Rating 4 stars
Sugar and Slate is a memoir about growing up mixed race in North Wales. Paula chose it as this year’s Dewithon book and I managed to find a library copy. It’s partly fictionalised and the author’s reminiscences about her own life are punctuated by poetry and dramatic scenes that tell the story of her parents and the broader stories of nationality, race and belonging. Divided into three sections, Africa, Guyana and Wales, the book examines how these places have impacted and influenced the author’s life, and how their presence as points in the slavery triangle explain how the author came to exist.
Charlotte Williams and her family moved to Sudan when she was six years old, following her father’s career path there. After a few years, her mother took Williams and her sisters back to Wales, where she wanted them to be schooled. The Welsh family would be joined by their Guyanese-African father in the summer, or would travel to Africa to be with him. Williams continued to move around as an adult, living in Guyana for a period. This was all part of a restlessness in her family.
Her father, the artist, author and archaeologist Denis Williams, was born in Guyana, moved to London to study and teach fine art, then lectured in fine art in Khartoum before moving to Ife, Nigeria, to research at the Institute of African Studies. His studies led him back to Guyana, where he worked as an archaeologist. He comes across as a man seeking a place to belong, the child of British colonialism who didn’t fit into British society and sought meaning in his African roots. His search for meaning is echoed by his daughter’s.
In London, Denis met Katie Alice Hughes, a young Welsh woman looking for work whose Welshness had been the cause of her rejection by the nursing profession in Liverpool. Katie, rendered working class by her father’s decline following the death of her mother and his subsequent loss of a family business, was Welsh at a time when this was viewed as an inadequacy by the English. Although Wales had long been under England’s thumb, its language and culture suppressed, in North Wales the people maintained their Welshness through language. Katie spoke little English when she moved to Liverpool, and her employers thought her stupid. Katie was fiercely intelligent, though, and her daughter depicts her as a force of nature not to be trifled with.
The narrative moves around, too, in a way that reflects the sense of dislocation and not belonging felt by Williams, who begins her story at a seminar where she is challenged by another Black delegate to dig and find Africa within her. This triggers the memory of leaving Wales for Sudan. At different points in the narrative, often moments of transit during travel, a memory or a story is sparked by Williams seeing another black or brown person and reflecting on how her experiences might intersect with theirs.
In trying to understand her own place in Wales, how she can be both Welsh and Not Welsh, she tells the story of two African boys brought to Colwyn Bay in the 1880s by a missionary to the Congo, a story I hadn’t known before. She finds their graves and is moved to imagine what their experience might have been, brought to Wales to be indoctrinated so that they could take the Christian faith back to Africa and save the white missionaries from having to suffer Africa’s heat and cultural differences. She tries to conjure for herself what it would have been like, to be enslaved in Africa, freed by a man who brings you to a country where your skin colour and your lack of English makes you stand out, to be a project for a society that considers you uncivilised.
She uncovers other stories of Black people relocated to Wales: a child slave owned by an 18th century Conwy family, called Robbin Conway; an ex-slave, Valentine Wood, who lived in Chepstow and published his memoir; an engine driver in Blaenafon called George Williams, who married a Welsh woman; John Ystumllyn, otherwise known as Black Jack or Jac Du, a child kidnapped from Africa in around 1745 who lived near Criccieth and was married in Dolgellau church to a Welsh woman. I know Dolgellau reasonably well, but I was unaware of this moment in the town’s history.
Williams also powerfully relays the racism and misogyny she encountered as a mixed race girl growing up in Wales. Her experiences, although not of the same severity, made me think of GirlQ, because they are underpinned by the same racist prejudices about Black people and Black girls in particular. She describes how unspoken expectation of Black behaviour and Black intelligence, coupled with the questions and statements of white Llandudno’s “polite racism” were the root of her, and her older sisters’, attempt to be “neis”/”nice”: unnoticeable, inoffensive, acceptable, and also the cause of their later rebellion, in which they acted out all of the assumptions made about them.
Small town thinking has its own way of managing difference. It both embraces it and rejects it. In its ambivalence you become at one and the same time highly invisible and punishingly visible. “We never really noticed you were coloured”, they would say in condescending tones, or “You’re not really black, you’re just brown”, and we would all be relieved of the onerous impoliteness of being black. We would trade bits of ourselves for their white acceptance, denying ourselves to provide reassurance against the intrusion of difference. But it was the background assumptions embodied in the questions that caught me so unawares. The everyday assumptions of inferiority that eventually ground me down until I didn’t know who or what I was.
