The Early Years
I am a South London girl born and raised and proud of it. Forest Hill, Brockley, Crofton Park, Catford and Lewisham made me the woman I am today. I had a relatively happy childhood there, and made lifelong friends in those schools and on those streets. Growing up as young black girl there, it was fairly normal to be asked ‘where you’re from’ as my thick South London accent and use of Multicultural London English quickly gave me away as a local. I therefore grew up describing myself as ‘from Barbados and St Lucia’ and had loads of friends who were Chinese, Ghanaian, Turkish, Jamaican, Trinidadian, also Bajan or St Lucian, Dominican, Montserratians, Greek Cypriot, Sri Lankan, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, from the Indian diaspora (you know, East African, South African, Trinidadian/Guyanese Indians rather than Indian Indians) when you asked, but sounded as English as I did, and were also born in the local hospital.
We were all Londoners, but we were from somewhere else too and the only time there was any tension was during the cricket (well there wasn’t any really, no one except our parents really followed cricket, although all the black kids learned to chant 375 and 501 at appropriate and inappropriate occasions). And again, no one considered it disloyal to back whichever black team made it to the World Cup, be it the Reggae Boyz, Soca Warriors or more recently, the Black Stars. And Brazil cos they had Pele from back in the day. It was expected. Football was where the last vestiges of Pan-Africanism could be found when I was growing up. This was before the 2002 World Cup, when black players en masse got picked for the English national squad; before that it was Paul Ince, Ian Wright and Sol Campbell only*. We repped them, but not the team. But I digress, I was from Barbados and St Lucia growing up, until A-Level Sociology. There, a friend and I decided to embrace our full identities as Non-Practising Afro-Caribbeans and Black Marxist Feminists. I kid you not. It was a bit of a mouthful, but we finally had a title which reflected our Caribbean roots, and London-based lives. And then I moved to Thailand.
Six months into my time there, living in a city (not Bangkok) in which I was quite confident I was the only black person in a 250-mile radius, I realised with a jolt that the home I was missing wasn’t St. Lucia or Barbados. It was London. I found myself sitting on a pavement on the Khao San Road singing the Eastenders theme tune with strangers when I went down to Bangkok. I bumped into 2 black girls from New Cross (the only black female Brits I met all year) and convinced them I was crazy with my nostalgic tales of the night bus, and the 172 and 171 buses which went all the way to my house. I met two white dudes who were from ‘the endz’ and spent days referencing garage tunes, comedians, and the inner-city London I knew and loved.
After Thailand came uni where my Londonness was further confirmed by interactions with students who said things like ‘mint’ instead of ‘heavy’ when they meant something was really cool. I also found myself referencing the Caribbean again though; instead of the question ‘are you Jamaican?’ which I’d been accustomed to while growing up, I was now being asked which part of Nigeria I was from. My response was equally acidic.
Fast forward ten years and I’m living in the Caribbean again, and once again rethinking my identity. In the post-uni world of work I’d taken to describing myself as ‘from London with parents from the Caribbean.’ In the midst of so many people my age flocking to Balham and Clapham from England’s towns and villages for work, picking up some bus knowledge, and then trying to pass for a Londoner after 2 years, this was important. You can always spot them, they say things like ‘I love London but I wouldn’t want to raise my kids here’ when they’ve never met a kid from London, never mind been one, but presume it must be traumatic to grow up on an estate and without sheep in the back garden…rant over.
So I’m currently going through another identity shift. While I will always be a South London girl through and through, I’m finding myself more and more identifying myself as a Caribbean person. Whereas I am accustomed to saying my parents from the Caribbean, I find myself saying more and more, I am of the Caribbean. I am not from here, but I am of here. So at home in a place a gazillion miles away from home it seems unfathomable, but perhaps it’s possible to have more than one place to call home. The current rethink however was triggered hugely by my friend Nadia’s visit. Let me explain.
