During Black History Month – and always, for that matter – it’s important that we take time to reflect on the stories of members of the Black community, and celebrate the vast contributions the community has made. In this piece, we hear from three women, a mother and her daughters, to look back on Black British history through the lens of their experiences as a family. From Mauva, who travelled from Jamaica to England in 1957, when she was just three, to Karleen, who remembers the fear of going out for a walk at the time when Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack in 1993, and Keeks who’s hopeful for a better future after a year that’s seen Black Lives Matter protests around the world. They are just one family, but this Black History Month, we can learn so much from their stories of strength and togetherness.
On a cloudy Saturday morning, three women from the Reid family sit huddled around a laptop, regaling me stories of their youth over a video call. Keeks, 28, is flanked by her mother, 66-year-old Mauva, and older sister, 43-year-old Karleen. Rarely at any point are all three of their faces visible on my screen but it doesn’t matter – they more than make up for it with boisterous laughter and a few tearful moments. As they share events from their lives, spanning from 1954 right up to the present day, it becomes abundantly clear that these stories are worn, warm and familiar, as the women jog each other’s memories and correct one another on dates.
“Mum, I thought you were three, not four?” questions Keeks, as Mauva recounts travelling from Clarendon, Jamaica to England at a young age. “Oh yes, you’re right, I was nearly four but you’re right,” her mother responds before reminiscing once more. Following her parents who had emigrated to the UK years before, Mauva boarded a passenger ship with an Auntie in July 1957 and after a three-week trip, was reunited with them once more at the port of Southhampton. “I can remember getting off the boat and seeing my mum and dad like it was just yesterday. It’s so weird because I might not be able to recall things that have happened three or four years ago but I can remember joining my parents so clearly. My mum looked so beautiful in a mustard jacket and was already pregnant with my sister at this point, while my dad was wearing a suit and tie with a bowler hat. I was just so excited – according to my aunt, throughout the trip, all I kept asking was ‘We nah reach yet?’”
Looking back on her formative years spent in her parents’ one-bedroom flat in Brixton, Mauva recognises that being ‘left behind’ with her brother and sister had a monumental impact on her relationships and how she forms attachments even to this day: “I questioned my parents on why they left me – my mum was always good at explaining and my dad would always fill in any gaps. They wanted to be able to provide us with more and saw moving to England as the best way to do that. As a child, I didn’t even want to go on school journeys because I didn’t want to leave them. Even until they died, I was living on the same road as them.” After her sister and brother joined the family in London in 1962 and 1963 respectively, their parents bought a house in Battersea and, as her parents had to work, Mauva found herself taking on a parental role – particularly as her siblings didn’t have the same close connection with their parents. “I became their mum in a way because even though there wasn’t much difference in age between us, I was the older one and so I mothered them.”
Though she was too young to understand or acknowledge the monumental cultural shift in moving to the UK, there’s one moment during Mauva’s childhood that highlighted her family’s otherness. “My dad used to work on the railways and he used to run into a lot of problems because he was Black. When I was eight, I remember my dad coming home completely bloodied after being beaten up by some Teddy Boys.” Known as a white working-class subculture with a penchant for targeting Black immigrants, unprovoked attacks by Teddy Boys weren’t uncommon and were the impetus for a number of race riots, most notably the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. “I was so confused by it but personally, I didn’t experience anything until I became a nurse.”
In 1972, an 18-year-old Mauva joined the legions of Black nurses training in British hospitals – many of who had been recruited from the Caribbean to work in the newly established NHS due to labour shortages after the Second World War. And like many of her fellow nurses, she was subjected to extreme anti-Black racism. “‘Get your Black hands off me’ and ‘That Black one ain’t coming near me’ were things I heard regularly and I just had to say ‘Just move over, Mr Jones, this Black hand has to wipe you. Sorry I’m Black but I’ve got to do it.’ They’d call you the n-word and you’d just still have to care for them whereas today, it’s a different story. There were nurses who were obviously offended and would walk away but the thing was that you couldn’t be seen doing that.”
After 14 years in nursing, two children – including Karleen who, as Mauva proudly states, was born during the hottest summer on record in 1976 – and baby Keeks on the way, she opted for a change of pace and decided to pursue work within local councils, which involved going into sheltered housing accommodation, checking in with the elderly residents and maintaining a health and social perspective on their wellbeing. It wasn’t long before Mauva became the manager of the only day centre primarily for Black elderly people in Lewisham, at the time, in 1986. “When I was there, I’d have conversations with the residents who came from places like Barbados and Jamaica and they’d really never gone back to understand the history of their country. I also had never been back to Jamaica either and I desperately wanted to. So I set up a project so that we could find funding to make this happen – it even picked up interest from a BBC Programme show called Ebony who came with us. Despite having problems with funding and the council, we went in the end and everything went really well.”
