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Soundings blog: My homeplace

Posted on 08/01/2021

In the third piece in the Soundings Turning points blog series, Tanazia Gabriel-Fleary explains how she came to understand that ‘I am undeniably and unapologetically a black British-Caribbean woman, and every element of that is complexly wonderful.’

Being black, British-Caribbean and female, as well as the many other elements of my multifaceted identity, has continuously shaped and reshaped the relationship I have with my homeplace. To me, my homeplace goes beyond the land planted underneath my feet. It describes both internal and external belonging, comfort, and security. One I found with ease in the crooks of my working-class community. I found it in the brown faces that mirrored my own. I found it in the manifestation of Grenadian culture which often took the form of calypso and old Carriacou sayings. I found it in the familiarity of the streets of my hometown Huddersfield. But this security was conditional and was ultimately compromised once I stepped out of my community, shattering the idea of security altogether. This shattering was rooted in the conflicting notion of my identity, as these multifaceted elements often clashed and disrupted each other.

I am undeniably and unapologetically a black British-Caribbean woman. The comfort of my very African-Caribbean community has helped my environment feel like home. Conversely, in spaces that weren’t predominately black, such as the classroom, I learned that my home wasn’t so secure after all. It was in these spaces where I felt that my black Britishness were opposing entities that weren’t compatible with one another. This became clear as we learned about the British empire in history, and celebrated the influx of sugar, tobacco, tea, and many other ‘exotic’ treats that landed on British shores. Whilst my teachers highlighted the economic growth and cultural shift that occurred in Britain, I couldn’t forget the cultural deprivation and brutality endured by people that looked like me. I couldn’t forget the free labour, the loss of lives and identity, the lack of reparations. Reparations for us, that is – after all, slaveowners and their descendants have received reparations via tax revenue up until 2015. I digress. Parts of my educational career have been disturbed by the curriculum’s desire to celebrate British national heroes and events that insulted my blackness.

My detachment from my home was heightened by political events such as Brexit and the Windrush Scandal, and slurs such as ‘go back to where you came from’ – which, frankly, is Huddersfield royal infirmary. Over the years, the absence of blackness in the British national framework, largely reinforced by the media, further blurred the concept of home for me. Initially, I solved this issue by claiming Grenada as my home instead (how ‘colonising’ of me). Looking to the islands for some sort of identification gratification. But as I interacted with more Grenadian natives, it became clear that my ‘Englishness’ was inevitably present, as though I had bangers and mash written on my forehead. Whilst the internal cultural resonance felt like enough to grant me Grenadian citizenship in my heart, my disconnect from the land, the day-to-day life, and Grenada in her purest form, prevented me from fully identifying in that space. Now I was lost, not necessarily because I didn’t know who I was, but because I had never questioned it before. I was quite comfortable with who I was, an undeniably and unapologetically black British-Caribbean woman. But as I put each part of that statement under a microscope it began to fragment. I suppose I would call this a mini existential crisis, one I am most grateful for, as it brought me to the most powerful research I have ever engaged with.

In 2020 I embarked on the Media and Communication Race and Ethnicity Module at Birmingham City University. At first, I wasn’t too optimistic about the class, as previous classes that had addressed race merely touched the surface of the issue, but again these classrooms had often been predominately white spaces. However, this class completely subverted my expectations. It was beautifully confrontational, challenging, and informative. Our teacher left no room for simply ‘touching the surface’. One class, in particular, stood out for me amongst the rest. This was the class on theories about post-coloniality, immigration and xenophobia. Despite having slight knowledge on these topics, I was halted by the closeness of this subject to all aspects of my reality.

My previous interactions with black history had often been Americanised, centring icons such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. But although these histories have been influential to the way I have interacted with my blackness, the way I’ve learned to love it and fight for it, these histories are not mine. I’m not American, I’m British, so it is quite strange to think that black history in British classrooms has often looked to America for content. Whether that should be seen as Britain’s attempt to expel itself from a brutal history in which it has a huge stake is a conversation for another day. After this class, I was sure that postcolonialism would be the centre of my research for this module. Following a few negotiations, I landed on this question, ‘How has the depiction of blackness in British news impacted the identity of black British audiences’, particularly referencing a Guardian article on the Windrush scandal.

