Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Good Old Days Part II

This post is continued from last week.

...Questions abound. And introspection, if pursued might provide answers about how and why ‘he turned out like that?’ And more importantly did he do it all by himself?

Clearly these questions should be posed to the society in which our children are born. But this does not change the fact that they are our children; the over 30s and 40s among us – these children in the moment of experiencing are our children. So have we looked, retrospectively, at our time and sought answers there? Have we looked deeply, honestly within ourselves and acknowledged, however difficult, whether we might have played any part in the disillusionment our children are experiencing within their moment? If we haven’t, we are not as willing to hear our children are crying, perhaps we’re not ready to understand why.

This is not to say that the society should be let off without a probe. If we’re talking about the 1970s, 1980s what was happening in those ‘good old days’ of ours? I was not born here, I arrived in 1980. Enoch Powell had (before I was born) consigned me to a destiny of creating terror and violence; prophesising my vile, bloody impact on the imperceptible tranquillity that was English society. But I didn’t know that I was this vile, this evil creature he had thrust into the minds (imagination doesn’t work!) of his followers (the bold ones and the others). I was too busy dealing with the emotional trauma of being in and adjusting to this new hostile environment, one that questioned the very point of my existence. I was unaware that I was considered the cause of its hostility towards me. A bizarre notion – that I should be the instigator of my own oppression. Those born into this hostility might have a different sensibility about belonging, feeling part of England. I know only that I had no perception of racism until I came here. I learnt how to read its signs. And they were everywhere. I learnt that I was a ‘problem.’ I suspected myself – that my attitude needed checking – all the time – it was me, always me who was the problem. What else could I do but try to prove how much of a problem I was. Someone decided that’s what I was and will always be. And I wanted evidence.

Now, our mothers and fathers were used to repair post war Britain; they stooped to do the menial jobs the poorest English person refused to do. By the time I arrived here those poor English people had cottoned on; they checked their exercise of pride; decided to muck in; after all those Caribbeans were buying houses, travelling back home– how? The exercise of pride switched; we – the now over 30s and 40s were not prepared to stoop anymore. Why should we? We wanted in – wanted a bigger piece of the English pie (we knew there was no gold). Some compromises had to be made to sample it – compromises some of our brothers were not prepared to make; some of them loafed their way to jail, others played the entrepreneur, the loot of which is yet elusive, the big boys always seem to have the trumps. Compromising meant that you just couldn’t quite be – couldn’t fully express yourself without seeming like ‘the problem’. It was hard to get over your vexation (that insidious knowing that you weren’t wanted, that you would never belong whether you were born here or not); so you carried the thing with you like a genie that every so often popped the hell out. You knew you weren’t going to be promoted, no matter how hard you worked – and you – some of you – worked hard, so you never went for the promotion; a hapless white colleague went for it instead. What was the point? You were trying to control the ‘genie’ – the ‘attitude’ – if only to keep your job. So you bore a smile; played the (‘I’m not black really or not really black’) game.

The 1980s was the era of the ‘buppy’ – those black people who managed to get a foot in what Thatcher wanted us all to have, upward mobility; a juicy, if tenuous stake in capitalism. Some of us stuck with the dole, though, because it was easier than having to play that other game – the pie could only be shared to so many before it ran out. Bags of weed were purchased with the dole – it just wasn’t enough to do anything else with; to put down for a deposit on a house say! Besides, some of us thought it was money owed to us; some sorry compensation that we deserved for being treated as if we were the scourge of humanity. Others studied everything we could, receiving certificate after certificate, diplomas for this and that and still no advancement in our jobs – we still didn’t have the guts to go for that promotion when it came. And while we were busy studying our white peers worked (you know - those you went to school with that weren’t as bright as you or perhaps just a little brighter); they got that job you went for with your ill-fitting face and attitude, knowing you were a ‘problem.’ That’s the ‘good old days’. What has any of this got to do with our children? Our ‘good old days’ have left some scars. The reality is that we were experiencing our own disillusionment in our ‘good old days’.

