Our Creative Writing students at Harlow College have marked Black History Month with a range of stories. Some are imaginary and some are based on either their own experience or those of a member of their family. Frank Calnan, 19, said: ‘I found the experience an interesting challenge but it helped to use the experience of my own family, who originate from Ireland.”
Our photograph shows front row left to right Monika Grigaite and Alex Mustafa; middle row Holly Weafer-Kemp, Ella Dewing and Lily Wiltshire; back row Olivia Baker and Frank Calnan.
Experiences of a child of colour in the UK
This is based on my real-life experience
As a person of colour (middle eastern – Iraqi) I have experienced first-hand what it is like to be discriminated against. I am the first generation on my mother’s side to be born outside of Iraq, making me a second-generation immigrant. I remember the first time I experienced racism was when I was about eight or nine, in year four. I was standing in the hallway putting my coat on my hook and a girl that had been picking on me for a while started talking to me. She called me the p-slur (a shortened version of Pakistani – I will not be typing it out as I am not able to reclaim it) and a bastard and walked away giggling with her friends. I was clearly not white as a child, tanned olive skin and thick black hair that curled in all sorts of directions. I knew I did not look like the other children around me. I went to school in Southend-on-Sea which did not have a large population of people of colour when I was young. This was my first exposure to the negatives of being different on the basis of race.
I was very confused. I did not know what that word meant but I figured that from the way she had said it and the look on my teacher’s face when I repeated it to her that it was something bad. It caused a lot of questions within me. Am I bad? Is the way I am bad? What can I do to not have this happen?
I was lucky enough to have someone to stand up for me. My teacher, a white woman, was furious when I told her what was said to me. She took me to the girl’s class so that she could make her apologise to me and explained why it was wrong. I myself did not understand how it was wrong. What did that word mean? Why was it bad? And why was it said to me and no one else?
My second experience with discrimination came when Donald Trump was running for president back in 2016. I was in year six at the time. I grew up as a Muslim and, due to the type of country Iraq is, the religion is engrained as part of the culture. Calling myself a Muslim had both a cultural and religious importance to me. It connected me to my family, to my community, to something far bigger than I was. So when I saw the persecution of Islamic people being endorsed from such a powerful man, it felt like a personal attack. It did not matter that he was all the way across the sea in America. It did not matter that what he was saying was most likely just a ploy to get conservatives on his side. It did not matter that he was just employing textbook scapegoating and fearmongering tactics. I felt scared for myself and my community. I remember crying into my friend’s arms, scared that Britain was going to follow America’s example. I was scared that my mother – a hijabi (refers to someone who wears a hijab/Muslim head covering) woman – would be hurt because of outwardly practicing her religion. I even spoke with her about taking off her hijab to ensure her safety walking down the street.
Many people laugh at the 2016 presidential election campaign because of the sheer absurdity of it all. I myself will laugh at it from time to time because, in all fairness, it was pretty ridiculous. But I will never forget the fear that 11-year-old me felt while watching the latest Newsround covering of whatever Donald Trump had said about Muslims – my family – and how he planned to deal with it.
To put it into perspective, I am going to give some quotes that Donald Trump had said during his campaign:
“I can say that, you know, it’s something that at some point could happen. We will see. I mean, you know, it’s something that could happen. Would I be comfortable? I don’t know if we have to address it right now, but I think it is certainly something that could happen.” – Trump, 2011, when asked if he could be comfortable with a Muslim president.
