Coconut Childhood. Memories and Reflections of Multi-racial Schools and Stereotypes in the Late 90's and Early 00's
As a reading assignment over the summer (one of many), we were set the task to read Maya Angelou’s first semi-autobiographical novel ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings‘, a detailed account of life growing up watching the ‘sweet little white girls’ as a ‘too-big Negro girl with nappy black hair’ (p.3). Continuing on through the first handful of chapters and being mindful of themes and of course the historic context of writing I was aware, as I’m sure many hundreds of thousands before me have been, that I felt so many overwhelming similarities with Maya’s thoughts and feelings. As a result it has taken me a long, long while to actually have the courage to begin reading again. During one of the lengthy pauses in reading I got to thinking about my own experiences as a little girl, feeling more or less the same way she did and it struck me that it was only after moving to a ‘whiter’ area that these feelings became apparent.
It was at St Johns and St Clements, a humongous school near the border of Dulwich, Peckham and Peckham Rye, SE London that I began my education. My mum has always had a thing about living near every possible amenity she can so we lived directly across from the school as we did when we moved north as well. I remember mum took me to school that very first day but from then on it was my elder sisters responsibility to walk me over the road in the mornings after breakfast while mum watched from the window and got ready for university.
The only memories I have of that school are wetting myself in the teachers office because my Reception (4-5 yrs) teacher refused to let me go to the toilet because I’d already been four times that day. Another memory is from the next year; we had a young Australian man teaching us. He set up a string that went diagonally across the classroom with those little banana sweets attached. A toy monkey called Deacan would slowly progress across the classroom when we did things right like the alphabet or drawing shapes. Even if we didn’t get things right we always seemed to end up with a little banana sweet to take home.
Getting back the point….. I began obviously as a little black girl in a predominantly black school. I specifically remember there being only two white children in my class at St John’s and one of those may even have actually been Chinese. However those two children didn’t behave like ‘white people’ behaved. They behaved like ‘black people’ behaved, insofar as the way they spoke, the music they listened to at home and the general friendship groups… (Childish observations)….. They spoke like we did with the nitty gritty London grime accent, listened to ‘our’ music, Soca, Ska and Reggae and if I’m honest, knew more about ‘being black’ than I did. But no one said anything about that.
When we moved to Yorkshire, that’s where I noticed how different I was or rather, how different I felt. I moved from being around all manner of ethnic minorities to being in a class where I was the minority. In my naive mind it was me and me alone. Sure, there were Italians, one boy from Iraq, Irish, Spanish etc. etc, but I was still the dark new kid in a room full of pale faces who hadn’t been there from the beginning. I was still the Southern girl from London who spoke differently, ‘weirdly’ as some people put it.
In a year or so the accent disappeared and the Londoner was more or less completely erased. But this is where the problem started. According to family, my elder sister mainly, the ‘blackness’ in me was slowly erased as well. Even my mum started nicknaming me the ‘Coconut’ or ‘Malteser’ because I was ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’. Technically, I’m pink on the inside, mum.
But, If you move a black child from a black area and plonk them in the middle of a town where there are only a handful of ethnicities and they begin to speak and act like the majority, how or why is that then their fault? No one said anything about the white kid and the Chinese kid ‘begging black’ in London but the black child who no longer speaks in slang or with a heavy cockny accent is suddenly ‘trying to be white’. When you’re five you don’t try to be anything except a Fireman or an Astronaut or the Prime Minister. In my case it was actually Barrister, Bin Woman (yup, bin woman) or ‘Book Writer’, I hadn’t quite grasped the word author yet.
These are just some thoughts I was having just now as I paused reading IKWTCBS and just thought hmmmm, twisted double standards… Stupid double standards!! I was/ never have tried to be anything but myself. I know I’m black, I’m not oblivious to this fact, how could I possibly be. I didn’t actively change my accent, it was diluted and slowly disappeared, this happens to everyone unless you consciously try to avoid it. I never changed my mannerisms, just adapted them to what was appropriate to the new environment. People look at me and compare me to my sister. While I’m a ‘sell out’, she’s included because in her teen years the London accent came back and the desire to move back south returned and at the time, that was ‘cool’ and all of her white friends thought she was ‘the bee’s knees’. People seem to forget that I was five years old when we moved. She was a little bit older, maybe eight at the time and already felt a sense of affiliation with the South. It’s the same everywhere, most parents make big moves when the children are too young to remember or too young to have any attachment to the previous place. I was never a Londoner then, not like she was.
So, for me, apparently I’ll forever be a coconut. Too white to be black but just black enough to be acknowledged.