My par­ents are white but I have African ances­try

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - An­thony Ekun­dayo Len­non,

Last week I found my­self at the cen­tre of a storm, ac­cused of ap­pro­pri­at­ing my own iden­tity. This sur­real sit­u­a­tion came about af­ter I was awarded a trainee­ship on an Arts Coun­cil Eng­land­backed scheme to de­velop black and mi­nor­ity-eth­nic lead­ers in the Bri­tish the­atre. I have never made any se­cret of the fact that I was born to Ir­ish par­ents, and that my par­ents and grand­par­ents are white. But my iden­tity is dif­fer­ent. It’s there for all to see in Chill­ing Out, a doc­u­men­tary I took part in back in 1990. As I said then: “When I’m alone in my bed­room look­ing in the mir­ror, think­ing about stuff I’ve writ­ten down, think­ing about my past … I think I’m a black man.”

I am the el­dest of three broth­ers, but dur­ing early child­hood, when there were only two of us, to neigh­bours on our west Lon­don es­tate, we looked as if we weren’t our par­ents’ chil­dren. There was an old say­ing: “Mother’s baby, fa­ther’s maybe” – only the mother knows. When I was born, my dad wasn’t sure if I was his son, and this was heart­break­ing for my mum, to say the least. Two years later an­other lit­tle boy came along with the same phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics, which must have been an­other bomb­shell.

Both of us had a sense of this not be­ing our home, or our par­ents. Peo­ple would ar­rive on the doorstep to gawp at us. In pri­mary school, when I was seven or eight, peo­ple would ask me where I came from and would con­clude that I must be adopted. So, at an age where I didn’t know what race or iden­tity was, I be­came the sub­ject of whis­per­ing and con­ver­sa­tion. My best friend was black, and he gave me an afro comb be­cause my mum couldn’t man­age my hair.

Af­ter my par­ents di­vorced when I was 12, we moved into a flat with a Rasta­far­ian cou­ple liv­ing up­stairs, and the woman would take me up to their flat and I would feel at home. There was a salon where I got my hair canerowed. It was like be­ing adopted or fos­tered by peo­ple who “got” you, or knew what you needed. It was at about that time that I heard the word “throw­back”. I wasn’t sure what they were talk­ing about. But in my mind there is no doubt that I have some African ances­try.

In our early teens, both my brother and I de­vel­oped ner­vous tics as a re­sult of our ex­pe­ri­ences, so some­body sug­gested we did out-of-school ac­tiv­i­ties to build up our con­fi­dence. My brother got into sport and I started do­ing youth the­atre, where there was a black youth leader who would spend time with me. When rap and hip-hop hit the UK I got re­ally in­tox­i­cated by it, and be­gan to de­velop a sense of own­er­ship of who I was through mu­sic and other as­pects of black cul­tural ex­pres­sion. There was a lo­cal all-black body-pop­ping crew, and at 18 I asked if I could join it. The leader of the crew was of mixed parent­age, and he re­flected me back to my­self.

In the late 1980s, when my daugh­ter was born, I de­cided to change my name be­cause I didn’t want her to have any con­fu­sion about her iden­tity. Seek­ing guid­ance from friends and el­ders dur­ing what was to be a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in my life, I ar­rived at the Yoruba name Ekun­dayo. The rea­son the name stuck out for me is it means “weep­ing be­comes joy”, and I was see­ing ev­ery­thing we’d gone through, and my mum had gone through, and re­al­is­ing that I’d found my com­mu­nity, which at that time was the black the­atre com­mu­nity.

By 1995 I was liv­ing in Manch­ester, and got heav­ily in­volved in African-cen­tred stud­ies. This had a ma­jor im­pact on what I was bring­ing through as a mixed­her­itage ac­tor. As my in­ter­ests de­vel­oped, I be­gan work­ing as an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor around the coun­try. I had been do­ing so for many years when this op­por­tu­nity came up to ap­ply for the two-year artis­tic devel­op­ment lead­er­ship pro­gramme bur­sary through Talawa The­atre Com­pany, and I went for it. Then, sud­denly, a year into it, all th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions start fly­ing around about my white back­ground – some­thing I’ve never hid­den.

Dur­ing the last few days, all my in­dus­try friends and col­leagues – the African-cen­tred com­mu­nity of ac­tors, pro­duc­ers, dancers and film-mak­ers to which I be­long – have re­as­sured me that this is part of a wider con­ver­sa­tion about iden­tity and evolv­ing con­scious­ness. But oth­ers have tried to make me feel like a liar and a thief. It dis­ap­points me that an at­tempt to re­duce my life’s ex­pe­ri­ence into a mis­lead­ing head­line can so eas­ily lead to char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion.

I will not al­low any­one who can’t ac­cept or un­der­stand my life to be rel­e­vant to my ex­is­tence. Mean­while, I ap­pear to have come full cir­cle, back to all those peo­ple ar­riv­ing on my mother’s doorstep, want­ing to know about her son’s parent­age.

An­thony Ekun­dayo Len­non is an ac­tor and the­atre di­rec­tor 

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.