“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” – Trump, 2015, encouraging killing suspected terrorists’ families. This is forbidden under international law.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” – From a statement issued by Trump’s administrative campaign, 2015
“There’s a sickness. They’re sick people. There’s a sickness going on. There’s a group of people that is very sick.” – Trump, 2015
“You have to deal with the mosques, whether we like it or not, I mean, you know, these attacks aren’t coming out of — they’re not done by Swedish people.” – Trump, 2016
“I want every American to succeed, including Muslims — but the Muslims have to work with us. They have to work with us. They know what’s going on.” – Trump, 2016
And there are countless more. Although Muslims were the targets of these, anyone who “looked” like a Muslim (so any brown person) experienced countless amounts of hate crimes. In 2015, there was a 78% increase in hate crimes from the previous year. It was a very scary time to be a person of colour (most of history and the present is, but at that time especially someone who “looks” Muslim)
But being a person of colour is not defined by hardship. It is not an identity that is centred in struggle and tragedy. I have had as many good experiences because of my race as I have bad. I have a sense of community, not only with other middle eastern people but with people of colour as a whole. We understand each other in a way that is very hard for non-people of colour to do and look out for each other. We can unite under our hardships and offer a listening ear as well as support and protection. My culture is rich and makes up a lot of my identity. Despite not being a Muslim presently, it will always be a part of me. I still celebrate Eid with my family and think of it as more of a celebration of culture and coming together as opposed to a religious holiday because of how intertwined the religion and Iraqi culture is. I celebrate my identity as a person of colour.
It is important to not focus on the tragedy of marginalised communities, but it is also important to not ignore them. We should acknowledge the hardships that certain communities have to face and should learn about them as part of their history, but we should also celebrate the positives of these communities. It is integral to embrace the differences to between diverse cultures and communities in order to progress as a society and become more inclusive.
By Holly Weafer-Kemp
I do nothing but sit here, in the small flimsy dinghy. Covering my ears as tightly as I can, trying to block out the roar of the waves, the screaming from the people and the shouts from my brother. Shivering from the whips of wind that push us along and the giant waves that smack down on top of us. Everyone tries to paddle to continue in the direction of Britain. Some are in the water, desperately swimming and pulling the little inflatable along. Which direction are we meant to even be going? It’s impossible to tell. The vast sea all looks the same.
My ears begin to ring and I lock my eyes shut. Gasping for a breath, I begin to struggle to get oxygen into my body, my lungs are shutting down. We aren’t going to make it. I’ll drown out here. I’m going to die.
“SAM!” snapping back into reality I look up, meeting the eyes of my brother. I take a breath.
“You need to calm down alright, its all going to be alright, we’ll get through this.” He tries to calm me down holding my shoulders while I stay curled up in a ball.
“Alright?” He said looking straight through me, he knows what I am thinking, he knows I’m panicking.
I squeeze my eyes shut again and just take a breath. Allowing the air to expand into my lungs, opening up to my surroundings and excepting my reality. I nod back at him.
My brother watches me and being satisfied with my answer he turns around to continue paddling with a small children’s shovel. A very poor excuse for a paddle, but certainly better than nothing.
Maybe I should be helping, I do have my own paddle and we need all the help we can get. I can do this, it’s only paddling.
I grab my own paddle which is also just a shovel and turn my body around to face the edge of the boat, leaning against the raised inflatable side I slowly look down into the depths of water below. I completely freeze.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” Shouts a man, he looks around the age of 23 so like me his life has barely even started. I have no idea who he is though, I know barely anybody here. He is situated next to me and had turned around to scream in my face after seeing my incapability to function.
“DON’T JUST FUCKING STARE DOWN THERE, PADDLE!” He spits in my face, then wasting no time after delivering his message, he turns around to go back to his own paddling. This whole ordeal has just made me panic even more. I’m not built for this. These stressful situations. We are all just slowly dying…
I fly to the side as a hand encases my arm and pulls me along to the opposite side of the boat. My brother. Just as I reach his side the boat drastically tilts to the side as we’re hit by another mountain of water. I hold onto him, my own life source and the reason I am still here, breathing at least. Screaming for help the man who had shouted at me flipped forward, losing his balance from the angle we were all at and splashing into the icy prison below.
Somebody else who was already in the water tries to grab on to him and pull him towards the boat, but the current is so strong. All I do is watch on helplessly as they both drift away…
I go back to how this all began and I sit down, huddling in on myself. I sit there, do nothing and watch.
