The nice white people at the back of the bus

Awaiting capacity in Kingston, which was probably double this by the time we pulled away. Oscar, who you can just about make out half way up the right hand side, was moved to the back and squished between me, Ren, Steph and a load of life-sized dried goods soon after I took this.

Awaiting capacity in Kingston, which was nearing double this by the time we pulled away. Oscar, who you can just about make out halfway up the right-hand side, was moved to the back and squished between me, Ren, Steph and a load of life-sized sacks of dried goods soon after I took this.

I’ve been dwelling on a memory of late. It’s etched on my mind like a pattern on frosted glass – defined amid opacity – so while I can’t say with certainty that it happened as I recall it, I believe the incident took place at my old primary school in Jamaica and that I was talking to my mum about apartheid.

Perhaps the memory stands out because I’d just found out what apartheid was  (it was the late 1980s and the regime was nearing its end – the adults in my world probably discussed it a lot) and being the child of a white British mother and a black Jamaican father it no doubt captured my imagination.

I explained to Mum (in that way some children have of telling, rather than asking, adults of the things they discover) that if we lived in South Africa I would have to live with her while Oscar, who has darker skin than I, would have to live with Dad. Being only seven or so it was, of course, a naive and misinformed understanding delivered without judgement. But I’ve been dwelling on it lately because it makes me wonder when, exactly, I became aware that skin colour meant different things for Mum, Dad, Oscar and me and what effect this knowledge had on my identity. Hard to say.

In fact, of all the things I’ve tried to write about since I started this blog I’ve found this subject the hardest by far. Attempting (for the umpteenth time) to tackle it feels like wrestling a large, dense fish, panicked and suffocating out of water. It’s also hard because, much like everything about this project, it cuts to the core of who I am, who Oscar is, who my parents are, and were. I often feel like my (like our) guts are laid out on a table and I’m asking the world to look at them and form an opinion. I know I brought this on myself and I really can’t complain. It’s just that sometimes I fear the fish is winning.

But I digress. Because our little family is not only mixed race but – like the families of countless others – straddles two countries that each member has at some point called home, there are complexities which surround my identity that I can barely name to myself, let alone you or anyone else. And then there is of course the entire concept of race and how fraught with complexity that is. So I’m going to stop trying to make sense of the flailing metaphor for a moment and tell you a story instead.

On our last day in Kingston we took a day trip out to Port Antonio, home of the ‘World Famous Blue Lagoon’. It was our first proper day off since we’d arrived in Jamaica over two weeks previously. We decided to catch a route taxi (public bus) and headed down to the Transport Centre in Half Way Tree, the central hub of Jamaica’s capital, an area thick with traffic, crowds and urban heat.

We boarded a bus and waited for the off. Public buses in Jamaica, like in many places, don’t tend to leave until they’re dangerously full of people and the maximum profit has been made (at one point during the journey Oscar remarked with gravity that it was a shame life should be so cheap). Every 10, 20 minutes or so another body would squeeze into another impossibly small space. The moments in between filled with a collective impatience and the intermittent litany of the street vendors. After an hour (some had been waiting more than two) we pulled away, a hot, wheeled tin crammed way too full with elbows, knees, heartbeats, and sweat.

The driver was a lunatic. He took corners at law and neck-breaking speed, overtook wildly on blind spots. At one point the outer wheels came right off the ground and the smell of burning rubber flooded the bus and mingled in an atmosphere already charged with the outraged protestations of too many passengers: Driva! Yuh cyaan ketch back time! Wen it gaan it gaan!

'Ciao for now Port Antonio': Heading back to Kingston after our day trip

‘Ciao for now Port Antonio’: Heading back to Kingston after our day trip

As we approached Port Antonio the coast sidled up to the road and the conductor began to collect his fares, nodding and signalling each turn to pay. When ours came he called out to the, “Nice white people at the back.” Nice, presumably, because we’d been typically British by remaining silent while the rest of the passengers had (quite rightly) been kicking off since Kingston. But of course I’m not telling you all this because he called us nice.

