Growing Up in Two Elsewheres[1]


F. S. J. Ledgister

Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta GA

Copyright © 2001 by F. S. J. Ledgister, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Not long after I began thinking about this essay, I had a conversation with the custodian of the building where I work. I mentioned having gone, at the beginning of the summer vacation, to visit my parents. She asked if it had been a long time since I'd been home. I found myself struggling to explain that where my parents live was not "home", that where I was born was not "home", that the places I had lived had never been "home". In clearer words, that home for me was wherever I happened to be.

  2. My former spouse, who's a sociologist, frequently made the observation that each member of my family of origin spoke English with a different accent. Hardly surprising, my father is Jamaican, my mother a Spaniard, my younger brother and I were born in England, my youngest brother in Jamaica. Thus we have five different accents, my mother's non-native one, my father's Jamaican accent, which differs from my youngest brother's, my mid-Atlantic mostly-Received Pronunciation, or BBC, accent, and my younger brother's middle-class suburban English accent. My present spouse, perhaps more attuned to accents, detects an underlay of Jamaican in mine.

  3. It doesn't astonish, then, that in one very real sense, wherever I have lived has been "elsewhere." On the other hand, I can also divide my life so far into three periods: my childhood, in England with long visits elsewhere; my teens and early adulthood, in Jamaica; and my mature adulthood, so far, in the United States where, to my surprise, I have lived longer than anywhere else. "Home" is what I carry with me, "elsewhere" is everywhere. In contrast to many bi/multiracial people who frequently confront the question, 'What are you?' [2] I constantly have to respond to the question "Where are you from?" as my accent, and perhaps appearance,[3] seems to violate the categories they use to classify people. My unprepossessing physical appearance seems less likely to have caused this than my accent, which I am frequently informed is "beautiful", "lovely", and "delightful". Yet that accent is, I suppose, an accident, a product of a childhood spent between different worlds, and a youth spent in one that both was and wasn't mine.

  4. So what do I mean by "growing up elsewhere"? For me there are two "elsewheres" that matter, the England of my childhood, which provided indelible memories and, of course, my basic speech pattern, and the Jamaica of my youth. Perhaps, in some sense, the two places and sets of experience were not as distant as a first thought might have them. Jamaica, when I moved there in 1968, was a recently decolonised country and, even today, still bears many vestiges of British rule. The transition from one to the other was not as sharp or as alienating as a move to a country with a different history and set of cultural assumptions might have been. Nonetheless, there were important differences. For the twelve-year-old I was in 1968, one country was a place where I could be taunted in the school playground by mocking white children chanting 'Niggers eat Kit-e-Kat'[4] and the other was most assuredly not.

  5. At this distance in time, my childhood seems a series of episodes, pleasant and unpleasant, that happened to me. That obviously cannot have been the whole case, but episodes of racist teasing and bullying, and racist sexual assault did occur, and I was clearly not their agent. Yet I was certainly as capable of violence as my white schoolmates. Vagueness, or, perhaps, a censor of memories, makes me think that I never hid any stones in the snowballs I threw; the pain of the stones in the snowballs thrown at me is deeply imprinted. Should I credit them to racism or to ordinary urban working-class childhood viciousness? This is a question that cuts to the heart of the matter. As a child, I did not, at first, conceive of myself as an outsider or as "different", but my schoolmates certainly did and they did not hide it.

  6. What I learned in the classroom, though, was that I was English. And, in the classroom, I undoubtedly was. On the playground, my childish Englishness became dubious, or non-existent in the eyes of my contemporaries. To the school authorities, the teachers and counselors, there could be little doubt that I had to fit in somewhere, and that if I couldn't the problem was in me rather than the world I inhabited.

  7. One counselor, whom I told that I didn't want to go to school because I was afraid of being beaten up for being black, told me that if he didn't go to work he would get the sack. Another, to whom I spoke of the difficulty of being black in a place where the majority expressed contempt for my colour, told me "I wish I had a tan as nice as yours.". What hit me between the eyes, though, was a crossword puzzle written by one of my teachers for the school paper, in which "Saxon" was the answer to the question "One of our ancestors". The Saxons were certainly not my ancestors. How did I fit into this '"us" that clearly didn't include most of my own forebears?

