Good English: Where Are You From?
In July 2018 I booked an Uber to go see the Incredibles sequel. I am in Ottawa, Canada, a new country with different ways.
My otherness grabs me like a warm hug from that aunt you don’t particularly like, but one your parents say you have to respect. The cabbie looks at my name again, and again and again — Tré Ventour. “Where are you from?” he throws at me. I saw this coming ten miles out, the question that’s been part of my life since I was old enough to speak. I translate this question as “Why are you here?” or “This place isn’t for you people” — or more potently, “Why are you brown in Europe or America?” — or in this scenario: Canada.
Back in England, at my university, on the third floor of the library, there are often conversations of this nature going on. In the evenings, the Third Floor is where many of the campus’ Black students like to work. I go there one day in January, to be asked “where are you from?”to the clitter clatter of keyboards. I answer this question honestly. “Northampton,” I say. Like the cabbie, what they want to know is why I’m brown in Europe. How did I get here? I was born in London, England but grew up in Northampton. My mother is a Northamptonian but my father was born in Lichfield, growing up between there and Birmingham. However, they were born to Windrush Generation parents, leaving those sunlit islands for a new life for better opportunities.
“You got good English, kid” he said. “I’ll give you that.” Noticing his tattoo, I could see he loved his country — the red, white and blue of Uncle Sam. Abroad, these sorts of encounters are regular. “Good English.” Seemingly, my accent is not enough, since Britishness has been whitewashed via popular culture and the Americans do love British period dramas, don’t they?
When I was a child, I’d often be privy to my grandparents’ chitter chatter of home, Grenada and Jamaica, stories that have added to my quest for identity. When I’m asked “Where are you from?” — The Windrush Generation, that’s the story people want to hear. The “Where are you from?” asked by the cabbie was not the same as the question asked by the Black students. The question asked by the American ties into white ingenuousness. Sure, I was British with the same accent as the lady on their Canadian $20-bill. But I was just as Other to him as the thousands of immigrants the Canadian government welcomes every year.
The question from the students was an invitation. It was loaded with ackee, saltfish and jollof rice. They see themselves in me. It was a question from people with lost identities, also looking for their place. In me, they see home. They see themselves. They see their ancestors. They see family and it’s a code for something as simple as wanting to talk to other Black people about blackness — identity, culture and history — even if it’s just for five minutes.
My maternal grandfather was born and raised in Grenada, coming to England at sixteen years old. He’s a born and bred West Indian, whereas the Caribbean is just in my blood. My West Indies is travel magazines and the black and white of family photos. It’s foreign. When people ask “Where are you from?” I say Britain. It’s what I know. It’s a country whose heart I can access. I know Britishness. I know the culture. It’s a relic in time. I can hold Britain in my hand, whereas Jamaica and Grenada are ghosts. Granddad’s Grenada is go-karts down the hill and the rum runner. It’s his siblings and mother and where he learned how to shave. Yet, in Ottawa, talking to the American, I was asked to validate my existence about countries that are foreign to me.
I often ponder why so much of my loneliness comes from racial inequality. How much comes from a lust for knowledge? As a kid, I loved to read. I still do, but my habits changed from fiction to nonfiction and poetry. I love film and television and the medium of storytelling. But how many of those stories had lead characters that looked like me? How many had button noses and African hair and melanated skin. How many grew up in homes with curry goat, saltfish fritters, rice and peas and fried bakes? What about mothers that spoke in Twi and wore headwraps to the market? What about the Black men that loved to read? The ones that loved The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars? Those narratives were always consumed by white protagonists.
Look how long it took to diversify Star Wars. John Boyega’s in Star Wars. John Boyega! A Black British man! Look at Wakanda with Princess Shuri and Nakia. And as a person of colour that used to love reading fiction, you’d often force yourself to think that it’s not about the colour of their skin but the content of their character that keeps you reading. Yet, it’s not always that easy. I felt so very alone. That I wasn’t worthy of such acclaim. That heterosexual love was for White people. And even LGBTQ+ relationships were for White people. Where were the Black and brown relationships? It’s the difference between Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. It’s the difference between If Beale Street Could Talk and A Star Is Born. It’s Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels, and the only British period pieces that feature people of colour are oppressed narratives — slavery and postwar immigration.