I’ve never been called white before. Black yes, but never white. With the exception of a woman from London we were the only tourists on that bus, the only people privileged enough to experience the luxury of ‘adventure’. Everyone else was just going to work or home or living out their usual lives in some way and, irrespective of my and Oscar’s actual skin colour, privilege of that kind, in that context, is synonymous with white. So, I get it. Or at least this is the conclusion I have come to. In truth I have no way of knowing if he thought any of those things. Oscar and I are, after all, mixed race and Ren and Steph are white. But my point is this: being called white bothered me in a way that being called black never has.

Now don’t get me wrong, I find that equally strange. I am black and white, a product of my parents’ love, and I don’t wish for either of them to be wiped out with a word. But, having lived most of my life in a predominantly white country, I expect my whiteness to be sidelined and my blackness to be a defining curiosity.

In Britain and the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia white is still the ‘norm’, the image reflected in the societal mirror held up by TV, newspapers, films and magazines. Anything outside that norm, then, must be called out and given a name because it is not white and therefore not ‘normal’. Think about (son of white mother) Barack Obama or (son of white father) Bob Marley. Would you ever describe them as white? No, me neither. And yet they are as much that as anything else.

Let me clarify: I like the colour of my skin, especially when it’s tanned. I like the size and curl of my hair. But that wasn’t always the case. I used to want long, straight hair that blew in the wind. I used to wear foundation that was several shades too light for me because, as well as having terrible acne, I couldn’t (or didn’t know where to) find shades that matched my face, shades that fell outside the ‘norm’.

So much of becoming an adult is about self-acceptance and so on that bus when the mixed race identity I now love without complication was flipped on its head and, for a moment, I saw myself through one black person’s eyes, I found it unsettling. And perhaps, having grown up in a household where white British culture was predominant, where our mum was much closer to her family than our dad was to his, it hit a nerve. But when I think of it now all it brings to mind is the archaic absurdity of separating people along racial lines and the shameful impact those lines still have on human lives.

Being a light-skinned woman with a loose curl to her hair I am not in the same bracket as people who don’t get hired, can’t hail taxis or are shot at by the police because of melanin. My experiences of racism have never suffocated or held me back in the same way. Nonetheless, constructions of race have affected my identity because when you are mixed, as well as being both black and white you are also essentially neither. And while such lines are still drawn, that can – as I understood on a basic level as young as seven – skew your view of the world and where you fit within it.

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The elephant in the English room

High contrast: a hibiscus, the national flower of Jamaica, bold and unassuming in the garden at Green Hills

High contrast: Jamaica’s national flower, bold and unassuming in the garden at Green Hills

“Cry and remember, please remember” – Slavery Days, Burning Spear

A few weeks ago, soon after we got back, I sat in my garden watching flying ants drift through shafts of low, early evening sunlight like the dandelion seeds of late summer. Not for the first time it occurred me how different the quality of light is here when compared to Jamaica.

British light is relatively muted. There are days (often in summer but they come in autumn, spring and winter too) when the sky screams blue almost as loudly as any tropical country, but not quite, never quite as loudly. After a long summer day replete with sunshine the evening light settles on the landscape like gold dust and there is a feeling of exhalation as all things slow and take stock ahead of the approaching night. It is a magical time full of poetic romance. But a muted magic, a subtle magic.

Then there are the short days of endless grey, when everything, everything, is cloaked in a damp, pervasive sameness that jabs like a blunt knife at your colour-seeking soul and makes you wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again.

Winter sunsets bring drama. There are few things I love to see more. The captive intensity of all the rainbow’s colour explodes unleashed across the sky, electrifying ethereal clouds with outrageous shades of pink and indigo, purple, green and tangerine. Look up and you are alive.

The qualities of light and colour in Jamaica are markedly different. The change in seasons is less obvious, for one thing, but Jamaican light has an unrelenting boldness that hits you in the face like smelling salts. It is not subtle, it is not obscure and although silent it is as loud as the horn-obsessed drivers that rule the island’s roads.

I love that light. It’s seared deep into my psyche and for all the rich and subtle mutations of British hues, I can’t help but breathe a sigh of contentment when immersed in colour so bright I can barely see. The hibiscus pops like art against its backdrop of cloudless sky and the verdant hills invite your soul to partake in something deep-rooted, unknown and long-forgotten.

