Picking at the seams

This post sits apart from my writing on Early Childhood (EC) because whilst, of course, it is influenced by my deep interest in all things to do with early childhood education and care which colours my whole being, it is is separate because this is a different personal unravelling. I do have a separate EC post which has sat waiting for a month to be published when I am freed to do so…and waits because like a sore spot, I can’t touch that part of me yet by releasing that writing.

This blog post, the first of two, comes because I am a black woman…I say that with pride and certainty now I am in my late 50s, but it has been a long journey for me to realise the significance of saying that aloud. Additionally, what “I am a black woman” really means in terms of my heritage and identity is probably less clear to me and has long been so.

Anyone who has read my previous posts will understand when I talk of my squiggling thoughts – those meandering reflections that keep squiggle-thinkers awake at night. What prompted my squiggling was the wonderful BBC4 series “Soon Gone: a Windrush Chronicle” which told the story of the generations of family (1948-2019) who emerge from ‘Eunice’ who arrives on the Windrush. Although Eunice marries ‘Cyrus’ who is also Caribbean, he marries her knowing that she is pregnant with a baby whose father is white. The individual vignettes of successive generations explores the issues of identity, racism, culture and ‘blackness’ in Great Britain. Whilst many of the themes and experiences resonated with me, there were two that started my squiggling thoughts. The first squiggle came from ideas of having a mixed heritage and the complexities of that, which has featured significantly in my own experience. The second squiggle came from thinking about what being British meant for black people when they came to Britain and what they did in order to ‘fit in’ to a society that was fearful and suspicious of ‘other’, but also the effect that this ‘fitting in’ had on successive generations.

As I have explained in previous posts, I have a mixed heritage. My father was white and a typical Sussex man who “won’t be druv”. My mother is black. My cloth is cut from the fabric of both black and white. I don’t want to deny the white part of me…I am very proud of being born in Sussex, and I love many things from the quirky culture of East Sussex that have made me who I am. However, that part of me isn’t the obvious part to others who don’t know me. It is not the part of me that others see when they look at me. Often it would seem it is not the part that they want to know about. I am slightly fed-up that even in 2019, I still have the following conversation (or something very similar):

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from East Sussex”

“*Laughs* No, I mean before. You know where do you COME from?”

“Yep, East Sussex. I was born in East Sussex”

“Oh ok. But are you Caribbean, or African?”

And that in a nutshell is the source of my disquiet. I am, as I said, cut from the cloth of both black and white, and I have stitched for myself an identity since my birth. My nearly 57 year old suit has been sown as a patchwork: from the ways that people have made me feel about myself. I have internalised the positive and negative experiences into a view of myself and my worth and used this in my decisions on how I respond to, and form relationships with others. Most of the time I quite like and am proud of the suit I have sown…but sadly others keep picking at the seams.

My wonderful mum came to the UK in the 1950s aged 16 from a tiny island, St Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean, which is now part of the British Overseas Territories. Her story is hers to tell, and I will emphasise now that what I recount are my perceptions of her journey: her lived experience and the choices she made may be very different to her.

However, it always amazes me that in the 1950s, at 16 years old, she left her home and family behind and sailed half-way across the world. She was met at Tilbury docks by a chauffeur who was to drive her to a rural village in South East England to work as a kitchen help in a large country house. I often remarked on her bravery, but to her it was something that you just had to do – there were few opportunities for work on the island then (as now) and many young people left to work in other places around the world. The difference perhaps is that my mum never returned home, and never saw her mother again and that loss I think left a raw spot and an everlasting regret as broken attachments can. But I digress, as I am wont to do!

St Helena has a small population of less than 5000 people. There were no indigenous people when it was founded in 1502 by the Portuguese, but its location proved a useful stop-off for passing trading ships. This usefulness resulted in the East India Company’s interest, and the decision to colonise St Helena with white ‘planters’ in 1658. It was transferred to the Crown (for cash) in 1834. Some might say it was important to the British Empire until the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of steam ships, after that it was perhaps much less of a useful addition to Britain’s overseas portfolio. It had next to nothing to trade, and produced little to be self-sufficient and instead required support from Britain who seemed to try and shake off some of the ties in the British Nationality Act 1981. This Act denied Islanders their status as ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ and hence their right to live and work in Britain. It wasn’t until 2002 and the British overseas Territories Act that the Saints had their right to a full passport and citizenship in Britain restored.

