English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDxBrighton

Colin Grant: How our stories cross over

Filmed
Views 882,273

Colin Grant has spent a lifetime navigating the emotional landscape between his father’s world and his own. Born in England to Jamaican parents, Grant draws on stories of shared experience within his immigrant community -- and reflects on how he found forgiveness for a father who rejected him.

- Author, historian
Colin Grant is an author and historian whose works focus on larger-than-life figures of the African diaspora. Full bio

This is a photograph
00:12
of a man whom for many years
00:14
I plotted to kill.
00:17
This is my father,
00:21
Clinton George "Bageye" Grant.
00:24
He's called Bageye because he has
00:27
permanent bags under his eyes.
00:30
As a 10-year-old, along with my siblings,
00:34
I dreamt of scraping off the poison
00:37
from fly-killer paper into his coffee,
00:41
grounded down glass and sprinkling it
00:45
over his breakfast,
00:47
loosening the carpet on the stairs
00:50
so he would trip and break his neck.
00:51
But come the day, he would always
00:55
skip that loose step,
00:57
he would always bow out of the house
00:59
without so much as a swig of coffee
01:01
or a bite to eat.
01:03
And so for many years,
01:05
I feared that my father would die
01:07
before I had a chance to kill him.
01:09
(Laughter)
01:11
Up until our mother asked him to leave
01:15
and not come back,
01:18
Bageye had been a terrifying ogre.
01:20
He teetered permanently on the verge of rage,
01:24
rather like me, as you see.
01:28
He worked nights at Vauxhall Motors in Luton
01:31
and demanded total silence throughout the house,
01:35
so that when we came home from school
01:38
at 3:30 in the afternoon, we would huddle
01:40
beside the TV, and rather like safe-crackers,
01:42
we would twiddle with the volume control knob
01:46
on the TV so it was almost inaudible.
01:48
And at times, when we were like this,
01:51
so much "Shhh," so much "Shhh"
01:53
going on in the house
01:56
that I imagined us to be like
01:58
the German crew of a U-boat
02:00
creeping along the edge of the ocean
02:03
whilst up above, on the surface,
02:06
HMS Bageye patrolled
02:07
ready to drop death charges
02:11
at the first sound of any disturbance.
02:13
So that lesson was the lesson that
02:17
"Do not draw attention to yourself
02:20
either in the home or outside of the home."
02:22
Maybe it's a migrant lesson.
02:24
We were to be below the radar,
02:27
so there was no communication, really,
02:30
between Bageye and us and us and Bageye,
02:31
and the sound that we most looked forward to,
02:34
you know when you're a child and you want
02:37
your father to come home
and it's all going to be happy
02:39
and you're waiting for that sound of the door opening.
02:42
Well the sound that we looked forward to
02:44
was the click of the door closing,
02:45
which meant he'd gone and would not come back.
02:47
So for three decades,
02:52
I never laid eyes on my father, nor he on me.
02:55
We never spoke to each other for three decades,
02:58
and then a couple of years ago, I decided
03:00
to turn the spotlight on him.
03:02
"You are being watched.
03:06
Actually, you are.
03:08
You are being watched."
03:10
That was his mantra to us, his children.
03:12
Time and time again he would say this to us.
03:15
And this was the 1970s, it was Luton,
03:16
where he worked at Vauxhall Motors,
03:19
and he was a Jamaican.
03:21
And what he meant was,
03:23
you as a child of a Jamaican immigrant
03:24
are being watched
03:26
to see which way you turn, to see whether
03:28
you conform to the host nation's stereotype of you,
03:30
of being feckless, work-shy,
03:34
destined for a life of crime.
03:36
You are being watched,
03:39
so confound their expectations of you.
03:41
To that end, Bageye and his friends,
03:45
mostly Jamaican,
03:49
exhibited a kind of Jamaican bella figura:
03:51
Turn your best side to the world,
03:55
show your best face to the world.
03:57
If you have seen some of the images
04:00
of the Caribbean people arriving
04:01
in the '40s and '50s,
04:03
you might have noticed that a lot of the men
04:05
wear trilbies.
04:07
Now, there was no tradition
of wearing trilbies in Jamaica.
04:08
They invented that tradition for their arrival here.
04:12
They wanted to project themselves in a way
04:15
that they wanted to be perceived,
04:17
