I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which is a rural town about 10 miles from Gloucester. I define myself as black, born in England to black Jamaican parents. I was born in Stroud in 1963 in the back garden. My mum, who was quite experienced with having babies since I was number 6, reckoned she had time to finish hanging out the washing first! My grandparents were from Fyffes Pen St Elizabeth, Jamaica. My parents were both born in Fyffes Pen and my four eldest siblings were born there too. The last three of us were born in Stroud. My elder brother and younger sister were born in the local maternity hospital.
My parents grew up in a rural part of Jamaica where their families grew their own food and livestock and took produce to sell at the market. They were not skilled tradespeople when they came to England in the late 1950s. My mother had worked as a housemaid and my father could do DIY. They didn’t have any expectations about what they might do to earn their living but they knew about living a country life and growing food so they decided to head for the countryside when they came to England. Somewhere familiar, with greenery, where they could at least grow food to feed the family. So, we grew up in the next best thing to what my parents had, with the outdoors and greenery on our doorstep.
Around six Jamaican families had established themselves in the Stroud area, spread across the outskirts of the town centre. The children from each of the different families went to different primary schools. My three eldest siblings left home around the time I was born. Two of my sisters worked as nurses and my brother joined the army.
We went to a church called The Church of the God of Prophecy, which was established in a small dilapidated mansion house. The three youngest siblings would attend church on a Sunday evening dressed in our matching and coordinated Sunday best: matching ribbons, socks, cardigans and handbags, with a coordinating bow tie for my brother. A minibus would come and collect us with all the other black primary schoolkids. Our Godparents were elders in this church. On Sunday mornings we would go to our local Baptist church where most of our friends from school would also go. We attended bible study classes and sat bible study exams. We were allowed to give up church when we left primary school.
I was one of the only three black kids at our primary school but I never felt excluded or victimised. I was in the netball team, and competed in other sports for my school. I lived a charmed life. I was at school when the Eleven Plus still existed and all Year 6 children sat the exam. I passed, along with 7 other boys and girls from my class, and was allocated a place at the local girls’ Grammar School. I was the first Afro-Caribbean child in the school. Some parents of my Year 6 school classmates were not happy. There were scowls from some parents at the school gates and some of the kids teased me for about a week, calling me ‘High school snob’ but nothing racist.
In general, my experiences, up until the time I left home to go to Kingston Polytechnic aged 19, have been quite agreeable. I have certainly always referred to Stroud as my home and had always hoped to come back here to live.
Of course, there have been instances of overt racism. I haven’t grown up in a fairy-tale world. My first big shocker was my first day at Grammar school. The regulation school uniform was very expensive – felt hat, pinafore, wool blazer, rain mac and duffel coat with school tartan. My parents had to take out a loan with ‘The Provident’ (weekly repayments) to purchase my garments which were oversized because they had to last me all the way through school. I reported to the school hall, as instructed and was greeted by a teacher who said to me in a very slow and clipped manner, ‘Are you sure you are supposed to be here today? What is your name?’
I was shocked and outraged, but I managed not to cry. I took a deep breath and told her my details followed by, ‘Yes, I am supposed to be here today.’ I took up my place with my new classmates and started to make friends. Later that week I was elected Form Captain. I never told my parents as I didn’t know what they might do, and I really wanted to go to that school. I wasn’t really used to racism – I saw racist graffiti for the first ever time in 1980 in a subway at Reading Railway station.
My parents had friends in Bristol, Birmingham and London so as a child we would visit all of these cities. When we went visiting there would be West Indian food aka ‘hard-food’ every day which was a luxury. It was good to see lots of other black people in the streets and shops and see the city styles: fashion and haircuts. But none of the houses we went to had gardens like ours and places to play in because they mostly lived on busy streets. We had a big garden with a yard, lawn, trees, flowers and my Dad’s fruit and veg, as well as a lane at the back of our gardens which had a virtually traffic-free route to a huge play park.
In 1980 I got a Saturday job in a small but busy fruit and veg shop. My job was to select, bag and weigh the fruit and take payment. The customers were all ages, generations and races (Stroud also had Italian and Eastern European populations similar in size to the Afro-Caribbeans). My boss kept a chalk board round the back for our scoreboard. The routine was that I would approach the customer, usually a retired white lady, who would then ask for the manager. I would fetch him and he would then tell them that his assistant, i.e. me, would be delighted to serve them. I would sometimes give them the exclusive opportunity to select their items themselves. I was always very courteous and polite. We would have a good laugh afterwards. My boss would cuss them and we would chalk it up the board. The most in one day was three.
Other examples of more subtle racism include people touching my hair, or asking what sort of toothpaste I use on my ‘gleaming teeth.’ People have often admired my ‘flawless and soft looking’ skin.
I always knew we were different and my parents made it clear that some white people would be against us because of this. They told us we were lucky to know about a different world and culture that most English people would never get to experience or know about. We were told we should never give them reason to find fault with us. We had to look and behave impeccably at all times, and, most importantly we were told ‘not to bring the police to their door.’
I felt emotionally strong and had a genuine sense of belonging. I think because we and the other black families had these values we were well liked and respected in our community. Most of my family continue to live and work in Stroud and those who moved away have moved back in later years – including me, after over 20 years of living in London.
In Gloucester (our nearest big city with a sizeable Afro-Caribbean community) we could by Afro-Caribbean food and so would have traditional food at the weekends. In Gloucester there was also the Jamaican Sports and Social Club which had dances every weekend. In Stroud, one family would host a party once a month which would be a brilliant late-night gathering of food, pop, fancy outfits, wigs, music and dancing.
My son is mixed-race. His father is white. His hair texture is probably best described as Mediterranean or Turkish. We moved back to Stroud when my son was almost three. Prior to this he had always had his hair cut at a white hairdressers (we lived in Gibraltar for two of these years) who specialised in cutting children’s hair. I called in to make an appointment for a haircut at our nearest hairdressers. I described the texture of his hair and we happily made an appointment. When we turned up the owner, I presume, greeted me at the door and said that she didn’t feel they had enough experience to manage my son’s hair. I turned on my heels, slamming the glass door behind me. I took him to a hairdressers further down the street who was gobsmacked about what had happened, and cut my sons hair for free. I told everyone I knew in the town about this. Bad publicity always spreads faster than good. The hairdresser ceased trading within the year.
My son was a pupil at the local boy’s Grammar school, which has an excellent reputation. Both the boy’s and girl’s Grammar now have a visible and growing racial diversity – among them black and Asian students, which indicates a growth of PoC in this rural area. Also, as Stroud is under 90 minutes on the train from London and Birmingham there is a big trend for people to commute to these cities for work and send their kids to local secondary schools.
I enjoy living in Stroud; I have access to the wider black community in Gloucester whenever I want. I have met black people of my generation in nearby Gloucester who have never been to Stroud. All they know is it has hills which they find a bit alarming!