Shortly before dropping out of medical school in the early 1980s, Colin Grant stumbled upon his long lost Uncle Castus in London. A Windrush-era arrival, remembered as a man of promising intellect, Castus turned out to be working in an East End off-licence. The older man berated the younger with his catchphrase: “I’m black so you can do all those white things. I’m black so you don’t have to be.” The list of white things would stretch over the years to encompass cycling, drinking chardonnay, reading feminist literature and living in Brighton. But on that day in Mile End, Grant was being accused of almost the whitest thing possible: turning down an opportunity. By rejecting medicine he seemed to be distancing himself from the humiliations and privations his family had undergone in order to facilitate his place at the Royal London hospital. Picking the arts over medicine was a luxury – choosing to live a more precarious life was indulgent.
In Grant’s previous book, Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, we encountered many people like Castus. Their oral histories were marked by stories of dashed hopes, racist violence, stoic resignation and an uncertain sense of belonging. “Motherland” or “homeland”? Where were they really from? During the 1960s and 1970s, home for Grant’s family was Luton – and a now-vanished world of linoleum flooring, paraffin heaters, plastic pineapple ice buckets and The Black and White Minstrel Show.
Much of I’m Black … focuses on the spaces that both link and separate the generations. A portrait of Grant himself is revealed through collisions with family members and others. Grant’s father, Clinton George (better known as Bageye), first appeared in the picaresque 2012 memoir Bageye at the Wheel. Physically present and emotionally distant, he is almost a stranger in the family home. Even so, “Bageye took up so much space in all of our heads there was no room to think about anyone else”.
Before meeting Bageye, Grant’s mother Ethlyn had enjoyed a comfortable Jamaican middle-class lifestyle, complete with uniformed servants. “I was too proud. Look at me now,” she declares from a council house on Luton’s Farley Hill estate. She and Bageye row over finances and fidelity. Class and notions of mobility crop up again and again. Can the politics of respectability save Ethlyn or any Black Lutonian? Will private educations protect Colin or his sister Selma from what their parents have endured?
The pull of the Windrush narrative is becoming increasingly weak with the passing of those who arrived between 1948 and 1962. Most of them never returned to live in the Caribbean – they rest in cemeteries across London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Ipswich, Bedford, Reading, Huddersfield and a host of places in these islands. Despite having three or four generations of “blood in the soil”, Black British people of Caribbean backgrounds are outnumbered by those from continental Africa. We have been a minority within a minority for more than two decades. I’m Black … is an important and timely book for an increasingly diverse and diffuse set of communities, a reminder of those questions of home and belonging, an invitation to parse them. And, as Blackness has become virtually synonymous with big city life, it is refreshing to see depictions of Black identities as expressed in Britain’s small towns and suburbs.
Under Grant’s meticulous gaze, layers of historic Black British familial dysfunction are peeled back and subjected to loving scrutiny. He busts through the pauses, jokes and deflections we summon whenever we try to convey the tedium, the overt, racialised cruelty and indignities that afflicted our people in the 1960s and 1970s. The Caribbean code of silence, that resistance to interrogation, remains for many. But is it still wise or necessary to shield future generations from our trauma? Who knows? Perhaps they’re the ones who’ll finally be able to tell us where they’re really from.
I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be: A Memoir in Eight Lives by Colin Grant is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.