In Mindcast

Heather Chambers – Growing Up Black

Heather Chambers is an Assistant Psychologist working in the Camden MOSAIC CAMHS’s team for children with disabilities. Heather shares her powerful poem and an accompanying commentary to frame the poem that asks important questions about how all of us can actively do, say, and think things differently when racism is active – our own, or someone else’s. View the transcript to see the images that accompany Heather’s poem.

View transcript

Hi, my name is Heather Chambers and I am a black Assistant Psychologist working in the MOSAIC CAMHS’s team for children with disabilities. I’m sure by now you’ve all either seen or heard about the very public way in which George Floyd was killed. Like many other black people I’ve spoken to, his death and the way in which he was killed, touched something deep within us. It was something strong and unique, and it was something that united us all in our blackness. It was a united understanding, a united understanding that not only could George Floyd have been any of us, but also that his experience is us. When I watched his killing on national TV, I felt a pain like I had never felt before. I grieved for someone I had never met. I grieved for the world and the human race.

This pain and this grievance led me to think about my own experience of racism, and what that looked like growing up as a black female in the UK. I collected these thoughts into a poem, and I’m going to share those with you today.

Portraits, affixed to the wall of a gallery, tell the story of lands and great leaders of time gone by. Every great period of time has a story to tell. Every great period has something to solidify the greatness as a memory, to permeate that particular moment in time, so that when the future arrived, we would all remember, said greatness.

But do you remember my greatness? Do I even remember my own greatness? Are portraits of my ancestors affixed to the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, The British Museum? Are the true stories of British colonialism plastered inside the pages of English history books?

So much of my history is lost. I don’t even know, and don’t think I’ll ever even know my true surname.

Surviving slavery was greatness, surviving racism for 400 years is greatness. Surviving being black is greatness. Being black is laced with the magnitude of greatness. And yet, somehow, I do not see this greatness anywhere. I do not hear it. People do not speak of it. The greatness that is so strong and solidified in my heart has been tarnished with a view of weakness.

You see, I exist in a world in which black history is more than just a month. It lasts for a lifetime. I exist in a world in which people act surprised when I start talking. And proceed to tell me how well-spoken I am. I exist in a world in which I’ve witnessed my brother be stopped and searched by police countless of times, just because. I live in a world in which my teenage self was branded as a bully, because I was strong and vocal enough to stand up to the real bullies.

I live in a world in which I am told all lives matter, and that racism no longer exists. However, if all lives matter, tell me this, why are black people still being killed?

I live in a world which saw the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed in December 1865, abolishing slavery for good. I live in a world in which 155 years after the supposed abolishment black people are still being spoken to, and treated like slaves. I live in a world in which George Floyd was allowed to be murdered in cold blood. I live in a world in which this injustice is apparently justice. I live in a world of constant trauma, fear and labelling. I live in a world that is not free. I live in a world that is not for me.

I know that many of you are shocked to see what is going on in America. But I’m not. I’m disgusted. I’m horrified. I’m angered. But I am not shocked. I have grown up around racism. I’ve experienced it first times, countless times, both as a young girl and as an adult. I have lived with it.

I know it exists, and I know it is wrong, and it needs to stop. Society must wake up, open their eyes and start smelling the racial coffee. Stand up for your brothers and sisters, speak out against racism. Be the voice that we need people to be.

So Black Lives Matters does it? In what way does it matter? Ask yourself, how will you show that it matters? How will you educate yourself on black history and what it means to be black? How will you stand up? How will you fight?

The time has come. Let’s fight with our mouths, fight with our words, and fight with our art. Let’s use our voice to make a difference. Let’s make a change. Growing up black was never easy. But I one day hope for a day when it will be easy for the future black generations to come. Because Black Lives Matter.

Thank you for listening to that poem. I just want to note that, although those are my reflections, those experiences are true of many black people across the globe.

And to close I just wanted to draw attention to two words, response and retaliation. In the past when I’ve tried to confront colleagues or friends about racism, they have often retaliated defensively. And their response has often been one of invalidation. The way in which we respond and retaliate to racism is crucial in bringing about change. Responding with empathy, openness, and a willingness to listen to people who have experienced racism first hand is crucial. Similarly, actively looking for racism, challenging racist behaviour, and not staying silent and complacent, are positive forms of retaliation, which are also crucial to change.

I’m tired, and black people are tired. We’re tired of talking and fighting this fight. Talking about being black or being a part of the BAME community, fixing racism, this is not the sole responsibility of those people. It never was. It’s the responsibility of everyone, including white people. To leave you with this, I want you to ask yourself, the next time you witness racism or hear someone say that you’ve been racist towards them. What will your response and retaliation be?

Thank you for listening.

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