I had similar thoughts about sound. Certainly in comparison to England, Jamaica is a loud place. Music is ubiquitous. It spills out of supermarkets, buses, taxis, bars, cars, restaurants, people. Like the nightly cacophony of crickets, it drifts up through the dusk from sources unknown. As does the consistent protestation of car horns: when we first moved here I was struck by the quietness of English roads, how infrequently drivers announce themselves to each other.

So I sat watching the flying ants, musing about polarities, when something else occurred to me. Slavery. You’ll not live through a day – you’ll rarely live through an hour – in Jamaica without hearing or seeing some reference to slavery. Nor should you. Whether through the lyrics of the island’s endlessly prolific musicians and poets or a chance conservation or a mural or a bank note of any denomination, our shared history is alive in the conscious minds and actions of Jamaica’s people.

And yet. Not five minutes drive from Green Hills Oscar spots a sign saying ‘NO WATER, NO VOTE’. No water, no vote. Not five minutes drive from the house we grew up in and the affluent middle class area in which it sits people have no running water in their houses, people use their vote as a bargaining chip for the most basic of human rights. Poverty is rife and much like the bold and unrelenting light, the legacy of slavery is overt. And people sing, rap, talk, write, paint, dance, teach, learn about it all the time.

I live in Bristol, a port town built like all of Britain on the bloodied backs of slaves. Built on the barbarism and brutality of a legal system of trade that dehumanised, that dehumanises still, people of African descent. Built on a complex web of insidious lies that say white is right and black, like the darkness of night, like the colour of bad magic, is wrong, fearful, inferior and out to get us so we better keep those shackles on. And on and on and fucking on.

And yet. Like the average English driver and his unsounded car horn, silence. Our shared history which made Britain ‘Great’ and ultimately brought Jamaica to its knees is simply. not. discussed. In Bristol there is Queen Square and King Street, Colston Hall and Cabot Circus. But where is the conversation about the money that bought the bricks, about what those names really mean?

I’m not talking about individuals or collectives or short-lived campaigns – plenty of people in Britain are having the conversation – I’m talking about institutions, systems of power and influence that dictate social ‘norms’. My secondary school taught us about the Industrial Revolution but not the black-skinned human cargo that galvanised it. English police officers attest to ‘equal respect to all people’, but not those people, no. We better stop and search those people. They look like drug dealers, murderers even. Maybe we should kill them before they kill us.

That’s how riots start, isn’t it?

To some this may seem an oversimplified take on an infinitely complicated subject, and perhaps it is. But I was just watching some flying ants one evening and these are the things they spoke to me of.

Allowing the dust to settle

Ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, hard and unripened on the tree

“When someone beats a rug, the blows are not against the rug, but against the dust in it.” – Rumi

It’s been two months since my last post. I never imagined it would be that long. I could blame being busy, there’s truth in that, but largely the reason for delay is a physical resistance to sitting down to write. Why? In a word, fear. In four, a lack of clarity.

First, the fear. Back in March I said I’d quit my job to become a freelance writer. This is still the case but at that point I hadn’t yet been to Jamaica. Needless to say there was little room in my mind for thoughts of anything else. Now I am back and I have to make a go of things, build the life I have decided to build. What if I can’t write? What if this has all been a terrible mistake? Who do I think I am?

These hindering questions kept me and my desk away from each other like the matching ends of two batteries. I have now turned down the volume but that voice of self-doubt can always get louder. It’s what drives you forward half the time, and round the bend the rest. One to be aware of, but not succumb to.

As for the lack of clarity well, I have just lived through something I have dreamed of doing for most of my life. I haven’t found it easy to write about because I haven’t been very clear about how I feel. In truth I’m still working it out.

In many ways making a film about the experience made it more challenging than it would otherwise have been, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without the film everything would quickly become consigned to memory, something that once happened, something I would have to try and describe to people, just like leaving and carrying Jamaica around inside in the first place. I would have to communicate my inner world, add shape, colour and texture to the things we have seen and done so that others may understand what those things were like. As a child I found this hard.