Powell spawned the gargoyle Griffin who perpetuates the puke that I and my children are an ‘alien threat’. The indoctrinating language of terrorism is used with subtle variations to define us and our children. So now that the goldless streets are repaired; the menial jobs taken care of, not only by the poor English who are now willing to muck in but also by their hard working European brothers and sisters - what need has this society for us and our children? The sense of feeling, of knowing that you are surplus, (a category you share with white working class children whose parents didn’t indulge the pride check), that before you were born it was prophesised that you were going to be ‘a problem’ can compel you to presenting the evidence.

My mum tells me she loves often now. If I’m honest I think I needed to hear it more when I was in my moment of experiencing – when I was being told at every turn that I was a problem. But I understand that she too was in her moment of experiencing and struggling to find her footing; you just had to assume the love was there. When you suspect yourself of being a problem, you turn in – too young to do the introspection – but you implode. You agree that the enemy is you. Everyone says so. And you want them to know how right they are; it’s true. You do what you can to present them with the evidence. You become bigger and badder than the prophecy.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The good old days - Part I

This is a repost - slightly edited. I wrote it whilst I was working on my novel Elijah, which I’m launching in November this year. The circumstances haven’t changed too much, in the sense that there still is a sense of despair for young people. A couple of them have moved on, are working, have struggled through their degrees and now have expectations about their futures. Still more are waiting in the shadows, afraid, needing guidance.

As I write, Tracey Ford, whom I dedicated the original Shout to, and the only reader who forwarded a comment, is a finalist for the “Inspiration Woman of the Year Award” - winner to be announced on Thursday 9th October. Tracey, of JAGS Foundation, a charity named after her son who was murdered by another Youth, has transformed the lives of young people through her commitment to raising awareness about the devastation caused by youth on youth crime.

The post was long, so I’ll serialise it – and circulate in 3 parts.

Cover image of Elijah, by Scott Jason Smith

For all those cygnets struggling to become swans
and Tracey Ford, rather than a cygnet’s or swan’s,
your son will ever have angel wings

At what age can we speak realistically or even euphemistically about the ‘good old days’? We over 30s and 40s have decades behind us that make retrospection possible. But what about a 20, 17 or 10 year-old – are such portals available to them? I don’t think so; though arguably the 20 year-old is advancing thus. They are within their moment of experiencing what should become their ‘good old days’. But so are we. We are also within their moment of experiencing. The decades behind us do not only offer retrospection but also the maturity that enables introspection.

Introspection is an honest, deep ‘examination of our thoughts and feelings’ – a serious (hence ‘examination’) looking within; and not only of our ‘thoughts and feelings’ but also our actions. This looking in for most of us is the most painful and ugly thing we can do, for which reason it’s often avoided.

In this Shout I want to consider the cries of disillusionment from our children– or our cygnets, as I like to call them, struggling to earn their swan wings. Why do they cry? Why do they feel, as my 20 year old niece recently told me, that ‘there’s no point’ to their life when this is their moment of experiencing their good old days? Are we hearing them? Are we even listening? Or are we, as my 17 year-old nephew told me, from a generation that can’t understand them? I’m hoping that by giving some thought to the kinds of struggles our children are facing we might realise that despite their feelings of disillusionment this can be their good old days if we’re willing to extend our ears, hearts and hands to help them master their swan wings. This is why that honest examination of our own thoughts is crucial. Avoiding introspection can leave unattended those issues that hinder spiritual maturity. And how can we help our children master their swan wings when we have not found ways to perfect our graceful gliding against the torrents of our own lives.

