7. Sep, 2020

Integrity and an unspoken love propelled me to proudly identify as a black gal

Growing up in a large West Wiltshire town as one of the few black people was always going to bring forth a well-full of memories. TBH most of them good. I only remember a handful of racist incidents from kids and they were no worse than any kind of ridicule any kid was exposed to. Like, have you got brown tights on? That doesn't mean to say they didn't happen; it might mean I can't remember. Any black child born in the 60s has many stories of racist slurs made against them. I do remember my youngest white foster brother constantly calling me and my younger brother, who was of Pakistani heritage, a wog and coon for the entirety of our young lives. Given the prolific use of those terms in every facet of life and the lack of action to curb it, the response should have caused a cacophony, but it became white noise, until 'it' became literally silent.  

I am sure I am no different to other blacks of the 60s, but stories of racism from the masses are not in my childhood memories; white noise is rarely memorable. The openly racist incidents are not ones we need to worry about today, or indeed then, as there were laws and policies that were designed to promote patriotism and harmony. Overt racists will be agitated against and called out. It is the insidious and subversive racist acts that are the most difficult to challenge, the ones we as blacks lived with then and still do today. 

As a bright black female, one of only two in my year group at school, I was put in all the bottom sets for attainment and ability, including in PE and yet represented the school on every sporting team, including swimming and hockey. Yet at the time I didn't know the reason I was placed in all the bottom sets was as a consequence of systemic racism and so it didn't bother me. Whilst I always questioned why I was in the bottom sets with lessons and people who didn't wholly inspire me, I believed the adults had their best interests in me. They didn't, and I went on to leave school with no qualifications. None, Zip. Zero. Nada! What do you expect if the 5 year secondary recipe is low expectations, with a lack of nurturing, a sprinkling of disbelief and a lack of opportunity to inspire and motivate. If you want to call that racism, I will allow you. Most won't. Most will say that was the result of education in the 70s and 80s for both blacks and whites. The difference was, I was bright, I was ambitious and like many of the white kids, I should have been on podiums. 

Ironically in 2017 I attended Colston's Girls' School as Executive Headteacher for the primary schools on prizegiving day and the same thing happened. Black secondary aged girls, who were the majority race on that day, receiving the prizes for sports and the white girls receiving the prizes for English, science and maths, but the difference was this time I knew it was as a consequence of systemic racism and it did bother me. 

Together the black community taught me and my naive black brothers and sisters to hold on tight, stay proud and smile, and that's what I and many of us did. To Be Young Gifted and Black as Nina Simone vibrantly sang, as a black person was something to truly celebrate. Believing in those lyrics meant you had to start with being proud of being black first, as opposed to repeatedly being told you are a slur on society, put in all the lower sets and left to fail. So failure and a sense of worthlessness was what some of society tried to teach me and others like me. 

Every time I think of my childhood I smile, an authentic smile, so many happy memories. A reason why I went into teaching was to aid the smiles on the adults' faces as they reminisce their childhood with pals around tables or as I like to think in their rocking chairs. There were many reasons why that broad smiles takes place often. One most certainly was that I found a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose within the black community. 

Since the inception of the wool mills, Trowbridge had gained the reputation of having ripe pickings for jobs in the golden age of manufacturing, the town was a hot bed of factories and factory workers. Thus it became an attractive and popular place for all, including immigrants, mainly Moroccans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and the Caribbean. From toddler groups to the factories, we mingled and learned together, fought together, laid together, cried and laughed together. 

Rarely did school leavers from Trowbridge head for the dizzy heights of university, but for the lowlights of the prisons or the 'liberation' buildings and canteens of Gordons Gin, Airsprung, Avon Tyres or two of the biggest employers Bowyers and Ushers. If you were ambitious you may have headed for a job in County Hall, an impressive and imposing building for local government agents on the other side of the main town park, where those with O' levels and driven parents went.  No desk and chair for people like me, yet! Although I did have a short stint in there as a cook and a waitress at the age of 16 for the Rotary Club's annual dinner. I remember feeling like I belonged when in there and wondered what it would be like to feel important and noticed for longer than a day.   I also remember being told off, or maybe just trained, on the need to cook the cornflour for longer in the custard. 

Between the ages of 7 and 13 I lived with my family, 3 brothers and parents, in a crescent.  Those strange postwar semi circular lanes leading from a main trunk road with 3-5 bed semis that went nowhere. Trowbridge was full of them. A district that was private. The only footfall was from delivery people or friends and family. A safe haven, a place to play out your fantasies in the street with everyone. 

I was a charismatic and free child, free because I had no fear. I was possibly annoying too. With my charismatic ticket in hand I could claim entry to the hardest to reach households. 'They must love you Paula, they never let any child in their house,' my parents would say as I gained access to practically every household, even the ones without children! 

Most of my neighbours were white, but there were two black families, The xxxs and the xxx, both from the Caribbean, both very different. 

xxx - Mr and Mrs - Children - Pamela, Christine and Clifton, Mr B was from from Barbados

M - Mr and Mrs - Children - David, Rose and Pauline from Jamaica

I don't remember the families being friends and socialising with each other, it doesn't mean that they didn't socialise, just that I don't remember. I was one of the conduits.

I played with both Rose and Christine; Christine was a little older and Rose a little younger.  We all went to the same secondary school, but whilst there we rarely interacted with each other - just the acknowledgement of each other with a twitch of the head and eyebrow as we passed in the secondary modern corridors'. We left the play for the streets with a trunk road at both ends. 

Being in their company I garnered a sense of belonging. A black fraternity where we never talked about being black, but we behaved as if we were sisters of a unique club, making up languages and dances and discussing how stupid boys were, particularly our brothers. Von Que Nair Zon, was a chant that we made up. The melody and words still today run freely through my head like a well rehearsed ryhme that I learnt as an infant. I can see me dancing in the playground; feet twisting in and out as we clicked our fingers and waists swayed. 

Christine's mum was larger than life character, a goddess, her wide smile beamed you up, a gold twinkle zoomed through the air and embraced you as you felt the love and solidarity. Often I was enticed with titbits of Caribbean foods in their home, including curries, rice and creamed sweetcorn. Rice what is it? Curry what is it? As for corn, there was only way to eat it and that was straight off the cob. Or that is what I thought, until I was encouraged to try it creamed. 

I am convinced the B's could put anything together and make it taste fabulous. I craved the new spicy flavours as opposed to the blandness of Irish Stew or Cheese and Potato pie.  There were the days when Pamela would giggle in the corner as she watched my face screw up in anticipation of how my tongue and mind would react to the new Caribbean flavours. The spoonful of creamed corn pulled up to my closed lips that momentarily refused to open. The first part of the digestion is smell and then lips. If those lips remained sealed, I would have prevented a lifelong love and a lifetime of memories with creamed corn and rice, not just any rice, but buttery basmati.  It was the thing I looked forward to all day when I knew it was on the menu, but this time at my house.  

It wasn't just food and pride that these families introduced me to, but hair and how to look after it. I remember sitting on the carpeted floor head held vice like between Mrs M's unsympathetic knees as she combed out my hair knots with the largest jar of Vaseline known to man and a comb with the smallest of gnashers. A hairbrush would hover just above my head, waiting to be used as a weapon of war if I winced as my hair was pulled and the corners of my eyes met with my hairline. 

Those memories with those families are among the most treasured I have. Integrity and an unspoken love propelled me to proudly identify as a black gal and carry that pride into my own family and beyond!