When my St Lucian born and raised cousin said to me a couple of years ago, ‘but cuz, you’re basically a Lucian’ I was hugely flattered and took it as the acceptance it was. Suddenly, I wasn’t the English cousin, I was a Lucian like everyone else. His argument was that I spend more time in St Lucia than people who are born here, but leave and never come back. My other cousin, his sister, had said the same thing a few years earlier, but she said it differently. She said, you are like one of us, you may be English but you have a Caribbean spirit. Which at the time was also touching, but it was more an observation than anything; that even though I was from ‘up there’ I had the façon d’être which is from ‘down here’.
Fast forward to Nadia’s arrival. Nadia is on paper ‘the same as me’ i.e. Black British born to Caribbean parents, but she had a crazy unhappy home life, and ‘doesn’t get’ why people make a big deal about certain things. One thing that stuck out was her once saying, ‘this thing about food and culture is ridiculous, I mean I didn’t grow up eating dasheen and yam, I grew up in Essex! My mum cooked beans on toast for dinner!’ To which I was so shocked I couldn’t even muster a real reply. To us growing up, beans on toast for dinner was one of those things that defined white people as essentially different from ‘us’ cos we didn’t eat beans on toast. For dinner? No suh! She’s not one of those black people who thinks that racism is black people’s fault or anything, and I should point out that she’s one of those people who actually spends time in the Caribbean, rather than repping Jamaica from the rooftops while holidaying in Majorca, Costa del Sol or Greece. But she’s different.
To me, she’s just always had a very different perspective of the Caribbean from me, and I would even venture to suggest she doesn’t understand it (which is not to say that I do all the time). The Caribbean is a complex place and, like most places, you really have live it to understand it, but it’s also massively formed by the transatlantic slave trade, the history of colonialism during the age of Empire, and then the more recent American Cultural Imperialism. And then the social consequences of each of these phenomena. It’s a fascinating place for that reason but you can never really understand the Caribbean without grasping the contradictions and facts of its history as well as its contemporary culture. Much like anything. Nadia talks about the Caribbean, but she doesn’t really get it. She thinks she understands things but she doesn’t and I’m kind of used to it. In the French Caribbean it’s different, she lives in a bit of a French Caribbean bubble in London, or jumps in and out of one at any rate, so when she finally got the chance to see a bit of it, she did, and came to visit.
I’ll say this much. Ardene, my friend the Caribbean activist and proud patriot, was gonna be here for one night while Nadia was here. Knowing that, I’d tried to convince myself that it would be lovely for them to meet. Whatever. When we went out for a drink the first night, Nadia mentioned that St. Kitts, where her parents are from, was Columbus’ favourite of the Caribbean islands. While my eyebrows shot up, I concentrated on drinking my drink and not deconstructing what that was supposed to mean. But when I looked up, I caught Ardene’s eye. We let the conversation continue as we were with 2 other friends who politely said ‘really?’ and seemed less aware of the political storm boiling beneath the rum. I had tried to warn Ardene, days before, I’d tried to explain that although she was black British too, and did the same race relations-themed studies as me and is of Caribbean heritage just like me, and is older than me too, Nadia is 3rd generation.
There is a world of difference between having grandparents who ‘came here’ and having parents who came ‘here.’ A world. Especially if you don’t get on with your family and don’t grow up in a cosmopolitan place. Nadia wants to get in touch with her roots, but hasn’t got a clue as to where to start. And I would argue, that it starts in the mind. She’s some way along her journey but she also has a looong way to go. To be fair, living with Ardene for a year would draw their eurocentricity to the attention of any half awake person, and our naturally talkative dispositions meant we spent many a night debating the whys and wherefores of the Caribbean region. It was from her that I first heard about the IMF and the world bank, and learnt about trade justice issues which come under the less political-sounding Fairtrade banner in England.
Nadia’s Englishness threw me even though I was prepared for it. Within 2 hours of arriving, she wanted to tell me about the Downton Abbey christmas special and things happening in England that from my seaview home in the Caribbean, I really couldn’t give 2 sh*ts about; if I did, I’d be there. In her defence, she was probably unaware that in England I wouldn’t blink because Kate Mid is preggers. Those things have never interested me, so it would be hard to explain how much less I am interested when I’m traipsing up and the Caribbean on the adventure of a lifetime. After a week of partying and debating with Ardene, a week of Nadia was serious culture shock. Nadia seemed somehow to bring England with her and what I really took away from it was that perhaps I’m not as English as I think.
