What are you?

Friday, 4 March 2011
I was raised in a two-parent household. I grew up reading Anansi and singing songs from Mango spice.  Wooden sculptures, pictures of smirking relatives, books on shelves filled with tales of travel, languages and African history. Coconut milk was usually in the fridge, half a scotch bonnet, a few dutch pots with last nights stew chicken, and a wooden ashtray on the kitchen counter next to the Gleaner and Daily Mail.

Yup. I'm Caribbean. 

I was no more than 8. Dad's friends would cramp up in the living room and reminisce about back home. I would stay up excitedly to hear them lament about everything. For one night, they were experts on all things religious, political and historical. Patting their bellies like chiefs. Dad's smile widening revealing a gold tooth. Shouting at each other (Jamaicans tend to do that). Bonding.

"Mi ah tell yu Woody, lang time mi nuh see deh gyal deh, wah she name agen?"

"Bruk-foot pam mi boss

 "Yh mon, mi know di one yu a talk...She did h'ugly yu see!"

"Ee hee" (raucous laughter followed)

The "duppy" stories were the highlight. The Obeah man that would hang out "dung di bush", locals would avoid eye contact so as not to wake up with a pigs tale the following morning. The footless woman floating along the country trail?! The ghosts of the slaves from colonial Jamaica that would haunt the parishes at the fork roads. They say you can still hear the "shing shing" of the shackles. I was hooked!
Bedtime was a reality check though. Thoughts of monkey man snatching me in my sleep caused sleepless nights, bed wetting and a night light well into my early teens.

My parents introduced me to a culture of colours and passion. Something that was so concrete, rich and seemingly solid. It strengthened the foundation I stand on today, but it took me a while to figure out where I stood in it.
Early visits to Jamaica felt like a polar bear that had floated into Botswana on an iceberg. I was foreign. Everyone knew I was British before I opened my mouth. I exuded it. My relatives were fascinated by my nasal voice and the way I would lazily swallow my 't''s when asking for a glass of "wau'ah". 
Later on in my early adulthood I travelled to Jamaica with friends, I became more conscious of my "British-ness" and wouldn't dare speak more than two words in taxis for fear of being overcharged.
"Mmhmm" I would mumble. My native Jamaican friends adjusted. Became a bridge. Spoke the dialect beautifully. There was a kinship. Sounded like Jazz. Something I wasn't a part of. I became aware of how harsh my accent was. Remembered how I attempted Patois in the primary school playground, empowered with repeating the forbidden words Dad would shout in road rage. 

"Eediat bwoy, move yu ******** outta di B********T road!" 

I began to feel detached from the culture of my parents, deep down I resented feeling like I had two identities at war with each other. Dad rarely spoke to us in Patois, this was usually reserved for relatives and peers. 

Openly labelling myself as British had that "sell-out" stench to it, but then to my native Jamaicans I was a foreigner. Who was I then? 

My mum used to say 

"You're Jamaican first, British later. Noone can tell you different"

This never left my head. Arguments became a Britain bashing session. I swore I would abandon the country the first chance I got. Get me up and out of Babylon's system! (my "militant" days). I believed I had to pick one identity. Black and white. No grey area. My head was filled with romantic ideologies, constantly desiring to return to a "lost origin". The European identity served as a shameful reminder  of a colonial past. Dominating and subjugating the symbolic identity I yearned for. I rejected it (in word). My lifestyle was contradictory.

But I realised that my experience as a [Black] British Caribbean was defined by recognition of a necessary diversity. My cultural identity a result of this hybrid. Infact, 1970s saw an 'African' identity becoming historically available to the great majority of Jamaican people, at home and in the diaspora. An empowering moment where Jamaicans discovered a new level in their "blackness". No longer just "West Indians" but children of slavery.

A national culture is  the whole body of efforts made by a people in  the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.

I am Black, African, Jamaican, British, a Londoner and a Woman. 

What are you?


Anonymous at: 4 March 2011 at 21:12 said...

Beautifully written!

Anonymous at: 4 March 2011 at 21:16 said...

Amazing piece of writing, so articulate and colourfully described, you expressed a united opinion!

Anonymous at: 4 March 2011 at 22:31 said...

Good piece … “Who am I?” seems a very relevant question for children of “settled” Black and Asian migrants. I remember a time when the only thing my parents wanted was to return “home”. Over the years they keep returning to the UK and seem to make “home” anywhere in the world they have a child i.e. US. I can identify with being Black, African, Caribbean, British, and Male etc, and hold multiple passports as proof. However my brother’s son asked me the question “Who am I?” and I became confused. He has inherited the same identity (Black, African, Caribbean, British, and Male etc) only in a slightly modified manner. His mother is a white US citizen and he keeps asking… Uncle, who am I, black or white/British or American/African or Caribbean? Of which I replied “you are fearfully and wonderfully made, my dear”.

Anonymous at: 5 March 2011 at 02:50 said...

Good topic - one that has come up a lot recently in my circle.
We grow up kind of colour blind in the playground. Friends with everyone. Doing well at school. Then we grow older, we realise we (black 2nd generation maybe) are treated a little different, life is a little tougher. Reach the workplace and it's a whole different ball game. The glass ceiling does exist! My first realisation of that was heart breaking! But we strive on.

white british person "so where are you from?"
Black british person "Umm South London"
WBP "no I mean originally"
BBP "oh,ummm Birmingham"
WBP "No, you know what I mean where are you really from?"
BBP feeling incredibly perturbed "Ohh you mean my grandparents? They're from Jamaica!"
WBP "oh ok" (not sure how they're feeling at this point, hopefully embarrassed)

There's a long way to go to inclusivity! But we press on! We have to! I love the last comment and I think we need to hold on to the fact that we ARE "fearfully and wonderfully made" no matter who we are, and our differences are to be celebrated!!

Anonymous at: 5 March 2011 at 13:55 said...

You have the articulation and wisdom of someone more advanced in years. Please keep writing. I was talking about your connection to Jamaica with symeon on Thursday - something we both lack. Perhaps because we are 3rd gen. I wish I were more connected, it might bridge my identity better. Jamaica becomes that in-between, where you follow the African evolution to Britain, and while you have first hand knowledge and experience, others, like myself, must make do with stories, photos and imagination.

Very warm piece sis.


Ruthie at: 6 March 2011 at 00:19 said...

I randomly came across your blog via facebook and I'm glad I did. A really good read, keep it up.

With love from one blogger to another x

Anonymous at: 6 March 2011 at 13:41 said...

beautifully written. I'd so love to sit in and listen to the convos between ur dad and his friends!

I imagine when i return to Africa i'll have similar experiences.

About the still audible shackles hooked! more of that stuff please :-)

GlitterBow at: 8 March 2011 at 14:05 said...

I have these discussions with my friends all the time about our identity as black britons, such an interesting post.

Post a Comment