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A cartoon drawing of a Black British Home, showing a black man wearing a Rasta hat through the window of the home.

Author Shawn Sobers On Black Storytelling, Windrush & Black British Identity

Posted on: October 24, 2023

For me, storytelling is the manifestation of what's possible without putting roadblocks in our minds. 

And I think it's very dangerous if we start to define ourselves through the lens of racism because that's doing the job of racism for it because that's how we see ourselves, as a limited individual rather than an individual that's capable of doing anything at all without limitation.

So, storytelling should be limitless. Black storytellers shouldn't be expected to have to talk about certain things as if that's the as if that's the limitation of our knowledge. We can talk about anything we want to cause why shouldn't we, right? I'd like to see that in the future.

We spoke with Shawn Sobers, Professor of Cultural Interdisciplinary Practice at the University of the West of England and author of the new book Black Everyday Lives, Material Culture and Narrative: Tings in de House, about why Black Britain needs this book.


What experiences growing up as Black and British inspired you to write this book?

Our experiences throughout life significantly color and shape our perspectives of the world. Growing up as an ethnic minority in a predominantly white society undoubtedly defines how you view life. Life experiences are pivotal in shaping our perspectives and understanding how we perceive the world. These experiences, from personal achievements and challenges to interactions with different cultures and environments, influence our beliefs, values, and outlook on life. Whether positive or negative, these encounters provide valuable lessons that help us grow, empathize, and develop a unique lens through which we view the world.

So, for example, I grew up in the city of Bath, a predominantly White City, not hugely diverse. I was one of four black children in my whole year group in my school alone. One of the other ones was my cousin. I was the only black child in my class, so it was predominantly a white environment, but growing up, my parents still brought us up in a very cultural atmosphere. They were very good at keeping in touch with their friends. Both my parents are from Barbados. So we'd visit family in London, Reading, or other parts of Bath every weekend and even during the week.

So I felt like I had a West Indian, Caribbean upbringing, even though I grew up in Bath as a child. At the time, I'd protest where are we going now? And I would feel like I'm being dragged along. But I appreciate that now because that stayed with me. The experiences I saw going to my aunties, uncles, cousins, and whoever else they were are memories that stayed with me. And one of the things that I always remember was, for example, in the front rooms of these houses, just seeing all the ornaments everywhere, and the front room is often a sacred space that, you know, many people weren't allowed in.

There'd often be a sewing machine in the corner of the living room, like a Singer sewing machine. And so I was taking these things in by osmosis, not thinking of their significance. So that was that was when I was ten years old, for example. I'm 51 years old, and I still see the same things when I go into different people's houses, and when I go back to Barbados, I still see the echoes of those same things. So it started to fascinate me. And as my parents got older and passed away, I began writing the book. However, my mum was still alive when I started to write the book.

And so, we're surrounded by these objects that we will inherit. But what are these objects? Why are there these significant? Why was there a sewing machine in many homes of people with Caribbean backgrounds? You know, what were the souvenirs all about? So I started to get into those stories, get into those histories, and use them as an opening portal to the narrative.

For example, when we go to the bedroom, the suitcase is one of the objects that I focus on. There are two suitcase chapters, and the suitcase allows us to get into the narrative of the elders who left the Caribbean in the 1950s and '60s. And the suitcase is like a witness to those travels, you know, It's not like another object which happens to be there, suitcases are like the witness to many of the things the elders experienced. And then, it goes on to talk about the Windrush generation and the Windrush scandal. I am ambivalent about this term: Windrush, Windrush generation—nevertheless, there's a really important narrative there that needs to be told.

The other suitcase chapter is actually for the elder child's bedroom. And I talk about barrel children or sent-for children in that chapter. It's often the oldest children that were left in the Caribbean. Their parents came to England, and those children were sent for when they could afford it, sometimes five years or so, maybe longer than that later. So, it looks at the relationship between the sent-for child and the parents. And often when the sent-for child, the oldest child, came to England, they had new siblings that they didn't even know existed because their parents had, more children that were born in England. And it can be a sometimes challenging relationship. So, as one example of the chapters. They're using the suitcase as an opening to get into these deeper narratives we don't often hear about.

