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Jamaican English, African Caribbean, Black British……

Sometimes I feel so fed up of wondering what box to tick that I think I should just leave it blank, just for the hell of it. I mean, I was born here in England but if I had a pound for each time I have been asked ” And where do you come from?” I’d be a millionaire by now.  Jamaican English says a lot more than Black British,which sounds like we are all lumped together with no cultural identity. African Caribbean is slightly better as this refers to ancestral links with a continent and a range of islands. Jamaican English defines my heritage and where I was born and is a term I have chosen for myself, not one that has been forced on me.  And don’t even mention Afro-Caribbean, Afro is a hairstyle and as you can see, I do not have an Afro. In fact I have never had one even when it was fashionable, my hair then was too short.
My parents left Jamaica, well , Dad came first and then sent for Mum, with the thought of only staying for a few years. They were young people, full of hope and ambition and with no intention of growing old in a foreign land. And let’s get another thing straight, people from the Caribbean in those times did not come here on a whim, this was in response to a recruitment drive from England. They came prepared to work and boy, did they work AND face unwanted emotions whilst enduring different living conditions.

We Will Do Our Best…….
Large tropical flowers full of rainbow hope
Adorn bodies of treacle chocolate caramel
and forests of black head silk escape from
soft petal bands
snow crisp shirts with razor pleated trousers
compliment defiant felt feathered crowns
eager to show they were ready
Smiling with no fear,
Radiating a perfume of island remembrance
With an aura of excitement
they came
With their youth and passion
Strong backs and sun blessed hearts
They came in their height of fashion
In garments meant for Sunday Best
They left behind
A life well known
They left behind
Miniature versions of themselves
And came with
Communal aspirations of success
To work, to learn, to save
To achieve all this in five years
And then return home again
To say
We came
And we left
We didn’t stay no time
But….
The messages they were given
Were not relayed to the host community
The recruiting officers
Should have been more truthful
Should have been more open
From a small island in the sun
To a larger island in the grey
With
Only countless chimney stacks
spewing dust to darken ancestral kissed skin
so many houses, so little space
but
We Will Do Our Best…..

Imani c 2011

 
My parents left four children behind to pursue this dream and as a result, when they had me, my sister and my brother, we were and still are   referred to as ‘The English Ones’.

Even now I can feel the coldness of that day. I know I don’t look too happy but I was cold and couldn’t see my mum amongst all the other people, I wanted to cry. I loved this dress, so pretty with tiny embroidered  roses and stiff with petesheen petticoats. I didn’t like the cardigan Mum made me put on to hide all this loveliness. I had on a pair of silvery, sparkly shoes that made me feel magical, they were so beautiful. I remember teasing my baby sister the night before the wedding, saying something along the lines of ” I’ve got these and you haven’t” and gloating that she was not a bridesmaid. Mind you, when she was a bridesmaid at another cousin’s wedding a few years later, she didn’t crow like I did, just went about with a large smile on her face. On the big day, she looked really pretty in a golden silk-like full length dress with a large bow at the back, ah…
We lived in a large house in Kennington, that I seem to remember as being full of people all the time. There were several families living there, each family had one room and the staircase seemed to go on forever.  I can still see the yellow table that we had in our room which was by a window.We moved to Lewisham after a while, where my parents had bought a house.It seemed so huge and empty, all this space, all these rooms just for us. And before anyone gets out of their pram to ask how could they afford it, please note that this was due to the Jamaican community saving scheme called Pardnah. For some people saving money in a mattress is fine, but a group of people saving together with regular distribution is even better.
I could never understand why we were called ‘ Coloured’ back then. To my child’s mind, this meant  stripes and swirls of all the colours of the rainbow, not various tones and shades of brown. It Just didn’t make any sense to me. But it wasn’t something I worried about, I was too busy trying to have a good time despite having to do chores and keep an eye on my sister and brother.

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Hairstory Part One

Anyone remember (or admit to)  running around in your house with a cardigan over your head? This is directed at women, we were all little girls once. No offense to you men, but if any of you did…..well.. that’s between you and your past…..Anyway, girls or women should I say, who is brave enough to say ” Yes?” I am. I use to love wearing a cardigan on my head, flicking it back like I had long flowing locks (ironic now eh) and shaking my head to feel the sleeves gently tapping my face. And it had to be a cardigan, stockings or tights did not have the same effect and made you look like an off key bank robber…..

