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.
As always, I’m late with my greetings. But before anything, I wish to wish you all a belated Happy New Year and hope that 2020 will be just as fulfilling and even more so, than the previous year.
I don’t know where to begin with 2019. The year moved quickly but it was eventful, busy, enlightening and for once my usual ongoing negativity turned its head and decided to be positive. If there was a downside, it was leaving the family home, which was in our possession for 38 years. A grand home in North London my late parents bought just as I was leaving for university. It welcomed me in between term times, it accommodated me here and there when my own family lived in numerous cities and countries, it took us in again, just before we moved into our home in South London and this was repeated again when we rented out our home and stayed at this house before emigrating to South Africa.
It’s also uncanny that I spent just a year living in this home before starting university and then I spent a final year (2019) in it, before putting the property up for sale.
It housed all the items – whether they belonged to my parents or us – we had from year dot until present. And most of the items I felt, were so sentimental, I could not throw them away so instead, they were either donated to charity shops or, items concerning our parents which I felt had ‘historical’ value were gifted or loaned to the local museum. Such as receipts belonging to my father for payment of rent, when he rented a room in 1955; my mother’s certificate received from the Home Office in 1958, granting her legal right of stay in the UK (this would show that not all those from the Windrush generation misplaced their documents) and also a 1957 diary belonging to my father showing the entry date my mother went to hospital to deliver me!
I discovered my primary and secondary school exercise books, a program of when my parents went to see the Broadway musical hit, Sweet Charity; a black and white photo taken during the 70s of myself and a classmate on a school trip to Amsterdam. The weird thing is prior to finding this photo, l learned from another classmate just a week ago, that the other girl in the photo had passed away! I found other similar belongings to my siblings as well my own children (there was a time, where we used to live in South London when my son’s nursery had abruptly closed for some months, so my son was sent to his grandparent’s home and they took him to a local nursery until I was able to find another nursery for him). It is by going through my parent’s wardrobes and drawers (the last time I did this, I had to be about ten years old – they never changed their bedroom suite – where I got a good hiding!) that besides keeping their own things, they also kept items belonging to their children and grandchildren.
My father had a number of books to do with his profession, carpentry. There were no first editions but there were other editions dated from the turn of the 20th Century which he had in his possession. I got in touch with an apprentice Trades College, who agreed to ‘adopt’ the books and put them in their library but also, they want me to write a short biography of my father, focusing on his connection to carpentry. I told them I’d be happy to do this.
The last three months of remaining in the house were spent removing, delivering, transporting, visiting neighbours and friends in the street to collect email addresses. When I finally closed the front door for the last time, I went to spend a few nights with a friend who lived on a road (in the same area), where our family also used to live. Her house was five houses away from our former house. Isn’t life strange? The plan was that as there were still things to do, in the area, my friend was happy for me to stay as long as I wanted before on to stay with my daughter, outside of London.
But whilst all this was happening, I felt I should not give up on my writing, so I went to a weekly writing group in the area. Looking back at my ‘Welcome 2019’ I wrote about attending this class. I was just two weeks into it but I’m happy to say that I went to each class – for ten weeks! The group was mainly a feedback group, where we would read an extract from something a body of work we are working on, or something we’ve specifically prepared. The piece would be read out before everyone else and in return, we would receive feedback. I found this helpful and supportive. I was hesitant initially, taking issues about racism to an all-white group but instead, I was surprised that the topics aired, were discussed and debated, with not too much friction or irritation. I was left with the feeling that the members felt they had gained more understanding of race issues than they did before. I was so happy I attended; it was one of the best decisions I had made.
Continuing with the writing theme, the other major thing I did was to attend a creative writing retreat for women. It was held outside of London, at a University where the students were on break, so accommodation was available. It was for three days where there were numerous workshops and short courses for you to attend. In addition, there were surgery slots, giving you the opportunity to meet literary agents, book doctors, authors, tutors, personal experience talks, panel discussions, an expert to show you how to talk in front of the microphone and to an audience and also, when the sessions were over, there was always the opportunity of meeting other ‘writer’s and just having conversations, well…about writing! Again, I was so glad I went.
I was away from my immediate family and it did place a strain on my marriage but as the probate was coming to an end and the sale of the property was the final thing which had to take place, as one of the administrators, it was something I had to do. This meant leaving my own home to stay with my siblings in my parent’s home. My parent’s home is some distance from my house. There was lots of running around and every day was a busy day. This went on for a year but the end came quickly and I’m happy to say that I’m reinstated back in my own home with my family, relieved
For 2020, I hope to continue with my writing, and if possible, publish my book. I also hope to lose weight, be more prayerful and meditate. I also really hope that as Britain is now single, she’s able to handle her divorce with dignity and not lose sight of all her children, as well as her step-children.
