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Black Sheep by Na’ima B. Robert

August 25, 2014

BsheepFor most of the 1970s I lived in the ‘rough’ part of a northern city, surrounded by prostitutes, West Indians and muslims. I became aware of the class difference between people of Jamaican origin and from Barbados. I was comfortable and enjoyed it there. Decades later, things have changed.

 I once heard a talk about gang culture from the The Rev Nims Obunge, of Nigerian origin, Pastor at the Freedom’s Ark Church, in Tottenham, and Chief Executive of the Peace Alliance. This book helped me to get into the minds of the young people involved – they were likeable people who have become trapped into something much bigger than themselves. When asked ‘Is London a good place to bring up children?’ he responded, ‘Yes, in the more affluent parts. But in the economically and socially deprived areas, where people are struggling, there are tensions between different postcodes and schools. There is a lot of friction which is even under the police radar. There is more crime in less affluent areas. For example, here in Haringey, there is more crime in the east. Whereas in the west, in places like in Highgate, they don’t have the same concerns and therefore children achieve more. They have a better experience and do better in school.’…. we had a big problem with violent crime here. I was burying young people who had been shot or stabbed and I was speaking at their death, yet I’d never had the opportunity to speak in their lives. So, I felt challenged by God to see whether I could pastor people who I knew would never come to my church.

 One gang member tries to reform himself because of the girl he loves. Another converts to (Nation of) Islam. Brixton meets Streatham meets Dulwich. Gun and knife crime and drugs. It’s a tad Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, one chapter bears that title. It turns out to be more about class conflict that race conflict. The girl comes from a family who have rttied to escape the black ghetto whereas the boy lives in it.

 It took me a while to get used to the slang and patois but no longer than it does to listen to Shakespeare.

 There’s one phrase that is used too often. It appears on virtually every page: ‘He sucked his teeth’ I sort of know what it means but find it grating.

 Who is it that tries to sort everything out and love unconditionally? We teachers, that’s who.

 A deeply moving book.

 The author describes herself as “Muslim, Black, mixed-race, Southern African, Western, revert and woman all in one


 “I’d never been a reader. I learned to read at school, of course, and I remember liking it for a while. But then it seemed that most of the books they expected us to read were chatting about people who were nothing like me, going on about stuff I couldn’t relate to. The world of books was nothing like my world….Anyway, who needed them when life was so much more exciting?….I didn’t have room in my life for book stuff: I wanted the real deal, the knowledge you can only learn by going out and doing time on the streets.”

 “None of us did, y’get me. Where I’m from, school is just a place, a place your parents send you to get you out of their hair for a few hours. Hardly anyone takes it serious. They’re like, ‘What’s the point? Ain’t no good jobs for black boys anyway’. Plus everyone’s making money out on road. No one ain’t talking about going college or university or anything like that. And then I meet Misha and she’s like talking about studying Latin and wanting to take Spanish for ‘A’ Level, going university to become a linguist. Man, I had to go Google that one coz I didn’t even know what a linguist was, y’get me! And she’s talking to me, yeah, telling me about stuff I’ve never heard of, ideas I’ve never thought of, and I’m like, raah, this girl is something else, something special. Making man see the world differently, y’understand. So I start to fix up. Start to get serious about school, start thinking about my future, where I wanna be in five years’ time. Coz I wanna live up to who she thinks I can be. Coz no one ain’t believed in me like that before, ever…”

 Tony gave me some books to read. He played CDs of the Qur’an being recited in Arabic. It was proper nice, soothing. I didn’t understand a single word but there was just something about it that touched me somewhere deep.

 At the end of the day, if you believe in the fundamentals, in the basics, you should take your shahadah, innit. You can work on the rest later…”

 That shower, the ghusl that I made in my mum’s house the day I took my shahadah, was one I will never forget. I felt like all my feelings of hopelessness and fear, all the badness I’d ever done, was dissolving in the soapy water and washing away, away, away down the drain. When I stepped out of the bathroom, I literally felt myself glowing: it was as if I could feel hope and newness shining out of my skin……….And no lie, when I looked in the mirror, I could almost see the difference. It was something in my eyes, something about the skin across my forehead. I looked cleansed, like after a baptism, ready for a new chapter of my life to unfold.

 While you’re still alive, there’s always a way to start again.

 So what if we go jail? So what? ‘Nuff things we can learn in jail, innit? It’s like school for thugs like us. By the time we come out, we’ll be older, harder, smarter and everyone will know our names. We’ll be so well-connected we’ll be ready to go out there and make some real dough, y’ me! We’ll be legends, bruv, trust!”

And what did that love mean? I had always heard that love hurt, that true love requires sacrifice — but did that mean sacrificing myself, my family, my future, too?

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