Why do you feel there is a need for a book like this in Britain, and who is the book for?

I wrote this book at this time because I felt a need to talk about the Black British experience. Many books talk about, you know, the African-American experience and those kinds of things. And I wanted a book that was black British in flavor. I reference America and different things there, but I also wanted to return it to the Black British experience. Also, the crucial reason why I wanted to write the book now is that, the elders that came over in the 50s and 60s are now in their 80s, 90s, or late 70s, and sadly, they're passing away. You know, they are at that generation. And that's the reality of life.

So this book is like a museum for some of their stories and memories because we're not going to get this opportunity again to hear some of those voices. I'm a great believer in interviewing your parents or grandparents and, people around you who have these experiences. And we often try to find those stories in other places, books and films etcetera. But actually, the people that are experts are in our own families. I remember the first time I interviewed my parents was in 1995. And it was on a journey from London to Bath. And my dad was driving, my mom was in the passenger seat and me and my sister in the back, and I became interested in heritage and their journey to when they came over from Barbados. So I just had a little Dictaphone recorder and said, I've got you as a captive audience. Tell me, when did you come over? What age were you? And they told me the whole story, and some of those extracts are in the book.

And again, these objects, these things we inherit, you know, now my mum has passed away, and my dad passed away a few years ago. We've got a whole house just full of stuff, full of ornaments, full of photographs, full of doilies and souvenirs and clothes and suitcases, all these things. But we, I won't get the opportunity now to say, what was that? Where did you get that from? And I know I'm not the only person in that situation. So that's why it became essential to write the book. My mum was ill during the latter half of writing the book. So I was her carer with my sister and my partner during that time. So I was back home writing it while I was looking after her. I didn't anticipate that when I first started to embark on writing the book. And there are some very poignant points in there from that time.

You know, one of the chapters is about family photographs. And growing up, my mom was the photographer, my dad, I can't remember my dad ever holding a camera. It was always my mom taking the pictures at the birthday parties or when we had, you know, family visiting from wherever. Above the fireplace, there's a massive display where she's plastered many family photographs like a montage. And you know, that is a feature in many homes. There's much pride in the family photograph and putting them on display. So yeah, it's a homage of dedication to that generation. But in terms of who the book is for, it's for the younger generations. It's for my children and the generations to come. But you know, younger generations coming up who might, grow up never meeting that first generation.

So this book is like a repository, like, OK, well, these are some of the stories from your ancestors. These are some of the stories from your forefathers who laid the foundation. And we have this relationship often among Caribbean islands where they may never travel there themselves, you know when that generation is passed on, they may not get the opportunity to go back to Jamaica or Dominica or Barbados in the same way that I did with my parents who were born there, you know? So I guess the book is like a bridge from that older generation to the younger generations hopefully, they might pick this book up in 10, 20 years and go, OK, these are some of the echoes of where I come from. This is why this is that photograph I've got in a book, in a family album that I don't know anything about.

It's a time capsule.

What impact do you hope the book will have on its readers?

I hope the book will have the impact of just opening some nuance into these narratives. And the book is full of nuance. You know, we're living in a society where information is fast. It's on Twitter, this, or that, and everything's very black and white. But there's a lot of complexity, there's a lot of contradictions in a lot of our histories. And it's about embracing those complexities.

So, for example, in the kitchen chapter, one of the objects I focus on is the Dutch pot. And I get into why and what is this Dutch pot. Why is it called the Dutch pot, and why has it become synonymous with Caribbean cooking, mainly Jamaican cooking? And I look at the history of the Dutch pot, where it came from, and it did come from the Netherlands, hence the name. But a Brit named Abraham Darby took the pattern from the Dutch and developed his own foundry. One of the areas where he set up a foundry was in Bristol, a prominent slave trading port. So, the Dutch pot went to Africa and the Caribbean through transatlantic slavery. But then what happened, particularly in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, was that the Africans took that object but made it their own. They started to make them themselves. They began to use it. They started to develop techniques for making the Dutch pot. And now it's owned by, you know, by that culture in a sense. Rice is another in the kitchen chapter and why it is so prevalent.

