Am I Black?

My Journey – to find the other half of me

It was a journey that I think I always knew I would make. A journey that in the end, I knew I would have to make, to a destination I feared I might never reach. You see for me, this was more than a journey. This was a search to find the answer to a question I'd been asking myself my entire life.

Am I black? I guess you shouldn't have to ask yourself that question, but when you've been brought up by a white mum and white maternal grandmother, it's a question brought into sharp focus as you realise the childish taunts in the playground are directed at you.

You see, I used to actually have to ask myself the question, "Am I black?" I was just nine months old, when my Dad left my Mum. Too young to notice my obvious difference and too young to miss him… at first. But, where do you look for your racial identity when you're a different colour to your parents? I looked wherever I found people who looked like me! My Mum recounts a particularly embarrassing experience when, at the age of two I pointed and shouted 'daddy' at an unsuspecting black conductor on the local bus. My outburst may have been something to do with the fact he was one of only a handful of West Indians living in Milton Keynes in the early 1970s. In my linear toddler's mind he looked something like the black man grinning from the photograph given pride of place on Mum's G-Plan coffee table.

The realisation that I was different might have kicked in early, but I didn't start to intellectualise the difference until my blackness was pointed out to me, until racism forced me to. It's more than thirty years since I first started to question my identity. I am now a television producer; I have a good life, great friends, nice home, new car and take the requisite long haul holidays each year! But there's always been a huge void in my life. I've never quite been able to get my head around the "Who am I?" question, the "Am I white, black, or brown?" Wherever I am on my perception of the racial colour chart, I've internalised the confusion my entire life, or I had until quite recently.

I can't explain why I felt ready to finally search out the answer to my question, I just did. I had the time, I had some money and most importantly I had the courage I needed to set off on a trip that I knew would change my life, forever. I just didn't know by how much.

In May this year, just two days after my thirty-sixth birthday, I flew to Jamaica, to meet up with my father, a man I had met just four times in my life and a family I had never met. A family I knew nothing about and who lived a life I could only just begin to imagine. As my Air Jamaica flight to Kingston taxied along the runway in preparation for takeoff, my gut was twisted with anxiety, fear and excitement and once again I asked myself the question, "Am I black?" I also asked myself "Would I belong?" "Would I be too white to be black, too British to be Jamaican?"

When I finally stepped on Jamaican soil for the first time, clichéd though this might sound, I truly felt I'd come home. As I walked through arrivals and passport control I looked around and saw people, black people, brown people, not many white people, people like me! I felt quite unlike I'd ever felt on any of my other travels and nothing like a tourist. I had a huge urge as the immigration officer stamped my passport to say, "Do you know, I'm half Jamaican?!" Ridiculous, as if he'd be interested! But I couldn't believe it, for the first time in my life I was able to think the words and not feel inadequate, or somehow an impostor.

The next few weeks were nothing short of a full on emotional roller coaster. A whirlwind of experience that scooped me up, dragged me along and spewed me out a completely different person at the end of it! There were major highs and major lows. Sadly most of the lows had to do with my father and my relationship with him. I knew from the outset that I didn't really want a Dad. It felt too late for that somehow, but as a grown woman I would have liked to have found a friend. Someone to get to know, someone to guide me, someone to encourage and support me and in return someone that I could grow to respect and love. But in the end the thirty-six year separation was a chasm just too wide to bridge. I may not have found what I was looking for in my father, but in my new Aunt and Uncle, I found far much more…

There were so many highs. My first trip into the Blue Mountains to see for myself where Dad and his family are from is an experience I will hold in my heart forever. As I sat in the congregation at Mount Fletcher Methodist Church, a small, whitewashed building nestled deep in the plush, lush, fragrant Blue Mountains, I struggled to contain my tears. I thought of and tried to imagine the generations of Welshes who had sat on the same church pew. How different might my life have been had I been born and raised in Jamaica? How might I have taken for granted the beauty that now rendered me speechless? They were questions without answers, but ones that went round and round in my head regardless. After the service, as I stumbled through the graveyard, I found my Dad's Mum's tomb, but still I didn't cry. I wanted to cry though, for the Grandmother I had never known, a face I couldn't picture and a voice I had never heard. I felt more than sad, I felt cheated. The tears finally came later, as I was taken even further into the mountains and to Great Aunt Daisy's house. As the ninety-three year old matriarch realised who I was, she praised the Lord, and then praised him again, and again and I did too! I felt part of the family, part of something much bigger, something with a past, a real present and a graspable future. At last I felt I belonged somewhere.

Much to the amusement of the family, I spent most of my trip morphing into a kid in a toy shop. It was just all too much, too exciting, too different! My first jelly coconut, macheted especially for me, tasted nothing like the dried up desiccated stuff I remembered from home ec. classes! Being able to pick ripe juicy mangoes straight from the tree, chewing on sugar cane, all new to me, but everyday stuff to my folks! I loved the food, the rice and peas, the fish, the bammy, even the festival! As I lost myself in the lyricism of the Patois, I grew fascinated by its rhythm and pace, not bad for someone who for much of the time didn't understand a world of it! There were so many 'pinch me I'm dreaming moments'. From the overproof rum I shared with the village undertaker at Cousin Eddie's rum shop, cum garage, cum Sunday night sound system to mesmerising hours spent three thousand feet up in the Blue Mountains watching the sun go down and night descend on Jamaica's capital below.

On a more profound level I loved the fact that I could be me. I didn't stand out, unless the enthusiasm for my new found homeland dulled my senses! No one batted an eyelid at the strangely accented mixed race woman, with her big hair and ever widening smile! Since returning home, I've pondered the whole nature, nurture argument more than ever before. For the first thirty-six years of my life, I've been a mixed race woman, living a life surrounded by white family and friends and embracing, thanks to not having the choice otherwise, the white side of me. Now for the first time in my life, I have a completeness I could have only dreamed of a few months ago. I know now that regardless of my access to it, my Jamaican self has always been there, albeit it lying dormant and denied. Nature has finally been able to show its strength!

And what about now? Well I have a new second home and a huge extended family, something as an only child, I've have only ever been able to dream about. I have cousins, second cousins, great Aunts, a wonderful Aunt, and the most amazing Uncle a girl could ask for! During my time in Jamaica I developed a swelling pride for a country and people who I came to feel part of. Finally I was able to answer my question, "Am I black? The answer? Who cares? You see, I'm me. Clichéd? Perhaps? But it's enough of an answer for me. I am Zoë first and foremost. I have a white English Mum and a black Jamaican Dad and I now know where they are both from. I can visualise their lives and piece together the jigsaw that makes them the people they are. In completing their jigsaw, I've finally found the missing piece of mine. I no longer feel the need to label myself, if others do, that's their business! I'm happy to be mixed and I'm happy to be me. I am lucky to have two homes to call my own, my familiar UK one and the unfolding magical mystery that is Jamaica.

At last I can be happy, happy in my own skin, my brown skin and proud of it. I am comfortable in the knowledge of what's gone in to making me and I'm bursting with excitement, anticipation and hopes and dreams for the new experiences I know will play a part in forming the rest of my life. I had known even before I boarded JM002 that my journey would lead me to a different me, but do I like the new me? Too right I do. I feel free, liberated, and at ease with life. Who could ask for more?

Copyright © 2004 Zoë Welsh