Still weaving the threads…

This post continues my reflections on being a black, mixed-heritage woman. Sorry it will be a long one…I have a lot of weaving to do. I hope that in telling my story for others to hear they may understand the complexity of being ‘other’ – although of course no two stories are the same. I hope that they will recognise that we all carry our own assumptions and biases, for that’s what makes us human. I hope that in reading and reflecting they will pause to think about what they can do to support those who need help to acknowledge and celebrate their identity.

I was a Sussex girl but did not look like one. I had a round, brown, smiley face and a mass of frizzy black hair which when I was small my mum would pull and push into submission until the tears would come to my eyes. I had a thick bottom lip that I would stick out when I was sulking and my dad would say “wind’ll change and you’ll stay like that” or “be careful you don’t trip over that”. He would say it with affection as he ruffled my hair, but others would pick out that facial feature as a source of derision. When I was small and we went out my mum would give me a spit wash…face, elbows and knees. When I squirmed and protested she would say “no one will say we are dirty” – the slur that she had heard too often on her arrival in England. In my childhood I was almost always clothed in dresses (which were often hand-me-downs from cousins on my dad’s side), as my mum said she didn’t want us in jeans which looked scruffy. She fought hard to ensure we were clean, tidy and looking like “nice young girls” then at least no one could say nasty things about the way we were turned out.

Being one of the only black faces at Primary School wasn’t easy. I had a rather idyllic life at home before then, because we lived in the middle of nowhere just outside the village. It wasn’t until I went to school, and we moved further into the heart of the village, that the fact that as a family we were different really hit me. As I have said in other posts the only other black faces at school were from the local children’s home. I soon found that those girls disappeared from the class fairly quickly and regularly, when they were moved on or returned back to their family, and making friends with them meant saying goodbye. So my friends were all white.

I have a very strong memory of coming home in my first year at school. I came crying to my mum that I wanted to be white like my friends and that I was upset by the name-calling. She smiled and hugged me saying “You can’t change that. You can make a decision to fight or walk away. Choose your battles. Often it is better to ignore it and just walk away. Be a friend. Be good.” And there it was – her view that this was the best way to be accepted, or at least that is what my young brain heard and internalised. For many, many years it shaped how I approached the world. Smile and laugh. Please people. Try and make everyone like you by being fun…and bright..and good. Don’t rock the boat – fit in and definitely don’t stick your head above the parapet. When the ‘jokes’ were made such as, “it’s dark – smile or we can’t see you” “Don’t give me that black look” I learned to smile and ignore the sharp painful twist in my tummy. I learned to believe the words “…it’s only a joke. I don’t see you as black, you are just Annie”. I learned to deny my blackness – there were no allies, no friends who looked like me. I learned that sometimes it was simpler to take the sting out of their ‘jokes’ by saying those things first.

Despite my mum’s words I still tried to be like my white friends. My favourite imaginary play in those early years was to put a petticoat on my head and pretend I had long straight hair like them. I would pretend to brush it, and toss my waving petticoat-hair around like they did. Occasionally I raised my eyes to look for people that looked like me but I didn’t see any positive images. My parents’ Sunday paper recorded the more negative aspects and the crimes committed by black people, but there was seldom anything positive. The books I read at school showed smiling, white, red-lipped, rosy-cheeked children, but none like me. My mum and dad would watch ‘The black and white minstrel show’ and I can remember wondering why this entertained them. The black part of my patchwork identity was small, and frayed because my experiences of living where I did had picked at the seams.

It’s strange because my hair has featured significantly in shaping my identity causing confusion in my early teenage life and not moving towards acceptance until my 40s. When I was 12 my mum decided to take me to a hairdressers to have my hair “tidied up”. I begged her for an Afro as I had begun to see black people with this hairstyle on ‘Top of the Pops’ and in my sister’s ‘Jackie’ magazine. Taking me to the hairdressers actually meant getting on a train and going to London. There were no hairdressers near to home that would know what to do with my unruly frizz or look at it without hiding their horror. When I got off the train in London I can remember being amazed at the number of brown faces. Instead of being pleased at seeing people like me, I was frightened. These people weren’t like me were they? They were loud: laughing, confident and shouting, many with an accent I couldn’t understand. What were these people to me?