I remember the puzzled, disbelieving faces of my young schoolmates, none of whom had ever heard of Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, plantain or ackee. It was alienating to know that these things existed, that I was telling the truth, but once in England it was like they had ceased to be. There was no frame of reference, no common ground.

This feeling became less acute over time. New common ground was forged as I became more and more British. But that feeling of being misunderstood, a stranger in a stranger land trying to explain feelings, smells and tastes to peers who had no idea what I was talking about has stayed with me and is probably the biggest driving force behind this project, now that I really think about it.

Coming back from Jamaica in 2015 couldn’t be more different. I am an adult returning to a life that is known and chosen. Nonetheless, I want to communicate with honesty and accuracy what Jamaica feels like to me and to my brother, what it means to be a product of two such opposite cultures experienced decades apart. Thanks to the support of an incredibly talented and dedicated team, not to mention 181 Indiegogo contributors, Oscar and I will ultimately be able to do this, to share our journey with anyone, anywhere, anytime. To know this gives me a strength and satisfaction greater than I currently have words for.

There is still so much processing to do, so much sense to be made of it all, but in a year or so, maybe less, we will have a piece of work, something artful and (hopefully) universal that we can hold up to the world and say, “Look, this is what it all meant for us. Perhaps you see something you recognise?”

This is particularly reassuring because for the majority of the first fortnight in Jamaica I felt like I was sleepwalking. It was surreal. All these thoughts, feelings and memories were suddenly confronted with a physical reality, things to touch and be amongst. It was a bit like walking around the recesses of my own mind, striding through my recollections where things were familiar, recognisable but ultimately not the same at all.

At times it was unsettling. I often had no idea how to feel. For a while my default emotional state was (uncharacteristically) numb, blank, quiet inside, which soon gave way to the ever-reliable voice of self-doubt. What am I looking for, exactly? Isn’t it all within me already? What if I never find it here? Has this all been a mistake?

As we travelled away from Montego Bay towards Kingston, away from the past and towards the present and future, those questions began to resolve themselves. I have some answers now and more are coming all the time, especially now that I’m back and have the space to let things settle.

I’m conscious that as of yet I’ve said very little about the experience itself, about the island, the people, the food, the music, the polarity between here and there. There is so much to say, and I will say it, but at the moment, having been back for little more than a week, my sights are still set on acclimatisation and finding a place inside for everything that happened on our journey back to Jamaica. Watch this space.

It must be love

Oscar, Dad, me and the sea.

Oscar, Dad, me and the sea.

My last post (of Wednesday, 11 March) was rushed and hurried. I’d been meaning to write for weeks but the all-consuming, social and traditional media-heavy nature of promoting our crowdfunding campaign has been absorbing, to say the least.

Wednesday’s post was really just another exercise in promotion, a way of making sure that all our channels are joined up so that if people find us here and want to contribute to our (rapidly ending) campaign, the signposts are clear. But this blog was never supposed to be about promotion. It was about me sharing my thoughts and feelings about this project, about why we’re doing it and how it feels. So, with that in mind, today I’d like to share some words that come from a different place.

I watched ‘The Escape‘ (my first film and a tribute to my late father) again the other night, for the first time in I don’t know how long. This film was, from conception to private screening, three years in the making. When a good friend read my script and suggested we could crowdfund and produce it, a ball started rolling that has never really stopped.

Making this tribute to Dad, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, was not only hugely therapeutic for me as a grieving daughter, but a powerful experience for me as a writer too, something I suppose I have always been by nature but am only just (just) beginning to accept and announce to the world, a bit like a shy, sun-loving tortoise who knows that he has to stick his neck out there sometime if he wants to feel the rays…

Watching ‘The Escape‘ again evoked, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mix of emotions. I felt critical of (what I now perceive as) obvious shortcomings but at the same time, I entered the filmmaking process entirely blind and so I also feel proud of what we achieved with a minuscule budget and (on my part at least) zero experience. I also felt (and still feel) blessed and honoured that so many treasured friends and family members gave so much (time, love, faith, ears to talk to, shoulders to lean and cry on, talent, belief, money) and, together, we made it happen.

