They came from different parts of the Caribbean to train as nurses. So it feels rather poignant that I didn’t learn that Mary Seacole existed until I was in mid-30s. Why was this? Maybe it was that Trinidadian thing about not giving Jamaicans credit. If you know my mum, you’d understand. Or maybe it was that complete erosion of black people from British history.
Like all young people growing up, I wanted to find my place in the world. The singer, Skin, from Skunk Anansie, once talked about our generation being the first ones born here. We didn’t have our parents’ memories and sense of belonging to another land. We emerged from British maternity wards, learnt our times tables in British class rooms and strained to recall the finer details of crop rotation in British exam halls. Our roots were in islands far away and sometimes we struggled to stay upright.
My first sense that people like me had been on these shores in centuries past came via my mum. I was in primary school and we’d been given one of those pieces of work I dreaded. (The worse one was guess the baby. I went to a virtually all-white primary school in Sussex.) We had to pretend we were a character in (British) history and write from their point of view. I was despairing that there were no black people I could be. Mum told me there were. Blackamoors in Elizabethan times, for a start. I would have preferred to have been a princess. But this was the 1970s. I took what I was given.
One of the most powerful moments came in a secondary school assembly. Our head, Mr Trethowan, a rather powerful orator at the best of times, spoke about Jesse Owens. I watched the sea of white children around me learn how a man my colour stood up to Hitler. I felt pride ride inside me. Previous to that, all they’d been taught about us was that we were slaves. That’s all I had been taught too.
Stories are powerful. They sneak into our consciousness through hidden doors. Black History Month pushes those stories out into the wider world. It spotlights our resilient, creative, angry, inventive, stubborn rebellious selves.