A Family Gathering

 

My late Uncle Laurence was a cheerful man, generally contented with life, but with one abiding sadness. In his youth, he fell in love with and wanted to marry, a Sri Lankan girl. They decided to see it through in spite of opposition. Then the critics said – think about the children, mixed-ethnicity, they would be neither one thing nor the other. It wouldn’t be fair on them. So, they decided to part. He regretted that decision ever-after.

Think about the children – that was always the cry.A generation later when Hopelyn, short, Black, Jamaican from inner-city Kingston, and myself, tall, White, English from remote, rural Kent – it’s almost impossible to find a greater contrast – decided to marry we had no immediate thought about children. Instead, we reasoned that the varying qualities (our characters are in even greater contrast than our appearance) complemented each other well for a successful partnership through life. When reminded about future children, we supposed, maybe arrogantly, that all our genetic make-up blended in one person could be an asset. So it has proved, but not without a few sharp obstacles along the way. Our daughter and son have experienced the joys and tribulations you would expect – and a few more. They grew up in a mainly White environment. Hopelyn’s father threw her out of the family house on learning she was to marry outside her race, and shortly afterwards he, and the rest of the family, moved to the U.S.A. 

Throughout their childhood, we were the only non-White household in the neighbourhood, and there were fewer Black, Asian or mixed-race children at the local school than could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The children, therefore, confronted social attitudes at the sharp end.  And yet …….The friendliness of the neighbours persuaded us to stay here rather than risk ending up somewhere worse. Our children were not stigmatised by local residents, they were never short of friends and never excluded from parties. Yes, they knew they were different, which became more apparent as they moved into the teenage years – and considered it to be a blessing. They absorbed the best of both backgrounds as the heirs of the spirit of Bob Marley and Mick Jagger, Anansi and Charles Dickens, Frank Worrell and Frank Woolley, Duppies and the Green Man. By experiencing from a very young age culture’s complementary nature they could empathise readily with a wide range of friends from continental Africa to continental Europe.That meant far more than having access to a wider range of cuisine, or extended loyalties in a sports competition – though it is helpful that when West Indies play England at cricket our household feels to be always on the winning (and losing) side. Having spent all my many adult years straddled equally between the Black and White communities, I am continually astounded by how much, with the best wills in the world, each community misunderstands the behaviour and motives of the other, even though they may live and work side by side for years. Being a bridge has its advantages. Nevertheless ……That is not the whole picture. There has been a harsher, more troubling side.

Our children, especially our son, suffered from violence and abuse on the streets in the borough – and from the derogatory and unacceptable comments from school teachers and sports coaches. When he was nineteen years old he was assaulted severely by a racist gang in south-east London. We experienced the arrogance, apathy and downright-refusal-to-help attitude of police officers, who attempted to shift the blame from perpetrators to victims – and, in some ways even worse, their oily exculpatory public-relations spiel on finding out I was a journalist who could report on them. That was thirty years ago and our son is still apprehensive of passing through the area where it happened.Yet they remember perhaps more trenchantly the routine slights and insults. If they were the only person waiting at the bus stop on the way to school, often the driver wouldn’t stop, leaving them to the mercy of the weather and a reprimand from the teacher for being late. When they came out from cubs/brownies, gymnastics or football, parents picking up their children by car – alas, neither my wife nor myself have ever driven – would offer vacant seats to other boys/girls but leave ours standing. No need to guess who would be served last in queues at some shops.

The genuine friendship of the overwhelming majority was balanced with the gratuitous offence of others – especially those in positions of authority or public service. Since her marriage twenty years ago, our daughter has lived in Brixton, about the most multi-cultural place in the country. It has a strong community life – and she has no intention of living anywhere else. Her three children have grown up in an ambience in which ethnic differences and similarities are part of the everyday process. Our son is a fashion/costume designer, an industry more inclusive than most, though he still endures offensive remarks from a “certain type of person”. Shortly before his death, my father-in-law reversed his hostility and now our children/grandchildren share as close a relationship with their Black cousins in New York as they do with their White ones in Kent. Family celebrations involve Skype-video meetings by participants with too many genetic combinations, gender preferences, and political/cultural opinions to be listed in the word-count allowed here.  

Theresa May was wrong saying it is impossible to have more than one loyalty. Although a tune can be played on one instrument, the entire ensemble is needed for the full range of moods and rhythms to be appreciated. It is achieved, too, without anybody giving up their own identity. I still support Gillingham (football) and Kent (cricket) teams from my youth, and my wife’s ears prick up with pride when she hears of a Jamaican success (usually on the athletics field). We enjoy ackee and salt-fish for breakfast one weekend and kippers the next: our children/grandchildren have both, plus others tastes they have picked up from friends and neighbours. Ever since written records began the people of my home village took partners like themselves from the immediate neighbourhood. Today, the two “Mrs Goodwin” leading the family into its next stage are my wife, a Black Jamaican, and my daughter-in-law, a Nordic Blonde. Yet we are still the same family and each member is confident in their own identity.

Brexit has divided this country and society more than any other issue in my lifetime. It has rent families and partnerships and stirred up animosity – but the biggest division has been by generation and geography. The younger people, and those living in multi-cultural areas, are most fervent in wanting this country to belong to a multi-national entity – from experience, they know it can work successfully – and in accepting each other as equal citizens here. Racists have the most support in areas where people haven’t had the opportunity to live together and gain some idea of what motivates their fellow citizens. Young people of all colours, creeds and cultures have been foremost in re-acting most strongly against those who tried to stir up discord in the recent football World Cup tournament. Almost universal support for the Three Lions showed a shared national identity built on/around diverse heritage.I look out of the window towards the bus stop – where my children were left stranded all those years ago.

Africans, Europeans, Asians and various ethnic combinations in their school uniforms mingle together – “with the confidence of knowing they have every right to be there”. Friendships cut across cultures. They have learned the truth of the adage – nobody is born racist, it is taught. I recall the pain of seeing my son being brought home with his face bruised and bleeding, and hearing of the children being humiliated by insult and prejudice, and compare it to present-day family gatherings – Covid permitting – where parents/children/grandchildren bring their diverse views, experiences and interests to the common table. There isn’t one there who would have changed their lot, and we are heartened by the words of those friends/neighbours who express themselves as being enriched by having known them. From this end of my life I believe that, in spite of present tribulations, today’s youth have the knowledge, the wisdom, the experience, application and confidence to achieve things of which former generations could only dream. Over two centuries ago poet William Wordsworth wrote “Blisswas it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”. These are troubled times, but the darkest hour is always before the dawn. The rays of that sunshine are there in our youth. Young people today are freer to choose friends and partners, and lifestyles, from wherever they want – be that within, or outside, the community into which they were born (either choice is equally valid). Uncle Laurence was right to regret all he had missed because of a decision made in a very different age, and he was fortunate, too, to have lived into a time in which he could share in the blessings we enjoy.