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And legacy: on becoming a full human being

How does one make sense of a self, or the world, when stories of one’s ancestors were of strange barbarians who early Europeans decided were ‘non human’?, asks Oluwafemi Hughes

Writing the legacy of my family history, based on my own experience, has been an illuminating and a painful journey of enquiry. For it is difficult to write about oneself when there’s an emotional turmoil, a disaster that turned upside down, a people, a history and a culture. For second-generation African/Asian/British kids, like our family, we were like branches without a trunk, with no roots, no reference point to the earth or to the four directions, no framework from which to begin a life.

How does one begin to tell one’s story? One needs to have a narrative that belongs to her cultural traditions, a people with a history and a voice. One needs a person who is the author of her own story, a map of a place she belongs to, someone who has a self that is free from another’s definition of what and who she is.

How does one make sense of a self, or the world, when stories of one’s ancestors were of strange barbarians with eyes in their stomachs, who ate others, who were, early Europeans decided, ‘non human’? Subhumans who, apparently, had no history before that fated meeting.

“We were like branches without a trunk”

To begin to write, I needed to be free. Free from a ghost, a barely audible whisper that clouded my first 40 and more years – a whisper that became the air I breathed, that had pervaded my inner world. A ‘mental slavery’ mirroring what had been and something yet to be undone.

For the ghost of slavery had not been exorcised in me or in the world. It has taken a lifetime to convert the murmuring whisper that dominated my world over this time into a coherent mantra: ‘We turn away from our entangled histories.’ ‘We tolerate your inherent deficiencies.’ ‘Just stop storming, conform to our norming.’

Where did this jarring dissonance come from? It leaked from every crack, every orifice, every medium of news speech, it hung in the atmosphere and often turned the temperature to zero.

Only when I began to wrestle with and explore the intangible, could I manifest its form, its felt sting and sour smell. Giving the ghost of the ‘slave master’ a voice and shape has helped me to grapple with its years of torment, its untruth and then to unravel and exorcise its chains.

And now, there is a gaggle of voices that want to speak at once. They are fighting for air. Voices, bursting to break the spell of silence, but searching for how to tell the many complex truths that stand between us and the truth of our interwoven wholeness. For truth is often shaped in the eye of the teller. They have a rhythm that is specific to a person, a culture and yet one that is wholly universal.

In life, much of the difficult truths are left untold; deep truths often ineffable; residing in the underworld of longings, unspoken hopes, unlived dreams; feelings barely able to speak, but seeking a way to embrace with courage, the entanglements of history and the present. In reclamation of ourselves, of our her-stories, there is hope for renewal and transformation, and of becoming freer as a human being.

Oluwafemi Hughes was born of an Indian mother and an African father and grew up in Scotland. When her parents’ marriage in the UK fell into trouble, she was placed in an institution run by a strict religious order. At 14, she returned home. Her father worked as a coalminer in an all-white community, taking care of the family. Oluwafemi worked for 15 years as a sewing machinist becoming active in her trade union, then her union official supported her to attend Ruskin College aged 30. So began a journey of discovery of her humanity and identity – always defined as ‘problematic’ and negative through the lens of others. In 2018, she is breathing fresher air and is now writing HERstory. Oluwafemi is storytelling in West London most months this year. See here for details.

Topics: Global South