A nervous giant of a man in the heritage centre looks down at us, cramped shuffling practically psychic bored exhausted caustic sixth formers, and begins to tell us about Cardiff.
Cardiff my hometown, pro patria mori, part immigrants with the gratitude of history in their downward gazes and part white affluent coffee-shop media jobs with loud voices, ffroenuchel, snobbish, friendly enough but with looks that cut you sideways.
Hundreds of years.
The man says that immigrants have been coming to this city for hundreds of years.
Look closer, he says, people in the 1920s were marrying Muslims and Greeks and Blacks and Hindus and Asians and Christian kids followed the Greek Easter processions up the streets of Butetown. The people who look out at you with faded eyes and cold sighs from sepia photographs had children who would grow up speaking Arabic because they wanted to play with the new family down the street.
My dad once told me that my family first came to this city two hundred years ago, that their bones lie in the biggest cemetery in the city across the heath from the hospital where my mother (lily-white Merthyr girl) began work years later without even knowing.
and the man asks if anyone knows where the Cape Verde islands are? And
I don’t let it all flow past me like normal.
My family’s faces hover behind my own and I feel the blood of a thousand people I never met thrumming inside me and my hand shoots up of its own accord and I say,
“off the coast of Senegal.”
He looks at me, into me, and smiles, a smile of otherness and belonging.
I am beaming, at myself, at him, at the thought of my father and his parents being proud of me. And I think like I haven’t thought in a while about them smiling at me from Heaven, these grandparents who couldn’t watch me grow up but who would have gone to war for me.
I feel the gazes of fifty other teens upon me.
suddenly I am marked, I am different. I am not the quiet erudite girl they grew up with, I am a sailor-descendant-non-white, I am someone they must save. I am poor little mulatto. I am browner than the dogshit that lines the historic streets of Pontcanna.
In Welsh rugby games there is a constant dull roar of gwladgarwch, patriotism, that soars with the national anthem or swoops like nonsensical chants as thousands upon thousands of drunkards cry unashamedly at their love for so small and perfect a country. It raises the hairs on my arms every time.
But, these accusatory gazes tell me, you are not Welsh, insolent youth. The way your soul cries out for your language does not matter. You are Other. You are foreign.
It begins to make sense. I think of me at twelve being told, no, you can’t be the purple duck, you have to be the brown one. I think of being expected to be mouthy at a moment’s notice. I think of napping behind my hair in class because I didn’t think there was any point being present in a school where all anyone did was laugh at my mane and ask to touch it when I didn’t want them to. I think of always feeling alone, of always feeling ugly next to glistening white skinned tiny waists and never finding jeans that fit;
of that boy kissing me on the cheek in the dark, his breath clouding around my face and me walking home grinning like a little girl,
of that boy telling me later that he didn’t expect “a black girl” to be “so into literature”.
So sitting there in that crowded room I am paralysed,
not feeling white,
not feeling black,
not feeling anything but disgust and wondering why.
How can you feel a colour?? But apparently you can, because these girls who I thought liked me are looking at me weirdly and now I, too, must look at myself in a way I never thought possible.
But then I feel my grandparents’ hands at my back. And the man shoots me another smile and tells me that not many people usually know where I come from. I am alone, I am different, I am unique.
Maybe sometime soon this feeling that is making me hate my friends will pass,
but for now I do not know how to feel
except that there are ghosts in my blood.