Back then, I always had hair that was much shorter than my little sister’s. She could do so much with it, or I really should say Mum, who would plait her hair in various combinations, all topped off with lovely ribbons. which made her look so cute. Me, on the other hand…well…. ,my hair had an odd texture. curly and soft when wet, tough as goodness knows what when dry. And then it shrank! Mum would also top my hair off with a ribbon which sort of looked like a consolation prize for having hair so limited in length but bloody hard to comb out. And no matter what happened during the day, we had to come with the same amount of ribbons we left home with. I have a picture of myself at primary school age with a blue ribbon band around my hair. I can look in my eyes and see l how I felt then. With my bright smile, my eyes said, Oh I hope this makes my hair look longer, but I can safely say now, no. I therefore had a very slim curtain of comfort after my hair had been washed, as when it was damp it felt lovely. One night though, Mum broke three combs in my hair, I heard each one snap, as it struggled to run through, good thing we always had a few more.

Our brother did not escape hair management because he was a boy as once a month on Sundays, Dad would trim his hair with sheers or any new fangled clipping implements for men. He even bought a barber-type chair that could swing right round and when he was at work or out of the house, we would muck about swinging each other until the chair tipped over. Dad would always wonder why the chair did not sit well as it become wonky after a while, but we didn’t admit anything. In our house, if it was a joint transgression, we all kept our mouths shut. There would be little tufts of hair all over the floor, as our brother looked out with nearly tear filled eyes as Dad told him to hold still in case he clipped his skin. And then to top it off, Dad would gently cut a path into our brother’s scalp and it was always dead straight.

I had a dolly that had long red pinky hair. I think I gave her the name ‘Diana’ as she came in a large box with her name written on which I didn’t like. At Woolworth’s which is where I am sure my parents bought her from, there was a large selection of these dolls in the toy section which was located in the basement, all lining the top shelf of the toy department, wearing beautiful gown type dresses with pearl looking necklaces and bracelets. They were really big, must have been about 3 feet in height. Diana had a slight smile with eyes that could roll and long black lashes. Sorry to all the metric folk but I am a real casualty of England refusing to go metric all the way when our money became pounds and pence. When my mum starts buying yam and banana in kilos, well, so will I. Anyway, my dolly was the only thing I had over my sister as her dolly was round and baby-like with short blond hair. I use to love combing and brushing Diana’s hair into different styles and wished that my hair could be so fine and easy.

Mum would sometimes let us play with her hair, I don’t know how she managed this I wouldn’t have liked to have children playing about with my hair, but she did. Good thing we had television then as she would just sit and watch  whilst we did our thing, but never, ever, whilst she was watching Coronation Street. We would decide who was going to do the back or front part of her hair and try to plait it which was nigh on impossible as Mum’s hair was always pressed.  She had a couple of hairpieces that were all the rage then, which sat on top of her hair with large fat curls and after a while she would get us to loose out the curls, oil them up with liquid paraffin and curl it back up again.

The oils and pomades hat we used in our hair ranged from an almost neon yellow sulphur type to ones smelling sweetly of rose. The pressing oils promised a smooth and shiny finish and were either blue or green. Mum would put raw egg in our hair to condition it which I thought was a waste of good frothy eggs that would have graced the beginning of a delicious Mackeson Punch drink. Once the egg conditioner turned our hair into smelly stiff peaks, Mum would rinse this out, but the eggy smell would haunt our house for a while.

Mum would visit a lady down the road to have her hair done. There were no hairdressers that catered for women of colour back then, no salons like nowadays, it’s like you blink and there’s another new salon on the high street. There was always a scent of Blue Magic  just hanging in the air mixed with the exotic smell of paraffin with a couple of pressing combs or curling tongs on top or inside near the grills of the heater. I could see how they did it, making a nice path to separate a clump of hair, grease it up with Blue Magic, take the comb out of the heater, look at it and blow on it ( I mean, we’re talking red hot here as if blowing would lower its vibrant heat) wipe it gently on a cloth and then  ease it though. Smoke would gently rise up and any unfortunate strands that missed the oil, would suffer a singed death. You had to be really good at using the curling tongs which looked really dangerous to me, timing was essential to avoid making a curl into a burnt stump.

