Who Am I?

I was asked to write something about myself in contribution to a student project, the focus was Black History Month and the passionate students were attempting to shine a light on every day stories. In short, they were looking for biographies that were ‘closer to home’ and that might resonate with them and their audience. Unfortunately, questions were asked about the content and as yet, the project has failed to garner support, and thus remains behind closed doors. However, having spent some time recalling many unpleasant memories, I did not want my efforts to go unread. What follows is a brief biographical portrait, one that I hope is presented to you in the true spirit of #BHM.

Beenie Man poses a profound question in his hit single[1], “Who Am I?” This characterization question (Schechtman, 1996[2]) seeks to unravel notions of personhood and self-identity towards the conceptualization of self, and the distinct features of one’s personal identity. In responding to the question, I lean on the culinary, musical and social characteristics that have fashioned the man in the mirror. Indeed, I enjoyed Sunday dinner made of stewed brown chicken, yam, callaloo, fried dumplings and peas. However, Who Am I is also a reflection of the numerous battles that I have faced and continue to face. It is both an internal and external mêlée, one that I have tussled with, sought understanding from, and one that continues to define me. As such, I invite you in to view the portrait of who I am.

I, like many of African-Caribbean decent, grew up in a lone parent family household, not a bastard as I was born in wedlock, but my father left shortly after my third birthday. He was a strong man, born into abject poverty in 1941 in Clarendon, Jamaica. He spent his childhood years in a small ranch like construction, no more impressive than a makeshift shelter. He did not enjoy the privilege of formal schooling, travel or play. Yet, when presented with the opportunity, he joined the Windrush[3] generation and made his way to Britain. 

My mother, the daughter of a GI bride,[4] spent her early life in the southern States of America, in itself a challenge. On returning to Britain following the collapse of her mother’s marriage, she lived a humble life prior to meeting, and later marrying my father.  This was all at a time when segregation, discrimination and overt racism prospered.

I was born October 1970. My early childhood was littered with dreadful acts of racism, all of which were accepted behaviour in the ‘Me Decade[5]’. The overt distaste and disrespect for people of colour flourished, and to which I fell victim, over and over again. The ridiculous caricatures and the outlandish perceptions of what it was to be black penetrated my exterior and stained my soul. Indeed, the barbed insults, such as ‘Monkey’, ‘coon’, and ‘wog’, in themselves were excruciating, but the reinforcement of these thoughtless imitations of blackness left me indignant. Yet, it is not the case that these epithets were so ingrained and perpetuated by popular media, rather that they were unconscious terms wherein the agent did not understand the hurt and level of upset exacted upon me. In other words, to them they were not always used as insults, which made their use even more heinous. 

“I am not de problem, but I bare de brunt of silly playground taunts an racist stunts.”

Benjamin Zephaniah[6]

Throughout my formative years I lived in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hyson Green, a ward overwhelmed by poverty, prostitution, drugs and violence. This socially constructed habitus was my daily worldview, my socialised existence, considered by cultural participants and outside observers to be nothing more than a frozen norm. In other words, just the way it was. I recall, as an eight-year old boy (I think) one such day:

It was a normal school day, my mum had woken me as she did each day, asked me to be good, to be honest and to be just as I prepared myself. What was special about the day, to me at least, was that I had woke to a dead body in front of our flat. A young woman lay embedded in the grass verge not ten feet from our door, yet all around me life continued completely oblivious of the death. I was quickly dressed and ushered out the door and towards whatever sense of normal I could grab hold of for the day.

School was punctuated with daily incursions by ‘enemy forces’ occupying many and all fronts. The playground bully, the local gangs, and even the professionals charged with my care. Every teacher in my junior school was white, they didn’t look like me and they didn’t sound like me, yet for some reason they boasted of knowing exactly who I was. I was ‘trouble’, I ‘had an attitude’, ‘a look about me’ that would get me nowhere in life! My father would scoff, “na bodda wid dem, jus tek wat yuh need.”  This would be an education, the capital required to develop self, to better prepare for the world at large. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. School was difficult, the daily thrashing of the cane, reminiscent of the vicious punishment depicted in Roots[7]. I found both the portrayal and the reality painful. 

Moving up to the secondary school, we (I forgot to mention that I am an identical twin, a point noted by my teachers as they referenced us as “double the trouble”) were afforded the opportunity to attend Bluecoat Comprehensive School (I purposely name this institution as a classic example of structural racism), an architecturally impressive building with a reputation for advancement across its student body.

My first day on campus was illuminating to say the least. We (six students from an inner-city junior school) had come from a diversely rich environment and yet, with limited warning, found ourselves thrust into a white space. In fact, we were the first cohort of non-whites to join the school. We all knew it wasn’t going to work. The conscious intolerance for people of colour was repeatedly impressed upon us in the daily exchanges with staff and students. The racial hierachy held a dominant place deep within the fabric of the school.