Part of this loneliness is explaining to White people why it’s important to diversify the history syllabus in Britain. It’s explaining why you can’t keep using Wilberforce as the go-to in talks about slavery. It’s decolonising university module choices. It’s the picky feeling on your brain saying you’re not aggressive, you’re just passionate. Whilst a White person is opinionated, a person of colour will be angry, only to get told “it’s not that deep.”
The cabbie asks me if I watch “Black movies,” as if Black cinema is a genre. Please. When I retort “Black” is not a genre, his excited face phases from disappointment to anger. Now, red and flustered, he sees he won’t get one over on me. He concedes defeat. There are shared frames of reference between us — we are human, we are men, we like films — but we see the world through different eyes. My eyes tainted by the effects of colonisation and the legacy of slavery, raised on the stories of history and diaspora. While he makes assumptions, the idea that I don’t owe him an explanation for anything does somewhat offend him. We’re both speaking English. My “Good English” was given to me at the end of a sword. His English was given to him at the hilt.
Is race oppressive? It can be, but it’s also expressive. Yet, the narratives I’ve seen about Black people are mostly linked to negativity and hardship through films and television. But then Black Panther happened. Our existence as Black people should not only be tied to struggle and servitude. There’s so much love from African and Caribbean people and their descendants who live in Europe and the Americas, othered by society. And that’s how we’ve been taught to perceive people with the absence of whiteness. I try to think of blackness as a positive thing like calypso and soca dressed in chinos and linen shirts. No occasion needed for songs and dance. But my own people can also be the authors of their own oppression (classism, colourism). Sometimes, I want to embrace everyone, and then not embrace at all. That’s another source of loneliness, an unbelonging defined through factors like knowing your value, and that value goes beyond monetary worth.
I am British and Brit(ish). When I’m in the UK, I’m forever reminded how I’m not really from here. That I’ll never be the same as my White friends. But when I’m in Amsterdam, I never feel more British: hyper-aware of my own otherness, not as a person of colour (Amsterdam is like London in this way), but as a Briton. Once I talk, people know this guy is British. My cultural references are British. From Luther to canon literature to Amma Asante and Benedict Cumberbatch. Before I knew the word otherness, I used to call it unbelonging. I see this everywhere, especially amongst millennials of colour.
The cabbie can’t seem to fathom more and more people feel disconnected from the countries they grew up in. Despite living in Canada, he lives America, even calling my British English “Good English.” I see similar things with the Union Jack. My English is called “Good English” regularly, as if Black and Asians aren’t British too. The fact that someone could be British and Nigerian is a mystery to him. A friend of mine calls this “Britgerian.” The first time she told me this, it made me smile. It’s grown on me in the days since.
My identity crisis has latched itself to my soul like the slaves thrown from the Zong. I’m in mourning. It grows inside me, as there’s no place I can go back to. Where is home? I identify with Britain (sometimes). I identify with the coloniser’s country more than the countries my grandparents’ came from. The country England drew swords for in the spoils of sugar and slavery. Even my names aren’t mine — Ventour, Griffiths, Parkes, Noel — what do I make of this?
The idea of identifying with both, or multiple places is hard for a lot of people to understand. Through slavery and immigration, I am here today to write this — the displacement of millions of Africans, uprooted ethnicities and putting them somewhere else. I have family in Mississauga and New York. I have family in Utrecht and London. I have family in Grand Roy and Portland (Jamaica). None of those places are home, they are places I can visit. Home is a memory. Britain is a home but belonging, is what you believe.
The cabbie tells me he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. That he loves his country. And wait for it, he voted for Donald Trump. His phone starts to ping. We pick up a friend of his, another American.