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Rivers of blood

August 17, 2017

Just before I started my second year of school, my mum and I moved into a tower block. None of this North American nonsense about floor numbers. We lived on the thirteenth floor. Prior to that we’d been living in two rooms rented from another family. No doubt part of the rent paid (although it didn’t occur to me at the time) included daycare, as Mrs. Elliott did indeed take care of me, along with her two daughters, during the day whilst Mum was at work and after I started school at lunch time and until Mum got home from work. For almost any kid, as long as there is love in the home, they don’t much care where the home is. Mum obviously craved independence, a home of her own, thus the move to the tower block.

Mum had taken her annual leave to get us moved and get me started at the new school. After that I became a latch key kid. We did have a telephone (which not everyone did in those days). Mum would leave me asleep when she departed for work. She would ring me when she arrived to get me out of bed. My clothes for the day were always laid out on a chair. The cereal was in a bowl on the table waiting for me to add milk. There was no school lunch programme at the new school. Every lunch hour she would rush back to spend five or maybe ten minutes with me, heating soup or making a sandwich, before dashing back to work. For two hours after school I would be in the flat on my own. Social workers today would be appalled, but I was fine.

At school I quickly made friends with a girl in my class named Linda Bradshaw. Linda lived in a two-storey flat on the ground floor of the tower block, with her parents Barbara and Buddy, her sister Caroline and her brothers Johnny and Tommy. I went home with Linda one day after school and stayed until it was nearly time for Mum to arrive home from work. When she did arrive she was a bit frantic because I hadn’t been in the flat when she’d made her after school call to check on me. I told her where I’d been. Probably not surprisingly Mum wanted to meet this family, so after dinner we went down to the ground floor to call on them. Mum and Barbara hit it off almost as quickly as Linda and I had. It was soon agreed that I would go to the family for my lunch (saving Mum the dash home) and after school. Barbara would not take any money for this. Knowing (although not saying) the family could probably barely afford to feed themselves, Mum insisted that she would do a packed lunch for me every day, which she did. So Linda’s parents became Auntie Barbara and Uncle Buddy and I spent a chunk of time every day in their home.

Did I mention that Barbara and Buddy were Jamaican immigrants? No I did not, because this fact was completely irrelevant to Mum and to me.

I’ve found myself thinking about the Bradshaw family in recent days for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to explain. Fucking Trump.

Enoch Powell had yet to make his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. George Wallace had yet to make his openly racist presidential run. (That was the last time anyone as odious as Trump got his name on the ballot in a presidential election.) Both of these occurred in 1968, but racial tension had already taken hold.

The insults of the playground or school yard were mild. There were no shouts of “golliwog”, let alone “nigger”. Instead, boys (always boys) would chant “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate” at the Bradshaw children. The first time (of many times) this happened in my hearing, I simply chanted “vanilla, vanilla, vanilla” back at them. When one of these boys challenged me, demanding to know what I thought I was doing, I told him Linda and Caroline were my cousins.

“No, they’re not,” he said. “They can’t be.”

“Of course they are,” I said. “I call their mother Auntie Barbara, don’t I?”

That threw him for a loop.

All of age seven, I knew the Bradshaw children weren’t really my cousins, but as far as I was concerned their mother was my aunt, which did make them part of my family and me part of theirs. And no one was going to insult my family – even with ice cream flavours.

I’ve long, long since lost touch with the Bradshaws. A couple of years later, after some young lout threw a brick at my head when I was minding my business playing on the swings, my mother moved us away from the estate. We stayed in touch for a while, went back to visit a few times, but our families drifted apart as commonly happens.

Flash forward some years. I’m twenty years old and it is my second or third day in New York. It’s a hot summer day and I’m downtown somewhere. I’ve just been into a shop to buy a can of 7Up and I am standing on the pavement sipping it through a straw. Two teenage lads walk up to me and one asks for a sip of my soda. After the fraction of a second it takes me to register the fact that soda is what Americans call fizzy drinks, I hand him the can. He takes a sip, hands it back to me and suspiciously asks where I’m from.

Did I mention the lads were black? No. Not relevant. At least not for me. It was for them. The plan I suspect had been to freak this white girl out by asking to sip from the same straw as her. The fact that I had happily handed over the tin was doing their heads in – until they found out I wasn’t an American, at which point everything made sense to them again. They ambled off, telling me to have a nice day. I wished them the same. A couple of days later a native New Yorker friend explained to me what had happened.

Two days ago President Obama (thank heavens he retains that title, how lovely to type those two words) sent out a series of tweets that quickly became the most liked ever in the history of Twitter. He quoted Nelson Mandela:

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I wish he would break with precedent more often. I know former presidents are supposed to fuck off and shut up. But these are unprecedented times.

The United States – and the rest of the world – needs Obama now more than he’s ever been needed before. Yes, it should be up to someone else in the Democratic party to stand up forcefully to Trump, but no one else has emerged as a clear leader and no one else has Obama’s skills as an orator.

There is a man in the Oval Office whose father was almost certainly a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a man who seems genuinely unable to understand that there actually is a difference between a statue of one of the country’s founding fathers and one of a confederate general, a man who genuinely believes that “very fine people” can be found within the ranks of the KKK and neo Nazi groups. A man I’m fairly certain would have no problem seeing rivers of blood flowing from the sort of race war these very fine people want.

I said this in January and I’m saying it again now.

obama wan kenobi

And if you really, truly feel you can’t speak out publicly and in person, that you really can’t break with precedent, for fuck sake let Michelle loose on this orangutan. She could kick his fat ass seven ways from Sunday.

From → Columns

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