Everyday Stories Of Small Town Racism

October 11, 2010

Two months ago I wrote an article which appeared as the cover story in The Sunday Times Magazine about my family’s experiences of racism since moving to Lewes. The article created some controversy and continues to have reverberations. On Saturday afternoon, for instance, the town Library hosted the first ever Black History Month event in Lewes. It was really quite a thrilling occasion, vibrant with music, storytelling and performance poetry from local representatives of the African diaspora.

There is a modern argument that Black History Month is kind of patronising to black people and black history should no longer be a separate entity but integrated into the mainstream history curriculum. That might be a viable point of view in cities with a substantial BME population, but in Lewes – and elsewhere of course – the need is still great.

By way of illustration, Lewes is proud, I think, to count among its residents two world renowned poets whose work features on the GCSE curriculum. John Agard and Grace Nichols moved to the UK from Guyana more than three decades ago and have lived in Lewes for the majority of the years since. They have published a considerable volume of work, very little of which, until last week, appeared on the shelves of the local library. They were almost nowhere to be seen.

Naturally, our two great living poets were the centre piece of Saturday’s event, and as they performed their work the large crowd that was listening could have spotted ample fresh copies of their books displayed on the nearby shelves, along with an impressive new stock of books by other black British and Afro-Caribbean writers and authors from the wider Commonwealth. There, straightaway, was one was positive impact of the Black History Month group of Lewes event (and, in turn of my article which brought the group together in the first place).

There is no doubt that Grace Nichols and John Agard found a ready welcome in Lewes and I know they are happy here. Black people do not of course have a homogeneity of attitudes towards racism. But even those who do not feel they are regularly confronted with it themselves would be reluctanct to deny its existence.

My article, in the final cut, reflected only my own family’s experiences. In its original draft it had included many of the more overt examples of racism experienced by some of the 10 other black, asian and mixed race Lewes couples I interviewed during the research. The original draft was way too long and needed to be cut, so I agreed with my editor to pare it back to my own family’s story. I figured this would make the article plainer and easier to follow. I also wanted to make people aware that not all racism involves blatant acts, but can be subtle and disguised and no less affecting for being unintended or born of ignorance. I felt too that focusing on my family would protect the others from the abuse that was bound to follow, and of course did. I could see people in blogs and forums asking out loud what some of the other local black people, who they named would make of my article. Little did they know those other black people had experienced racism too and didn’t mind saying so and had read and supported my article ahead of publication. I had circulated it widely, keen to ensure it accurately reflected the experiences of others.

Not all of the others were happy to be left out of the article. Some felt it would have been stronger – and harder to attack or undermine – if it had included their experiences too. Certainly some of the stories were painful or sad or hair-raising, in some cases all three at once. I will not identify the people here, even though they were all willing to be identified in the original article, all except the couple in this story, a mixed race family, one black parent, one not, who sent a child to a local school where, at the age of six, she was excluded by a group of friends who formed ‘the white club’ and said she could not be in it as she was not white. The girl was very distressed and so too were the parents. The school and the parents of the other children all at first refused to accept it was an issue of race, and instead said it was a friendship issue. It was certainly an issue of race and identity for the excluded girl who started saying she hated her colour and hoped she would grow out of it, get white skin as she grew older. In desperation the couple got support from a Brighton organisation Mosaic who sent them back to the school with a lawyer. The school, and the other parents, changed their tune, accepted the problem for what it was, and introduced some diversity teaching into the curriculum. The child recovered and is now happy in her own skin and in the school.

Someone not always happy in his own skin is a local man of African origin who has lived here many years and has soaked up an endless succession of ignorant and racist remarks as he goes about his business in the town. People admire his ‘tan’ and wish they had one like it themselves, make jokes about him being ‘invisible’ in the dark and so on and on. He doesn’t like it but nor does he want to spend his life challenging racism.

Another African resident did not like it when her parents came over from her home country to stay with her, for the first time. Welcome to Lewes. Her father, an elderly man, was picked up by the police outside a local primary school after a parent reported a suspicous looking man hanging around. He was in fact merely passing the school on his way to the Downs to keep up his lifetime habit of running to stay fit. It looked very much as if the only thing suspicious about the man was the fact that he was black. He and his wife and their daughter all felt humiliated and angered by the indignity he had faced, being searched in the street before put in a police car and taken to his daughter’s home.

An Asian man who had grown up in London in the 1970s in an area of racial unrest thought he had left all that behind when he moved to Lewes. Instead on two occasions he was openly abused in the town centre, once as a ‘fucking Paki’. When he reported the incidents in a local newsletter someone suggested it could have been outsiders who had abused him. I noticed that same argument used in a recent comment on the Lewes forum, in relation to a post by someone who said they had left Lewes to escape the racism. Another poster responded with some racist abuse, no doubt reminding the man why he had left in the first place.

The point of these stories – and there are many more – is not to condemn the whole of Lewes as racist but to say, look, these things go on here as much as anywhere else. Lewes is not without racism and denying it only serves to support and perpetuate racist values and ignorance.