  8. That question was reinforced by the graffiti I could see on the streets. One graffito in particular held my interest. It simply said "Niggers go home". But where was I to go? Back across the Thames to South Kensington where I was born? Was home my mother's homeland in Spain or my father's in Jamaica? How could I not be " home" in my native land? To the nine or ten-year-old me these were difficult and puzzling questions, and I had no one I could turn to for the answers. I didn't think my mother would be comfortable with the question, and I didn't dare approach my father, a man who believed in self-reliance above everything, about it for fear of being reproached for weakness. In any case, neither of them was " home" in England. Looking back from the perspective of middle-aged parenthood in another country not my home, identity was both complex and non-problematic for me in my childhood.[5]

  9. I knew early on, certainly before I was seven, that I was different from most other children, and that difference resided in my light-brown skin and in my having a white mother and a black father. But I had another difference, one not so visible. With my mother I spoke and read another language. Thanks to regular mailings of magazines and comic books, and a school reader, from my relatives in Spain, I had access to another world of expression, and vicarious knowledge of another place. By reading, or by speaking with my mother, I could retreat into that world with ease and at will.

  10. I thus possessed four sets of identities: I was black, I was English, I was Jamaican, and I was Spanish, with no sense, at the time, that these might be incompatible, nor that I constituted a battleground for the competing claims that each identity embodied. From the perspective of the present, I should note, that gender and class seemed less important to me then (though I did occasionally get chivvied for "talking posh").

  11. I was also "socially maladjusted." From the age of six, until I finally left England at twelve, I was assigned to schools for maladjusted children, which did nothing to further my adjustment. Part of my maladjustment was due to having large holes in my primary education because large chunks of my childhood were spent in hospital being treated for childhood epilepsy. Part was the result of my refusal to accept the regimentation of state primary education.

  12. Certainly, attending "maladjusted school" did nothing to "adjust" me. Almost the first thing that happened to me at Gideon, the first such school I went to, was that I was sexually assaulted. Two older boys, each named Stephen, pretended to befriend me, then, during the weekly school outing to Wimbledon Common, led me away from the other children, and the teachers, and then forced me to the ground, stripped me of my clothes, roughly handled my genitals, and threw me into a holly bush. Their punishment was two weeks' suspension from school. I still believe they deserved evisceration.

  13. Because of such experiences, my father did not feel that England was a good place to raise children. He sought, through the early-to-mid 1960s to find a more-or-less developed country to which he could relocate the family. I know he sought information about migrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even Rhodesia (as it was then), though he was stymied by the Australian requirement that immigrants be of "European race and colour" (which, since I'm European, puzzled me). Looking back, I see a certain innocence on his part; he seems to have assumed that an able-bodied, willing worker could go anywhere. My mother never said what she thought about these plans, though she apparently went along with them.

  14. What he finally decided to do was invest his savings in a farm in Jamaica. I suspect this had always been his ambition, though it was not one he articulated clearly. To further this, my mother took in piecework in order to build up the family coffers to pay the costs of migration across the Atlantic.

  15. Before we left -- though his plans were already made -- my father sat me down and asked if I understood what we were doing. I said "yes". He asked if I would be willing to live in a remote rural area. I said "yes". He asked if I was willing to do without electricity. I said "yes". It was, to my twelve-year-old eyes, going to be a new and exciting adventure. Also, it gave us the opportunity, since we were going by ship, to visit our relatives in Spain whom we had not seen for several years. Appreciating how large a step it was constituted an important part of my growing up. Today, I wonder what my father would have done or said had I said "no". Harshly upbraided me, I expect.

  16. We certainly were to live in a remote rural area without electricity, but the first impression I had was not of these deprivations, if such they were, but of the darkness of the night and the multiplicity of the stars. It is the richness and depth of the night that ever since has marked for me the difference between First World city and Third World countryside.

  17. Of all the differences, it is the rurality that ran deepest. My childhood was spent in London, a large city, spotted here and there with parks; parks with "Keep off the grass" signs. Childhood became adolescence on a two hundred acre farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains in southwestern Jamaica. From the verandah of our house, we had a magnificent view of the plains below and the broad sweep of the Caribbean Sea beyond the lowlands. By design our house faced the sunset. I write "our house", but I remember my father replying, when I asked, "All this is ours?" "It's not 'ours', it's mine!" Clearly, he was home and I was not.

