Relearning the colour of me: a poem for National Poetry Day

It was National Poetry Day the other day and seeing all the other blogs exploding into rhyme reminded me that I had a few old poems stashed away. Now I would never, never call myself a poet - it's not what I do. But there have been some big epiphany moments in my life when words just rose out from a place I didn't know existed in my brain. Or maybe it was my heart. Please read my poem below and if you still have the energy, you can read the story behind it in the afterword.

Seeing Black

I was on my way to London
My train had gone a mile
When I saw my first black person
Coming toward me down the aisle.

I’d only been in England
For two hours or three
I hope that he has forgiven
my scream’s velocity.

I thought he’d come to grab
my bag so I got up to flee
But then I saw his British Rail badge
My ticket he wished to see.

As I got off at Victoria
All set for my brand new life
I saw an Englishman wink
and whisper to his wife.

“Hang on to your handbag, darling
There are pickpockets about
Watch out for that black woman
With her jacket inside out.”

I looked around for the suspect
To my purse I hung on tight
But she’d already left the scene
There was nobody in sight.

And then I caught a glimpse of her
As I passed a lingerie store
The woman that had roused such fear
Was reflected on the door.

Her jacket indeed was inside out
Her swag bag was on her shoulder
Her brown-skinned face was dusty and tired
It was me we were looking out for.

Now I am a Londoner
I’m used to the melting pot
And Black is only a colour
That shouldn’t mean a lot.

But it’s a label that has stuck itself
to the billboard of my face
I normally am a mottled tan
Now Black is the colour of my race.

Black is a demographic
The biggest club in town
If only it didn’t refer to
Several million shades of brown.

What I thought Londoners would look like
When I first arrived in England, I thought London would be populated entirely by fair skinned people speaking in complete sentences. I know it sounds extremely naive now, but there you go. My expectations were based on the po-faced representations of Englishmen (in crowns) that I saw in the cinema in the Philippines where I grew up.

In fact people in England did speak in complete sentences ... but I was taken aback by the diversity of people on the streets of London. I had never seen such a rainbow.

I was also surprised to discover that 'Asian' referred only to people from the Indian subcontinent - I'd always considered myself Asian. And (remember this was in 1989) I was surprised to learn that despite the rainbow, all the official forms seemed to classify people either as Black, Asian or White.

In fact, I stumbled on a study referring to the large Filipino population in one borough as the 'Invisible Minority'. This was because so few Filipinos used the BME services available to them. BME, you may already know, means Black and Minority Ethnic.

In fact the Filipinos were not invisible. They just didn't think BME referred to them - they saw the 'Black' bit and never applied for the services.

It took a while before the official forms expanded its definitions. Now there are a lot more choices and you can always tick 'Other' if you're from Mars.

I'm not sure though if it's yet widely acknowledged that Black is not a race* in the same way that Africa is not a country.

*It's a social concept, in case you're wondering. Your idea of black might be my idea of caramel with a hint of olive.