so that the way they looked
04:19
and the names that they gave themselves
04:21
defined them.
04:23
So Bageye is bald and has baggy eyes.
04:25
Tidy Boots is very fussy about his footwear.
04:31
Anxious is always anxious.
04:35
Clock has one arm longer than the other.
04:37
(Laughter)
04:40
And my all-time favorite was the
guy they called Summerwear.
04:44
When Summerwear came to this country
04:47
from Jamaica in the early '60s, he insisted
04:49
on wearing light summer suits,
04:51
no matter the weather,
04:53
and in the course of researching their lives,
04:55
I asked my mom, "Whatever
became of Summerwear?"
04:56
And she said, "He caught a cold and died." (Laughter)
04:59
But men like Summerwear
05:04
taught us the importance of style.
05:06
Maybe they exaggerated their style
05:08
because they thought that they were not considered
05:10
to be quite civilized,
05:13
and they transferred that generational attitude
05:15
or anxiety onto us, the next generation,
05:18
so much so that when I was growing up,
05:20
if ever on the television news or radio
05:23
a report came up about a black person
05:25
committing some crime —
05:26
a mugging, a murder, a burglary —
05:28
we winced along with our parents,
05:32
because they were letting the side down.
05:35
You did not just represent yourself.
05:38
You represented the group,
05:39
and it was a terrifying thing to come to terms with,
05:41
in a way, that maybe you were going
05:46
to be perceived in the same light.
05:48
So that was what needed to be challenged.
05:52
Our father and many of his colleagues
05:56
exhibited a kind of transmission but not receiving.
06:00
They were built to transmit but not receive.
06:04
We were to keep quiet.
06:06
When our father did speak to us,
06:09
it was from the pulpit of his mind.
06:10
They clung to certainty in the belief
06:13
that doubt would undermine them.
06:15
But when I am working in my house
06:19
and writing, after a day's writing, I rush downstairs
06:22
and I'm very excited to talk about
Marcus Garvey or Bob Marley
06:26
and words are tripping out of my mouth like butterflies
06:29
and I'm so excited that my children stop me,
06:32
and they say, "Dad, nobody cares."
06:35
(Laughter)
06:38
But they do care, actually.
06:42
They cross over.
06:44
Somehow they find their way to you.
06:46
They shape their lives according
to the narrative of your life,
06:48
as I did with my father and my mother, perhaps,
06:52
and maybe Bageye did with his father.
06:56
And that was clearer to me
06:59
in the course of looking at his life
07:00
and understanding, as they say,
07:03
the Native Americans say,
07:06
"Do not criticize the man until you can walk
07:08
in his moccasins."
07:09
But in conjuring his life, it was okay
07:12
and very straightforward to portray
07:14
a Caribbean life in England in the 1970s
07:18
with bowls of plastic fruit,
07:21
polystyrene ceiling tiles,
07:26
settees permanently sheathed
07:29
in their transparent covers
that they were delivered in.
07:31
But what's more difficult to navigate
07:34
is the emotional landscape
07:36
between the generations,
07:38
and the old adage that with age comes wisdom
07:40
is not true.
07:45
With age comes the veneer of respectability
07:47
and a veneer of uncomfortable truths.
07:50
But what was true was that my parents,
07:53
my mother, and my father went along with it,
07:56
did not trust the state to educate me.
07:59
So listen to how I sound.
08:01
They determined that they would
send me to a private school,
08:04
but my father worked at Vauxhall Motors.
08:08
It's quite difficult to fund a private school education
08:10
and feed his army of children.
08:14
I remember going on to the school
08:16
for the entrance exam, and my father said
08:18
to the priest — it was a Catholic school —
08:20
he wanted a better "heducation" for the boy,
08:24
but also, he, my father,
08:28
never even managed to pass worms,
08:31
never mind entrance exams.
08:34
But in order to fund my education,
08:36
he was going to have to do some dodgy stuff,
08:38
so my father would fund my education
08:41
by trading in illicit goods from the back of his car,
08:44
and that was made even more tricky because
08:48
my father, that's not his car by the way.
08:49
My father aspired to have a car like that,
08:51
but my father had a beaten-up Mini,
08:53
and he never, being a
Jamaican coming to this country,
08:55
he never had a driving license,
