You’re reading My Black History, a series of personal reflections from Black women in the UK on the meeting point of history and life lessons.
There’s something undeniably scary yet powerful about feeling small. That thought always came to mind staring at the clouds from an aeroplane window, 30,000 feet high. I refer to myself as my mum’s handbag – because I was always by her side whenever she was ready to relocate.
I was born in London, but moved to the US at the age of five where Las Vegas, Nevada quickly became home. I met my first friend, a Mexican native named Jenny who lived across the street from me. She didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish but that didn’t stop us from having fun together.
We didn’t need words. At that age all that mattered was enjoyment. I have fond memories of faltering conversations as we listened to mariachi music and eat traditional Mexican meals prepared by her mother, which is still one of my favourite cuisines to date. I felt a deep connection to Jenny. I was this little Black girl from England with a distinct accent, and she was a little brown-skinned Mexican girl. We embraced and celebrated each other’s uniqueness.
Those are memories I cherish, and I will always carry them with me. Embracing Jenny’s culture made me even prouder to embrace my own. As life unfolded through, an experience I had in second grade, by this time eight-years-old, made me begin to notice an uncomfortable divide in society.
I could never please my Caucasian teacher Mrs V. I was a talkative child and it seemed the only way Mrs V could cope with me was to seat me on the opposite side of the classroom, away from the whiteboard, behind three strategically placed filing cabinets, with masking tape outlined on the floor to limit how far I could walk. But to see the whiteboard, I had to move outside of the taped area, which always landed me in trouble. I was too young then to realise that this severe treatment, caused by ‘adultification’ bias, was reserved for me, the only Black child in the class. This experience forever spoiled what was meant to be a time of innocence, happiness, tenderness.
I left Las Vegas at the age of 12, and headed back to England. What I thought would have been an easy transition turned out to be a lot more difficult than I anticipated. I was the new girl starting in a predominantly white school in Bristol and the curriculum was so different to what I was used to.
There was no lessons on Black history. The lessons taught in Las Vegas were focused around the Civil Rights movement, and the roles played by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I felt the void sitting through numerous history lessons in the UK, a country where Black history is woven into the fabric of its past, hearing not even a casual reference to Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. We focused entirely on European history and the world wars.
This was painful for me. I interpreted this lack of historical acknowledgment as a lack of value placed on Black lives. To fill the void, through self-discovery, I learned about Black figures like Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic lights. I yearned for this type of knowledge at school. The trauma that had followed me since Mrs V’s class made me even more determined to continue learning about Black history – and through this exploration I learned about myself.
Although Black historical contributions were forgotten in class, outside school there was an explosion of music, food and events that kept Black culture alive.
Everyone around me used Jamaican patois as slang, and every year St Pauls Carnival delivered a burst of Caribbean and African culture. I revelled in those moments that celebrated the authenticity of Black culture. Unlike in the US, I was shocked to meet many first generation Africans who knew where they came from. Surrounded by strong cultural representation, my confidence grew and I became much more prideful as a Black person.
Fast forward to aged 14 and the travel bug had bitten my mum again. We were preparing to head back to the US, only this time to the southern states and Atlanta, Georgia. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had always heard how racist the South could be. We moved to Dekalb County, and for the first time, I was living somewhere where Blacks were the majority.
I had thought that learning about the contributions Black people made in history lessons was enough to feel valued. What I didn’t realise was how important it was to see Black professionals in my life, too, as I had in Atlanta. I needed those role models who represented all I could aspire to be.
The world is only just beginning to recognise that Black Lives Matter, but there are still systemic issues that disproportionally impact Black people wherever we live. Having returned to the UK again and seeing things through the lens of the adult I now am, I know every day is a day to celebrate my Black history.
I am reminded by my life’s course what it means to be Black. I acknowledge the past and I choose to focus on the positive qualities I have gained from it. I am a stronger, more determined and resilient person as a result.
A sense of belonging was what I always sought when moving between America and the UK growing up, but I’ve found pieces of myself in all my experiences.