I felt reflective too. When I wrote and ultimately manifested ‘The Escape’ it was really the first time I had put myself ‘out there’ artistically and said to anyone who would listen “this is me, this is what I have to say.” I recently quit my stable, civil service job so that when we return from Jamaica I can embark on a freelance copy and creative writing career: making that stance then has led directly to making this one now.

But the most powerful emotion of all was, again, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most powerful emotion of all, love.

Dad died nearly nine years ago and when he did, our relationship wasn’t in the best place. I carried the pain of that regret for a very long time and only recently made some significant steps towards shedding its weight for good. But I took the first steps down that road when making ‘The Escape’, which was my way of saying to Dad, long after he could hear me, “I love you.” I like to think that whatever his energy has now become, something somewhere feels that love somehow, and knows.

Dad always thought of me as a writer, it’s something he wanted me to be. So maybe something somewhere feels and knows that too. Because when you strip it all away, love – and its countless manifestations – is all we ever really have.

The power of crowds

Me and Oscar at St Paul's Carnival 2013. Soon we'll be back in the carnival motherland!

Me and Oscar at St Paul’s Carnival 2013. Soon we’ll be back in the carnival motherland!

It’s been a long time since my last post; we’ve just been so busy with and absorbed by our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which is live now and closes next Tuesday, 17 March. We have made nearly 70% of our target of £5,000, which is of course fantastic, but it does mean we have another 30% of the way to go. And if we don’t make 100%, all £5,000, we come away with nothing. It’s scary, but we believe we can and will do it and, ultimately, we have no choice! £5,000 is the very minimum amount we need to make this film professionally and do  justice to the stories we are telling. So we’re forging ahead with focus and fearlessness.

Crowdfunding is a great concept, an excellent use of a world made small by the internet. It allows creative projects to come to life, ideas that would otherwise lie dormant to be manifested. There is no way any of us could, as individuals or even as a team of four, afford to make this film. But with the help, love and interest of so many wonderful people, some of whom we have never even met, we are getting there, really getting there. Something I have dreamed of doing for 10 years is finally within reach, and it’s largely because of online support through crowdfunding. I am so grateful to each and every contributor and to everyone who has helped us to spread the ‘Pick Me Up & Turn Me Round’ word.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, including how to donate, please visit ‘Pick Me Up & Turn Me Round’ on Indiegogo today.

And if you’d like to broaden your understanding of the principles behind crowdfunding, here is a fantastic TED talk on the art of asking by musician Amanda Palmer. Well worth checking out.

Going back to the future through personal archives

My brother Oscar and I, captured in a slide from a long-forgotten show, plucked from a drawer full of memories.

Me and my brother Oscar, captured in a slide from a long-forgotten show, pulled out from a drawer full of memories.

Following a couple of fruitful fundraisers (huge thanks to the owners and staff of both The Plough and 51 Stokes Croft, and to everyone involved in making each night a success), a wee pot of savings and the generous support of our family, we were lucky enough to buy four tickets to Montego Bay this week. We go for 3 weeks in mid-April.

Exciting news to say the least: my whole body shook as I booked the tickets, as the idea of returning home – something I have (literally) dreamt of doing since I came to England as a child – became a future reality.

It’s almost impossible for me to explain in words what it feels like to know that we’re returning to our origins for the first time in 23 years. Particularly, for me anyway, the house and gardens we grew up in – Green Hills – which were my universe as a child, somewhere I loved bodily and with a passion that only a child could have for a ‘thing’. The experience of leaving that house behind was akin to bereavement and so returning to it, and the land and country in which it stands, is surreal, a bit like going to visit someone who’s come back from the dead.

Perhaps purchasing the tickets, consciously acknowledging that we are actually going home, triggered something in my subconscious because yesterday I found myself – quite accidentally – rifling through a drawer full of personal history.

In this drawer I keep bulky items like jumpers and jogging bottoms, as well as old notebooks, photos and a folder stuffed with negatives and letters. I open it now and again but rarely look closely at the personal stuff: jumper retrieved, the drawer tends to get shut. Yesterday though, as I was looking for a blank A4 notebook I knew was in there somewhere, I found myself opening the folder of negatives and holding the strange brown strips up to the light, deciphering the tiny yet familiar shapes that are me and my family living out our lives at a time and in a place long since gone.