09:00
he never had any insurance or road tax or MOT.
09:02
He thought, "I know how to drive;
09:06
why do I need the state's validation?"
09:08
But it became a little tricky when
we were stopped by the police,
09:11
and we were stopped a lot by the police,
09:13
and I was impressed by the way
09:15
that my father dealt with the police.
09:16
He would promote the policeman immediately,
09:18
so that P.C. Bloggs became Detective Inspector Bloggs
09:21
in the course of the conversation
09:25
and wave us on merrily.
09:26
So my father was exhibiting what we in Jamaica
09:28
called "playing fool to catch wise."
09:30
But it lent also an idea
09:34
that actually he was being diminished
09:38
or belittled by the policeman —
09:40
as a 10-year-old boy, I saw that —
09:42
but also there was an ambivalence towards authority.
09:44
So on the one hand, there was
09:46
a mocking of authority,
09:48
but on the other hand, there was a deference
09:50
towards authority,
09:52
and these Caribbean people
09:54
had an overbearing obedience towards authority,
09:56
which is very striking, very strange in a way,
10:00
because migrants are very courageous people.
10:02
They leave their homes. My father and my mother
10:05
left Jamaica and they traveled 4,000 miles,
10:08
and yet they were infantilized by travel.
10:12
They were timid,
10:16
and somewhere along the line,
10:17
the natural order was reversed.
10:19
The children became the parents to the parent.
10:21
The Caribbean people came to
this country with a five-year plan:
10:26
they would work, some money, and then go back,
10:29
but the five years became 10, the 10 became 15,
10:31
and before you know it,
you're changing the wallpaper,
10:33
and at that point, you know you're here to stay.
10:36
Although there's still the kind of temporariness
10:39
that our parents felt about being here,
10:42
but we children knew that the game was up.
10:44
I think there was a feeling that
10:49
they would not be able to continue with the ideals
10:51
of the life that they expected.
10:57
The reality was very much different.
10:59
And also, that was true of the reality
11:01
of trying to educate me.
11:03
Having started the process,
my father did not continue.
11:04
It was left to my mother to educate me,
11:08
and as George Lamming would say,
11:11
it was my mother who fathered me.
11:14
Even in his absence, that old mantra remained:
11:17
You are being watched.
11:20
But such ardent watchfulness can lead to anxiety,
11:21
so much so that years later, when I was investigating
11:25
why so many young black men
11:27
were diagnosed with schizophrenia,
11:28
six times more than they ought to be,
11:30
I was not surprised to hear the psychiatrist say,
11:33
"Black people are schooled in paranoia."
11:36
And I wonder what Bageye would make of that.
11:41
Now I also had a 10-year-old son,
11:44
and turned my attention to Bageye
11:47
and I went in search of him.
11:50
He was back in Luton, he was now 82,
11:51
and I hadn't seen him for 30-odd years,
11:55
and when he opened the door,
11:58
I saw this tiny little man with lambent, smiling eyes,
12:00
and he was smiling, and I'd never seen him smile.
12:04
I was very disconcerted by that.
12:06
But we sat down, and he had
a Caribbean friend with him,
12:09
talking some old time talk,
12:12
and my father would look at me,
12:15
and he looked at me as if I would
12:17
miraculously disappear as I had arisen.
12:19
And he turned to his friend, and he said,
12:23
"This boy and me have a deep, deep connection,
12:25
deep, deep connection."
12:28
But I never felt that connection.
12:31
If there was a pulse, it was very weak
12:32
or hardly at all.
12:35
And I almost felt in the course of that reunion
12:38
that I was auditioning to be my father's son.
12:40
When the book came out,
12:44
it had fair reviews in the national papers,
12:46
but the paper of choice in Luton is not The Guardian,
12:48
it's the Luton News,
12:51
and the Luton News ran the headline about the book,
12:54
"The Book That May Heal a 32-Year-Old Rift."
12:57
And I understood that could also represent
13:03
the rift between one generation and the next,
13:06
between people like me and my father's generation,
13:08
but there's no tradition in Caribbean life
13:12
of memoirs or biographies.
13:14
It was a tradition that you didn't
chat about your business in public.
13:16
But I welcomed that title, and I thought actually, yes,
