My childhood was rough. Fucking rough. Like many survivors, the fact I am alive is testament to the tenaciousness of my spirit and a refusal to give up. However, life moves hard and there are always challenges to be overcome and events that threaten to overwhelm me. I’m thinking here of the recent murder of George Floyd.
How strange that BIPOC live in a society that oppresses us on a daily basis and yet, it takes a man getting lynched for us to recall our experiences of oppression and (more pertinently) our trauma. I want to address this disconnect and start the journey to understanding my own trauma and come to terms with my own experiences of violence and abuse. I’m taking off my bandage and discussing something a little more painful and personal; homegrown racism, toxic masculinity and sexual abuse from my dad.
*This following content depicts scenes of physical and sexual abuse.*
My father was a traumatised individual. By the time I came into the world, he was at the beginning of losing control. The man suffered PTSD after fighting in the Zimbabwean War of 1978 and was something which came to take hold of him the older he got. His personal life was no better and it seemed a bad start descended into something approaching chaos. He had grown up in poverty, lost his own father, gone to war and then committed the social crime of marrying a woman of colour: my mum. The result of all this? Well, the most obvious symptom was his substance abuse.
My dad was a serious alcoholic which led him to serving one year in jail and him subsequently leaving my life in 2005. His drinking also tended to reveal his true feelings about people of colour. It never made sense to me why my father was so preoccupied with making me (and everyone else in my family) aware of our skin colour. My dad was a white man with long black hair and a star tattoo on the left side of his cheek. He looked like he had strolled out of 70’s psychedelic rock band and into our family – only to torture us about our perceived ‘primitiveness’.
Home ‘conversion therapy’
I am a proud Black gay man and my pride has been hard fought for. You may be unsurprised to hear that my father was not only a racist, but also a devout homophobe. As he saw it, he was experiencing a dual nightmare – a son who was Black and gay. However, although he couldn’t do anything about the colour of my skin, he believed he still had a role to play when it came to ‘straightening out’ my sexuality.
One night, my dad flung open the door and was filled with excitement. He had a present to give his young son. What was the present? A straight porn DVD. He stumbled drunkenly upstairs into the living room, sat us both down and made me watch it; often adding his own commentary and pointing out to me the bits he was enjoying the most.
Naturally, I didn’t understand what was going on and I looked everywhere and anywhere for help. I distinctly remember waiting for the whole thing to be over with. I remember wanting to run to my room, but also knowing that if I left my seat, he would come and beat me – something he frequently did when I ‘misbehaved’. So I sat there for an hour, completely frozen as he drank his beer and touched himself. Later on, he would give me an anatomy lesson on how to use the ‘thing’ – this would involve him pulling his penis out for a practical demonstration.
I recall how my father made me go to a school where being bullied was normalized. I would beg him to be moved somewhere else but it was no use: “You need to learn how to fight!”. The other rationale was that it had to be an all-boys school because a mixed school would only encourage my femininity. It made perfect sense to enrol me into an institution where I would be tortured and bullied on a daily basis. Why? So as to reform my queer, feminine ways.
Some of my favourite memories were coming home without my bag as the boys had put chemicals in it, being touched up the librarian assistant, pen ink being put on my collar, being grabbed whilst boys threw water all over me, being chased around the playground, being pushed down the stairs and being beaten up from time to time: “You need to become a man!” he would angrily scream at me. He was a man on a mission – to beat all the queerness out of his son. However, like so many others who have tried to do the same, he’d set himself up for failure.
Racism started at home
I lived in a house that (on the outside) looked like a brilliant example of multiculturalism and post-colonial triumph. In reality, it became to represent the origin of my unresolved trauma. Racism became a central component of family life and patterns began to emerge. Choice phrases were repeated ad infinitum as my father grasped every opportunity to enlighten me about my place in the world:
‘You’re coloured, that’s what they would call you.’
‘In Zimbabwe, they would call you a nigga.’
‘Listen you black bitch!’
‘You don’t have those big African lips or that big African nose that your mum has.’
However, it was at dinner time when he was able to pour out most of his scorn. I recall my dad never presenting himself when we ate Zimbabwean food, specifically Ndebele food. Food consumed by using one’s hands. He would usher out into the back garden, pull out a cigarette and consume a beer – proudly proclaiming that he didn’t want to eat ‘primitive’ food. Unknowingly, he made me believe that eating food in this way (and indulging in my culture more generally) was something to be ashamed of.
From the outside, my parents love appeared progressive. Here’s a white man who is married to a black woman; a complete rejection of the prejudices at play in the apartheid system next door in South Africa. As a product of a post-colonial country, I am all too aware that symbols like these were used to promote the delusion that racism was over. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Racism is still very much alive; it’s just rebranded for the 21st Century.
In terms of relationships between Black people and white people, there can be no assumption that racism has been eradicated from the equation. After all, we don’t have to look too far into the past to see the ‘allure’ of the ‘exotic’ Black slave for white slave owners who were accustomed to raping their slaves. Dating, sexually intimacy, friendship, marriage do not serve as examples of equality and the absence of racism – sometimes they are the very definition of it.
Another example of my father’s racist beliefs was his refusal to converse in any other language but English. In Zimbabwe, there were a number of mixed languages including Shona and Ndebele – Dad had no interest in learning either. Often in our conversations, he would address the people who spoke these languages as ‘primitive’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘conniving’: “But your mother is adaptable and clever” – his wife was the only exception to these rules. She had to be otherwise, he would have to call his own judgement into question.
Racism does not disappear just by orbiting around black bodies.
My mother is a fluent trilingual and speaks all three languages, can use cutlery and still eat with her hands, ran her own business that travelled from Botswana, South Africa and back to Zimbabwe. My mother was and is still a visionary – something not even the oppressive society of Rhodesia could remove. The mere fact that I am in Britain today is because of my mother’s initiative and action.
When my Dad decided to abandon me, I was fortunate to see my mother for who she was. Previously, she had spent her time trying to survive a man whose trauma had engulfed him. Now, she had the freedom to be herself. When we moved into our new home, I began to witness my mother’s bravery, start to see her take calculated risks and grow – prosper. I saw, even under the stresses of life; glimmers of peace and calm wash over her.
I also noticed the music played in and around my home had changed. From playing Christian music (at a level where conversation could carry) to filling our home with the sound of African music – she would sit there with her bible and read. She would call me over to keep her company and we would end up watching television together. My mother would spend Sundays cooking in the kitchen – all the Zimbabwean food she wanted. Gone were the days of endless, annoyingly loud Pink Floyd drowning out the house. I remember my father’s regard for sleep – Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd is still a song that haunts me and takes me back to that kitchen.
So, to those that confidently declare their desire for ‘mixed race babies’, can you see that things are a little more complex than? That racism does not disappear just by orbiting around black bodies.
Now, when I see couples who are from different ethnic and racial backgrounds I always wonder: are those children brought up to understand both cultures equally? Are they taught both languages? Who is deciding what is taught from each culture? Who holds the power?
When I reflect on my experiences of growing up in a mixed race household, it’s clear that the post-racism dream narrative does not hold up to scrutiny. Simple white patronage does not manifest itself as equality, but rather as another expression of ownership and oppression. There are many other facets to equality than white people being our friends or our lovers. They should be our allies, our supporters and be willing to stand behind us. Equality and justice can only be attained by active participation and equitable collaboration.
Contributed by Franklin Dawson.
If you have suffered child abuse then there are organisations out there who can help. NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) offers a range of support and information and is happy to help.
Original artwork created for Rattle and produced for feature image by Alastair J Findall.