Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Growing up black and white

I returned to the Royal Festival Hall again tonight for the Africa Remix literature series, in which authors Delia Jarrett-Macauley and David Nwokedi discussed how they negotiate their ethnicity in England and in Africa.

Humour framed the entire evening. Nwokedi's novel describes a Nigerian-born, English-raised boy's life in England with a Nigerian father and white English mother. The mother valiantly struggles to remind her children of their Nigerian heritage through food: most of the week she feeds them typical English fare of bubble and squeak, fish fingers and frozen peas, fish and chips... Then one day she decides to try her hand at fried plantains and jollof rice, but replaces the traditionally-African chicken with the traditionally-English corned beef.

The Nigerian father repeatedly reminds his son to "be proud -- you are part African" and yet the boy ends up scrutinising his reflection in the mirror, wondering which part exactly of himself is African and how on earth he could be proud of it.

Nwokedi grew up in New Haven in southern England. In his school of 1500, there were only ever 3 other black students, and he and his two siblings thought they were "the black community". He first came to London in his late teens when his mother took her children to see The Black and White Minstrel Show. It was the first time he saw so many "black" people in one place.

Jarrett-Macauley is of Sierra Leone origin and she remembers visiting Africa for the first time at 7. She rushed off the plane in excitement and then promptly ran back in. "Mummy, mummy, everybody's black!" Her mother replied, "Yes dear, this is Africa." "So this is where they all are!" Jarrett-Macauley grew up in England on jollof rice and pigs' feet, but still thought "lunch was a sandwich".

A really entertaining night that made me think of my own experiences as the child of Indian parents, growing up in an all-white community in middle England, moving to multi-ethnic London, visiting India, and living on a Native American reservation as "a real Indian". But I'll save those reflections for another time.

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