The children in front of me are huddling close to their mothers, petrified of their surroundings, they are way too young to be going through this traumatic experience. They’ll be scarred for life. Bless their mothers, they’re trying their best. Holding their children to their chests as if their life depends on it and trying to calm them down, but they’re just as scared and are wailing as well. There are other teenagers like me, some fighting to keep the boat afloat as we rock side to side, tilting at angles that are nearly impossible to survive. While others watch on, terror covering their faces, shaking from the cold or their fear, who actually knows. There are older middle-aged adults who all continue to paddle, well… most. Some had given up and let their hopelessness consume them.
I watch one man stand up and move to the right side of the boat, tears streaming down his face. He tilts his head up and looks up at the sky, letting out and almighty battle scream, the last sounds this world will hear from him. He had given up and just dives into the water, being swept away from the boat almost immediately.
The others who are in the water and are pulling the boat had used rope to secure themselves to it so they won’t be swept away in this murderous storm. How are they surviving in that freezing temperature? I’m not sure.
My brother is still next to me, paddling, giving it all he has. He has always been the braver one out of us, always taking the lead as he does now. No matter the circumstances he will refuse to give up. I envy his passion.
Then there’s me. I feel nothing. After really taking in my surroundings and looking at everyone else, my fears subsided. I’m not frozen but I decide to remain still. I don’t feel the need to help and don’t feel the need to cry either, that’s what everyone else is doing. I am simply empty. The only thought that comes across me is that this is the end. MY end. Yet that doesn’t scare me, not anymore, seeing my situation I’ve simply accepted it for the truth and my fate, and like those fates hear me.
The boat flips over.
The White Man
By J A Amber
This story is loosely based on the experiences of my own grandfather upon moving to the UK from Ireland in the 1960s.
Stepping off that boat, I had one thought in my head. “I don’t deserve this.”
I had made this great journey over the sea, escaping conflict and maltreatment, fleeing from poverty and the need to fight for my survival, but I was only me. A simple white, Catholic man just like many others in my new home. I took one look at the papers; Windrush, Jewish people fleeing from Europe, Middle Eastern families leaving their homes due to war. They must have had it so much worse than me. I didn’t even know what racism felt like.
Camden Town was a diverse place, even back then. People from all walks of life populated those crowded streets. Jamaicans, Pakistanis and Poles lived in peace – some would call it a haven, and I would have to agree with the sentiment. But one thing still always irked me. I was always just the white, English speaking man. The “normal” one. Some people I spoke to didn’t even see me as foreign, they would taunt and dismiss me whenever I tried to tell the tale of my childhood.
My father turned to the only thing that would keep our family stable; he joined the Republican Army and went off to fight on the streets in Ulster. If it weren’t for the violence, our family might even have starved at the hands of the persecution by the British. But nobody cared about that. I was “friendly old Paddy”, nothing more than a walking stereotype. It was never malicious, never once was I told to “go back to where I came from” or accused of “stealing British jobs”. It was almost as though nobody even cared about my heritage.
I would talk with the other immigrants regularly – the lack of jobs in Pakistan had forced a good friend of mine into poverty; he chose to leave his home and family for a new life abroad because he simply had no choice. It was hearing those kinds of things that made me feel the most guilty.
Mohammed always walked around with a target on his head, the white people would shout dreadful things and hurl beer bottles as he passed, yet I could walk the streets alone and not face an ounce of judgement. If the locals never learned my surname, they would never even know that I wasn’t one of them. I felt so sorry for the people who weren’t as lucky as I was. We had our own pubs, our own culture building in the streets of our London suburb, we were accepted and welcomed, while the others, those with “brown skin” and “slanty eyes” were routinely persecuted, just as some had often been back at home.
On occasion, I would even pass one of them and watch as they recoiled or ducked away from me, the white man. I could have been a threat, they must have thought. All because I looked the same as the racists. Each time something like that would happen, the pit in my stomach would become so fierce that I would not be able to escape it no matter how hard I tried. The guilt was just too much for my poor soul to handle. Part of me wished I could go back to Ireland, but to do that would be to abandon those who needed people like me. People to show that immigrants were no threat, that we were people as much as anyone else, as sad as that fact might have been. If I left, people like my good friend Mohammed would be left without the help and guidance they needed.
