I was having a conversation with my sister a few days ago about women’s rights. She is currently teaching a class about it, and had the occasion to do some research. She said to me that when she was a teenager, she couldn’t understand the concept of women’s rights. She said that as far as she was concerned – Caribbean women ruled the world, and we could move on to fighting for other things. Now that she knows more, she is starting the understand the nuances of what the fight for women’s rights is (or should be) about, she isn’t so naïve. While I agree with her wholeheartedly, this isn’t actually a post about women’s rights (although based on the conversation she and I had afterwards, I could very easily write one, and indeed I have not ruled it out!) this is about her earlier statement. Because at one point in my life, I also thought that Caribbean women ruled the world, and it is this very thought that I credit for most of my achievements in life.
Before I go any further, I will reiterate that I am definitely not suggesting that women’s rights are not critically needed everywhere, including the Caribbean. But I still believe that as a black woman, the Caribbean was the best place that I could have grown up. I should also say that this post is about to be filled with blatant generalizations, based on my personal experiences. If you don’t want to see them, look away now – perhaps up at the beautiful photo that I have placed above. (I went walking this morning and I took it, and this is still one of my favourite things about island life...)
I started to realize the true value of how well I grew up when I moved to England. As a young girl growing up in the Caribbean, I genuinely did not think anything was closed to me, and I truly thought that I could do or be anything I wanted. When I was still at school, I decided that I wanted to go away and study, and I figured out that the only way to do that would be to get a scholarship, so I decided to get one. Looking back on it now, it is amazing to me the simple act of making that decision, and the power of self belief (coupled with the availability of such opportunities). Of course it was hard work, being up at 3 and 4 am, doing past papers, on the phone with one of the other girls in my class. However it never occurred to me that it was not within my reach. So when I arrived at university I really felt the same as everyone else there, as I felt I had earned my place there like everyone else. I wasn’t intimidated by how wealthy some of them were (and in fact, since it was many years before I even knew what a Lamborghini was, when someone said to me that their dad drove one, I thought it was pasta, and I was very confused. And that is a true story. Sometimes I think there really is bliss to ignorance).
The thing is I really think that there was an advantage for me, growing up in the Caribbean and seeing a full spectrum of black women around me. Some were doctors and lawyers, some were in retail, some were parents, some worked in the bank – it made me feel as if I could choose my path, and that it could be anything I wanted, and nothing was outside of my reach. My father always said to me that anyone of average intelligence could achieve anything they wanted, and I believed it. The funny thing is, now that I am older I have piled so many caveats onto that thing that it would not stay afloat, but that was just what I needed when I was a teenager – self-belief and self-efficacy. But I feel as if it also helped that I lived somewhere that the message was also being passed to me daily, almost by osmosis. I think that sometimes we take for granted the value of having black people visible around us doing great things. The fact that there was the full spectrum in all walks of life made me feel like I had the choice of who and what I could be. For me that was real Black Girl Magic.
When I moved to England, a number of the places I lived in lacked diversity, and I do not recall meeting any British Black professional women. I worked with another black woman, but she also grew up in the Caribbean. I am sure that there would have been some if I was somewhere like London or Birmingham, so I am not saying they didn’t exist, but I was just trying to imagine if I would have felt the same growing up somewhere with such minimal diversity. I met a lady in another city which also lacked diversity, who told me that she sent her son back to Jamaica when he was pre-teen to live with her mother – his grandmother, and he returned to the UK when he was about to go into 6th form. But she said that the difference between him and the friends that he had was astonishing. He was comfortable in his own skin and confident in his ability to have academic and professional achievements. I have friends who moved abroad, and are now raising their children there, and in among the positive things they gain from living in these places, some of them are facing issues of identity with their children that they do not recall facing when we were growing up here.
It has simply made me aware of the privilege we had growing up here as young black people, and to encourage us to remember this, and ensure that we always pass positive messages on to any young persons that we are in contact with. Now that we are adults, we can be the positive role models. Our values are the ones that the young people are taking in by osmosis. I can speak for girls (being a woman) – we need to provide the same Black girl Magic to our young women that was provided to us, so that they too can believe good things about themselves. They can couple their self-belief with putting in the necessary effort to become strong, beautiful women, and then perhaps one day we really can say – Caribbean women rule the world! Now we can move on to fighting for other things.