We arrived at the hairdressers and I walked into a new world which I would visit often over the next 20+ years. A black hairdresser’s shop then, was nothing like a white hairdressers’. The first thing that hit me was the heat, the chemical smell, the noise and the pounding beat of reggae – oh I loved the music. There were women of every shade from light brown to ebony black. The customers were sat in chairs laughing and fast-talking with the ladies who stood behind them, combs held in greased hands. There were customers with heads tilted back over sinks, whilst younger apprentices washed, lathered and massaged their heads of curly hair. Other women sat under noisy hairdryers peering out through the plastic visors, all with big curlers covered by black cloths – the slight acrid smell of singed hair and chemical. Sweat dripping down their faces, some signalled to the young apprentices “am I done yet girl?” …and as one, as my mum and I entered that space, all eyes swivelled suspiciously towards us.

My mum explained to the girl on the desk that she was there for “a straighten” and pointed to me with rolling eyes “and my daughter wants an Afro”. I remember sitting in that special hairdresser’s chair for the very first time – looking in the mirror at the different world I was suddenly inhabiting which was so alien to my world and my little white village. The beautiful black woman with straightened hair, cut perfectly into coiffured loveliness who stood behind me said something to me that I couldn’t understand. I stuttered “pardon me?” She looked at me as if I was slow or stupid and repeated slowly “Why you want a ‘fro girl? Why not have a straighten like you mudda.” I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights because my mum who was sitting in the chair next to mine said “Maybe next time…she’s just having an Afro cut today.” The beautiful black woman let out an audible “tsk” through her teeth, signalled to a young girl, who I followed to a sink for a hair wash. This was my first lesson – black women at that time usually had their hair straightened. This involved harsh chemicals which if left on too long left nasty weeping burns. My next visits and for many years to come I succumbed to my frizz being tamed, and straightened, and cut. Or had extensions added to my own hair with a long-day of plaiting to get a similar effect of hair-tossing and waving as my petticoat-hair. It may not be the same for others, but for me this painful transformation was to have hair more like my white friends and acceptable to where I lived – at one stage I even had my hair straightened and then put into a curly-perm because that was the fashion of the day, denying my own black curls! I was informed at school that it was definitely better to have ‘neat’ hair as I was more likely to get a job. It wasn’t until my 40s that I embraced my own hair and what it meant to my black identity…but I digress.

Back to that first visit…the beautiful black hairdresser started to rake a comb through my tangled frizz. The tears came and I pulled away from the pain. She put her hand on my head and pulled it towards her again. This was as painful as my mum doing my hair…and this was lesson number two. In all of the years that I went to a black hairdressers it involved pain. Pain as the unruly black hair was pulled, pushed and threaded into submission, and pain through sitting with your head in an unnatural position for long hours with head pounding. Alongside that pain though was love – it was the love you feel when your mother does your hair, but in a community of laughing and gossiping women of all ages, and a shared experience yet I often felt apart from that.

As I sat there, my stupidity temporarily forgotten, the beautiful black woman said “and where you from?” “I’m from a little village in East Sussex” adding when I saw her confused face “near Brighton?” after all everyone knew Brighton, didn’t they? “Nah, I mean you Caribbean or African”. And there it was again, lesson number three. I had thought this question was only asked of me from white people, but I have found that it comes from black people too…but just for different reasons. For black people it’s about seeking a shared past, or occasionally a racial prejudice as I found in one hairdresser to which I never returned. The problem for me was that I didn’t know what my background was at that time. In my head I was neither… and in my experience, and in my patchwork-identity I was more white than black. At this point in my life, once again the seams were unpicked but this time by people I thought were more the same as me. I felt for that moment forwards, as my lovely mum says, neither fish nor fowl.

I stuttered at that beautiful woman a story of a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean…volcanic…Napoleon…owned by Britain. She nodded distractedly and turned away to talk to the other women in that sensory space, which at the time was a relief. It freed me to listen, as I did over the years that followed, to the lilt of the foreign-to-me accents, the laughter, the music, the discussions of what costumes someone was wearing for carnival, what they were doing at the weekend, their relatives at home, food, clothes…all things that marked their culture. And for many years this culture was separate from me and made me feel like ‘other’ with the only thing that we shared being the colour of our skin and the abuse we suffered because of that.