Eventually I stopped being able to think of myself as an immigrant. It’s a shame to say it, but I had to take up the title of the one welcoming rather than the one being welcomed. I had no choice. My culture didn’t matter enough. Other people, “different” people, matter more, they need the support more than I did. Those who face racism and persecution at the hands of the people who are supposed to be inviting them to their country simply need more support behind them than I ever did. Perhaps, one day, that might change – but for now, it’s always important to remember that we are all human, and no one person cannot be a friend to another.
-Written by Olivia Baker, an imagined piece about my great-grandmother escaping Russia when she was a child and moving to England.
It hurt my eyes to stare out the window when I awoke. My body was slumped down in the unbearable seat, and I couldn’t feel my right arm. I pulled it out from under me, drawing my eyes away from the scene of rural Russia that flew past the windowpane, and looked at my mother with my bleary, sleep filled eyes.
I scowled, confused. Why was she so worried looking? Her usual rosy face had lost all colour, replaced by a deathly pale look that made me think of ghosts. Her hands were delicately placed in her lap, but her fingers were forever moving. She twiddled her thumbs and rubbed her palms until I was sure that there would be no skin left.
Before I knew what was happening, I was reaching out to rub her knee sympathetically. Even though I didn’t have a clue why we were on the train and why she looked so nervous, as one of the oldest children, I felt it was my duty to comfort her as best as I could.
“Esther.” Mother hissed, pushing my hand away. “I don’t want to be touched. This is too much.”
With that, she placed one of her frantic hands on her pale forehead and caressed that instead. I didn’t bother arguing. If we were at home, then I would have begged for her attention, but something about this situation made me feel as though I probably should obey her wishes.
Though, there was something I needed to know.
“Where is father?” I whispered meekly, aware of the other passengers that were sitting around us.
Mother sighed deeply. She grabbed my brother and sister, then me, holding us in our small section of the train. She let go of us when she was sure that we would not scatter around the carriage and then returned her hands to her quivering lap.
“He will be at our destination.” She said plainly, almost calmly. “You shouldn’t worry, children. He is okay.”
She paused, just for a second too long.
“We are okay.”
Mother smiled at us exhaustedly, placing her back on the window, her eyes slowly fluttering shut.
In the section next to us, there was a family that my siblings and I gathered had come from the same town as us. Mother, whilst flitting in and out of consciousness, had refused to tell us why we had to leave Russia so suddenly. We had a good life there. We maybe had been a bit poor, but everything was okay. I had friends, a school, a small field where my peers and I could play any game that you could possibly think of.
Mother and father probably thought that we were too young to hear the truth. Oh, how I hated it when they kept things from us because we were children! Especially when the secret impacted us. I could handle it, I was sure. And then, I could tell my younger siblings about it in a gentle way. I was big, brave, and really mature. I thought, at least.
Moving on, those children, the ones with their mother and father right next to us, seemed to be a lot more put together than us. They were obviously of a higher class. We wore rags, holes and everything, whereas they wore clothes of silk and satin, playing with small wooden toys and reading picture books that we could only dream of.
Though, my sister insisted that it would be a smart idea to talk to them. I had surveyed very swiftly the rest of our carriage, and there appeared to be no other families with children our age, only the occasional teenager who would be less than pleased if we spoke with them, so much to my displeasure, I agreed.
I sighed deeply. My sister, Mila was always more outspoken than me, even though she was three years younger than me. She could get anyone’s attention, and this was no exception.
“что ты хоч ешь?”
“What do you want?”
“мы подумали, хочешь ли ты поиграть с нами”
“We were just wondering if you wanted to play with us, that’s all.”
The tallest boy of the group looked down at us with displeasure, as if we were just a piece of scum on the bottom of his boot. He looked at me, specifically, leading his eyes up and down my body. I began to feel quite exposed.
“Мои родители сказали нам, что нам нельзя играть с евреями.”
“My parents told us we are not allowed to play with Jews.”
