Own two feet


They took me

The place I ran. The place I rode. The place I screamed. The place I shouted. The place I laughed. The place I stole. The place I said sorry.  The place I would not. The place doors slammed. The place footballs flew. The place camps grew. The place I fought. The place I kissed. The place I held. The place I let go. The place of swings. The place of struggles.  The place of scaffolding. My mum. My brother. My friends. The place of games. The place I won. The place I lost. The place I called home.

They took me from that place. They took me somewhere else. From SW15 to SW16. Just a single digit difference, but a world away for a nine year old.

Everything I knew, for good, bad and all else that slips in between, slowly faded behind me. All my roots that cut through the concrete surfaces of the estate and embedded themselves deep into the ground were hacked at, but never severed. As much as I was flesh and bone, I was also the concrete tower blocks and metal railings of the estate I still see when I sometimes drive it. I was still the curly hill I would skateboard down and I was still Ali’s shop over the road and up the slope where mum could buy things on tick. I’m still that place.

The social worker who picked me up from a neighbour’s house was answering the call my mum made. She could not cope. I was put into the state hands and the state did what it thought was best. A family was found via a short stay in a children’s home. A good Christian family. A family with a mum and a dad and sons and a daughter and two dogs. They had two bathrooms and thick carpets. They had a garden with a shed and they even had a basement.

I remember being amazed when I first arrived at the foster home. The quiet road lined with trees. The tiny room when you first walked in to hang coats up in and put your shoes. The red wine stairs that climbed high to the first floor and then kept climbing beyond. The welcoming faces…but this was not just SW16, this was another country.

They spoke a different language. They kept picking me up about my dropping of ‘t’s’ and my use of the word ‘ain’t’. They dressed differently. They ate different food. They went to Church. They prayed. They went on planes. They filled the trolley to bursting in Sainsbury’s. They sat round a table at meal times.

Some of these things I fell into. So many of them brand new. I liked the material things. Things I could touch. Things I could taste. Things I could hold on to. Things I could keep. In my file I would later read that the foster parents questioned my desires to possess things. It was seen as shallow, but if one looked a bit deeper they would have understood when the most precious things are taken away from you, possession of things in itself becomes important.

But what I wanted more than anything was to go back home to where I belonged. Where I fit in. Where people understood me and where I understood them. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the words to express all these things because we didn’t need words. We just were. In between the struggle we held on to each other and we helped each other. Even when we were fighting.

In the end though my mum couldn’t hold us all together. She was not strong enough. She needed more help and support and unfortunately either it was not there or she didn’t know how to take it.

A decision was taken early on to slowly sever the link between my mum and I and the estate. After each visit I suffered. My temper would flare. I did not have the experience, the strength, the understanding to contemplate what was happening to me. My head was a constant riot. So much noise. At night I would sometimes sit in the dark thinking about everything and it would become too much. I would wake up in wet sheets and just lay in them hoping they would dry and nobody would know. They always did.

The dislocation from where I had grown up hurt me profoundly. It was not just the distance between me and my mum, but it was the distance that was allowed to open up like a chasm between me and my friends and the estate that was home.

I remember once my friend Brian coming to visit me. Both of us just boys. It is a memory that has recently returned to me. I was so ashamed. He was my best friend and I was ashamed. I think that was the last time I saw him in my childhood.

A home is more than what lies behind your front door. It is more than a family. It is the paths you pass through every day. It’s the two steps you always jump over at the end of the stairwell. It’s the bunches of daffodils you hurdle every summer. It’s the pissy lift you help make pissy. It’s the anti-climbing paint on your hands. It’s the concrete pavement slabs you scratch ‘I woz ere’ on. Home is where you lay your life.

It saddens me to read that children taken into care are still placed in foster homes and children’s homes far from the places they once called their own homes. Sometimes this in other far flung parts of the country. I do appreciate for some children this distance is necessary and in their best interests, but ultimately adults need to remember that even a couple of miles can seem like a huge distance to a child.