SE23 or Vieux Fort: Looking for home
I had long been in the habit of explaining that I’m a London girl born to Caribbean parents, but since the meeting with Nadia on Caribbean soil, I can see that I’m also a Caribbean girl born in London. That is what my Martinican crew have been trying to get me to say, and perhaps the articulation that I have avoided. I think I’ve avoided it to protect myself from embarrassment. Martinicans always always always think I’m Martinican until I open my mouth. And sometimes, not even straight away then. I play the foreigner ‘je suis pas d’ici‘ and I have to reiterate that I’m from England, not just because of the stereotype of St Lucians here as gangsters, but also because if I was St Lucian I would not be looking blankly at some fruits/veg and not know what it’s called in creole, or how to cook it.
Creole is also the key which keeps me from ridicule; when they realise I don’t speak creole unlike all the other St Lucians, people finally accept that I really am foreign from England. Which I forget is super rare here. I’ve never met a black fellow Brit here. As it is, in the four plus months since I’ve been here, I’ve met a grand total of 5 other English people (all white of course) since I arrived, and one was on holiday, the other 4 are British Council assistants leaving in May/June. At first, when people guessed I was St Lucian I was amazed ‘how did you know?!’ I later realised Martinicans assume every black anglophone person is from St Lucia, and had no clue about my actual parentage.
Cass-ing my tête
Whether I’m a Londoner from the Caribbean or a Caribbean person from London is a question I am therefore reconsidering, and whether it’s that I’m both, and that it shifts with my location (which also shifts!) is a big one. Chatting through it all with an old friend, she pointed out that how we feel about our identity has a lot to do with acceptance and labels. Labels people attach to you and how ‘accepted’ you feel by the culture/group, in her words ‘I know who I am but depending on who I’m speaking to I’m “South East London, London, English, occasionally northern, Chinese but not mainland, parents lived in Vietnam but not Vietnamese, Cantonese but not Hong Kong, and no definitely not mixed” – which is weird – no one in school would have asked/assumed mixed with white – these days people feel the need to ask.’ So it’s not just me juggling multiple facets of self. I guess I feel more Caribbean from London now because I feel 100% at home here, but I also remain a Londoner and huge chunks of my heart remain there.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I’d go through the process all over again here because it’s hard to sit in South London with a thick Lewisham accent and talk about yourself as a Caribbean person born in London without sounding like an idiot. London raised me and made me, it’s on the streets of London, in the homes of Londoners, in the schools of London that the growing and shaping of my fabulousness occurred. Although it would also be fair to say that Caribbean people in London had a fair amount to do with that too, not least the ones in my family. Moreover, my life in London included a lot of exposure to Caribbean culture, repeat visits which helped develop relationships with family and friends in the Caribbean, and with the islands themselves, all of which are no doubt part of the reason I don’t feel like a flying fish out of water now.
I probably am particularly keen to assert my London roots given my location; as my accent meant I was always accepted as a local in London, equally my black skin identifies me as belonging here. As noting the dual (duelling?) influences on my identity has been a lifelong habit, asserting myself as a nubianlondoner here is simply second nature. I’d be highly delusional to deny how much London has made me, and I’ll always remember when homesickness caught me in Thailand, which endz I was repping. But even as I live my life in a language which is not my own, an island and an ocean away from my family and peeps, I am somehow, despite conventional wisdom and common sense, at home here in the French Caribbean.
Ultimately, whether I’m of the Caribbean from London or a Londoner from the Caribbean I’m the inimitable me all day every day. That will just have to be consolation enough.
*Yeah, so I’m blatantly not a football historian. I’m pretty sure there were other players pre-2002 in the world cups of my youth, but other than Dwight Yorke, I couldn’t name them. 2002 sticks out for me cos I was in Thailand in 2002 and it shut down when there were matches. TVs were on in school and kids were allowed out of classes to watch games. One of my students asked my colleague if there were any white people in England, and it was the only time I wore an England t-shirt.