As our world is increasingly on the move for one reason or another and society becomes more diverse, so there are more people for whom the question of “Who am I?” becomes more pertinent and is more disturbing for more people. “Am I Kenyan, Jamaican, Bangladeshi living in the UK?”, “Am I black?” “Am I what they call Minority Ethnic?” “Am I Muslim/ Sikh?” “Where are my true roots?” “Where would I want to be buried when the time comes?”
It was 20 January 2009, the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration and I, having been brought up in the era of Martin Luther King (“I have a dream!”), the race riots, the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa, was in my sitting room in the London Road in Marlborough, listening with considerable emotion to the first black President of the US speaking with such passion.
Significantly, that evening I was invited to attend a meeting in the Chamber of Bristol City Council where a group of 70 young Afro-Caribbeans were giving a presentation to their families and Council members on their recent visit to The Gambia in West Africa, a trip that had been funded by the Bristol Legacy Commission in memory of William Wilberforce whose bicentenary it was that year.
These young people gave an illustrated talk about their visit which had included James Island, where one witnesses the slave houses with their dungeons, manacles attached to the walls, shackles on the floor and in the grounds a replica slave ship like ones the slaves would have travelled across the Atlantic - standing up. On those voyages it is estimated that one third of the slaves died of sickness and starvation and their bodies were simply thrown into the sea.
As they showed their video of the visit to the slave houses you could see the tears rolling down the cheeks of these young people - they really appreciated for the first time what had happened to their ancestors and they were once again moved in telling of thieir experience. But they then went on to speak really profoundly.
“We have heard the stories from our parents and grandparents about our ancestors and the slave trade from West Africa to Jamaica...We have heard how our grandparents then came from Jamaica to Britain on the ship the Windrush in 1948...We have ‘completed the triangle’ by returning to West Africa from where our ancestors came...We have witnessed for ourselves that history. We now know who we are!"
"We want to give up the drugs, the crime and the knives! We want to do something positive."
For me it was a ‘light bulb’ moment. Here were young black men and women speaking about the importance of identity.
As someone whose family has been rooted in a small market town in Wiltshire since 1792, I can, I think, say “I know exactly who I am – but I have taken it for granted!”
Surely the migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea can be forgiven if in addition to experiencing the unimaginable traumas of fleeing conflict in their countries of origin, travelling with appalling hardship to an unknown destination and, assuming they eventually find a haven in a welcoming country, they experience a desperate sense of bewilderment “Who am I, now?”
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