13:20
there is a possibility that this
13:25
will open up conversations
that we'd never had before.
13:27
This will close the generation gap, perhaps.
13:31
This could be an instrument of repair.
13:35
And I even began to feel that this book
13:38
may be perceived by my father
13:40
as an act of filial devotion.
13:43
Poor, deluded fool.
13:47
Bageye was stung by what he perceived to be
13:51
the public airing of his shortcomings.
13:55
He was stung by my betrayal,
13:58
and he went to the newspapers the next day
14:01
and demanded a right of reply,
14:03
and he got it with the headline
14:04
"Bageye Bites Back."
14:06
And it was a coruscating account of my betrayal.
14:09
I was no son of his.
14:12
He recognized in his mind that his colors
14:15
had been dragged through the
mud, and he couldn't allow that.
14:17
He had to restore his dignity, and he did so,
14:20
and initially, although I was disappointed,
14:22
I grew to admire that stance.
14:25
There was still fire bubbling through his veins,
14:26
even though he was 82 years old.
14:30
And if it meant that we would now return
14:33
to 30 years of silence,
14:36
my father would say, "If it's so, then it's so."
14:39
Jamaicans will tell you that
there's no such thing as facts,
14:45
there are only versions.
14:48
We all tell ourselves the versions of the story
14:50
that we can best live with.
14:53
Each generation builds up an edifice
14:56
which they are reluctant or sometimes unable
14:58
to disassemble,
15:00
but in the writing, my version of the story
15:03
began to change,
15:06
and it was detached from me.
15:08
I lost my hatred of my father.
15:12
I did no longer want him to die or to murder him,
15:15
and I felt free,
15:20
much freer than I'd ever felt before.
15:24
And I wonder whether that freedness
15:29
could be transferred to him.
15:31
In that initial reunion,
15:36
I was struck by an idea that I had
15:40
very few photographs of myself
15:42
as a young child.
15:46
This is a photograph of me,
15:48
nine months old.
15:50
In the original photograph,
15:53
I'm being held up by my father, Bageye,
15:55
but when my parents separated, my mother
15:58
excised him from all aspects of our lives.
16:00
She took a pair of scissors and cut
him out of every photograph,
16:03
and for years, I told myself
the truth of this photograph
16:07
was that you are alone,
16:10
you are unsupported.
16:13
But there's another way of looking at this photograph.
16:16
This is a photograph that has the potential
16:18
for a reunion,
16:21
a potential to be reunited with my father,
16:23
and in my yearning to be held up by my father,
16:26
I held him up to the light.
16:30
In that first reunion,
16:33
it was very awkward and tense moments,
16:36
and to lessen the tension,
16:38
we decided to go for a walk.
16:39
And as we walked, I was struck
16:43
that I had reverted to being the child
16:45
even though I was now towering above my father.
16:47
I was almost a foot taller than my father.
16:50
He was still the big man,
16:53
and I tried to match his step.
16:55
And I realized that he was walking
17:00
as if he was still under observation,
17:02
but I admired his walk.
17:04
He walked like a man
17:07
on the losing side of the F.A. Cup Final
17:10
mounting the steps to collect his condolence medal.
17:13
There was dignity in defeat.
17:16
Thank you.
17:20
(Applause)
17:22

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Colin Grant - Author, historian
Colin Grant is an author and historian whose works focus on larger-than-life figures of the African diaspora.

Why you should listen
Colin Grant is an English historian and son of black Jamaican immigrants who explores the legacy of slavery and its effect on modern generations of the African diaspora. In Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey Grant chronicles the life of the controversial Jamaican politician and his obsession with a "redeemed" Africa; in I & I: The Natural Mystics, Marley, Tosh and Wailer he explores the struggles faced by now legendary Rastafarian reggae artists the Wailers; and in his most recent book, Bageye at the Wheel, Grant confronts his own father in a memoir about his lifelong inner conflict with the immigrant experience.
Grant is also an Associate Fellow in the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and a producer for BBC Radio.
More profile about the speaker
Colin Grant | Speaker | TED.com