I use to dread it when Mum said that my hair was to be pressed, which was not often, but when it did, this meant that my hair would be actually manageable for a while. No more me streching forward with hunched shoulders as Mum gently tugged me back to fight with the comb, no more aching scalp The part I really hated was having the hair near my ears done. Mum would say ” Hold it down, hold it down” but the oil from my hair made my ears greasy and I could feel the heat of the comb coming closer and closer and closer….. and my ear sliding out of my grasp, like it wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And then, PING! it saw what the fuss was about and this was really painful! You would often see your friends coming to school with a small burnt patch either around the ear or on it. And not just round the ear, anywhere there was short hair, little brand marks would be there. As soon as we all grew older and pressed our own hair. the scars got lesser, practice does make perfect!

At primary school, hair was not too much of an issue but at secondary school, where you had to travel on a bus presented a new problem. A hair style that would last the day and withstand the sometimes hazardous journey. I once found myself hanging off the back of a Routemaster Bus which I had jumped on whilst it was moving off and nearly swung myself of it, only thinking about how my hair must look, as the breeze ripped out my fragile hairstyle, And then there was the meeting of new people from the distant lands or Woolwich, Brockley, Ladywell and New Cross so style and fashion was a big deal. I tried my best, but when that umbrella flick up type hairstyle came in ( I can’t remember the correct name of this look but people of my age will know what this means.) I had to admit defeat. My sister’s hair just kept on growing, she could comb it out into a large Afro, pin it up with sponge curlers and reveal the latest style.

I Wish I Could Have Said This Earlier, Dad…..

My Dad always wore a three piece suit, something which I could never understand. Even when summers were actually hot, he always had on his waistcoat and long sleeved shirts and never went out without his hat. He had a fantastic collection of hats,all more or less the same style with different feathers in the headband. And he loved wearing ties, all the colours of the rainbow.  He always called me a shorter version of my name, which sounded like ” Myrrh” I can’t remember him calling me by my full name, unlike my mum.

His cooking was distinctly different from mum’s and when he made soup, his dumplings were absolutely huge! I remember him coming home with bags of broken biscuits and fudge sweets,he always bought home something for us to have as treats. He loved cricket and would hog the television when test matches were being played and loved it when West Indies beat England. I remember one time when Mum was in Jamaica attending a funeral, that he made a mistake ( don’t ask me how) and bought a melon instead of pumpkin to make soup, his face was a picture and his language was far from sweet…

He was always at home after work, never went to the pub or bookies or dance but would insist on dragging us out most Sundays to visit relatives leaving close by. I think he was the only man I knew who didn’t drive and when I got my own car and used to cussing other drivers, he would sit in the front seat and hang on for dear life, but I couldn’t cuss with him there as he would be really shocked that I knew such words.  We would have long arguments that started out as gentle talks, getting louder and louder until mum told both of us to calm down. My parents were known throughout the area as when he Joined The Ancestors, mum said that she had been told at Lewisham Market that ‘ A tall man with a short wife had passed away’ There were so many family members in the same cemetery, that people said that they would all be having a party once us mourners had left. I miss our talks but I find that I am using some of his choice phrases when I see the price of food in supermarkets!

Although you may think I do not care

know that I care for you

Although you may think I do not love

know that I love you

I know that I have never sat

and reasoned long with you

please forgive me for my lack

of whatever feeling to you is due

I can only imagine what it was like

to come so far and leave

whatever happiness there was at home

that island in the Caribbean Sea

to seek new work, to find a future

as you and others had been told

to journey so great a distance

for this reality to come true to unfold

Waiting patiently and working so hard

feeling hatred from your fellow man

just because your skin was a different shade from them

Sticking it out, waiting in vain

As months drifted  into years

seeing your youth and your strength gradually disappear

being called an immigrant, an ethnic minority

coming from a land where you where in the majority

even though you were a law abiding citizen

of this so called humane society

I wish I could talk to you

tell you that I respect you

and that I am grateful for all that you have achieved

as I am proud to be continuing this line

of Jamaican Ancestry

I know that sometimes you did not approve

of the actions I have taken

but understand that at the time

I thought i could not be mistaken

and would have to pay in the future

for my youthful follies

This reasoning is for you

My Father

This love is from

A Thankful Daughter.

Thanks, Dad.

Imani c 2012