  18. Although my father was, by Jamaican standards, a large landowner, he was heavily mortgaged and we were poor. How poor I was not to know till much later when my mother told me that she and my father had had a long argument over whether I would be able to go to high school -- I had won a free place at the examination -- as they had no money for books or uniforms.

  19. At the time though, I didn't know that. My brothers and I were deeply engaged in exploring our new environment, and learning as much about it as we could. This meant learning a new language, Jamaican patwa, and adapting to a different set of values, as well as adjusting to a tropical rural environment. To a degree, our adaptation could be mediated by our father, for whom Jamaica was home and to whom the flora, fauna, and culture (material and otherwise) were elements of life to which he was returning, rather than adapting. That, in itself, was problematic. Our father was returning to a country he had left twenty-four years earlier; in the interim neither he nor Jamaica had stood still, and it was to take him several years to appreciate that fact. Two popular songs of that year (when ska was turning into reggae) are impressed on my mind: "Hong Kong Flu", because I had neve heard anything like it before, it made me begin to realize that the patwa spoken by the people around me could be a vehicle for artistic expression; and a very Jamaican parody of "The Little Drummer Boy" ("I want my musical stick to stiffen and stiff/ To wreck a pum-pum"). I suspect because of their novelty and my own dawning adolescence.

  20. Looking backwards, my memory brings up a host of images, sounds, smells, and tastes. My initial and permanent revulsion at avocados, the pleasure of june plums, and, much later, the divine joy of star-apples. The sour odour of rotting mangoes in the pigsty; the dry foetor of goat dung; later on, the sweetness of allamandas. Learning the distinct voices of cows, goats, pigs, sheep, and barnyard fowl; the initial experience of patwa as an alien language, I wanted to ask why people were speaking Welsh. Trees, grasses, sunsets, rough dirt roads, and the deep black of the night sky. There are two pictures in particular that come to mind from that time of marvels: walking down the driveway past poincianas in full, red flower, and a hillside carpeted with fallen poui blossoms. They can't be exactly contemporary images; poinciana and poui are not in blossom at the same time.

  21. A place is not only, nor even primarily, its physical manifestations. It is also the people who live there. In our part of the mountain, and on the adjacent lowland, many of these people were my relatives -- mostly distant, but still acknowledged. More than that, people had a different sense of what was ordinary and normal.

  22. About two years after arriving in Jamaica, I was chatting with a young woman while waiting for the school bus. She asked me if I knew a Daphne Chin. "Is she Chinese?" I asked. "No, she's ordinary", came the reply. I had a sudden epiphany. Until then, I had been carrying an English definition of "ordinariness" inside me, in which white people were normal and normative and black people were unusual. Until that moment, I had not really understood what the move to Jamaica had meant. I had been carrying an old world inside me while the new was all around. Yet I remained an outsider. I had swapped being "black" in England for being "brown" in Jamaica, had moved from one racial minefield to another.

  23. I found this out as a result of another of those discoveries that mark the boundary between childhood and youth. In my case, it was poetry. My high school library had a small but good collection, and the Faber Book of Modern Verse led me into writing poetry. From Pound, Eliot, Williams, Lewis, Auden and company sprang my own poetry.

  24. One poem, written when I was 14, was published in the school magazine and later won an award in the annual Jamaica Independence Festival literary competition.
    Son of black, son of white am I,
    Neither black nor white am I,
    Dark, but not black,
    Light, but not white,
    Confined in limbo
    Eternal night.
    Human, but not man,
    Living apart,
    A separate entity without heart
    Or soul.
    I but aspire
    To recognition,
    To acceptance,
    To hope,
    To life.
    Not bad for a fourteen-year-old, though today the diction makes me wince. Its effect on my fellow pupils astonished me. Many of them thought it was racist, or, as some put it, colour prejudiced. This puzzled me. How could an attempt to explore the difficulties and ambiguities of who I was be racist? How did it threaten, endanger, or actually harm anybody but myself?