Williams also draws parallels between the Black experience in white culture and the Welsh experience in English culture. The English quest to conquer the world wasn’t limited to nations overseas. Williams describes the attitude of the Welsh missionaries to Africa as an example of where the parallels lay.
They had to tell about their work in a way that condemned exploitation and plunder and disassociated itself from the forces of colonialism. These travellers must have seen themselves as leaders of a superior style of Empire building, a moral crusade. They used the same maps as the colonisers, took the same routes and byways, but they were not the ones who turned the villages blood red, scattered the peoples, stole and took away and left only damage, setting tribe against tribe and carving out territories and regions for themselves. The Welsh missionaries distanced themselves from this type of work; that would come to be seen as English misdeeds. Their mission was of a higher order. They managed to be both saviours of the natives and at the same time bolster a sense of Welsh pride and self-identity that had been so cruelly robbed and pillaged by the same English colonisation. They could boast that their work was unsullied by ruthless imperialism and so claim the moral high ground. “Little Wales” would have a finer, spiritual glory untainted by the savagery and slaughter of the English at whose hands Wales itself had suffered centuries before. So the African and the Welshman were linked in a spiritual haven, a haven secure from the encroachments of the English.
She talks about her family situation, her father away in Africa for most of the year, returning briefly to spend time in the “Woman House” that Katie Alice ruled over. Williams observes how her father struggled against what he saw as his personal European colonisation, made visible in his speech, his clothes and his self-discipline. He wanted to be African, but found it difficult to let go of the strictures taught him by white society.
Williams’s depiction of 1960s Llandudno and its inhabitants is as joyous as it is sorrowful. For all the damage of the polite racism, there is a sense of community, of being known if not fully woven into the fabric. Katie Alice belonged. She spoke the language of her community, which Williams calls Llandudno-Welsh and has similarities to Franglais, had family stretching back through the centuries behind her. It was the presence of Denis in their DNA that stopped Williams and her sisters being fully part of that same community.
Denis is temporarily an absent figure, and then permanently so once Africa and later Guyana have captured him. The family, despite him not being its focus, begins to unravel in the years after he calls time on his marriage to Katie Alice. At this point in time, Williams cuts herself off from him, fixing him in her memory as the man she would accompany on archaeological digs in Africa as a child, learning with him and through him of their shared African heritage. The route she steers through Africa’s history interested me very much, particularly the development of the manufacture and trade in iron, initially within and across Africa, ultimately with producers in Wales: Brymbo (a place known to me from the road journey to our family holidays in Gwynedd and my university years in Aberystwyth, as well as from a railway engineering collection I look after at work), Shotton and Merthyr. There are trade stories for every area of manufacturing. The one I am most familiar with is the place of textiles in the slavery triangle. But every British industrial town and city played its part, its goods traded in Africa for human lives transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, and those human lives enslaved to the production of raw materials that allowed more goods to be manufactured, completing the loop. With iron, Williams juxtaposes African demand for British smelted metal as a commodity and a currency with the slave owners’ demand for tools of oppression: chains, shackles, manacles, neck collars and the rest. The Welsh iron industry supplied both sets of demands.
Williams identifies her own life’s triangle through the intersection of Africa, Wales and Guyana. Her estrangement from her father, she says, left her with “a whole seam of experience missing in my life.” In the second section of the book, she tells of how she drew in the missing Caribbean arm of her personal triangle by moving to Guyana and reconnecting with her father.
As part of their preparation for the move, Williams and her husband, whose taking of job in Guyana pushed Williams closer to reconciliation with her father and with her Guyanese heritage, attended a surreal Overseas Development Agency course. Williams was the only person of colour on the course, apart from Rosemary, a “real Guyanese” brought in by the course organisers to add flavour. Rosemary helped Williams more than the Colonial Wife 101 course could, by inviting her to her home and introducing her to the London Guyanese community.
Since I was a child I had not seen this number of black people together and all Guyanese by birth or ancestry. I had nothing with which to negotiate this event. I sat in an oasis of detachment, miserable and then happy by turns. … Each fragment of shared origins and beginnings chipped away at me and carved pain and joy simultaneously. There were parts of my splintered self in this crowd. I ached for what I was missing and for what I had missed. This loss of contact had left a whole dimension of me dormant, undernourished and dying. I submerged my confused feelings. I think I denied them to myself.
This is a slice of Guyanese society, peopled by those from the “good” Guyanese families, who had travelled, like Williams’s father, on scholarships to study in London or who, like Rosemary, had married well, which is to say to a white man.