It may not only be a ‘black problem’ but it sometimes feels like it is. Every knife or gun killing is despicable. I am certain most African people have some direct or indirect association with a child who has been the victim of a “knife crime.” “Knife crime” – a term spouted in the news so often, like that other “terrorism” (and the ‘war on it’ – in Afghanistan, in Iraq where lives are being senselessly destroyed every day) that we’ve become desensitised to the absolute and particular trauma each one holds for the families involved. When we see in real time or in a movie someone being shot or otherwise killed, this comes to us as entertainment. Deaths caused by disasters like Haiti are compellingly tragic; we’re truly moved; no longer desensitised – at least momentarily. After the opening disaster scene of Haiti – we return to our numbness, watching the news, hearing that another child has been killed, we ‘tut’ and that’s mostly all we seem able to do. But what if that child is yours or someone you know? What if the child who killed the child is yours or someone you know? Questions abound. Anger and frustration too; a part of you dies. You know that you did the best by and for your child – whether victim or perpetrator; you’ve supported them and loved them. You know too that your child was good, so why?

No matter how many ways you ask yourself the questions there will never be an answer that explains to you why your child died before you. Whether you support your child, are the best parent/s you can be to them; whether they are good or not, they are living within their moment. And their moment, however much or little it’s spread in the news is one where a life seems valueless; taking it easy. My 17 year old nephew – brilliant, loving, positive (one of those dream children) has repeatedly neared death (and only until writing it, have I admitted that it’s this rather than the ‘bullying’ it might otherwise appear to be) from boys and boy gangs who see him as some kind of easy target. A target of what? Of bottling, knifing, exercise of power and, disgustingly the Ninetendo game style ease of taking another’s life. The martial arts lessons have not prevented the attacks. Although he’s more confident, his smiles mask the very thing he tells me I cannot understand –‘it’s not like your time, aunty.’ I try to reason with him, that I do understand; that in my time we had fights but...” As long as I have to add the ‘but’ his point is better made.

What makes him this target? Nothing perhaps; or something – maybe it’s his aura or his positivity? Maybe it’s the way he will say, when you least expect it, ‘love you aunty?’ I can’t say for sure. I feel, however, that enmeshed in his moment of experiencing is the persistent edge of a knife against which he lives. His parents – the most supportive I’ve known – recently bought a knife vest for him because he insists that he must be free to travel wherever he wants without them driving him to and fro. It was a compromise – he didn’t want either – because his parents are also living his experience. His mother prayed, when he was born with a heart defect that threatened his life that he should live; bargained that she would be good if God kept him alive. She continues praying, because he yet does not have his swan wings. And until these extremely dire years of his experiencing are spent, when he has retrospective distance she will be solidly supportive, just there to return back the words of love he needs to hear to know that his world is not as bleak as it seems.

James Andre Godfrey Smartt (JAGS), murdered inside Streatham Ice rink in 2007
Tracey Ford, founder JAGS Foundation

Another nephew, a good boy too - he was one of those round babies born with a big, cheery smile and evident love for life; a young Christian, who loved to write and draw. In his moment of experiencing those traits seemed impossible to sustain. Other things were demanded of him. He stopped the smiles. Not immediately, not obviously, he also wore a mask. But if you were reading him with your heart; if your ears were really opened to what he was saying or not saying you could perhaps intuit his good old days turning into a dodge and haggling for his life. Young Offender’s Prison only confirmed that he was part of his moment, properly living within it. After that ghastly term, the knife that missed his kidneys sharpened his credibility within his gang. They had become his new family, providing him with something we didn’t seem to know how desperately he needed. No amount of imploring could force his introspection (‘why are you doing this to yourself?’) because the retrospective portal is not yet available to him; he’s still within his moment. There is an enemy within his time but he doesn’t know who or what it is. Therefore it – the enemy - might as well be his life; the enemy might as well be himself. ‘This is how it is now, aunty...it’s nothing,’ he told me when I cried, ‘but you nearly lost your life.’ ‘It’s nothing,’ he said without an ounce of emotion. What bitter pill? I had watched his mother in agony- those 18 years ago – bringing him into the world. Her agony soon turned to elation when he made it; we were so happy that this blessed boy was my mother’s first grandson. Questions abound. And introspection, if pursued might lend answers about how and why ‘he turned out like that?’ And more importantly did he do it all by himself?


Check out extended TRAILER for the Novel Elijah and The Awakening & Other Poems