  25. I had stumbled into awakening black racial solidarity, and unwittingly "betrayed" that solidarity by asking what seemed to me perfectly reasonable questions about who I was. I should, instead, had accepted blackness as an irreducible fact. This was emphasized to me by one of my fellow pupils, he informed me, with some vehemence, that my father, for having married a white woman, was a traitor to the race.

  26. Where was I to be at home? In England I was a "second-generation immigrant," an outsider even though born in the country. Throughout my childhood I had received a thousand messages telling me that this was not my place, that I did not belong there, that I ought to go back whence I came. In my teens in Jamaica, a country where black consciousness was emerging in the wake of independence, I was also an outsider, the child of a race traitor. During my late teens and early twenties I engaged in a futile effort to forget half of who I was. I sought to define myself as "black" rather than "brown" and felt uncomfortable about having a white mother.

  27. At the same time, I became aware of a literature about people like myself. Poems by Nicolás Guillen and A.L. Hendricks suggested that there was an identity and a place I could carve for myself. But did I want that identity? Was I one of Hendrick's "we the tawny ones" or one of Guillen's "mulatos"? Or was I, rather, part of the diasporic black nation and engaged in their struggle for respect and liberation?

    * * *

  28. I still don't have a final answer to these questions. I believe now that I should not slight any part of my heritage, but that provides me with neither a clear identity nor a sense of place. I have spent my whole life living "elsewhere" and have not found a lack of roots or of a fixed place of my own crippling. What I find uncomfortable is living, wherever I am, with an "outsider" label metaphorically attached to my back.

  29. To grow up, as I did, in different worlds to which I did not belong is not to grow up on the margins. I've led life that has been, by and large, worthwhile, met wonderful people, and done interesting and, I hope, useful work in a number of areas. What I don't have, in any sense beyond the immediate one of a place where I can lay my head, is a "home". Despite my passport I am not fully or truly British, despite my long residence and paternity I am not Jamaican, I certainly am not American though I have lived in the US longer than anywhere else (though I should note that my children are unambiguously American). Nor am I anywhere near fully at ease in the worlds of either of my parents. For me, alienation began at birth.

  30. The fact of lifelong alienation leads me to a final question: if everywhere is elsewhere then where am I? I have to make myself at home where I find myself. And it is not simply a matter of finding myself in a place. It is very much feeling that I belong in that place. That, I regret to say, is a feeling I cannot have. What I have, instead, is the ability to slip into different milieux with a considerable amount of inside knowledge without being an insider. I can be a fish in several ponds, but they're all the wrong ponds and I'm the wrong kind of fish for each.

  31. But that is too gloomy a conclusion. How I live my life matters as much, if not more, than where it is lived. So far, for all the negative experiences that I have had, my life has not been bad. That I don't fit comfortably into the ascriptive structures of Anglo-American society and thus have a hard time defining an identity in conventional terms, does have inconvenient aspects. It is not a disaster. It is not even a misfortune. It is simply a fact of life. I live across rather than within boundaries.

  32. I see this as limiting and unsettling, but that is merely because I have been brought up to do so. Perhaps it is those who live behind the boundaries who are limited. And being settled may be no more than mere complacency. Who I am and where I belong are discoveries, they are not statuses. That, at least, I have learned.


  1. Thanks are due to Hashim Gibrill for comments on this essay and to Deborah Wyrick and Elaine Orr for a clarifying query. Back

  2. See, for example, Maria P.P. Root, "The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as a Significant Frontier in Race Relations;" in The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier, ed. Maria P.P. Root, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1996, p. xiii. Back

  3. This may have some relevance. Recently, on entering a shop at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was addressed in English by the Indian manager -- though I certainly did not carry a sign saying 'Anglophone'. I presume it was something about my dress or appearance that tipped him off. On the other hand, in the US, white people who have not heard me speak have the disconcerting habit of addressing me in bad Spanish. Back

  4. "Kit-e-Kat" is a tinned cat food. My father tells me that immigrants who arrived in England from the Jamaican countryside were told by their white workmates that it was good to eat, and subsequently taunted about it. Back

  5. My own children, though they have an additional layer of complexity in their ancestry, being Americans do not have to figure out where they are from. Back

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