This black guy called LBC Radio recently to ask the nice white lady presenter, Shelagh Fogarty, why he and his “brown” daughter are considered black and not English. They were both born and raised in England, he said, but after only ten years of living here and speaking the lingo, nobody asked Eastern Europeans where they come from anymore.
His twenty-year-old daughter could not understand it, he said. She considers herself English. Neither he nor his daughter had anything to do with Jamaica, where his parents were born, and he described that country as nothing more than “a slave plantation” with “reggae music as its only claim to fame.” My ears pricked up intently, then.
“But don’t you want to be associated with the country where your gene pool comes from?” Shelagh Fogarty asked. “Just as I am of Irish descent born and raised in England?” The black man vehemently insisted against it. He went on to explain to the world his scant regard for Jamaica, or Jamaicans, whom he regarded as inherently criminal. He was “a nomad without a country,” he insisted.
I thought, good God! Even if I felt that low, I wouldn’t call up a national radio station to tell them about it. I wanted to ring LBC Radio myself, but only to say to Shelagh Fogarty that DNA didn’t work that way. I wanted to explain to her why his lineage would reference Africa mainly, not Jamaica, nor even much else beyond a few drops of Syrian, European or Jewish blood as well. But I couldn’t get through, and the brother’s rant left me stunned for the rest of the week.
He sounded as if he was suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome to me. Here was a black man begging a liberal white woman and her one million right of centre radio listeners to see him as English, not Black, or even Jamaican, let alone anything to do with being of African descent. It was incredibly sad. I felt sorry for him. If you don’t know yourself and don’t love yourself, you and yours will always be a bunch of self-loathing nomadic wanderers.
I thought of all the incredible Jamaicans I had known in my life, including my cousin Ren Gonsalves, who headed the Bodles Research Centre responsible for rescuing banana industries as far afield as India and South America. Then, there was our industrious neighbour, Dr Thomas Lecky, another Jamaican pioneer. He single-handedly bred the Jamaican Black, a new breed of cattle that could withstand the realities of a Caribbean climate and feed the nation.
As black people in England, I know that many of us struggle with issues of identity from time to time. The Union Jack is no great symbol of inclusion and diversity, sadly. It has always been a blessing to me that I spent much of my most formative years in Jamaica as a child. It is still something of a crisis, however, that the only time I felt as if I truly belonged in England was the day that Princess Diana died, even if I was on holiday in Ghana at the time.
This feeling of not-belonging is despite knowing without a doubt that so much of who I am is as a direct result of being born and raised in England. As Black as I am. It is no secret to those who know me that my most significant influences are mainly due to an accident of birth. However, in England, I am still merely “black” while abroad, I am considered “English”–and sometimes, even “middle-class.” The difference between me and the black man who called LBC radio, I guess, is that I don’t need anyone to endorse or approve of who I think I am. No approval required. It is what it is, as they say.
If the man calling LBC radio considers Jamaica a “slave plantation,” then, at some level, he must still consider England partly responsible for the transportation and enslavement of Africans in that country. It was not immediately apparent to listeners why his daughter was “brown” as opposed to “black.” We could only surmise from his language and tone that she must have been of “mixed race,” and that he, like many of his British-born contemporaries, was likely guilty of trying to “breed out the black.” There are black men in Britain today, I hear, who do not want their mixed-race children to date or marry other black people. It’s a thing these days, allegedly. I wonder what Shelagh would have to say about that?