Essay About England

Once, when given a lift home, I got my friends to drop me at the gate of a proper house. Then as soon as they were out of view I walked back to my flat.I got a degree in textile design and worked as a designer for about ten minutes before I realised it was not for me.

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We were asked to split into two groups, black and white. It was, ironically, where I felt most at home – all my friends, my boyfriend, my flatmates, were white. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up for me as never before. I met my aunt and cousins and saw where my mum grew up.

But my fellow workers had other ideas and I found myself being beckoned over by people on the black side. I soon came to realise that my experience of growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. I realised for the first time that I had a background and an ancestry that was fascinating and worth exploring.

It was too foreign and therefore not worth knowing.

As I got older my feeling of outsiderness became more marked, as did the feeling that nothing in my background – my class or my ethnicity – was really worth having.

I remember a journey I took on a London bus when I was a young girl. The bus was full of people and one of them was a black man. I could tell from his accent that, like my parents, he was from somewhere in the Caribbean. Why was he, and why were all black people from Britain's old empire, so completely alien to them? The same thing would not happen today in quite that way.

He was talkative, smiling politely at people and trying to engage them in chat. Everyone is used to a mix of cultures and London buses are full of Londoners from all over the world.I was sure that he was a nice man and that if those people on the bus could just get to know him then they would like him. How and why did Britain forge those links in the first place? But my parents had come to this country from Jamaica. My dad had been a passenger on the Empire Windrush ship when it famously sailed into Tilbury in June 1948 and, according to many, changed the face of Britain for ever. They came to Britain on British Empire passports in order to find more opportunities for work and advancement. Eventually they were housed in the council flat in Highbury where I was born, and where I grew up. They believed that in order to get on in this country they should live quietly and not make a fuss. Keep their children well dressed and scrubbed behind the ears.These are questions that have come to fascinate me, because they reveal what amounts to a lost history for many of us. And in the area of London where we lived, that made my family very odd. My mum came to England on a Jamaica Banana Producer's boat. They should assimilate and be as respectable as they possibly could. On one occasion my mum did not have money to buy food for our dinner. She worried that she might be forced into the humiliation of asking someone, a neighbour perhaps, for a loan.We would always have lighter-skinned children to play with. When a member of the far-right group the National Front waved one of their leaflets in my face and started laughing, I felt I owed them some sort of apology. It would be years before I realised I could be angry with them.I was expected to isolate myself from darker-skinned people too, and it seemed perfectly normal to me that the colour of your skin was one of the most important things about you. The racism I encountered was rarely violent, or extreme, but it was insidious and ever present and it had a profound effect on me. I was ashamed of my family, and embarrassed that they came from the Caribbean.It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write.Toni Morrison was once asked if she felt constrained by her being seen as a black writer.It drew attention to her as well, and she hated that. In Jamaica this had had a big effect on my parents' upbringing, because of the class system, inherited from British colonial times, people took the colour of your skin very seriously.My parents had grown up to believe themselves to be of a higher class than any darker-skinned person.White people of course never had to think about it. Light-skinned or not, still we were asked, 'When are you going back to your own country? In my efforts to be as British as I could be, I was completely indifferent to Jamaica.But if you were not white, well then, how black were you? None of my friends knew anything about the Caribbean.


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