VINTAGE GEMS Isabel Adonis

NWR Issue 54

Black Welsh Identity: The Unspeakable Speaks

I am a woman. When I look in the mirror I see a woman. When other people look at me they see a woman. I know what a woman is and I am one. Once when I was a child, in Africa, I had my hair cut very short and the other children started calling me 'El Walad' — The Boy. It was very distressing, but I didn't start feeling like a boy, and the children wouldn't have been teasing me if they had really thought I was one.

If anyone asks me what it feels like to be a woman, I'm stuck for an answer. There doesn't seem to be any other thing for it to be like or unlike; it feels normal, natural, un-problematic. It doesn't feel like anything at all: what does it feel like to be human?

It could be — I can imagine it — that I have this same body, but feel like a man. I have no more idea of what it feels like to be a man than what it feels like to be a woman, but I assume that it also feels normal, natural, and unproblematic. To feel like a man but have a woman's body would seem to be problematic, but is the problem in the body, the feeling, or the language, i.e. the society.

When I meet someone who looks like a woman but claims to be a man, I am thrown into confusion and conflict. I like to think of myself as being tolerant, accepting, unprejudiced etc. so I want to accept this person's identification of himself as a man, but my senses scream out that this is a woman. I do my best to avoid the subject that is constantly on my mind, sex and gender. I try to be sensitive, use the right pronouns, and treat her, I mean him, as a normal man. It's rather a strain, though one gets used to it to some extent.

I am Welsh. My mother was born and brought up in North Wales, speaking Welsh. I have lived most of my life in Wales. When I look in the mirror I see brown skin and African features. When other people look at me they see an exotic, a foreigner.

If anyone asks me what it feels like to be a black Welsh woman, I'm stuck for an answer. It doesn't feel like anything at all; it feels like being human. I am my natural colour, and I live in my natural home, no problem.

But as soon as I step out of the front door, there is a problem. Most of the people who meet me are thrown into confusion and conflict. They like to think of themselves as being tolerant, accepting, unprejudiced etc. so they try to treat me as normal although their senses scream out that I am different. They try to be sensitive, avoid the word 'black', avoid the subject that is always on their minds. Many prefer to avoid me if possible, they find it a strain.

Sometimes some of the local children call my daughter 'Paki' (mistaking their racist terminology). It's very distressing. When she was just five, she cut off all her frizzy hair; she had been made to feel ashamed of it. I transferred her to a school in Bangor, about five miles away where, because of the university, there is a more ethnically diverse population. The Child Guidance Officer said on the phone that being black was just like having freckles. The LEA said that changing schools was a matter of parental choice and referred me to the Welsh Office guidelines on the provision of school transport. In the end, the Welsh Office told me that their own guidance on equal treatment applied to policy, but not to guidelines.

This is what it means to be black and Welsh; to be denied one's Welshness, then one's blackness, and finally the very experience of that denial.

"Where are you from?"
"No, I mean originally?"
"Oh, I was brought up in Llandudno."
"But I mean..."

What everyone wants to know, but no one can quite say is 'where does the blackness come from?' because in their eyes I am the blackness. In fact I have about as much connection with Africa as the average person with a Roman nose has with Rome. But unlike a Roman nose or freckles, blackness is a difference that makes a difference; it dominates the minds of the people around me.

Where there are a number of people in this sort of situation, it is quite natural for them to get together to form a 'sub-culture' on the basis of shared experience and to start to create a shared black identity. Isolated in a rural community, such identification is impossible. The term 'black Welsh' remains for me a white person's concept used to deny me my own experience of racial oppression (the Welsh themselves, are an oppressed and colonised people). 'Black Welsh' is not an identity; on the contrary, it is a duality and a contradiction. Perhaps this explains to some extent the high incidence of schizophrenia among black people. If I claim to be Welsh when everyone can plainly see that I am 'foreign', I must be mad. But if I claim to be black, that has no significance, it's just like having freckles, and if I claim to be oppressed, I'm playing the race card, demanding special treatment. So to survive, I must be nothing, invisible and above all silent, because my very existence is a reminder that at least one white Welsh woman had sex with a black man, and that is the beginning of the end of the purity of the Welsh people. And without the Language of Heaven, the Calon Lan (white heart), the sense of being a chosen. Godly people, what does it mean to be Welsh?


previous vintage gems: Trouble in Chatwin Country
next vintage gems: Buenos Aires Diary


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