A Happy late New Year!
Here’s hoping that 2020 will be fulfilling, prosperous, bright, healthy and may a light guide you all to a positive destination.
Just goes to show how it’s important to keep up with the news here in the UK. Fed up with politicians’ indecisiveness over Brexit or/and Trump’s refusal to accept how he is responsible for stoking up right-wing hatred towards people of colour and different faiths, so I find myself these days reading books and watching too much TV. But today I decided I should check out The Guardian online to read the cultural section and I see a photo of Toni Morrison. It was just her face I saw but I was unable to see the caption under the photo. I repeatedly press the keys to scroll down but my laptop is so stupidly slow but eventually I get there and my worst suspicions are confirmed.
I discovered Toni’s books some thirty-odd years ago, in a popular black book shop in Tottenham. The first one I bought was Tar Baby. I must have been fourteen when I got this book; I have to be honest and say that I didn’t understand the deeper meanings but I felt it spoke to me in a way other literature did not such as, hair straightening, skin colour (being light skin or dark-skinned) and the ‘friendships’ between black and whites – whether they could ever be real? Issues which I experienced and wondered about, in my life.
But what was strange – Toni was writing about African Americans in America and yet some of the themes in the book I bought, resonated even though I was of West Indian parentage, born in London. I thought from the little I understood, how audacious and brave of Toni to write about our issues. Some years later I picked up the book Tar Baby again and just opened to a page to where the narrator explains the protagonist Jardine’s love for Son;
Gradually she came to feel unorphaned. He cherished and safeguarded her.
Reading this is similar to drinking my favourite drink, then pausing to savour every moment.
The second book I read was The Bluest Eye. Now, this book, I was able to understand. It was so beautiful in its brutal honesty; making it clear to me it was not my fault I had an inferiority complex and that as a result, I disassociated myself from me. I understood clearly it had been imposed on me with neither my consent or permission! I found the book very moving and disturbing in how she was able to say, what was considered, the unthinkable, with ease.
Four years ago, I bought my daughter God Help the Child and she loved it, as she felt it was so pertinent to Black women and in particular to young Black women.
So, thank you, Toni, for all that you have done and helping to put the struggle out there and thanks, for being unapologetic because you have dedicated your talent and commitment to writing about Black people. I know your soul will rest in perfect peace.
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.
I was talking to my husband this morning when I saw the banner running under the program on the TV. It said Winnie Mandela had passed away. This strong, defiant beautiful incredible activist is no longer with us. Her struggle had to be the toughest, fighting the oppressive apartheid system, immured in a jail cell and separated for years from her dearly beloved, the great Madiba – Nelson Mandela.
My slight contact with the Mother of the Nation was during the time I lived in Johannesburg in 1994. My husband and I owned a boutique in the Sandton area of Jo’berg and at some point Mrs Mandela visited the shop. Unfortunately I was not there but my manager was present. Another time when I almost was near is when we participated in a fashion show. The clothes from our boutique were used by the organisers to promote African wear and fashions. In fact, clothes were loaned from a number of shops.
Taking the clothes back stage to help with the models, I remember walking across the stage and someone calling out to me that Winnie is taking her place in the audience. I stopped to look. I could see in the distance, a woman wearing a long gown, her hair was a curly Afro and she was talking, smiling. When the lights went out and the show began, I took my seat in one of the front rows. It was a great show and I was pleased with the way our clothes were displayed and looked on the models. When the show had to come to an end, my manager went back stage to collect the clothes and I went to greet Mrs Mandela but when I got to where she sat, she had left.
Dear Winnie, you did what you came to do and made long-lasting achievements. You were truly a blessing to South Africans and will remain in their hearts forever. I offer my condolences to loved ones and know that your gentle soul now quietly rests.
Just found out by browsing through WordPress that Darcus Howe, the black British activist passed away at the beginning of this month.
Darcus was an interesting character: he was fearless, intelligent and articulate and never suffered fools. He passionately campaigned against racism and injustice for as long as I can remember. Constantly on TV, and so able to defend himself, I saw him as Briton’s answer to Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. I would regularly watch his programmes and documentaries, and enjoyed especially those that took him to the West Indies.
I know in our family he was considered a controversial figure – you either loved or hated him but you could never dismiss him. He was a warrior devoted to stamping out injustice, a stalwart supporter of the black cause which he refused to compromise. I was just so glad, that he was there. To speak UP.
Darcus, you have been tireless in keeping up the good fight, but it’s time to say goodbye, and for us to thank you for all that you’ve done. Be at peace in knowing that we, the community will always be grateful and you will never be forgotten.
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.