Working in Donna’s Café was a great way for me to relate to English people. I learned how to make mixed grills, which weren’t part of my Caribbean culture. Most people were great, but others used to say things like, “You better have washed your hands.” Some guys would come along and tell me, “Your gorgeous!” and that was a great antidote to the ignorance and rudeness.
When I came to England in 1958 from St. Kitts, there just weren’t the right beauty products for black women. We’d have to use petroleum jelly to tame our hair and baby lotion on our skin – far fewer white women moisturised in those days, but black skin really needed that moisture. It wasn’t until the late seventies that Boots started selling makeup for darker skins, which was very frustrating.
Sneinton was predominantly a white community in the seventies and eighties – My father was Jamaican and my mother was white, but very few of my friends were mixed race like myself or of a different race. There was an Italian girl called Maria and one girl Debbie who was mixed race Caribbean and white, but apart from my own family, that was it.
At school, I was always the last child to be picked for anything because I used to have a huge afro. Mum thought it was fashionable to brush my hair out as big as possible in those days, which the other children didn’t like, so I was bullied quite a lot.
There was definitely prejudice against ethnic minorities – I can remember my mother and my nana fighting, literally physically fighting in the streets, with people jeering us, swearing and saying racist comments.
Sometimes you would walk through the streets of Sneinton and smell curries and spices from ethnic food being cooked, but you could never guess where it was coming from. Anyone that wasn’t of a white background seemed to live on the same streets, all stick together and stay quite close. They never really mixed with the rest of the community – it was almost like they had a sub-community within our community.