I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.
I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.
Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.
“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.
“I stopped you …”
“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”
“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.
“What are you doing in this area?”
This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK. I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.
“I’m going home.”
“Where do you live?”
“Why do you want to know that?
“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”
“Is there something wrong?”
“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”
“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.
“Please confirm where you live.”
“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”
“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.
I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”
“Whose vehicle is this?
“Oh. Do you have the papers?”
“Alright then. Carry on.”
“So what did you stop me for?”
“You can go now.”
Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.
First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses to trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.
I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.
However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.
I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.
If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue.
“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“No, I mean where are you from.”
“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where do you come from.”
“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”
“You don’t get me … “
(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)
“What precisely do you want to know?”
“What nationality are you?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”
“Can’t you just answer the question …”
“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”
“What are your parents?”
“This is silly.”
“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”
“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”
“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”
“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”
“Yes, they are British citizens.”
“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”
“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”
“Yes, where are you from?”
“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”
“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”
“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”
“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”
“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”
“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”
So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,” to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.
I’m English and I’m Black. It’s not unusual.
Marjorie H Morgan © 2018