Translantic name's sake

Imagine golden sand between your toes. You walk towards the ocean, deep green, reflective of the hills and mountains behind you. With your eyes closed the sun paints your internal backdrop terracotta. You inhale. You forget for a moment you’re in Sierra Leone. Ah yes, sweet Sierra Leone home of assured people with strong white teeth.  You may know it from the movie Blood Diamond, or the whole Ebola thing. Yeah that’s us, stolen diamonds and disease, that’s how I let people know where my folks are from when I don’t have a map handy.

Me myself, I was born in the UK. I’m black but so British I’m a “white woman” in the provinces of Sierra Leone. For the first 10 years of my existence, I was quite unaware of Africa in general. My broad nose and cornrows stood out in the playground, I knew I was different but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t explain or defend the things that made me, me. In my teens I recall having a conversation with my mother about my surname – Robbin, which I think is lightly salted. It doesn’t echo the scotch bonnet heat of my families’ countenance. I had just watched Roots for the first time and I was deeply hurt and confused by my pink skinned surname.

 

I am an African who carries the name of a winter bird.

 

From 1787 and half a century onwards over 50,000 freed slaves from across the Atlantic were shipped to Sierra Leone. All plugged on the coast most used for trading which was then aptly named Freetown (insert sparkles and trumpets) “where they couldn’t hurt us anymore” my mother so sweetly states. Just to reiterate, they stole us, used us, and then put us back when they couldn’t do so anymore.

 

The stories which trickle down from centuries ago are unclear or unspoken of. What did my grandmother know about her heritage that she did not pass on to my mother?

 

Who was the first? From which tribe was he or she taken from? How strong were their bones and blood to survive both journeys across the Atlantic and the dirty in between? Which traits do we share if anything? There is so much I don’t know and even more I am afraid to ask. I do believe that knowing my past will aid my future, but how can I discover myself when so much of my ancestors flesh was taken, broken and silence.

For a long time my identity was a murky pool of “blackness” I absorbed from my peers or the media. At one point I was a Queen Latifah version of myself, loud and hard. I didn’t know how to be genuinely me because at the time, I wasn’t black enough. “Sorry, I don’t know that Bob Marley song” “Oh you didn’t hear me, what if I wiggle my neck and shake my finger at you? There, is that better?” The realisation that I had to adopt a stereotype to be heard or even noticed was frustrating. It’s hard to be an alter ego all the time, especially in your place of work.

 

Now, I’m settled in my identity, I like indie music, I don’t know the latest dance crazes and let us hope that slang terms remain the same for another couple of years or else I’ll be very quiet at house parties.

 

Blackness doesn’t have to be defined, but let’s never pretend it doesn’t exist. Whatever it is.

 

This is a letter to displacement, a letter to African diaspora. 

 

Our blood runs red like the earth we came from

Palms rudely refuse sun kisses

African tongues pronounce Anglican vowels

Hair that clutches to the scalp when exposed to sunlight.

 

Palms that rudely refuse the sun

Skin we coat in oils to prevent from cracking

Alien strands threaded close to the scalp

Backs we pull up to prevent from breaking.

 

Skin we coat in oils to prevent from cracking

Do I have permission to be tender?

Backs we pull up to prevent from breaking

Disregarded. Dehumanised.

 

Do I have permission to be tender?

This African tongue can only pronounce Anglican vowels

We are disregarded, we are dehumanised

Though our blood runs red like the earth we came from.

 

L x

Written by Louisa Robbin 

Photo credit to Myah Jeffers