I stumbled back a bit, feeling for my brother’s hand, then my sister’s.
“Ты слышал меня.”
“You heard me.” He snarled, the early morning light reflecting off his oddly gelled hair.
“Ваши люди — причина того, что мы оказались в таком беспорядке. Идти. Прочь.”
“Your kind are the reason that we are in this mess. Go. Away.”
From behind me, I could hear Mila’s small sniffles as she clung on tight to my dress. My brother, Peter lurched forward, trying to break free of my hand. I didn’t let go, only holding him tighter and pulling him back towards out section.
Peter wanted so badly to stand up to such nasty people. I could see it in the way he snarled at them for the next hour until he drifted back to sleep. But I had to tell him, time and time again that there wasn’t anything that we could do in such scenarios. Once uneducated people get something in their heads, something that is foreign to them, unknown, they’re scared. They’re intimidated and find a way to relieve that stress, but they do it onto us. That won’t change, I regretfully told him. Not for as long as we live in Russia.
When mother awoke, she broke the news that we were headed to England. I had never heard of the place, but the way mother so passionately described it, I was excited to see it. We wouldn’t be so scrutinised there. It was better, there were factories that we could work in, houses we could live in, where no one would be revolting. No Tsar, but rather a king, which I was told was the English equivalent of our leader.
We could visit synagogues and we wouldn’t risk being hurt and killed. It was a fairy land. The stuff of legends, but the second we stepped onto the platform in the capital city, London, I knew that it was all real. We were at peace.
Maya Angelou – in her own words
by Ella Dewing:
This story is based on the life of Maya Angelou, and it is written with her as the narrator of her own life. Trigger warnings: this story contains mentions of rape, racism, discrimination, and death.
Maya Angelou. Born 4th April 1928 in St. Louis Missouri. My name, birthday and place of birth. I had challenging times when I was growing up. My parents split up when I was very young, so my brother and I lived with my grandmother in Arkansas. While I was there, I experienced racism and was discriminated against. As I got older, I returned to my mother’s care where I was raped by my mother’s boyfriend. I told my brother what happened, he then told the rest of the family, and as a result the man was arrested. The man (known as Freeman) was arrested for what he did to me, but he was released after a day of being incarcerated. Shortly after his release, Freeman was beaten to death. After hearing the news of Freeman’s murder, I stopped speaking. For I believed it was my voice that killed him. At the time, I thought I had killed that man by saying his name. I was eight years old. For almost five years the only person I spoke to was my brother Bailey. I went mute because I was afraid my voice was a weapon and if I spoke, something terrible would happen.
During my five years of silence, Bailey and I returned to my grandmother’s care. While living there my grandmother introduced me to English literature and my teacher, Bertha Flowers, introduced me to spoken word. They helped me find my voice again. When I was thirteen, my brother and I went to live with our mother in San Francisco. My love and passion for the arts won me a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. It was here I was exposed to the progressive ideas that led to my political activism that I pursued later in life. I dropped out of school and became San Francisco’s first Black female American cable car conductor. I later returned to high school and became pregnant in my senior year with my only son, and I graduated a few weeks before giving birth to him.
In the 1940s I worked as a singer, dancer, a cook, and a prostitute for both male and female clients. In 1950, I married a Greek (white passing) man. At this time, interracial marriage was condemned, resulting in me suffering from racism and witnessing others being extremely displeased when they learnt of my marriage to Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos. Our marriage lasted three years. In 1959 I met the novelist John Oliver Killens who encouraged me to write, which resulted in me joining the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Soon after I joined Martin Luther King Jr in his civil rights work, where I worked as a coordinator and a fundraiser for the movement.
In 1962 I moved to Cairo and then Ghana, where I worked as a freelance writer. I then moved back to the US where I got involved in theatre and film. It was here I became the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced as a feature film. In 1981 I was offered a professorship position at Wake-Forest University in North Carolina, even though I had no bachelor’s degree. I stayed in this role until my death in 2014, where I wrote, taught, and inspired many. I lived a full and varied life. I wrote seven autobiographies and I was working on autobiography number eight before I passed away. I wrote many poems, all of which were reflective, thought-provoking, and extremely powerful. My poems explore racism, discrimination, women’s rights, human rights, sexual oppression, love, painful loss, demanding social justice, depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women and human spirit, and many more.