The bid to populate the island by the East India company, and improve its self-sufficiency resulted in its very mixed heritage with descendants from Europe (planters, government employees and ex-soldiers from the St Helena Regiment), China (indentured workers in the early 1800s) and a slave population (mostly from Madagascar, Asia and Africa). It has had a succession of British governors from the UK since the Crown took control, and photos of the island reveal the close connection to its British ties; whilst the people declare a fearsome pride in their identity as ‘Saints’.

My mother did not speak much of her home when I was small. I now wonder if that was partly because she had shut off those memories for fear of the pain caused by the departure from her beloved mum and a home that was too far away and too expensive to visit. However she would declare that it was much the same as Britain; it was just not so cold and they didn’t have snow. In my head I had imagined hot blazing sun, and black people with few clothes dancing next to huts. After all that is what I saw of black people from other countries in the mock Encyclopaedia Brittanica purchased by my parents and paid for weekly. When mum sent ‘home’ for a tourist brochure of St Helena for my sister’s school project about Napoleon on St Helena (which eventually arrived on its long journey via the St Helena Mail ship – the only transport to and from the island then) I was slightly disappointed. The houses looked like a tired version of the 18th and 19th century houses of Britain…and the people of many different hues were all clothed much the same as people around me. I discovered that blazing sun did not describe the climate, instead she explained that the temperature was much like a hot British summer, the colder months like a cool wet summer or autumn here. It was still a place which I yearned to know more of because it was part of me, but she couldn’t meet this need for me whilst growing up and it has only been in my later years that this desire for information has been met, at least in part.

When people questioned my mum’s background or asked her if she came from the Caribbean or Africa she would say loudly that she was neither: she was British and from a small island owned by Great Britain. Looking back now I realise how strongly she held onto this in order to prove she had a right to live in Britain even though she was a different colour. I realise how much it was true and that in some ways she was more quintessentially British than many. She had been brought up with very British traditions hanging on from a colonial past. Pictures of the Royal family and the Union Jack were everywhere and schools taught British history. I often think she was more patriotic and more entrenched in Britishness than some people born here and who surrounded her in our rural Sussex village. St Helena seems always to have been described as like going back in time, and visitors now enjoy that. My mum was slightly embarrassed by what she saw as some of the more backward traditions, and their lack of modern facilities and material things when she was growing up and wouldn’t often be drawn into talking of it. The Saints have a particular dialect, but by the time I was old enough to talk, my mother spoke with a near perfect soft BBC British accent.

I now realise how much this was her armour against the racist slurs and calls that she should ‘go back’ to where she came from. She lived in a very small village where she had the only black face and was married to a white man: something which was taboo in the 1950s. It took a long time for her mother- and father-in-law to accept her. She found ways to ‘fit in’ and to be the same rather than different, and to an extent leave behind who she was on an island hundreds of miles away.

I now realise that what saved her from sinking, left me adrift in terms of my identity. I had no culture to align myself to. For a long while I blamed her for that – I wanted to know more but she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. However, I now understand that coming from a colonised island had stripped her of a culture, other than the one that was fed to its people on a plate by its masters.

In much later years I have researched my ancestry in a quest to find out where my ancestors came from before St Helena, and to fill the hole in the black part of the patchwork suit I’ve made myself. I took part in a geno project to find that as I suspected, my maternal lineage was from Africa, my research of the partially termite-eaten archives by emailing the island archivist took me back to the mid 1800s to show my ancestors were slaves on St Helena. I excitedly told my mum who smiled and changed the subject. What I was proud to declare, she seemed embarrassed by. I was angered by the fact that I couldn’t go far back in the records because stripped of their identity and seen as a commodity, my ancestors were given the same name as many other slaves by their colonial owners. It was impossible to search through the Marys and the Thomases to find which I belonged to, or from where they came. My mum’s generation on St Helena were taught to be grateful for what they had, they sowed together their own culture from what they were given or been allowed to keep. Perhaps the memory of the island having a history of slavery was buried in shame, just as the actual ‘liberated’ slaves who had been buried and were found when excavating for the airport in 2008. That shame came initially from those that owned slaves, but perhaps in a small island hundreds of miles from anywhere, this shame became part of the culture then.

My mum did not see herself as from Africa – her patchwork suit was first of all made up of ‘Saint’ and second ‘British’. When she came to Britain alone and so obviously ‘other’ but trying to fit in, she held out to those that sometimes shirked her what she felt would make her accepted – the British part. She was just responding to them picking at the seams.

The second part of this post ‘still weaving the threads’ continues my meanderings.