Summer reading: mine has been ‘serious books’ so far: all very recently published, each has a very 2018 feel. The only novel is Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, a sobering take on today’s culture and politics. But here I’m concerned with three non-fictions on the theme of being authentic: not ‘who do we think we are?’ but ‘who do we know we are – and will our society allow us to be this?’
Afua Hirsch has written an extensively, carefully researched book on the hows and whys of being Black and a Brit. Significantly, it’s called Brit (-ish). Damien Le Bas decided to take to the road in a Ford Transit van (visiting all the places where his Gypsy ancestors probably stopped in their travelling days). His book, The Stopping Places, is an account of his physical and emotional journey, packed with reflections on the Gypsy lifestyle. Vicky Beeching’s book, Undivided, a memoir, tells of the pain of growing up and becoming. All three have been students at Oxford University: Hirsch and Le Bas among the few of ‘minority’ background, Beeching outwardly ‘mainstream’.
The problem of ‘labels’
A quest for ‘authenticity’, alongside the chaotic state of our world, is a defining aspect of life in the 21st-century. Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, gave some cultural stability, each culture led by generally acknowledged and imposed beliefs. But in reality, to think that it created a happier, more stable life is to ignore history and the contributions of those often intelligent and thoughtful individuals whom traditional ways have set outside the boundaries of the culture’s rules, labelling them as less than ‘us’.
Once labelled, anything can happen to you. Once a labeller, you lose sight of our common humanity – Black people can be seen as slave material, Travellers and Gypsies as trash. Traditional societies can lull anyone into accepting that the ‘other’ is harmful, not truly human, worthy only of servant status, marginalisation or even death.
Afua Hirsch’s book carefully traces the history of Black people in Britain, revealing that their position worsened once this country was involved in the slave trade. And that in the 1920s ‘mixed race’ children were regarded by official bodies as less intelligent by nature and unable to benefit from education. ‘Liverpool’s “half-castes”…were pronounced to be…intellectually inferior, with intelligence “below the average”’, (Hirsch, page 148). Labelling the children of parents with different skin colours as morally inferior perhaps reflected an idea that a Black person ‘having sex with’ a white person was wrong and disgusting. This idea was repeated in a report on East London children in 1944. And Apartheid was alive and well in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s (see Enoch Powell’s speech 1968, Hirsch page 149).
What is true of Black Britons is in its own way true of Gypsies. Le Bas’s book includes research into his people’s history alongside reminiscences from his amazing Nan and his own experiences both growing up and on the road. Like Hirsch, Le Bas studied at Oxford (after first gaining one at an independent school, at the instigation of his parents, the Romany artists Damien and Delaine Le Bas). And like Hirsch he has become an outsider both to his own community and to the surrounding culture.
Knowledge and inheritance from two communities carries both useful understanding and painful awareness. It is far more difficult to bridge two cultures than to entrench yourself in the tradition of one. Hirsch, well aware of her Black heritage as she went through first a highly academic independent girls’ school, and then her university life, felt that she belonged more to Africa than to Britain. She tried emigration to Ghana, her maternal grandparents’ country, but found that as a ‘mixed race Brit’ there was as much ‘you don’t fit’ in the attitude of West Africans as there had been in the white culture of Wimbledon. Before, as a teenager, she had learned that African hair cannot be straightened with the products which her European friends used; now, that her skin was too pale in Africa just as it was too dark in Britain, and her accent was wrong. But the experience of the inner person was neither African nor European. She now lives and works in London, which is of course a cosmopolitan city.
Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, tells of how, while appearing to be just another white woman from the mainstream, she ‘wore a mask’ for the first 35 years of her life. Vicky is neither Black British nor Gypsy British, but Evangelical Christian British. Yes, it’s another tribe – a tribe in the white, ‘respectable’ community, and a tribe with firm traditions, beliefs, and rules. They mightn’t like it, but Le Bas’s comments on his people, apply equally to Vicky’s birth and faith families. He says (page 265) ‘Gypsy culture can be stifling in its demands for living in line with its hidden rules’.
And Evangelical rules are not hidden. They are taught in church, in families, and in the very air they breathe.
As a young child, Vicky became aware of her attraction to girls. Becoming a teenager she was being taught that this was a sinful lifestyle choice. From then onwards she donned a ‘mask’, denying herself any close romantic relationships, terrified that to be gay and remain Christian was impossible. Didn’t God hate gay people? She believed that this ‘choice’ (or ‘demon’) could be ‘cured’ by ‘prayer ministry’. When this did not work she continued with her studies and the songwriting she had begun as a pre-teen, took a degree at Oxford, and became a very popular and successful singer-songwriter on the Evangelical church circuit. Until, while working in the USA, singing in mega churches, the stress of hiding her true self caused a breakdown in her health. She wrote Undivided in the strong conviction, and after much thoughtful research, that the Bible does not teach that being born gay is incompatible with being a Christian (unless you can be cured or remain celibate). Like Hirsch studying racial history, Vicky carefully studied the evangelical ‘proof texts’ and became convinced that their interpretation of these Scriptures is flawed.
Where ‘tradition’ comes in
Tradition, with its rules and boundaries, may have given cultural stability in the past, but looking into the sources we can see that these are based on fear of otherness rather than ‘God’s commands for living’. All three books speak of the writer’s longing to fit into the surrounding society, to have a place of acceptance rather than to be treated as a misfit and an outsider.
Is outsider status perhaps one reason why both Le Bas and Beeching chose to study Theology? A search for meaning? Would Social and Political Science or Philosophy have served them better? Both used the resources of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, as did Hirsch, searching for answers.
Whatever, there appears to be a human need to keep our cultures safe by shutting out minorities and those who pose questions by their very existence. In its extreme form we see this need functioning within nations, causing wars, genocide, and suffering. Opening our minds to look at the world through the eyes of the outsider is discouraged. Those of us who do this are likely to join them.
An elderly Traveller man whom La Bas met on the borders of Wales said, ‘The thing is, you say the border…But let me tell you something. I’m living here now, and I’ve lived over there, and my people is all here and there. And let me tell you something about that border. That ain’t no border to us, boy. And never has been. I am a Travelling man, that’s what I am. And ain’t no border stopped my people making their way.’ As the writer thinks in response ‘whether he knows it or not, he’s just struck a heavy blow against my lifelong need to know if I’m one thing or another’ (page 220).
And knowing who we are, accepting who we are, and being accepted as who we are is what we humans want and need …