It took me a long time to accept I was not going home, but I believe the separation could have been handled much better if people had taken the time to listen to me and to ask the right questions. Time should have been taken to help me through that process. It was, and at times, still feels like a bereavement. One day I was running around on the estate feeling like a king and then the next I was in care, in a foster home asking if it was alright to get a drink of water.

I benefited from being taken into care and although my placements did breakdown, as it did with the family in SW16 after the second period I was there, I have understood it was best for me. That is sometimes hard to reconcile because it has hurt my relationship with my mum and destroyed my relationship with one of my brothers. Still, I know the alternative is I would have likely ended up in a place I do not want to look too deeply into.

I just wish the adults that were tasked to look after me could have looked a little deeper, been a bit more patient and tried to stand in my scruffy trainers. 

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A race to care
April 13, 2011, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stand confused naked in the bath. My dad tightly grips the towel he has just taken off the rail and stares at me wildly.

‘John, YOU are black!’

I look down at my arm that is beginning to shake with the rest of my body and wonder if this is a trick. Is he testing me? I look back at him desperate for a smile, but his silent stare demands an answer.

All I have is confusion, which is racing towards full blown fear. I look down again to check my body and then watch as the last of the bath water drains away.

‘What are you John!?’ my dad shouts.

I look up at him and bite my lip. I don’t want to cry, but the lump in my throat is growing. ‘Come on’. I know not saying anything will be worse than the wrong answer so I just go for what I think is right.

‘I’m not black…I’m cream’, I say with a fractured defiance. I know I have got the answer wrong when his eyes widen. My dad then grabs my wet arm.

‘YOU-ARE-BLACK-John, go on say it, I-AM-BLACK’. I start to cry. ‘No I am not, I am cream’. He wraps me up in the towel, lifts me out of the bath and places me in the corner of the cramped room.

I hold the towel tightly around me with both hands and my dad crouches down in front of me. I remember being scared, but as I think back now perhaps he was more scared than I was. Scared a part of his heritage was slipping away, scared perhaps that I was diluting it and not even able to acknowledge it.

I don’t know, but I do know he was fierce about telling me I was black. But I was maybe seven and back then black was just a colour to me and hadn’t been loaded up with all the labels life would later hang on it.

I don’t think my dad was really asking what colour my skin was that day, but rather he was trying to tell me where I came from. He was demanding I acknowledge my heritage, at least part of it, the part he had passed on to me, that was passed on to him.

But when all the passing of heritage was counted up in the genes that made me, it got quite messy with a motley crew of Scots, Irish, French and Dutch that I know of (it is said a Dutch woman who belonged to a family of slave owners had a child by one of the slaves and together they are my great great… I am not sure how many greats, but great great great grand parents. It was also said she was rejected by the family and given some land for her and my great great great… grandfather. I like to think they grew old together, but I don’t know).

Being mixed race did affect my care experience greatly, as, in the eyes of the system, I was considered black. I heard the phrase ‘one drop of black blood rule’ more than once used by different people and it almost seemed like some kind of contamination had taken place in me.

As I had a black father, one that flitted in and out of my life, I was told I could not stay in foster care with an all white family. Even though I had been brought up solely by my white mother before going into care. This angered me as I knew it restricted my options of finding people to look after me.

My race became a noose around my neck and I went through a period when I turned on that part of myself. I began to hate it and how it was holding me back. This negativity was fed by my experiences growing up and the role black men played in my childhood.

My two younger brothers both had fathers who were black and both had beat my mum. It was men like this that added weight to the racist stereotypes I started carrying in my head and it began to spread through me like a virus. I disassociated myself from the blackness my dad was so keen for me to acknowledge – what had it ever done for me?  