And again, you know, Africans took rice grains from Africa, brought them to the West Indies, and then developed an expertise in rice cultivation. It wasn't the slavers and the planters themselves. It was the Africans themselves. And then they're the ones who became innovative in those practices. So what happened was, and Paul Gilroy calls this the Black Atlantic, where, you know, there's no doubt slavery was abhorrent and horrific. There's no question about that. But when you're faced with survival, when you're faced with your existence, what the Africans did was take that adverse existence and have to find ways to adapt, had to find ways to survive, had to find ways to make new things for their survival and for their families to survive.

So, new things arose from that, and I think some of those complexities are sometimes hard to grasp and accept. That during a terrible, wicked, evil industry: the European enslavement and trafficking of African people. Africans used it as an opportunity to be creative, find new ways of surviving under those conditions, and create new things that we still use today. So, we can only give thanks to our ancestors for their strength, for their resilience, and their ingenuity. And that DNA is still with us today. And if it weren't for their creativity, we wouldn't still exist. And there'd be no such thing as the African Caribbean if you like. So, out of adversity, new things were created. This book sheds light on some of those creative ways people had to survive, which is then expressed in these different forms of material culture that I explore in the book.

What would you like to see in the future of black storytelling?

Storytelling is hugely important. You know, it's the basis of who we are, what makes us tick, how we relate to others and ourselves in small and profound ways. So I think storytelling is hugely important, and in terms of what we could call black storytelling and storytelling that talks about the black experience, I am very much interested in the everyday life. Not all of our experience has to be defined by racism. Racism is a huge reality for us. And I'm not discounting that, but it doesn't have to be what defines us as individuals? You know, we love, we laugh, we eat, we sing, we dance. You see, we do so many things. And racism does not have to define our existence or how we see ourselves. We can allow ourselves to be. And I think it's important.

So, every time I see a black face on television or a black character in a book, there is a problem for me when they're only there to explore an issue or, a racist narrative or whatever, you know, rather than just allowing them to be human. I live in Bristol, and I've been heavily involved in research around transatlantic slavery over the past 30-odd years. But at the same time, I'm not an academic that necessarily wants to be writing about racism. I would instead write about black love. I would write about, you know, brothers and sisters, relationships. So, you know, we didn't invent racism.

And actually, the solution to racism is a multifaceted dynamic. It's not just going to come from one individual. And yeah, when Audre Lord talks about racism as a distraction, and you know, racists, they're going to tell you you don't have any language. So you spend the next 20 years proving you have a language, and then they say you have no culture. Then, you spend the next 20 years trying to prove you have a culture. And then she says, there's always going to be one more thing, and it's a distraction from just living and loving and existing. And so, you know, it's not about ignoring these things and racism, and these narratives will always come and be part and parcel of our storytelling culture. However, that for me, is not the central core or even the central reason to tell our stories. So for me, storytelling at its core, is just talking about how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to each other, how we relate to nature, you know, and anything that involves a black body doing stuff is a black person in the world and taking up space.

And I think it's very dangerous if we start to define ourselves through the lens of racism because that's doing the job of racism for it because that's how we see ourselves, as a limited individual rather than an individual that's capable of doing anything at all without limitation. So, for me, storytelling is the manifestation of what's possible without putting the roadblocks in our minds. The racist is going to do that for us. So we can't do the job for them.

So, storytelling should be limitless. Black storytellers shouldn't be expected to have to talk about certain things as if that's the as if that's the limitation of our knowledge. We can talk about anything we want to cause why shouldn't we, right? I'd like to see that in the future