Having survived compulsory education, I enrolled on a Youth Training Scheme[8] (YTS) as opposed to considering my place in further or higher education. During this period of my life, and as a young man living in Nottingham in the 1980s, I, like many people of colour, endured the popular Police stop and search[9] procedures of the time. The strategy has been widely reported to be disproportionately employed in an overly aggressive manner towards young men of colour (Equality & Human Rights Commission, 2010). I recall many such incidents, however, one exchange in particular stays with me: 

After an evening out in a city centre bar, myself, my brother, and two friends were walking home through the Chapel Bar area of Nottingham. We were suddenly, and aggressively accosted by four male police officers. Officer ‘A’ stepped in front of me and asked me where I was heading. My comeback, atypical of a 17-year old was brisk. His response was to grab me by the collar, push me up against a wall and spout “look nigger, if you want trouble you can have it.” In a sudden state of shock, my friends and I did not offer any retort or sudden movement, we merely stood compliant. The officer continued to refer to me as ‘nigger boy’ and asked if I wanted to fight him. In fact, at one point he begged me to throw a punch so that he could “put me where I belong.”

I have attempted to present my early lived life with verisimilitude. In doing so, I am able to reflect on the brutal physical and emotional reality of living black in the UK. Unfortunately, the sentiment of racial inequality has not dwindled in frequency. Time has failed to soften the tenacity of the racist, it merely offers cover, and at times, authenticity to the thinking behind the behaviour.  As an adult of some standing, I continue to face the challenges of my past. I was recently stopped by a police officer, physically handled and verbally abused because, in the officer’s words, “I looked like an immigrant.” Whilst pursuing a career in sport development I applied for a position that I believed I was more than qualified to do. Following my unsuccessful interview, the feedback was, and I quote, “you didn’t look me in the eye.” I view both incidents as examples of asymmetric communication, a power relationship that would have me respond “yes master” and cower to the prevailing power structure.

In summary, I occupy many and most spaces in solitude, striving to break through various barriers to be seen as a coach, an educator, and as a professional. Still, I continue to face ignorance, refusal and rejection, comments such as “it is nice to see someone like you here” – National Teaching Fellowship Scheme awards dinner, 2017. “How did you get this position?” – Sport England Regional Sports Board, 2009. And even more ridiculous to digest is the deeply rooted misconception buried in a statement directed at me by a manager, “don’t you go to the barbers for your drugs?” – Curriculum Team Leader, Bradford College, 2015.

The list is long, I could go on, detailing incident after incident, however, I have been asked to write of my experiences in celebration of #Black History Month. In doing so, my task was to invite you in and grant you access to my lived experience, to the person behind the colour. To this end, I have enjoyed success in many quarters. I am a five-time graduate currently engaged in Doctoral study. I am an Advanced HE[3] Senior Fellow and National Teaching Fellow recipient, the first to be recognised from Higher Education in Further Education. I am the first black UKCC[4] Level 4 coach, and one of the first three coaches to complete the programme. I have been nominated three times for the UK Coaching ‘Coach of the Year’ award and am a recipient of the 2019 Basketball England ‘Regional Coach of the Year’ award. 

I wear these achievements with pride. They provide me with a sense of accomplishment despite the treatment exacted upon me. I can say that I have coached and taught hundreds of young people, and that I have been recognised for my contributions to their lives. I cannot say that I am recognised as an equal or afforded the same respect, parity, and dignity of those alongside me. No matter the setting, the battles remain constant.

In closing, and as part of the promise[5] that underpins Black History Month, I reach out to you the reader and ask you to engage in dialogue, to allow yourself to be vulnerable so that we may begin to effect change. Shying away from the difficult conversations does not reduce the threat, it merely shelters and preserves the racial hierarchy. To challenge the very roots of racial prejudice we must speak up. We can no longer accept any level of injustice, and certainly not a George Floyd (41), Breaonna Taylor (26) or Alatiana Jefferson (28). We must seek fairness, equality, healing and freedom. 

[1] Many Moods of Moses, 1997

[2] Schechtman, M. (1996). The constitution of selves, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

[3] People arriving in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. MV Empire Windrush brought workers from Jamaica

[4] War brides who married military personnel

[5] Tom Wolfe, 1976

[6] Rasta poet and Oxford Professor of Poetry nominee

[7] 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots

[8] Outlined in the 1980 white paper A New Training Initiative: A Programme for Action

[9] Police Stop and Search activity is carried out under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)

[10] Senior Fellowship is awarded to professionals who demonstrate they meet the criteria of the Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education

[11] United Kingdom Coaching Certificate

[12] A time to rejoice and celebrate integrity, leadership and determination. It is about showing your true character.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s