Growing up against the backdrop of Black consciousness-raising in the UK, the rise of Black Power movement and the UK Black Women’s Movement of the 70s and 80s, Karleen remembers her mother’s home always full and bustling with relatives. “We were very family-oriented so every week, we had Saturday parties and Sunday dinners,” she shares. “We were aware of the time we were in and it drew us closer together as a family. Especially because mum was working a lot when I was young, our grandparents played a huge role in my upbringing and pretty much right up until they died.”
By this point, the family had moved to Catford, which was significantly more white than it is today, and Karleen attended school in Eltham. “Now that area was racist. You’d make sure you’d go to school as a group of Black children for safety,” she remembers.
“Every afternoon, you’d hear stories about the Chelsea Smilers (a school playground scare story about white skinheads and football hooligans who would supposedly stop children to ask questions about Chelsea Football Club and cut the corners of their mouths with a blade if they answered incorrectly).You’d dread receiving a detention, particularly if it was wintertime because it would start getting dark around 4pm and you didn’t want to be out alone then.”
Though Karleen later moved schools and was on her way to becoming a nurse like her mother, her younger sister, Debbie, was still at school in Eltham at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s racially-motivated murder in 1993 while he was waiting for a bus in the area. “It was really raw for us, especially as some of our cousins also went to the school he had gone to, Blackheath Bluecoat School,” Karleen remembers. “It reinforced the fact that we needed to travel in groups and look out for one another. It made us communicate with family and friends much about where we were going and who we were seeing,” Karleen explains.
Unlike her mother, the 44-year-old has visited Jamaica regularly since she was seven, having gone for the first time with her grandparents. “I stayed for three weeks in the country – I climbed trees, I learned how to swim in the river, I picked coffee, I herded and fed goats and pigs, I met lots of cousins. It was just wonderful. I love Jamaica’s culture and history but I also don’t take it for granted that my grandparents came over to the UK to make a better life for themselves, their children and their children’s children.”
For 28-year-old Keeks, listening to the recountings of her mother’s and older sister’s upbringings highlights just how different their situations have been and, in particular, how differently Mauva parented herself and Karleen. “When Karleen was growing up, our mum was very much working-class so they had to learn very quickly around cooking and cleaning – those things were instilled from very young,” notes Keeks. “But I wasn’t taught how to do it because there was no need.”
Amongst raucous laughter, jokes and quips from her mother and sister about growing up middle-class, buying designer trinkets and deciding to become a journalist, Keeks explains that she felt like she didn’t necessarily need a vocation: “Mum kind of impressed upon Karleen and Debbie the need to have a vocation, ideally within the NHS, but because of the way she brought me up, I felt like I could say ‘No, I don’t want that.’ I knew that there was a safety net there, especially as Mum now had her own business.” Karleen agrees: “My mindset with becoming a nurse was very much focused on ensuring that I could get a pension, making sure I’d always have a job, making sure that I could always put money and food on the table.”
The obvious parallels between Keeks’ life and those of her family’s are few and far between (“My mum got married when she was 21 and I haven’t had a boyfriend since I was 24 so…”) and nothing makes that more stark for her than hearing about their experiences at work and school. “Everything Karleen said about school really shocked me – it didn’t even cross my mind that they had to take all these precautions. The Catford I’ve known and grown up in is so different to the one that they speak of. I’ve grown up around Black people and never felt like a minority.”
Looking ahead to the future right now feels difficult, in a year that has been touched by COVID-19 and ongoing demands for safety for Black lives. “I’ve found this year quite emotionally taxing,” shares Keeks. “Being a lot of my friends’ touchpoint to Blackness has had its pros and cons. It means that I’m always the person that they talk to about Black Lives Matter, which can be draining if I just want to relax and tune out for bit, but they have always checked in on me throughout the months and I know I have white friends that are on the right side of the movement and are using their voices.”
She adds: “I do feel hopeful for the future. More than I have before, anyway. I don’t think society can shy away from this now and companies and brands are being held accountable too, from what I can see. Maybe this means at least some positive can come from 2020 when the future generations study this year in their history classes.”
In a pandemic-riddled age where video calls have become the new normal, I never thought I would such immense pleasure from a two-hour-long conversation with three women I’d never met before and yet I did. The tenderness, care and delight with which they handle another’s experiences is palpable as well as the space they hold for talking about painful subjects, particularly the grief they’re all processing around the death of Mauva’s parents and Karleen and Keeks’ grandparents. Their collective account began with the fracturing of a family, separated by the Atlantic Ocean and promises of a welcoming ‘Mother Country’ and today, the story is different; one informed by both loss and strength across the years which has drawn them tighter than ever before.
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