area, staring at the paper in my hand with people walking pass on either side of me. My son had managed to put all the sweets he wanted into the shopping basket. I went to the supermarket to buy some food items then went home.
I asked my domestic lady, Queen, if she had heard of this show and she shook her head. I waited patiently for my husband to come home and when he did, he said I should go for it, call the number and say that I’m interested. Internet had just come out, and we were waiting for our modem to be installed and although we had a telephone, we did not have any directories so I could not locate the studio.
The following day I called the number. James told me to write down the address and we agreed to meet in two days’ time as he wanted to discuss the programme plus introduce me to his crew.
The TV station was located in a quiet suburb and not difficult to find. James met me in the lobby area and took me to a room where I met his crew — the camera man, producer, assistant, researcher. We sat in a semi-circle and discussed over tea and coffee. They explained to me about the programme, its format, the episodes and locations. When the meeting had finished and I agreed to host this programme despite the fact I had not done anything like this and I was intrigued by the fact they had faith in me. They seemed impressed with my speaking voice and strangely made me feel as though I was some sort of phenomenon, as though they didn’t think it possible to speak the Queens English — that is, if you were black. But hey! I wasn’t complaining. After all, I was going to be on television!
I participated in about five episodes until it was time for my family to leave. My husband was offered a job in another country and the decision to move was sudden and we argued about it, as obviously I wanted to stay! But he was worried about the increasing crime; a week earlier, he had been mugged and earlier still, Queen had caught someone lurking in the garden during the night, so he was concerned. Of course, the intruder in the garden got to me so I eventually agreed that we should leave.
I found presenting nerve racking as well as interesting. It enabled me to see more of Johannesburg and to engage with all sorts of people. There wasn’t an auto-cue to follow, just a speech prepared for me which I had to rehearse; I practiced pronouncing African names of areas and asked Queen to help me with pronunciation. The response from viewers were positive, to the point that producers/directors from other programmes and advertisements approached me. I realised it was possible for me do voice-over work, something I would have not considered if I’d still been in the UK. Around about this time my mother joined us from London to see her new grandchild. She was amazed as well as proud that her daughter’s presence and voice on this TV show could be heard across the land. She would be on the phone to my father daily just going on about her granddaughter and her daughter.
Some months later after we had emigrated, my husband had to return to Joburg to attend a conference. He told me whilst being there, there was a demonstration by Black South Africans, as a programme on the same TV station had hired a black presenter from the UK. She was well-spoken and experienced but the local people wanted her removed. Their argument was that white South Africans should make do with black talent and not hand the jobs to black foreigners just because they ‘speak better’.
At the time, when I heard this I thought it was unfair and felt bad for the presenter, as she was promptly taken off air. But when I returned to Jo’burg some years later, there were a number of South African born black presenters on a variety of TV stations. They were good; they were able to switch with ease from English to the indigenous languages; their English was accented but it made sense that they should speak and sound like the environment there were in. It does not make sense to speak in a voice that is too dissimilar to the majority of the population. If they want presenters to be more polished, then education and training should be provided. The viewers or audience should be made to accommodate and accept.
I could understand why James did what he did and why he wanted me. Hiring me was his way of holding on to his ‘standards’ as explained previously but at the same time when attending the station’s board meetings, he had to meet the criteria of having ‘black’ people on his programme to justify it be shown on TV.
The Black Brits that S L Jackson refers to are good actors, and were ‘good’ well before they began doing American movies. This should not be dismissed and we should be confident and proud that if they are called to play a part, we know they will do it justice. However, home grown talent should likewise be exploited and never overlooked. African Americans have truly had it tough and it would be crazy if they are not considered because directors prefer an actor purely because they are from abroad and speak a certain way.
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 be like that? Why didn’t he 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. My interest in racial injustice began here and I was able to place Ali in some sort of context with regards to his strident comments on racism in America.
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. 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 cheekbones, heart-shaped lips and a thick set of hair. She was always well presented and her make-up was meticulously applied. My grandmother 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 query. Not everyone was convinced for it did not stop the name calling and abuse from the other residents, nor did it stop the jealousy from the witch-like female members of my extended family. 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 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.
Thanks for listening.