Doreen Lawrence, mother of the late Stephen Lawrence is in the audience at Alexandra Palace. She is surrounded by a seated nine hundred men women and children for the 11th African and African Caribbean excellence awards. I am a guest “performer”. Last year it was soul singer Lemar. Alexandra Palace is in North London. Set within 196 acres of glorious parkland, the Palace features an extraordinary blend of Victorian splendour, fascinating history and modern technology.
Eleven years ago a group of African and African Caribbean parents came together to address the issue of failing education of their children. From a meeting in a local church to this – 900 people in Alexandra Palace. And on the same day December 11th there is national news coverage in The Sun newspaper.
“PARENTS blasted a council yesterday for holding an awards ceremony for black kid who pass exams — while successful white classmates are IGNORED.” The article written by “journalist” Brian Flyn had a certain tone. Of course no white child was ignored. However one official representative of the local council said, from the stage, “next year the awards will be for all children of Haringey”. It was a clever seemingly inclusive comment? I was on stage for two ten minute readings and just before going on got question from the compere “so how shall I describe you.”. Seen another way this question aligns with “so who are you?”.
I feel the weight of other peoples agenda. But in a light footed and strong “performance” the weight disappears and mapplause happens. I show the book The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur. It’s a book of love poetry. I then give awards and pose, on stage, for pictures with wonderful intelligent and beaming African and Caribbean children from schools all over Haringey. The dreadlocked photographer communicates via the floor with hand signals, four, five, six as assorted groups of beaming children walk nervously towards me, mouths locked in either fear or smiles or more often than not both. It was a lot of fun and what they deserve – a celebration of their hard work. Against the odds of a society that preconceives their worth. The national newspaper article continued.
“Another mum, who asked not to be named, added: “My daughter did very well in her SATS but will receive no recognition. Why are the black children worthy of awards, when the white children are not?” Half way through the event I go out for a cigarette – it’s a horrible addiction. An Irish woman of about sixty follows me. “I thought you were having one” she says and we both sit down.
She tells me she came to England in the sixties with her West Indian husband. She was here to see her grandson collect an award. As I am a bit of a geek when it comes to Ireland – I love it so much – I talk about the Republic and Northern Ireland and their relationship to England since the sixties. She aligns this with the West Indian influx of the same time. “we built the country” she says and I concur “You built the roads and the west indians drove the buses” . She agrees and we take a minute to draw on the cigarettes cancerous fumes.
“ahh but” she says “it’s the Eastern Europeans, they are not like the Irish or the west Indians who came in the sixties – they worked hard. These lot they just stick together”. Cancerous fumes. I wasn’t taken aback, but saddened . “but the Irish did the same, stuck together, and the west Indians, and any one else who comes. It’s what expats do”. She looks at me askance “yes, she says, but they speak their language and don’t learn English”. We stub out our cigarettes and offer niceties and curl back into the massive hall. I wonder why expats are called expats and immigrants are called immigrants when they are one and the same.
Alexandra palace is on a hill that overlooks London. It is dark and I race down the hill and catch a train to central london to meet Whitney my English American friend. We eat Sushi at The Japan Centre in Piccadilly. I buy a newspaper from a polish newsagent and catch a bus driven by a Somalian who drives me home to multiracial hackney. I look in the mirror and see a mixed race man – an ethiopian an eritrean, a black man an english man a northerner a londoner. I pour a glass of Italian wine and sleep in the bed, made in sweden and dream in another language because sometimes I am sick of my own!