Lewes is not unlike many other places in this respect, but there are ways in which it is really rather unique. One of the singular aspects of Lewes is that the black people who live there are not the only people going around in black skin: once a year, during the November 5th celebrations, some white members of one of the bonfire societies get blacked up and parade through the streets dressed as zulus. They pride themselves on the detail and authenticity and pageantry of their costumes, but seem unaware of their capacity to cause offence.

Not one of the people I interviewed for my article thought it was all right for white people to get blacked up in this day and age. The cultural associations – slavery, imperialism, ‘nigger minstrels’, ‘coon singers’, apartheid – are hard to ignore.

I believe that one of the oldest zulus has been in the bonfire society since he was a child, when he used to form part of a tableau which required him to sit as a white boy in a pot with cardboard flames surrounded by family and friends blacked up as cannibals cooking him to eat. You don’t hear about that in the proud histories of Lewes bonfire.

4 Comments (add a comment)

  1. zerodtkjoe October 20, 2010

    Thanks for the info

  2. seanlopez October 20, 2010

    Good article

  3. Daniel Sait November 8, 2010

    I read the original article on Lewes and the above with interest and while I have to say David’s motives appear to be coming from a ‘good place’, the view of the town of Lewes created by these two articles is just plain wrong. I moved to Sussex around 14 years ago and immediately loved the town of Lewes and its spirited independence. I was intrigued by many of the local traditions and customs including bonfire night and have become over the years part of these expressions of local identity and independence. As a journalist myself, after moving to the area, I did a bit of research to find out the root of some of these traditions and in particular bonfire night. I am sorry David, but you need to do the same as you will discover the real motives behind these celebrations. You make the point about the need to include more education for local people on black cultural history, no one would argue against the usefulness of this, but you undermine your stance by completely failing to properly educate yourself about local cultural motivations and the origins of local traditions. You will not encourage local people to look at widening their cultural outlook if you completely fail to understand the background of the place you have just moved to. Rather you put what you have observed through an un-trained metropolitan eye and come up with a distorted view.
    I am not going to layout all the inaccuracies you have made about bonfire traditions here and provide the answers that I think will help you, frankly it would take too long, and I think doing a bit of research on local history would genuinely help you to feel more comfortable in Lewes and Sussex in general.
    No reasonable person would say that there is absolutely no racism in Lewes and no issues to address or areas to improve on. However this hardly singles the town out in the UK. In the end both your articles and in particular the first one have all the hallmarks of the sort of ill-informed and badly researched views which places like Lewes always suffer from when looked at through the type of metropolitan prism which you seem to be unable or un-willing to discard.
    A last point I would make is that I have also lived in Brixton, a place you talked about in your first article. Whilst I found the diversity of events and people interesting and enjoyed living there overall, I also witnessed many episodes of racially motivated aggression and violence. In my time living in Brixton I also witnessed one riot, two stabbings and a bullet hole in my sisters’ wall that had travelled through the front door during an altercation right outside her flat while were out at a local pub. Sorry Brixton, but give me Lewes any day of the week. Ultimately David, I genuinely think if you take the blinkers off you will discover a very different place to the one you seem to imagine Lewes to be.

  4. Jonathan Brown November 19, 2010

    Specifically looking at the Bonfire Parades, Daniel Sait repeats several times that there is research to be done as to the supposed “meanings” of the proceedings. Perhaps he could have paused with that re-iteration and simply enlightened us. The fact is that when I see a white man blacked up as a Zulu, I am reminded strongly of racist views and attitudes of the B&W minstrels and other incidences throughout the west’s cultural history, of whites portraying black people (often in disrespectful mimicry or even mockery, rarely in genuine celebration) and I wonder deeply WHY this man (in the parade) is doing it, year after year.

    Even Glastonbury Festival takes years off to give the locals a break.
    But anyway.. I digress.

    If you know something, Daniel, spill the beans, cos there’s plenty of us in Lewes and beyond who DO interpret dressing up as a Zulu as a thoughtless throwback to backward racist times. And it is in the interpretation of things that the person who “blacks up” has some responsibility. If he knows it’s pissing off people, then there’s something to consider every time he does it.

    And Why only do it in the Safety of the parade? Go and do it in Brixton, or Bristol or any part of the world where there’s not some safe “oh this is what we do, it’s a tradition” buffer, and experience the response. All your self-justifications will count for little when you face any angry crowds that might gather soon after your appearance on those streets.

    Denying one’s racism is a large part of the problem. My own racism only hits me when i am put into situations, away from my comfort zones, where I have to deal with it. It is uncomfortable. I feel awkward dealing with my ignorance, or my genuine, heartfelt dislike of cultural norms within other races.
    The latter is perhaps not so much racism, but genuine dislike of behaviorial norms within a foreign culture (e.g. rampant sexism amongst some cultures), and so perhaps uncomfortable, oft denied, feelings do have some right to be expressed and explored, rather than denied. Perhaps they even have some wisdom within them.

    Although it IS true that racism is not just a Lewes issue, Mr Smith’s article, never said it was exclusive to Lewes.

    There are the local press and magazines, whose business depends heavily on maintaining local business and reader credibility, and who have seemed at times to somewhat cowardly distance themselves from him or his exploration of these issues, knowing that perhaps those who resonate with Mr Smiths views are possibly in a minority, and hence would not heavily damage their readership figures.
    Time to show strength and courage, Editors.

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