Young and black in Babylondon: part one

It wasn’t until I left Trinidad for much colder climes I discovered I was black.

All my life I had been a so-called “red girl” – a racial hybrid with Indian, Caucasian, African and Chinese anscestors.

Mixed, middle-class, prestigiously schooled and commensurately sheltered, I railed against the hyphenated identities adopted by Indo- or Afro- Trinbagonian peers.

“I’m a Trini,” I would insist when faced, as I so often was, with those who demanded to know how I defined myself.

But what did that mean? It was a question with which I struggled. I lacked a defined cultural context.

I wasn’t white enough to fit in with the tennis playing, Billabong-sporting Gulf View and Westmoorings crew, while my Indian last name failed to persuade the parents of a particular past paramour that I was girlfriend material. I felt no connection to my Chinese heritage, my addiction to old-school karate kick-up flicks notwithstanding.

And what of that aspect of my ancestry I inherited from my mulatto grandfather? What did it mean to be African/negro/black/politically-correct-moniker-of-your- choosing in Trinidad?

I didn’t know. All of my friends were either of East Indian descent or mixed – a consequence, again, of my schooling and immediate social milieu. I had no exposure to either contemporary or historical Trinidadian blackness – and I certainly would not have known where to look for either.

But while I did not feel at all white or Chinese or Indian, I did not know what it meant to be black.

Then I left Trinidad, and discovered the terms I had previously used to describe myself – red, mixed, Trinidadadian – were even less sufficient.

“You’re Trinidadian – okay, but what’s your ethnic background?”

And I would trot out the explanation, slicing myself into parts – “well, my mother is…”

But that wasn’t enough for those who could place neither my accent nor my attitude.”You’re from the Caribbean? But you’re so – not laid back!”

Nor was it enough for me.

When, barely eighteen, I left Trinidad, I was convinced that I would not soon return. Trinidad as I knew it held little appeal. There was, I thought, nothing for me to go back to – family and increasingly scattered friends excepted – and much I wished to leave behind. A persistent sense of alienation made “flying out” not just attractive, but necessary.

But within days of touching down in Europe I realised I would never belong there either.

It was a Martiniquan friend who first called me black.

I had been summarily adopted by Laure and her group, an assortment of 20- and 30-somethings united by their desire for independance from France. They would meet regularly on weekends. Inevitably these evenings would commence with dinner and heated political discussion and finish off with liberal amounts of Planter’s punch and zouk.

At one of these sessions my friend – let us call her Rochelle – turned to me and said, “et d’après toi, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire, d’être jeune et noire en France? Comment ça se compare avec ton pays?

I stared at her. What did it mean to be young and black in France? That I might have been able to answer, if only because I’d studied race relations in France as part of my adventures in A-levels.

What did it mean to be young and black in Trinidad? How should I know?

I don’t remember what I eventually said, but the question haunted me long after the evening ended.