I returned to school on the first day of a new school year, proudly wearing a pair of wedge shoes that I had borrowed from my sister, underneath a perfectly round Afro. My dear friend says she still remembers that day…she felt like I had changed over the summer holidays into someone “more cool”, someone different. Perhaps I had changed as I realised that there was possibly a different way of being if you were black than the habits I had formed. It didn’t last…much like my Afro after the first heavy rainfall. I walked back into my comfortable way of being – laughing, joking, denying, walking away. Friends crowded around my new hair – patting and stroking and we laughingly took all the pencils from my pencil case and pushed them in my big hair one by one. Inside I was annoyed when other people who weren’t my friends started touching my hair – and continue to find it so when people touch my hair without asking now, much like pregnant women who have their stomach patted by others, it feels like a violation of your personal space.

The next big event for me came when I was about 15 and a young, new (white) deputy head of school stepped in to take a lesson when a teacher was absent. He asked us to describe ourselves to him. I had picked up the language of the day on the news, and in the papers and described myself as coloured. He appeared annoyed with me – “Green? Yellow? Blue? No, you are black and you should be proud of that – black people have fought hard to be recognised equally in society”. I was angry. In my head black wasn’t something to be proud of, and he had drawn attention to my difference in front of the whole class. I shouted back at him “You’re white what do you know? I can call myself what I want to – it’s my decision”, immediately shocked at myself for raising my voice at a teacher and waiting for my punishment. He smiled at me like he’d won something “Yes, Ann, you can. Remember that.”

I now realise that this was a point which started the weaving back together of my identity – a reforming of my patchwork. I can’t say I walked out of there being anything but angry and embarrassed. No one talked about my colour – it was just something that me, my family and friends never talked about. That was the bit that I kept under-wraps – I had learned from my mum that you had to fit in, not draw attention to your difference. Not complain, not mention racism. White people I met over the the years after I left school often said “Things have got better though, haven’t they – there’s not as much prejudice or racism is there?” From their position this was probably true, but from my position the answer was different even though I nodded my agreement so as not to make them feel bad. The abuse from a passing car; the ‘friendly banter’ with racist undertones; the complaints that people were ‘pulling the race card’; the cry that the changing of offensive language was the ‘PC brigade gone mad’; the ‘reassurance’ that “ you know I didn’t mean you”; the flat that mysteriously stopped being available in between the phone call and the viewing and on seeing the colour of my skin; the stepping in front of you in a queue with the look that said ‘and what will you do about it”; all of those small regular happenings mark me as ‘other’. What that teacher had done for me though was to make me think. Who was I? Each experience, everything I read or watched that made me notice my difference helped me to position myself and who I was, because I was at last aware that I had some sort of choice. A choice that was to a degree denied to my mother in her quest to fit in. Each time I noticed and decided, I wove together the threads of my frayed identity.

The years that followed were a bit of a blur. In my early twenties I married a wonderful, gentle white man and we had a child and looking down at her I wanted to share with her, what had come before ‘us’. In BBC4’s ‘Windrush Chronicles’ which prompted my posts, ‘Michaela (2019)’ who has been struggling with her identity (and white face) is confused by her great-grandmother ‘Eunice’ declaring when looking at her “all the black has gone”. This resonated strongly with my feelings when I became a mother. It wasn’t that I was mourning the fact that she was more pale than I was, with straighter hair. It wasn’t relief that as a result she and successive generations would experience less racism levelled at them than I had. It was the feeling that I owed it to all that came before and after to explain and celebrate our heritage and our blackness (which would fade with successive generations). With this knowledge would come a better understanding of their identity, and the battles that had gone before them in order to give them their place in the world, and they would understand the importance of keeping that knowledge alive.

I have spent the years since then trying to weave the threads together and understand my own roots, because it really does matter. Having a better sense of who I am has helped me feel more able to challenge the ‘banter’, the jokes, the injustices and say “whatever your intention, this is not ok”. I feel much more able to say aloud when introducing myself to my students “First, I am a black woman…” and know it helps not just me and my identity but those students of colour too. There is so much to do to try to weed out the deficit language, the assumptions, the deterministic views, the tendency to homogenise people into ‘they’. To encourage all people to be brave enough to acknowledge the impact that their values and beliefs have on others, and of course acknowledge their biases. Much more needs to be done for all people who are ‘other’ to see themselves reflected in the spaces they inhabit…for without that how can they even begin to weave together the threads?