I was an activist, and I am recognised as being the voice for the voiceless. I displayed my unwavering strength, bravery, and will to fight for what I believed in right until the end. One of my most famous books I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings conveys my idea that anyone who is oppressed or caged will always wish for freedom, and you know you should be granted freedom because others have been too. It is your right to be an equal and to be treated in the same ways as others and to be given the same privileges. In this book, I confronted the traumatic events of my childhood, and I explored my own identity as a Black woman, my evolution, and how I came to be the strong, successful, brave woman I am.
Another one of my famous books And Still I Rise inspired women from all around the world. In this book I celebrated courage, spirit, and bravery and overcoming challenging social and personal obstacles, like racism, sexism, discrimination. And Still I Rise is me telling the world that nothing will stop me, no barrier or person, no words or hate, no trauma or event, and that nothing should stop you either. I wanted women to not be affected by societal expectations and definitions of beauty. In my book I focus on how women are oppressed by these stereotypes, opinions, and norms and that we should not accept them, that we should fight back. We should not accept oppression silently, we should fight back, we should demand change, we should be the change.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
The Unfamiliar World
By Monika Grigaite
This story was from my mother’s own experience of immigrating from Lithuania to the UK.
I opened my eyes to the cloudy sky, the sound of the tour bus shaking and the engine screaming. I was terrified. I had no clue where I was. I had no documents and at any moment that bus driver could throw us all off the bus. I had no idea where I was going or what I would do. Should I get off? Should I stay on?
Eventually, I decided to get off the bus and call my mother to try and get my documents. I waited for the phone call to go through. Anxiously.
“Hello?” I called out to the phone line. No signal. I tried it again.
“Hello?” I heard my mother’s voice. I was so relieved to hear her voice.
“Can you send my documents over?” I pleaded. The answer that I received crushed me. I was not safe in this country. Until, my mother was asking about bringing my son here. As I had a child, we were bound to be able to be safe in this country. Right? I put the phone down immediately and began trying to find the bus that went to the airport. My brother was going to bring my son to me.
After an hour of looking for the bus to the airport, I had found it. I was going to see my son. I gave the bus driver the only change I had for tickets, taking a seat on the bus and patiently waiting until we arrived at the airport. I was holding back tears, ready to reunite with my son.
As soon as the bus driver stopped at the airport bus stop. I ran out of the doors, I nearly tripped and fell (out of the doors) from the amount of excitement. I ran into the airport and followed the sign Arrivals with ease. I was ready to be with my son again, the light and joy of my life. My entire world. I waited, nervously.
What if something happened to them? What if they couldn’t make it past the border? What if the plane didn’t land? I spiralled with my thoughts once again.
Then, I saw him. My bundle of joy in this world. He was with me. He was in his new home. We were together again and nothing would separate us. We were safe together. This was our new life together. We were going to make it. We were safe now.
By Lily Wiltshire
The waves thrashed against the boat, hard and strong, rocked to its side. For a brief moment, I thought of it being tipped over and all of us lost to the shallow waters and saw hands – calloused, or weak like a child’s – reaching out to grab whatever they could. The crowd was overbearing; the boat was filled to the brim, almost spilling, and nobody could move. Even breathing was such a big thing now.
I found myself regretting everything: for leaving my country, like my discomfort was a setback I could move on from. But I knew I had to leave, for myself, I needed new experiences. Opportunities I deserved. A life worth living. Even if I knew I’d stick out and would have to change everything – my name, or my voice, the way I said words. These big sacrifices that clouded my head were necessary and had to be done.
My eyes drifted and settled onto different faces – freckled, grim or old – and knew they had to be thinking the same things. No matter the reasons we were here, we all sacrificed a part of ourselves and would have to live this new life.