One of my most significant memories of growing up in a migrant African Caribbean family in Bradford, West Yorkshire, was my first day at school. I arrived at the gates of an infant school in September 1969, the first child of Noel and Lucille Reddie. I was five years old. I remember being placed in a long line of children, and standing there as the teachers discussed what should be done with the ‘odd’ child towards the end of the line.
Instinct told me that I was the subject of such heated conversations. I was the only Black person in that room. The conversation continued as I stood in the line. Gesticulating hands and furrowed brows indicated a deep sense of unease and confusion in the minds of the education officials and teachers.
After what seemed like an interminable delay, two teachers approached me and began speaking about me, but never to me. They wondered if I could cope in a class of White children. Could I speak English? Would my presence be conducive to the well-being of the class? Would I affect the education of the others? What struck me at the time was the strange sense of detachment I felt. I was the object of the conversation but no one seemed interested in what I had to say. I was an object, not a subject. I knew I could speak perfectly good West Yorkshire influenced English because I did it every day with my parents.
The upshot of the conversation was that I should be sent to an ‘Immigration Centre’ that lay adjacent to my primary school. This centre catered for the growing influx of children from the ‘New Commonwealth’ and was a crude attempt at socialisation and acculturation of South Asian and Caribbean children into the ‘British way of life’.
It took them three days to deduce that I was in fact born in Bradford, and English was my only ‘official’ language (as it was for my parents). For a brief second, as the teachers discussed my situation, I began to question my own reality. Could I really speak English? Was I so different and alarming, given that hitherto, I had always felt myself to be normal?
Contemporary racism is not as crude as my experience from 1969 so it is often said. Perhaps so, but our present Prime Minister has described the many immigrants seeking entry into the UK as a ‘swarm.’ This is testament to the continued negative stereotyping of the ‘other’. Given our current visceral reactions to being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, perhaps 1969 isn’t so far off as we would like to believe?
Revd Anthony G. Reddie is a Ministry Development Officer for the Methodist Church and is the author and editor of 16 books. His more recent titles include Is God Colour Blind? Insights from Black Theology for Christian Ministry (SPCK, 2009). He is editor of Black Theology: An International Journal, the only academic periodical of its kind in the world.
You can find out more about Black History Month at www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk