I have been teaching Hurricane Hits England by Grace Nichols to my year 8 class. It is a poem concerned with the push-pull feelings of loss and displacement that migration always entails. In it Nichols explores her feelings of isolation within the UK and how she comes to understand that despite it all, ‘the earth is the earth is the earth’. Borders should not matter, we can be as rooted in one place as another. On this particular day I decide that we need to cover some contextual material about both the poet and England during the 70s and 80s. Students are divided into groups of 4 and given sheets with information on Nichols’ work, the political climate of Britain post The Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury in 1948 and information on the Yoruba and Carib gods mentioned in the poem.
I display a picture of the Brixton riots and ask students to explain what they think is happening in it and why; they are quick to tell me that it is something to do with race. As groups talk and decide which bits of information are important enough to share with the class, I overhear the following snippet of conversation:
Ahmet (of Turkish descent) - ‘No you are’
Joseph (of Nigerian descent) - ‘No I’m not, I’m 3rd generation Nigerian, just because I’m black people think I’ve just come here’
Eli (of White Dutch and Black British descent) - ‘Well you’re the one who started it’.
I intervene by asking the group what has taken place and it transpires that Joseph had labelled Ahmet an ‘immigrant’ only moments earlier. Hurt, Ahmet retaliated by telling Joseph that he is one too. It seemed saddening and shocking to me that boys such as these, in a school so ethnically diverse should trade ‘immigrant’ as an insult to each other. Both boys insisted that they were ‘British’ and I spoke to them of how things were so different when I was their age. Of how my feelings of rejection by ‘British’ (white) people had made me shun the very title my parents had sacrificed so much for.
I was Nigerian and Black before I was British. There was a long process of becoming British that wasn’t helped by the constant questions about where I was from. ‘London’ was never a sufficient reply. People always wanted to know where I was ‘really from’. My friend who is half Finnish never got asked the same questions. Though she readily ‘passed’ for being British it was a burden of sorts. I remember speaking to her in our late teens about her sense of a Finnish identity and she rejected this completely. A few weeks ago I spoke to her about how I had noticed her growing into her Finnish self, embracing it and she admitted that growing up somewhere so lacking in cultural and ethnic diversity had made her want to shed all traces of her difference. Then too, immigrant was a dirty word.
As I think of my students, a part of me feels proud that we have come so far that black boys can loudly claim Britishness for themselves in a way that the children of immigrants from my generation could not until their later years. It would be even better if this could happen without the diminishment of ‘immigrants'. I left the lesson heartened by Eli, caught in between Ahmet and Joseph, proudly claiming dual cultural identities. ‘I’m British and Dutch and I love it!’
Students’ names have been changed.
Lola Okolosie teaches English at an all-boys comprehensive school located in the heart of London. A columnist on the Guardian’s Comment is Free, her work focuses on issues ranging from: social inequality; feminism; race; education and parenting. She is a long longstanding member of the organization black feminists.