Where are you really from? is a project founded and run by the writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, set up to tell the stories of black and brown people living in rural Britain,an experience which is rarely explored in conversations around ‘race’. This is a series of interviews from the project. Here Louisa speaks to Martha, who now lives in London, but is from the Cotswolds.
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I’ve lived in London for ten years but I am from a small village in the Cotswolds. I would say that I’m mixed race or Black. I use brown to describe myself too sometimes. My mum is English and her family have been for generations as far as I know. My dad was born in Trelawny, Jamaica. He moved to Gloucester in the south west of England in 1964 when he was 8. My grandma and my great-grandma were already there, working as auxiliary nurses. They had gone first and sent for him, as was normal at the time.
My parents met as young people in Gloucester, in a part of the city where a lot of Jamaicans settled during the Windrush era. My Granddad on my mum’s side was the vicar there.
My dad left when I was a baby and my mum raised my three older siblings and me in a village of a few hundred people.
I had a blissful childhood in many ways. Our house was full of laughter and discussion and art and a belief in a better world. My mum was, and continues to be, a very supportive and proactive ally of her four brown children. She shared with us everything she could lay her hands on about movements for Black liberation and the achievements of Black people. She learned to braid our hair beautifully. She did what she could in the absence of a Black community but growing up, my connection to Blackness was through acquiring knowledge and feeling different from everybody around me. We lived in an almost entirely white community and I was very conscious of it.
I was home-schooled until I was 11 as my mum wanted us to be freer to pursue our interests and have more fun than we would have done in school. I think she also felt that in all-white village schools we would be treated differently because we were brown, and she wanted us to be strong in our own sense of self before we had to contend with that.
When I did go to school, there were never more than 10 Black or brown students. Teachers often couldn’t tell who belonged to which family, despite us clearly being from different ethnicities, which never bothered me that much but I did think they were absurdly stupid. Me and the other children weren’t necessarily friends but there was a respect and acknowledgement of each other. I remember the other two mixed girls came round to have their hair braided once.
As a family we had some difficult experiences of racism. At one point our neighbours joined together to try to get us evicted. For over a year my mum had to try and find ways to prove to the housing association that this was racially motivated, a fact they eventually recognised, and they destroyed the complaints.
I had a close friend growing up and every time her granddad came to her house we had to play upstairs. At some point it was explained to me that once when he was building the motorways a Black man held a knife to him and that was why I couldn’t be seen. I don’t think it was comfortable for them but I’m not sure they knew how to handle the situation. It taught 8 year-old me a lot about how racism works.
Experiences like these were irregular but the feeling I didn’t belong was pervasive and seeped into every corner of the everyday. It was rarely explicit, but an accumulation of questions, asked or implied, undermining my existence and place in the world: “Where are you from? Why are you here?”
People wondered if we were adopted or would comment on my ‘tan’ or my hair. I remember nice white ladies asking in slow, encouraging voices if we were “some sort of group” when it was just me, my siblings and my cousins (who are half-Bangladeshi half-English) out for a walk with our mums. People would expect our lives to look like the lives they had seen on hood films or MTV, when they lived alongside us and could see that we were much the same as them. I loved how my brother played up to this wearing a zebra print ‘pimp’ suit to prom. I was always too earnest to make jokes.
It seemed people felt we were hiding something, something mythic. An explanation for our existence that we weren’t giving that they would subtly reach for. Alternatively, there were nice people, and nice people “didn’t see colour”. I felt a lack of recognition amid the violence of people’s politeness.
As a teenager, experiences of racism were one of few opportunities to feel my difference recognised. I remember deliberately overreacting to playground teasing, baiting another kid to be ‘overtly racist’ to me so that I could feel seen by somebody. I didn’t have language for microaggressions then so I longed for name-calling or someone to hit me. Other brown kids who grew up in similar settings told me they did the same thing. It was very lonely.
I embodied a feeling of wrongness, of being suspended in a sunken place. I would feel a creeping sensation on my skin, and my hair would feel thick and heavy and itchy. When I was very young I used to twist my finger around locks of hair and pull it out, leaving myself bald in patches. I wonder now how much that was to do with this feeling; I can’t be sure. I felt visible yet unseen, exposed yet silenced.
I used to wear a pin badge sometimes from a 90s anti-racist campaign: All Equal, All Different. I loved to run my finger over the black part and the white part of the badge. It spoke to me of my environment and of my mixed identity and I wanted people to see it.
Sometimes on Jamaican Independence Day we would have a party and invite our friends over and braid their hair and cook ackee and saltfish and watch Cool Runnings. I wouldn’t braid my white friends’ hair now, and maybe I’d choose a different film, but it was a time to share our difference on our terms. I felt normalised by it, contextualised, and less of a novelty. I think building solidarity in a rural environment looks different than in the city.
I moved to London when I was 19 for university. I was supposed to go to Bath but my unconscious told me I needed to do myself a favour and get the hell out of Georgian regency spa towns in the south west of England. I wasn’t conscious at the time how much I was seeking a feeling of rightness in spaces and relationships as a brown person, but I was.
I felt that the difference between being Black or brown in the city as opposed to the countryside was that you could have a community of people like you, a feeling of belonging and comfort. I wanted that for myself. To find a new balance between connection and disconnection, people and place.
I’ve lived in the city for ten years now in a community that feels like home but a landscape that doesn’t. I find myself longing for the fresh air and an empty horizon, a wilderness where I can belong and my Blackness can belong too.
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Louisa Adjoa Parker’s coastal memoir will be published by Little Toller in 2021. She is a writer and poet whose work includes Salt Sweat and Tears and How to Wear a Skin. Her writing and research has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She is also the curator and edited of the Where are you really from? project – if you’d like to share your experience, please get in touch with her via her website.