You know when you first meet someone, and at some point they ask you the question… the one about where you’re from?
It’s always been a tricky one for me. I never know if they mean where I was born, or what area I live in, or what my nationality is, because yes, there are three different answers I could give.
But I’m black though, that much is clear. And although many people assume I was, I actually wasn’t born in England. My parents? Aunties and Uncles? Definitely not born in England. So let me tell you what it’s like being raised in an English city, in an African household.
The first thing you need to know is, this is a Matriarchy. Maybe it’s because I didn’t live with my dad. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house of 5 women (myself included), maybe it’s just my personal experience. But it was definitely Mum’s way or the highway.
So at this point you may think “Matriarchy! Yes! Go girls! Power to the woman”, but it didn’t quite work in my house the way a patriarchy would work in another house. You know, the dad set all the rules, the mother usually helped enforce them, the daughters would help out with domestic tasks and have an early curfew, the sons would probably help out with menial tasks and have a slightly more lenient curfew that they would still stretch and get away with anyway. Does this sound super sexist and old fashioned? Remember, my parents were born in the late 50’s to early 60’s. This is how it was back then. You’d think a matriarchal household would be the exact same, but in gender reverse, right? No.
On one hand I’m glad I grew up in a house with only women. It taught me to be very independent from a very young age. I’m 22 now and I don’t “need a man” to change a lightbulb, fix a broken cabinet door or build an Ikea wardrobe (or an Ikea anything, for that matter). I had my own set of house keys by the time I was 8.
For most people, an elevated level of independence and responsibility correlated to more privileges and freedom. For me? It meant absolutely nothing.
I was in secondary school between 2007 and 2012. Most teenagers were expected home in time for dinner, so let’s say around 5 or 6 pm. I was expected home after school. That’s right, by 3:30 my ass better be through the doors. For what? At this point it was just my mum and I living together, and she worked from 4 to 8pm, so it’s not like she was even at home. But you know what, she would call the house phone anyway, just before 4pm, to make sure I was there.
And sure, there were always chores to be done. And even if there weren’t, she could make some up. The house is clean? OK scrub the walls. Whatever it was, it still didn’t take me 4 hours to do it, so why did I always have to be home straight away? Why couldn’t I hang out with friends after school like everybody else did?
In years 5 and 6, my class used to play football together during lunchtime, and I loved it so much I tried to join the football club in year 7. It didn’t last very long. I attended altogether maybe 3 matches, we won two of them, but then I was forced to quit, because my mother “didn’t want me hanging around after school”.
So it got to the point where I had to start lying about things. I had to start making up compulsory after-school revision classes just to be able to play badminton for an hour after school. And even when I actually had real revision classes I was sometimes not allowed to go, because I “needed to be home”.
That’s the thing about being an adult in an african household. You don’t require logic. You don’t even need to make sense. What you say goes, and that’s the end of it.
I’m sure many of you will be familiar to the phrase “As long as you live under my roof you live by my rules.” Granted, most parents use this in a logical way like if they’re trying to get you to clean your room or do some chores that you don’t think is fair. In my household, that meant that you have to drink this entire glass of coca cola even though you haven’t drank coca cola in over a year (true story).
It’s a game of power, and you know these games can be dangerous. It could be Donald-Trump-vs-Kim-Jong-un-in-a-twitter-battle dangerous.
They will make you do these nonsensical things, like admit you did something that you really didn’t do, just because they think you did it. And if you try to convince them you didn’t do it, well, you’re clearly lying and they’re going to hit you, over and over, until you say what they want to hear. I’ve tried to maintain integrity. I’ve tried to defend myself, one beat after the other, but when you’re 13 you can’t outdo an african woman whose hands (and heart) have been hardened from years of washing her brothers’ clothes outside on the washing tank.
But what was it like for boys living in this sort of environment?
On multiple occasions I’ve had male cousins staying with me and my mum for an extended period of time and let me tell you… the matriarchy does not work here.
What chores must the boys do? Wash their own dishes every once in a while. Put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, and voila, they’ve earned their keep. Curfew? Somewhere between 8pm and whenever you feel like it.
One of these said cousins became the bane of my existence, with how intolerably dopey and manipulative he was. He could make up an entire web of lies about me, with nothing to gain for it, and obviously my mother would believe it and I would be under further scrutiny. He once spit in my face- no, literally- and what did my mother do? Well, nothing of course. I mean, he said sorry.
I once read online a quote that was something like “Black mothers raise their daughters and love their sons” and it broke my heart so much realising I’d never read something more true. What does a girl have to do in this household to earn some love and an ounce of respect? I mean besides cooking, cleaning, being top of your year-group and a first class translator for the entire family?
It’s real sad thinking of all those years of slavery that our race has endured, and despite being free, a black daughter is still brought up in the way of servitude. I am independent only so that I do not require the help of others, I am smart only so that I can assist others, and no matter how many times I am of assistance, if I ever put own needs above someone else’s I am showing a huge lack of gratitude and humility. A fault of character.
A student’s council teacher once asked me, when I was about 14 or 15 “Who’s life is more important, yours or your mother’s?” I immediately said it was my mother’s, I mean, what a stupid question, right? It wasn’t until years later that I realised what was so twisted about my reply, and why it was so fucked up that he felt he needed to ask me that in the first place.
You see, a black daughter raised by old-fashioned black women, is raised without an identity. There is no ‘I’, only ‘we’. I’ve been told several times that I “don’t need to want anything” and during an argument with my mother I asked her, “Do I not have the right to my own feelings?” Her reply was “No”. You may think she said that out of the heat of the moment, but let me assure you, that was not the case. She made it very clear that I was to be seen, and not heard. And preferably not seen.
Sure, this won’t be the case with every black girl out there. Some will have actually lived in a healthy, supportive environment. Some will even have been treated like princesses. Me? My mother nicknamed me “the Queen”, a sarcastic, patronising nickname intended to make me feel inadequate. It does the job, too.