One of my most vivid memories of my first year in Cambridge occured when I was walking to a music lesson down Hobson Street, just beside Christ’s College. Walking in my usual absolutely-oblivious-to-the-world manner, I wasn’t quite prepared for the van of white skinheads who thought it would be a good idea to scream their limited vocabulary of racist words at me and throw an open bottle…of piss at me! Did I get their registration number, of course not! I didn’t report it either. All I can remember thinking is “shit, is this acid?!” it didn’t take that long for me to realise it wasn’t and as usual, I got myself clean and got on with my day. It later turned out the EDL had just had a rally in Cambridge that I had no idea about!
The second thing I’ll always remember about my time in Cambridge is just how many times I had people ask me (mostly in college chapels, or at dinners) “Where are you from?” now, like most black students who’ve been asked this question, I mistakingly thought that the person asking meant, you know, where are you from as in where in the UK are you from…so I responded with what I thought was the most logical response… “London”…. [insert family fortunes wrong answer sound effect]! Now, having noticed that the wrinkles in their expression have been doubled by your answer…you wait for some clarity…only to hear: “No, I mean where do you *really* come from?” If you’re anything like me, you’ve already murdered this person in your mind three times and deeply wishing that you could somehow dissappear from the conversation as if nothing had happened…to save both them and you the embarrasment from the reality that you are actually second or third generation British…yep, that’s right, you’re not an overseas student and you hadn’t (as assumed) swam from Nigeria via Rome to England picking up perfect English along the way…
Couple those experiences with a sermon by the Bishop of Ely, The Rt Rev’d Stephen Conway at Trinity College for the University Confirmation Service in 2012 where he was preaching on the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Now, most preachers might have thought it a good idea to preach on the meaning of faith, conversion, the continuity of baptismal promises lived out in adult life etc to a group of adults about to be confirmed within the context of the Eucharist, but instead it was a sermon about how amazing it was that the saints were willing to baptize a black man, and so we too should be willing to go to should ake the Gospel to all people (it’s funny I didn’t think Apostles were anything other than black, so is it really that awesome?)…never have I heard the word black said more invidiously than I did that morning, and in a full chapel where I was the only black person present it took everything in me to not get up and storm out. The Bishop then went on to talk about a visit he made to africa, where he saw the site of a whipping post from the slave-trade which had now been turned into an Anglican Altar, and how wonderful it was that the site had been made into something precious and holy…way to go Anglicans!!! (or not…given your role in slavery.)
Thankfully, much of the prejudice ethnic minority students face in Cambridge is being challenged and pointed out slowly, and I’m glad to see things like the I, Too, Am ridge campaign bringing an awareness to the institutional and casual racism there. See: http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/7047 and: http://wetooarecambridge.tumblr.com
After studying Theology and training for the Methodist Ministry at Wesley House, Cambridge I came to take up my first post in Cardiff. This is a city many people have refered to in conversation with me as “very diverse”, “multicultural” and “cosmopolitan”. They might be right in Roath, Butetown, Canton, and Cathays…but not in its entirety, nor where I live in Heath. Within just a few weeks of moving into my Manse I had my front door vandalised and verbal abuse as I walked down to Church on a Sunday afternoon…not just that, but people (unfortunately even in some of the Churches I serve) asking me silly questions about where I was born, or the one meant as a compliment and said with a smile: “where did you learn such good English”! Or most famously when an elderly man during Holy Week just before a Good Friday service came up to me, pointed out the only other black person in the congregation and said *very loudly* “that lady over there is from Jamaica!” as though we might just be relatives…! The worst so far happened after a service I took at another Church about two weeks ago, I was asked whether I recognised the banner made for the Altar…it was from a village in Nigeria. “Oh, as you prayed for Nigeria, I thought you might have been from there!” NO! my friend, I just think it’s important to pray for the girls that have been kidnapped like any other Minister I hope, would have done…!!
So why all this talk about racism, prejudice and ignorance? Well, it’s because I know that I’m not the only member of the black community that has experienced this and who endures it day in day out, I know that I’m not the only one with ridiculous stories to tell about living in a world that has set limits around you without your consent.
Whether you’ve been mistaken as an international student, or turned up to your workplace and been asked whether you’re the agency cleaning staff, when you’re actually the CEO, we’ve all got our story to tell!
