The death of George Floyd is an image of brutality that appears on an American turn table which keeps going around and around for centuries. We have no reason in this country to be complacent but there are significant differences. My Covid diary is strange because it is not about today or yesterday, it’s about memories from the past that have floated to the surface during a time of contemplation.
Some black people say that if you are white you can’t know what it is to live the black experience. It is unlikely that any white woman of my generation who married a man of colour hasn’t trod that path. One of the big differences between the UK and the USA is the history of mixed relationships. In Black and British, David Olusoga tells the story of the Black Georgians who were numerous. For the TV version he brought together the ancestors of the black slave Jonathan Strong, whose legal case following a near death beating from his master, in 1765 London, changed British history. The interesting thing was that there did not appear to be a black face among his descendants. That is evidence that unlike in the USA, since the black Romans arrived, black and white have mixed freely and there have always been interracial friendships. (In the USA, under slavery black and white mixed but not freely- mostly through the rape of female slaves) It has been predicted that by 2075 the majority of the population of Britain will be of mixed heritage. Despite biases in our institutions and distressing low level prejudice, that gives me hope.
I felt the need to write a novel that could appeal to the children of marriages which, like mine and Atam’s cross boundaries. So I wrote it. Sculpting the Elephant is about an Oxford artist called Harry and an Indian historian called Ramma who have to confront boundaries of nationality, culture, religion, colour and class. I took a complimentary copy to Caroline Henney in Oxford’s Antiques on High. Another trader called Amanda Fore flipped through it and read the dedication to anyone with a partner from a different country, religion, colour. Amanda reacted emotionally and said, ‘Glenn, my late husband, was African/American.’ And the stories poured out of her. A customer overheard and joined us. She said, ‘My husband is from Brazil and he has American Indian ancestors.’ It was as if my novel had given permission and a safe space to talk about their experiences. In Amanda’s case they had experienced some prejudice from both black and white Brits, just as Ruth Williams who married Seretse Khama experienced prejudice both in Britain and in Botswana. Glenn and Amanda opted to live in the UK rather than the States because the reality was that here they may have experienced some prejudice but they were not in fear for their lives as they would have been if they had tried to live in the south of the USA. It was worth it – their marriage was long and happy.
It echoes my own experience. In the video on the Sculpting the Elephant banner I tell the story of how Atam and I met at a time of vicious racism in Smethwick in the West Midlands where even the Labour Club had a colour bar. But until now I haven’t publicly told any stories that happened after that. Atam had lived through the horrors of the Partition of India and taught me to put bad experiences behind me and move on. The same is true of most returning soldiers from wars. But, during this strange time I have involuntarily remembered many events. For each bad one I can tell you a good one.
We moved to Kennington in 1970 when Atam was appointed Senior Lecturer in Maths, Stats and Computing at Oxford Polytechnic which later became Oxford Brookes University. Atam’s was the first and that time the only brown face in the village. One day I opened the door to the vicar, Rev’d Harold Bennett. He said,
‘I saw your husband.’ I asked him in but explained that Atam was Hindu – albeit an atheist Hindu. He replied ‘Everyone in the village is my parishioner whatever their faith or none.’ He meant his visit to be welcoming and I appreciated it. I can’t say the same for an incident the following year. At 3 am there was a banging on our front door so loud it was painful. I was worried it would wake Justin and I was pregnant with Adrian. Atam and I went together to answer the door to two burly policemen. One said, ‘Does Justin Vetta live here?’ I said, ‘Yes but he’s asleep. Why do you ask?’
‘He’s suspected of football hooliganism.’
I replied ‘You do know that he’s not yet 4 years old?’
I could see that they did know. The point of the visit was to harass Atam and I. In recent years, the UK had grown less racist but since Brexit and the rise of tribal politics, it seems to be getting worse again.
I have enjoyed writing Not so Black and White with my Kenyan friend Nancy Mudenyo Hunt. Previously a leadership trainer for Thames Valley Police,(TVP) her experiences have informed our novel which is set on a London ‘sink estate’ and in western Kenya, addressing the issues of knife crime, nationality, culture, race and class. When working for the TVP she witnessed the systemic racism which she saw first-hand when accompanying teenage boys to court and says,
‘The treatment of young people based on their colour would sometimes be absolutely shocking. Young people go through a lot of challenges and adversity within the system, just because of the colour of their skin.’
I have more stories of obstacles and hatred and help and kindness to tell but what I hope is that we summon the strength of will to create the society our young people desire. We should listen to them. They want a society in which what they look like, whatever skin tone, male or female, able bodied or with a disability their appearance does not determine their future.
Amanda and Glenn
Atam and I