Not for the last time I’ve been asked, “Are you Irish?” Just the night before a tipsy Scot heard me complain in line for the cloakroom and says to me, “…You understand because you’re Scottish”. What it is exactly I understand, I’ve no idea; pacy queuing? Handling our liquor? Do I understand not being understood and having to repeat myself?
How similar my blurred-Barbadian accent really is to Scottish or Irish I’m not sure of. Increasingly shaky now is my answer, “ No actually, I’m from Barbados.” Having lived in the UK nearly eight years, and even in growing up, experienced some detachment from my Barbadian/Caribbean identity, I feel like a bit of an imposter.
I’m almost like one of those third generation Brits or Americans who cling to any root of any other heritage. So in this time of doubt, I’d like to explore my origins and the things that make up my identity. Maybe I’ll come up with a label for what I am exactly. Leh we reverse back.
Let’s go all the way back to post-war England, when a handsome Barbadian engineer meets a lovely, Auburn-haired English nurse at a hospital. They are black and white, but their relationship is anything but as they are spat on in public and disowned by her father. Four daughters soon follow from their love but due to his illness, they move back to his homeland in the year of its independence, 1966.
When I was younger, my mother described how my grandparents were spat on in the streets and treated, I distance myself and my descent from England. As far as I was concerned my grandmother was an honorary Barbadian.
On the other hand, my mother also described her and her sisters being teased at their island school – ‘red skinned Europeans’, with amusing accents. Children, of course, not understanding the implications, demanded that my mother choose a side – black or white.
My family continued to grow with two children to each daughter, each of us a different shade of…something. Even as the darkest I never felt separate from my family – loved deeply and equally by my grandmother.
The separation was once again attempted at school by ignorant people who would sometimes ask, but in one case (I will never forget) insisting, “that cannot be your mother.”
I went to a private school, lived in what you might call the suburbs and had friends of all colours but have to confess, my core group was white. I will also confess that I found it difficult to identify with the black population that did not grow up in a similar environment to me, and hope it’s not an unfair thing to say I sensed a certain hostility and resentment from the ones at school.
Though of course a part of me wanted to be in touch with that side, wanted the ability to blend into their world too.
“My family continued to grow with two grandchildren to each daughter, each of us a different shade of…something.”
Now, in England, I find myself like a floating nomad among the greatest variety of cultures and colours. Again, I’m not completely identifying with the Black British, neither with the Africans or even totally with the Jamaicans who had not surrendered their accent as I seemed to. I could go on about race, we all could, but that’s a whole other coal pot of stewed fish.
Then, there’s always music, with the Caribbean having such a distinct style… that I was never quite tuned into, preferring alternative. An awkward young person, I felt that soca or calypso did not communicate my emotions or spirit, but of course I could never completely deny a good ‘tyyyyooone’, especially when patriotism was the theme.
I was happy the first time at an English club and getting to dance to the alt-rock songs I enjoyed on my iPod. Now I’m always the one with my two fingers raised in the air when the DJ happens to know a Caribbean jam, pre-2007 of course, because I’m too disconnected to keep up.
“Embarrassingly, I’m often the one with my two fingers raised in the air when the DJ happens to know a Caribbean jam, pre-2007 of course, because I’m too disconnected to keep up.”
The music is now one element that helps me identify myself and my history here in England. When I first came for university I clung to every Bajan slang word, taught everyone who asked about our way of life, started every sentence with, ‘ well back home…’ and ended with, ‘…nuh’.
Some days feeling like a stranded ambassador, I would listen to every modern soca and classic calypso I could remember in order to find myself, my childhood, my experiences, my people.
I found sadness in this but also a warming pride. How much of that could I claim compared to my comrades still at home or even those abroad who were always more involved in the culture? On the rare occasion I had the opportunity to go home I was still an imposter, usually betrayed by the slip of a British ‘rather’ or ‘quite’.
Listening to a podcast from the BBC on immigrants from India who arrived in the 1960s, I nod in agreement to a woman who feels similarly dislocated even after all of these years. With both the homeland and the host being ‘others’ in some sense, she finds herself in identity limbo and is learning to settle with being herself.
I’m still fighting; I know I’d like to identify more as a Barbadian, as a person of colour, as an appreciator and promoter of Caribbean culture. But until then, I still have my ‘others’, on one hand the ‘the English’, and on the other ‘ dem Bajans’.
So what’s the label I was looking for? British-Barbadian? Nah. Transatlantic? Eh.