I was born in Accra, Ghana, and lived there until I was 3. My mother is from Bristol and the south west, as were my grandparents Hugh and Sonia. My grandfather was a vicar and the family moved around Somerset and the south west. My father is Ghanaian, as were his parents Seth and Maggie. He grew up in Ghana and came to England in 1973.
When we moved to the UK I lived in Charlton Mackerell, Glastonbury, Bath and Bristol. I moved to America in my 20s, spending 7 years in Los Angeles, a year in Portland, Oregon and a year in Hawaii. I chose Los Angeles – a massively populated city – deliberately. It’s where I feel most at home.
I have mixed memories of living in rural England as a child. It has shaped the person I am today. We were a source of curiosity for many. The liberal nature of Glastonbury meant my father found friends who loved his African drumming and African roots. Yet I know it was very hard for him – he has mixed memories too. My grandfather told him in order to do well he needed to adopt Queen’s English, which he did.
The positive memories are of freedom and grassy fields. We ran through fields finding Roman pipes and coins. We bought sweets stored in jars with our pennies and learned to cycle underneath walnut trees. We gathered trinkets, sniffed flowers and sampled nuts from trees. We climbed the Tor and learned the history of Avalon and King Arthur. We went mushroom foraging in the fields with our mum, and tobogganing in winter.
The bad memories: I always felt different. Always attracted attention, as did my brothers. My afro hair and dry skin were a source of great shame. My African nose was so different to everyone else’s. There was one Indian family in our town/village who ran a takeaway. A Chinese family who ran the other takeaway. Other than these people I never saw any people of colour.
We experienced tough overt racism. Once, an Alsatian dog was set on me at the Queen’s Jubilee Street Party. People chanted racist abuse as everyone laughed at me while the dog bit through my jeans, bloodying my knee. That same day my five-year-old brother was taken down the lane and thrown into bushes of stinging nettles.
We learned to live with this as if it was normal. We watched ‘Mind Your Language’ and ‘Roots’ on TV. I knew as soon as I was old enough, I was going to get out of Somerset. We found a group called Harmony, for people of mixed heritage, and joined them for weekends in Somerset. We connected with a few people of colour who lived in the country. We discovered hip-hop, and in that discovered some sense of identity, even if it was with New York Rap artists. They do not know that they changed our lives in rural Britain.
We moved to Weymouth, Dorset in the early 1980s. Living by the beach was brilliant, and we loved it. There were three or four other black people who lived there. This was positively amazing for us! We got to know them all. Yet the racism continued, both subtle and overt. At school, teachers said I must know what it’s like to live in a mud hut, see elephants in the wild and speak Swahili. Throughout all this, when we visited our father in London we felt completely alienated. What were we? Not city folk, but country bumpkins for sure.
Because I was a sprinter at school, people assumed I’d be good at all sports (the ones that black people do). I was told I wasn’t clever enough for Grammar school, A levels, university. Being discouraged from attainment continued. I’m now a doctor, so I ignored all that. (Even today I’m followed around shops by security guards. People talk down to me all the time. I think subtle racism is everywhere; it’s the way people look at you, make assumptions about you, question you).
As a child I was fairly resilient. As a teen it was hard – I questioned why I must live in these places. I felt unattractive, ugly and different. I wanted straight hair, a thinner nose and lighter skin. I wanted to be able to buy products for my blackness, make up, hair products and so on. In the city I felt like a fish out of water. Being in the country gave you freedom and appreciation for the natural beauty of the world despite people’s ugliness of opinion. I felt like I belonged in the country until someone pointed me out as different.
How I feel now as an adult is complicated. I love the countryside, but when I go back there feelings of isolation and sadness reappear. The current climate in the UK makes me feel unwelcome in rural spaces. For that reason I have chosen to bring my children up in a city, where seeing different cultures, religions, colours and faces is the norm. That’s why I went to live in Los Angeles; I was surrounded by rich diversity and felt I could blend in.
Being surrounded by diversity is profoundly important to me. Role models are key for younger people growing up. Seeing a Black President of the USA, judges, professionals of mixed heritage, shows others than anything is possible. I feel that I belong in a city now, although a city that is still near to the country, as the countryside is deep within me. I feel that I belong in Bristol now although I’m still looking for the perfect blend of diversity where I live.
I think that many assume that PoC do not have an interest in heritage and nature. This is inherently racist. I think it’s important to see ethnic minority presenters on TV doing nature programmes – there are a few now (Patrick Ayree and Gillian Burke for example). Organisations such as the National Trust could do more to include different ethnicities in advertising. As mentioned, growing up in the country I have a deep love of nature and the environment. Yet cities have rich nature too; it’s there for the finding if we look for it.