For my research I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with black-British citizens, varying in point of origin and generations. The interviews explored each participant’s perception of their identity, referencing British news media. I backed this data up with a long list of academic literature. Two books in particular helped me make sense of the experiences of my interviewees – and my own.

Paul Gilroy’s Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Hutchinson 1987) explored questions of immigration, race and xenophobia. Gilroy explained whiteness and racial homogeneity as being synonymous with British national identity, thus leading to the exclusion of black Britons from the British national framework. He also presented blackness and black culture as an obstacle to genuine belonging in Britain, due to ‘alien’ cultural practices. This resonated with me deeply, as I often found that my black Caribbean practices – even something as simple as braiding my hair in short ‘boy like’ protective styles – were weird and strange and had to be explained to my white friends. It was little things like that, which created a notion of otherness from my white British peers. Of course, there are worse examples of polarising black experiences than that. But it was moments like this, in the playground, in the classroom, at birthday parties, when my blackness would show up as being somehow greater than my Britishness, signifying difference.

The second text that greatly supported my research was Michael Hall and Hazel Tucker’s Tourism and Postcolonialism Contested Discourses, Identity and Representations (Routledge 2004), which explored the impact of imperialism and colonial power on post-colonial societies. The main takeaway from this fascinating piece of literature was the links between the way I saw myself and the way I had been presented to me. In other words, it became clear that the things I grew up to understand as black, female and Caribbean – whether I admired them or not – were largely influenced by the imperialistic ideologies that had narrated those stories. False representations in the media, cultural denigration, my culture being distorted by Eurocentric truths – all of these have subconsciously shaped the way I viewed myself. My identity is the result of the colonised (myself) and the coloniser.

These and other texts informed me as I scanned the responses of my participants. Their complex and meticulous responses presented a pattern of continuously going back and forth. One moment we were discussing exclusion, otherness, and the absence of blackness in the notion of British national framework; and in the next we were turning to themes of self-determination, transnationality, and the celebration of ‘otherness’. In these responses, I saw myself. I saw the conflicting notions surfacing. I wanted what I deserve legally and have right to: an acknowledgement as a member of a society that many people that mirror me contributed to building; but, simultaneously, I didn’t want to beg for it. And that is not just because I am stubborn. It’s a way of fostering self-pride and celebrating my origin.

Many participants presented their Britishness as a formality, legality, a status of citizenship. Conversely, their ties to elsewhere were much emotionally invested, and were based on feelings of belonging and cultural identity. This could be seen as an occupation of two peripheries. Or one could describe it as the heart versus the mind, or physical being versus spiritual and emotional being. Either way, both spaces were acknowledged as a part of them.

And I think it was at this moment that I realised that my identity was not something that needed solving or categorising. I realised that it wasn’t constructed by the remnant deposits of what people allowed me to be, whether that was British or Grenadian.

As a result of the books I had read, the people I had interviewed and the insights from my course, I understood that I am undeniably and unapologetically a black British-Caribbean woman, and every element of that is complexly wonderful.

Tanazia Gabriel-Fleary is a media student at BCU. Ever since she entered spaces that celebrate her identity, Tanazia has found this to be a creative muse for her work. Tanazia’s writing, production, and other elements of her work focus on celebrating blackness and using them as a medium to amplify black voices. Being a black woman from West Yorkshire, representations of intersectionality are extremely important to Tanazia. Tanazia often expresses her identity through writing blog pieces and poetry, aspiring to produce nuanced, intellectual, and beautiful black imagery.

Turning points 
As part of our response to the growth in support for Black Lives Matter, we have asked people to share reflections on texts on questions of race that have been important to their own political, intellectual and personal development.

If you would like to contribute to the series please contact Kirsten Forkert <Kirsten.Forkert@bcu.ac.uk>  or Karen Patel <Karen.Patel@bcu.ac.uk for more information.