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My Journey Through Racism by Kwame Djemjem

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

I am of African, Caribbean and European heritage. My ancestors were enslaved Africans and they were also European Slavers. I was born in Britain. My earliest recollection of racism was at the age of 6 or 7. I was living in a room in a shared house with my mother. One of my joys of the week was watching cowboy films on a Saturday afternoon. There was a recurring pattern of Indians being portrayed as savages. That did not sit well with me. I felt sorry for them. I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but it was similar to language used to describe black people at times.

Roots, a saga about enslaved Africans, was broadcast on TV when I was 9. I and many black people were captivated by all of the six episodes. It was the first time I learned about the enslavement of my ancestors. I was filled with anger. I was never taught about my heritage in schools or at home. My parents' generation had a sense of shame about their heritage. Most of them are Christian and they adopted the narrative that our ancestors had wicked savage religious practices in Africa and were thankful they became Christians despite the prolonged brutally of slavery. Christianity teaches people to forgive and forget, and that's what they did to a certain extent.

Humour became one of my coping strategies for the racism I felt when I was growing up. In my teens, my brother and I would get excited when we saw a black man on TV. We would play a guessing game about when the black man would get killed off. Racism in the media was in pandemic proportions. Football commentators had many derogatory comments about black players in the 70's and 80's. These remarks and the media helped me to develop many distorted negative images of Africa. I wanted to distance myself from Africa. I often 'joked' with my best friend, who was African, that he came from the jungle (thank you, Tarzan).

I was stopped by the police for the first time when I was 16. On Oxford Street in central London, I had to take off my shoes and socks to be searched. It was because I looked suspicious. Today, I am not able to count how many times I have been stopped and searched; I would say at least 30 times. I had some fun times though. A police officer also made false charges against me. I had to go to court. I embarrassed him in court and he was unable to prove his case, so the charges were dropped. I understood the game the police played, but I played the game better.

I was around 24 years old when a mentor gave me a book 'They stole it, you must return it'. It spoke of the traditions which had been lost during Enslavement. This book sparked my curiosity to learn more about slavery and what had happened to my ancestors. I wanted to understand and identify the negative traits of enslavement that I had adopted and the rich culture of my African ancestors. I read every slave narrative I could find. There were not a lot of books about traditional African spirituality, so I read books about Native American spirituality because I felt it resonated. As a result of reading so many horrible stories and connecting with black organisations who were angry with the ‘white man’. I too began to hate white people. I spun the story of black people being devils, to considering all white people were devils.

My saving grace was choosing to leave my environment and go to work in York, a predominately white area, for over a year. I found hating white people was too much hard work, even when they hated on me. I spoke to people, I made friends, I felt their beauty, people embraced me, and I embraced them. I began to appreciate that we are all products of our conditioning and circumstances. I understood African people had to be dehumanised by Europeans, it protects the European conscience from imploding while they committed vile atrocities during enslavement. Racist values were adopted and people were conditioned to hate Africans. Those racist values have evolved over centuries in the absence of apologies or remorse. This is why Britain can elect an unapologetic racist joke-making prime minister, Boris Johnson.

At the age of 34, I embarked on a journey to trace my ancestral heritage. I made several visits to Africa to trace my maternal lineage. I completed my journey 14 years later. I traced my maternal line back to a village in Burkina Faso. I was embraced by the elders of the village there. I felt at peace within myself, as if a gap had been filled. I changed my surname that day. I would no longer be associated with the name of my ancestral enslaver. They told enslaved Africans they would never go back to Africa. Tracing my heritage and returning back to Africa, I felt like I was healing my family and all my ancestors along my maternal line who were taken overseas.

However, shortly after completing my journey back to my ancestral home, I realised my ancestral clan does not define who I am. Nor does my skin colour, nationality, race or gender. I feel the closest thing that defines my eternal essence is love. That is how I see everyone.

If I disrespect my parents or ancestors, I disrespect myself. I do not know my European ancestors, so I imagined something good about them and I focus on their positive traits. When I am confronted with racism, I am able to appreciate people have been conditioned to hate. The last couple of times people have called me the n-word. I laughed. It is not hurtful because I do not take it personally. Racism is a traumatic state of being. People lose their ability to be compassionate and loving to others, which is detrimental to their well-being.

Britain and other European nations have chosen to evolve without remorse for their heinous atrocities around the world. Racism does not shock or surprise me anymore. I felt my anger towards racists fuelled their hatred of me. I now chose to love, regardless. I will always call out racism but I will simply remind them they are that way because they are unremorseful.

Kwame Djemjem ထ❤

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