Long live… I was on the top deck and saw this man at the bus stop. I saw him get on and I looked at my book, deliberating for a few moments whether to go down and speak to him.
I made the right decision and made my way down the stairs, sat down in front of him and asked him about it – no, the hat wasn’t from the time of the Biafran War from 1967-70, a civil war in Nigeria, but he found it in London and enjoys the regular compliments it gets, he told me with a sunny African smile!
The reason I know about it is because in my teens, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, and remember turning the pages, wondering when the writing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would stray off from warmly describing Nigerian families, their beautiful brown, shiny skin, the main character’s fluency in French, and would begin to demonise, dehumanise, or just simply patronise. Because that’s how it was for Black people, to which I was accustomed in everything I had read or heard up until that point. You see, I was in the midst of wishing myself White. A distinct memory of mine was taking a picture holding a toy or a sweet wrapper with my friend’s hand in the picture, and when she showed it to me, I saw my brown fingers and felt immediately embarrassed. Ashamed by my skin’s uncleanness. Because at that age, nobody had told me that my thinking was incorrect, but plenty of people told me it was. I remember the first time I heard the word ‘negro’, and it was on an American film. I asked my Dad, who’s White, what it meant, and he told me it’s an old-fashioned term for a Black person. I remember the first time I learnt the word ‘coon’, and it was on a comment someone had written about me on MySpace when I was 13. I had to Google it and recoiled with sickening horror, scrolling through those pages filled with disgusting images of Black men reduced to KFC eating, watermelon chomping animals. Monsters. I knew it was to do with my embarrassing skin condition which I guiltily thought was all my fault. But I had a saving grace: I proudly analysed my ‘White’ nose in the mirror, cherished the day when my father told me I was an ‘honorary White man’, and sneered at the ‘bad Black people’ I’d see on TV, with nasty African names and London hood rat accents. I was different, because I had a clean English name and I lived amongst White people and had a White dad. The people who wrote that comment were a group of skaters in my school who were excited by neo-nazism. I saw one of them carving a swastika into his hand with a compass in my history lesson. I went to primary school with two others. Queuing up for an under 18s club night in Wigan, Caff, one of them told me he didn’t like me. I smiled, asked him why, but of course it was clear to me. A short time before that, I was sat in my friend’s living room. Another friend was sat on the couch. The friend who was sat on the floor with me asked her why those boys at school didn’t like me. I stayed silent. She said with a smile, “I know why”. We all fell silent. “Because he’s got AIDS?”, the other friend joked. I think the horror of what was happening was too much for me, for us, to cope with, so I pretended it didn’t exist. To say it out loud would make it real. That night at Caff, I was the perfect actor, and continued to dance with my friends when they began to ram into me, pushing me about the dance floor. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that this was happening to me that I applied the same tactic as before. I smiled. I ignored. Eventually, after too many times I pushed one of them back. I turned away and looked over the balcony, and realised they had gone into my bag and had taken a teddy bear that my brother had bought me when I was six years old from a summer fete at my old school in Birkenhead, its head and legs torn off, being tossed around the moshpit downstairs. I told one of my friends, distressed about what they were had done to my bear, that it was from my childhood. At the end of the night, I saw one of my friends, and she said she was cold. I went into my bag and pulled out my favourite jacket from the time, a Tokidoki hoodie, and offered it to her. She looked at it and immediately shook her head. In the club, I had opened my bag, and saw a can had been put in there. My money hadn’t been taken, and I thought they’d put some water or a drink in my bag to make my things wet. So I didn’t think anything of putting the jacket on, getting on the bus with my friend and going to bed, getting up the following morning for school that Friday. When I got back from school, I could smell something in my room. Something bad. I searched for what it was for a moment, and then picked up my jacket.
They hadn’t filled that can with water.
After uploading this, I went to the gym and had to stop for a moment as I was going up the stairs. I had afrobeats song Waka Waka playing through my headphones and listening to this proud, beautiful African voices, I could feel a wave of emotion that I have been waiting for a decade, and I began to cry. It only lasted a moment, but I know there’s so much more deep emotion inside me waiting to be released. I wasn’t just crying for myself, but for every 13 year old who has and is suffering in silence by a world that doesn’t understand how to be brave enough to see them. And listen.