As a child, I’d always been away of racism, of prejudice, of what many black people had endured – my parents and grandparents had first hand experience of that struggle in tougher days, but it wasn’t until I had left home and left London to go to University that I knew what the struggle felt like for myself. It would be true to say that I didn’t even see colour before I left for University. Growing up me and my friends mixed and got along without any deep feelings of hate towards a certain group or race, we had Muslim friends, Jewish friends, Somali, Arab, English, Oriental and we all just got on with life, somehow it worked and many of the friendship are just as strong as they were then!
What I came to realise early on in Cambridge was that the shackles put on the hands and feet of my ancestors by their slave masters were not, (as I had first believed) hanging in cabinets in the museums of the world, but attached, tighter than ever to me and to every other black person in the world. They were attached to our minds, attached to our imaginations, attached to our ability to love self and take seriously our ambitions…
Though none of us were there to live through the horror of slavery, we know the pain and weight of that history in our hearts. And many of us would hate to admit it, or even own up to the limitations it has set on us and those who came before us. I don’t think there were many dry eyes in black homes watching Barack Obama become President of the United States, most of us didn’t even know who he was before he became so prolific, but we were moved because there was our brother – fulfilling a dream many of us had let die within us.
So, here’s the crux of the matter.
How is it, that a race so abused, a race that has been raped of its identity, a people that have been held back by injustice and assassination of character are so ready and willing (almost in the majority!) to oppress and reject members of the LGBT community?
Now, granted – I’d be the first to remind people that the struggle of black people is not to be compared to the Gay Rights movement, they are simply not the same and people that compare the two simply need to stop right there.
What I’m saying is, why is it, that a people who have been oppressed and who know what it’s like to live under fear because of the outspoken, powerful and ignorant majority are willing to collude and oppress a people who can do nothing about who they are…? It’s confusing, it’s shameful…it’s painful to see and hear!
Obviously I want to also make it clear that the black community and the LGBT community are not separate entities, of course a large proportion of the LGBT community is made up of black men and women and transgender people, but isn’t that what makes it more of a disgrace?
Just the other day I saw this clip about how Jamaican members of the LGBT community are living in a society where 85% of the population think homosexuality is immoral:
Not only do they live in a society where the majority of the population think homosexuality is immoral, but they live in a society where the cultures arts are promoting violence against the LGBT community –
It’s a shame Capelton’s mother didn’t kick the pyromaniac out of him a little earlier….if he starts all these fires, they’ll hardly be a Jamaica left…
Joking aside, I think one of the major concerns I have about homophobia in the Black Carribbean community is the fact that is almost an integral part of our culture…these are songs that young children are dancing to and hearing all the time, and what we don’t realise is that we are raising up another generation of haters.
One of the things I have realised about the human sexuality conversation occuring at the moment, particularly within the Church is that whilst it’s happening it’s not happening cross-culturally. Part of the problem is that ethnic minorities are already under-represented at the higher levels of politics and church life, so for example a Synod may have a conversation but not hear anything about what the black Christian (protestant or evangelical) community has to offer. It’s great to see campaigns such as Diverse Church’s “It gers better” video
One organisation that really has its finger on the pulse in terms of the cross-cultural and religious sexuality dialogue is stonewall with their great “one is gay” campaign!
I believe deeply that it’s time members of the black community enter into dialogue about sexuality – I know there are people who still think black and gay in the same sentence don’t and can’t go together…that there are no gay black people, but even in countries where people hold that view, they are slowly, as in Nigeria, having to realise that’s not the case.
For the sake of the young boys and girls, or even grown men and women in our families and comunities who are struggling to come to terms with who they are, lets be a little bit more sensitive at least. Changing the channel everytime two men kiss, turning off the radio when “born this way” comes on, kicking your child out because they’ve confided in you and pretending that being black and gay doesn’t exist really doesn’t help anyone.
As people who bare the marks of history within us, lets not inflict unecessary pain on others – others who like us, simply want to live and love, be treated as equal and have hopes and dreams like any other human being.
The homophobic culture within our race, [and I’m going to stick my head out here and say I think it’s a problem particularly within our race] won’t vanish over night, as we see it slowly fading in other cultures[I think, happy to be corrected!], but at least if we are aware that that culture exists we can try to be better people and do something about it – let us not forget where we have come from!