Growing Up Black

I wrote this poem as prequel-sequel to “Grandma’s House” and it’s very loosely based on “The Type” by poet Sarah Kay.


When you grow up in a West Indian household most things turn into a joke, eventually (whether you like it or not).

Growing up Black is me as a child opening the cabinet of glasses to be told no. They’re there for display like a museum exhibition.

It’s going to the cutlery draw to set the table for dinner and be told “not them ones.” They’re mash up. “Take these; them the good ones” – from a big container in the conservatory inside a box inside of another box behind something like it’s the fifth Indiana Jones film.

It’s Grandma telling me to hide when the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking at ridiculous times in the evening.

It’s answering the door to that one relative who turns up when the word on the grapevine is that Grandma’s been cooking – the fried chicken, the saltfish, the oxtail, the curry goat, the rice and peas, – the full shebang!

You had him at saltfish. He’s at the door within an hour. We call him The Tupperware King and he’s as persistent as an IOS update. Not even a lie!

Growing up Black is told tales of my great-grandparents, recited like urban legends. The Windrush Generation

listening to Grandma Cathy tell me about her mother is like hearing about Nanny de Maroon. Grandma Toile she was called –

she was no school. She was no speak English. She spoke French and double Dutch. She spoke a version of English that some understood but she was pure Patois, ready to survive with head, mouth and heart.

Growing up Black was going to watch my grandfather do gigs in his steelband. Tune after tune, whilst the band drink dodgy beers that look like they were made in a popup factory.

Growing up Black is cringing every time the English say Goat Curry. Growing up Black is learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam before you reach your tenth birthday.

It’s being introduced to N.W.A and Public Enemy at thirteen. It’s being told about your lack of privilege by your mom, that you ain’t like your white friends; you have to work twice as hard for half as much.

Photographer: Olivier Collet

It’s being followed around the supermarket by security seconds after walking in. It’s being at Grandma’s House and finding anything but butter or margarine in that container.

It’s having aunties and uncles and grandparents who buy everything big. And I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous! Two-kilogram bottles of ketchup. It’s being at weddings and funerals and there being the token Caribbean buffet. Sweet Christmas!

It’s being told that there’s no pepper in the saltfish fritters until it’s lodged in your throat. Grandma’s joke at everyone’s expense.

It’s walking into the living room met with mustard gas, and by that I mean fog that burns. Not hot sauce from Tesco, I’m talking sauce fresh from our homeland, the small islands – the Caribbean, the West Indies and the Dutch Antilles.

Yellow liquid gunge, filled with bits and pieces. Someone has home-grown the Grim Reaper and put him into a plastic water bottle, labelled Hot Sauce in black marker pen. It should be called Put This On Your Food If You Don’t Want To Live Sauce. 

Photographer: Ali Yahya

It’s watching my grandfather and his friends slap dominoes on the table. Bloodclart!! followed by laughs and gulps of Wray, Appleton and what I like to call Cerberus, named for that dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. One sip of Rivers Rum is enough to knock a person out for a fortnight.

Growing up Black is being told you’re a great cricketer. You’re like a Michael Holding or Clive Lloyd. And those pioneers became my idols – Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers. Top top players of the game at the highest level.

It’s testing what your white friends say to their parents to your parents. It’s safe to say I lived… just about.

Growing up Black is living on a fault line between identities, it’s telling your family about the first time you were called nigger whilst ticking British on the application form. They will understand.

It’s being looked at oddly when you show your passport at customs abroad. Where are you from? No, really, where are you from? Making you feel you like you don’t belong.

From Slavery to Windrush; from the Nationality Act to Brexit; from curry goat and rice in a butter container to a hostile immigration policy,

growing up Black is family and community. It’s dinner round the table. It’s history and politics and West Indian superstitions.

It’s kakaje, sleep dust. It’s a childhood and upbringing in Dutch pots and crisp n dry. It’s immigration in plastic. It’s a family that spans thousands of miles and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

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