Some of the most poignant items in this little archive were my old notebooks, the place where I recorded all thoughts and feelings – usually in the form of dreadful poetry – about my adolescent life. It’s been many years since I’ve looked at this stuff and it had a profound and grounding effect on me: how little we recall in the present about how we really felt in the past. It’s a bit like climbing into a time machine and passing your younger self in a corridor: you recognise that person, you are that person, and yet that person also feels like a stranger.

We are obviously a product of our pasts, growing continuously second by second into the people we are now (and now, and now, and…). And yet we can become so disconnected from the person we were just yesterday, let alone 10, 15, 20 years ago.

These personal archives, these physical memories that we pull out of drawers and pore over and say about to ourselves, “Look, this was me, this was how I felt, this is why today is today and tomorrow will be what it is,” are such a gift because they offer a direct and immediate connection with our former selves, in a way that is almost impossible to otherwise achieve. Particularly if, like me and my brother and the people we will interview as we make this documentary, parts of our past are not only tucked away in memory but in another country altogether. Because it’s really by connecting with our former selves that we can better understand who we are now, and who we might want and choose to be in the future.

So what will the personal archives of others look like? And why do people keep the things they keep? What will those things tell us about both those individuals and the collective experience (if there is such a thing) of leaving one home and crossing the Atlantic for another?

We don’t know, but we’ll keep you posted.

We’re all made of stories

Anansi the spider

Anansi the storytelling spider travelled to the Caribbean from West Africa, smuggled over on the slave ships in the oral traditions of the people that were their cargo. Image: page detail from ‘Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti’ by Gerald McDermott

We, as individuals, as communities, as towns, cities and nations, are all made up of lots of different stories. In every global nook and cranny, for as long as no one can remember, myths, legends, parables and fables look to the bold and wonderous beauty of the land, sea and sky, to the actions, emotions and efforts of humankind, and offer up poetry and prose to try and explain it all.

Individual people are no different. Think about how often you tell the story of who you are. Where you’re from, what you do, what you like to eat for dinner, and why (because your Mum used to cook it for you, because it reminds you of a time that made you especially happy, sad, excited, whatever): all these things form the narrative of you.

Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, for example, I say one of two things: “Nottingham” or, “I was born in Jamaica and moved to England in 1991, when I was 9.” Usually the latter because the latter tells more of the story, but sometimes (depending on who I’m talking to) the whole story is exactly what I’m trying to avoid.

Right now though, I’m trying to expand on that story, those words which, over the last 23 years, have become an automatic, almost thoughtless, response to find out exactly what “I was born in Jamaica and moved here aged…” really means. Not just for me but also for my brother, who was 11 when we moved here, and for lots of other people who have made that journey from JA to England, at whatever age, under whatever circumstances.

My brother and I have never returned to the place of our birth. All thoughts and feelings about and sensory associations with Jamaica are held within our (notoriously unreliable) memories. And right here, right now, in 2014, Jamaica exists largely as an imagined space, a place we once were. So what does that mean for our identity, for the narrative of us? And what does it mean for anyone who has moved from Jamaica to here? How do they maintain links with their original culture? Do they even do that? What are the stories they tell themselves?

We don’t really know. But we’re making a documentary that will attempt to find out through interviews with people who’ve made that journey from Jamaica to here – now such an established part of the national psyche – and by going back ourselves in spring 2015, to revisit that imagined space, to see what the tangible reality of those memories means for the stories we have become. Will we have to re-tell those stories if our memories are at odds with the ‘truth’? Will our narrative, our sense of ourselves, change as a result? In this blog we’ll post details of our progress and our attempts to answer those questions, through our own journeys and through the journeys others have made.

At the moment we’re fundraising with a series of events in the City of Bristol (the place I now call home) – our second event is tonight in fact, at 51 Stokes Croft – so that my brother and I and the two-woman production team we’re working with can buy some flights and return to Jamrock.

Watch this space for news and updates on the production.