What do you say when asked where you’re ‘from, from’? Acting in Black Earth Rising made me reconsider my ideas of identity and belonging
‘On second thoughts, I’m privileged enough to have seen a selfish silver lining in the ‘go home’ vans.’ Photograph: Home Office/PA
In June I lost my ability to smell. I have something called anosmia – it means I can just about recognise the taste of salt, sugar, and spice. But not much more. I’ve read a lot of articles about it, and am yet to find one about how great being “anosmic” is. Why is no one talking about how amazing it is to find yourself unable to smell your own shit? In the first few weeks I’d bring the tissue I’d just wiped my arse with right up to my nose, and it would blow my mind: no scent!
This feeling of straddling two homes is one that first generation immigrants strongly identify with; of being both, and yet none
I can’t smell anybody else’s shit either. I’ve lost the ability to judge your shit, if you forget to flush all I can do is observe it like an art piece. They say when you lose a sense, others are heightened; whether that’s true or just for superheroes – being left unable to decide what a thing “smells like” has forced a much more intimate relationship with what I see, and hear. This has bled into every aspect of my life: relationships, food, and yes, politics. In this bizarre, opaque, untrustworthy political climate I voted remain, and I didn’t vote for Theresa May – I didn’t get what I wanted – so I’m exploring more carefully what we have. Now I watch our politicians, study them; each an art piece unto themselves, what set of words have they chosen? When did they pause, stutter, where they speed up or slow down, what’s going on with their eyeballs? Are they breathing steadily?
I was in Black Earth Rising, written by Hugo Blick, this year. The character I played, Kate Ashby, is forced to reconsider ideas of identity and belonging through the course of the series. It led me to do the same in my personal life. Timely, given all the “go home” rhetoric that’s been around. I had to hold that up to my nose and sniff. I know it’s shit – but is there anything good that can come from it?
As long as I can remember, responding “London” to the question, “where are you from?” has never been enough. People want to know where I’m “from, from”. It goes like this: “From?” “London.”
“From, from.” “Ghana.”
Or, alternatively: “From?” “London.”
“From, from?” “Whitechapel hospital?”
“No, from, from, from?” “Oh, Ghana.”
It’s a question both Blick and myself (in my sitcom Chewing Gum) poke at. A chuckle-worthy query, rather than offensive. I feel very welcome in my home, London. Sure, there’s been trauma, but bless all of us on the council block: we were often terrorised as kids by our grandparents’ view of the world, whether white British, or immigrants. The things said and done in childhood ignorance aren’t reflective of who we are as thinking adults; so many are friends now. But I also have many friends and feel incredibly welcome in that other home; Ghana.
‘I started off a cleaner in Lloyds Bank, Northern Rock and Lakeside Foodcourt before making television.’ Michaela Coel in Black Earth Rising. Photograph: BBC/Drama Republic/Des Willie
A mere 3% of UK dwellers are black. The Christmas break sees many of us venturing “home” for two weeks; perhaps partly to rest in the comfort of being one of many dripping in melanin, sweating under the blazing sun. I love Ghana, my dad lives there, so I’m asking myself, why not just “go home”?
I get a lot of taxis, and I’ve shared this thought with the amazing drivers I’ve met. I’m reassured, advised against confusion that “go home” isn’t directed at people like me. I understand, but when England has been prophesying another place I must be “from, from” for 30 years, the prophecy starts to fulfil itself. For me, that’s no bad thing, but just like my response to anosmia, this is not a representative experience. It’s just mine. Others find themselves in Britain to escape daily threats to their survival. I read that traits of a “great” character include responsibility, humility and empathy. If we’re to call ourselves “great” as a country I’m wondering if we should make sure these are traits we abide by and express to the world.
I started off as a cleaner in Lloyds Bank, Northern Rock and Lakeside Foodcourt before making television. As a child of migrants, Britain has been “great” to me, the opportunities I’ve sought and received here have allowed me to consider going home more easily than many others. And so I began, as of a few weeks ago, planning to build a sustainable zero-carbon footprint home in Ghana. Something that won’t abuse the soil; otherwise I’d just be another thoughtless westerner imposing myself in Africa with no ethics or morals in mind. London will always be my home; and now I’ll become more acquainted with my other home.
It won’t stop the questions – I’m asked where I’m from in Ghana too. This feeling of straddling two homes is one that first-generation immigrants strongly identify with; of being both, and yet none. It isn’t necessarily a bad feeling, it’s simply a feeling. I love this country, I’ll always be a Londoner. But aren’t I lucky enough to have two lovely, prospering, beautiful homes, full of great people? I’m grateful for my life here, for all I learn here, so why not start taking to Ghana, to share, work and learn there?
I was in its capital only last month, when Prince Charles visited for his birthday. I watched my prince and my president, Nana Akufo-Addo, dancing to Ghanaian music. Both homes dancing together. Witnessing such visual unity made being “Brit-ish” not such a big identity crisis after all; on second thoughts, I’m privileged enough to have seen a selfish silver lining in the “go home” vans, in the constant question of my origins. I think about my other home, and my dad: I miss him, and now I’m going to do a whole lot about it.