In social services’ eyes they were clumsily attempting to protect what they saw as my cultural heritage. But when you’re in bed alone in a house that is not yours, on sheets that are not yours, sleeping in a room that is not yours, while in the next room a person is on shift and is probably not going to be around for too long and who you can not really build a relationship with because if they’re not gone soon you probably will be, then it is not the colour of your skin or where your parents were born that rattles about in your head.

What rattles is that deep dark sense of loneliness. The night is especially difficult; the isolation in it is the loudest. Why doesn’t anyone want me? You move beyond your family and you get to a point where you just want someone, anyone and to have had a whole lot of people cut off from helping you hurts.

But they say times are changing and new guidelines are in place to stop this happening. It is important to note the word ‘guidelines’. I worry that perhaps guidelines will not be enough and that old behaviours will persist and some social workers and those with sway will hold on to a status quo that has proved pretty strong over the years.

I remember when Labour came into power and similar words being spoken about allowing young Black and Asian children into white families, but limited progress seems to have been made. I think this issue further highlights the lack of Black and Asian foster carers. We need more. Of course we need more foster carers and people to adopt from all backgrounds.

Ultimately I believe we live in a fragmented world and are ourselves very fragmented beings whose lives are sliced and diced in many ways. We are children, we are parents, we are brothers, we are sisters, we are followers, we are leaders, we are joggers, we are teachers. We are poets, we are loners, we obsess about weight and are part time stoners. We are angry, we are hopeful, we are at the backs of crowds and we are boastful. We are gang members, youth workers, some time deserters and police just trying to do a job. We are victims, we abuse, we are good at everything and some of us always seem to lose. We are all shades, all heights, full of truth, with just as many lies. We are vegetarians and some of us love steak. We are dreamers, we are doubters, we are silent and we are shouters. We are iPoders, X-boxers, PS3ers and some of us just like walking. We are many things in the world and to be defined so tightly by the colour of our skin seems naive, in this day and age, more than ever.

In secondary school things changed and I began to celebrate what I considered my ‘Jamaicaness’. I also went to Jamaica with my foster parents, which turned out to beginning of the end of my relationship with them (will save that story for another blog) but I fell in love with the country.

I loved the mad crazy driving, the beaches, the diving off rocks, downtown and the ‘soup man’, I loved the ocean and the food and the sun and the security lady who used to let me sneak in the hotel club at night and the music, I had always loved the music.

At school when people found out I was ‘half caste’ (a term now almost banished and one that when used makes people nervous), I suddenly gained a level of kudos I had not had before.

I remember a time hanging around outside the science classrooms at lunch and a group of boys turned up who were ‘rushing’ people (basically handing out a quick beating). I prepared for my beating, but then heard one of them say, ‘leave it, his dad’s from Jamaica you know’ and instead they went off to beat up some other poor unsuspecting kid, but it was a proud moment in the most twisted sense.

Once I became more comfortable with the idea of being mixed race (the idea more than the term), I started to read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass and the Black Panthers and I began to celebrate my blackness, probably to the point where I went too far.

Suddenly my white heritage was side tracked and I held more tightly to my father’s roots (with a slight American detour, as the above paragraph shows!). But I was simply trying to find an identity, my own identity and not one I needed to be taught or that was thrust upon me. I was picking and choosing for myself. Now I have managed to find a much better balance with things, but I guess I am still sifting through the identity labels and trying different ones on for size.

As I get older, more and more things are being thrown into that mix and I am becoming more and more happily confused. But this confusion is life and anyone who tells you it is supposed to make sense is either lying or has lost their mind.

Ultimately young people in care are looking for somebody to love them and protect them and give them a chance at having a successful and fulfilling life. Cultural heritage, or racial heritage, or whatever you want to call it is of course important. We are the echo of our histories, but if we are to give young people growing up in care the best possible chance in life, we must keep as many doors to families open to them as possible, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation or whatever other labels are currently doing the rounds to divide us.

I can’t remember how the bathroom scene with my father ended. I am sure he was frustrated and I was still confused. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him next week.




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