Williams’s description of her first visit to Brixton is moving in its self-deprecating humour. The Williams of this moment has assimilated herself so deeply into whiteness, in order to not be offensive, that she is flummoxed by the experience, agog at the preponderance of Blackness, and a source of amusement for those she is astonished by. “I was stunned by the way in which the emblems of such shame for me were being brandished with a certain nonchalance.”
This is the Brixton of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films, the only Brixton I have seen. I have never visited, never lived there, only ever encountered Brixton through novels and the tv. That Williams has the same perspective on it as me was what moved me, but it also pulled me up on my unconscious presumption that Black British experience is universal, that all Black people live the same life. In Guyana, Williams recognises a similar presumption in her own thinking, when her surprise at Black owned and run businesses in Brixton is matched by her surprise at Black people in professional positions she thought of as white jobs.
I had to stop seeing it all as different. I had to stop staring. My observation was obsessive and thorough, and through this observation I discovered aspects of myself that I had never before recognised, having always been the only black face. I learnt that my thinking about black people was distorted and corrupt, that deference to white people’s whiteness lurked in me like a cancer, and that second class citizenship was my inheritance in a way that these people just didn’t accept.
Williams’s reconciliation with her father is interesting. They stay on the surface, talking about shared memories, and Williams listens to her father’s emotionally detached reciting of his post Katie Alice life with equal emotional detachment. In her father’s version of who he is, his return to his true self, Williams detects a paradox. For all his study of Black African and Guyanese history, her father remains fixed as a colonised Black man, never leaving his house on foot, never experiencing the life of the majority of Guyanese people, only socialising with the Guyanese Black elite. Her expectation that he might open the door to Guyana for her founders because her father knows only an intellectualised Guyana and barriers himself off from the reality of the nation.
Williams herself is a tourist in the world that most of the Guyanese inhabit. She observes life from the bench outside the tin shack shop close to her father’s house. She lives an expat life with servants and attendance at parties hosted by the British High Commissioner, thanks to her husband’s job. She gradually becomes pulled into Guyanese life, through her interactions with people outside her expat home and, after a year, she finds herself a job with an aid agency. Through her work there, she saw and understood more of the country and its history. When she arrived in Guyana, Williams was surprised by the division between Black Guyana and Brown Guyana, with people of East Indies heritage largely segregated from the majority Black population. She argues that Black and Brown are unified in Britain against the white majority, before acknowledging that her lack of experience of multicultural communities makes that perspective questionable. A visit to a church built by slaves for slaves causes her to reflect on the slave experience; much as she lumped together people of colour in Britain, regardless of their heritage, the white colonisers lumped together all slaves as African, regardless of the nations they had been taken from. Slavery was the unifying experience; beyond that, the people had their own languages, cultures and traditions carried with them from their homes. Her response to standing in places where slaves lived, and particularly where slaves rebelled, is a conflicted one for Williams, that leaves her feeling fraudulent.
There is something about standing on these sites of struggle that locates you in a huge historical picture. I stood in the slave church as a confused descendant of two intertwined histories. I tried to disassociate myself from the white history to survive the moments but I felt the misery of it all, a recognition of an uncomfortable past. Why do we go back to these places? Is it to retrieve this pain? It wasn’t simply a recollection; I wasn’t just thinking about the slaves and their predicament. I was somehow re-enacting the history and locating myself in it. It’s a particular type of remembering; an all-consuming experience that comes in the moment of retracing the steps of our forefathers. It is as if you enter the coded stereotype of the memory, the imprint of it on the physical site, and replay the past as part of the present. As you stand in the sacred spaces the past is recreated, ritualised, made real and enduring. … Perhaps those African-Americans feel free enough to go to the slave forts in Ghana and retrace the steps of their forefathers but it only filled me with discomfort. My connection with the slaves was so disturbed, so corrupted, so uncomfortable, I felt a fraud to it.
As Williams begins to change, to open up to her blackness in ways she had never been able to in Wales, her twenty-year marriage comes under strain. She questions whether her white husband, whom she has known and been known by since late teenage, can ever really know her, ever understand her blackness. She says something casually about their relationship being more than just “the him and the me in it all” that made me think about how, in straight relationships, we accept the differences in gendered experience, and women in particular accept that men can’t understand the particularities of the female existence because, beyond biology, they have created the world we inhabit to suit themselves. Helped by love, we accept it because otherwise where would we be? Alone, each of us. The racial differences between Williams and her husband, in the context of Guyana, suddenly seem too much for her to accept. Love can only carry her so far.
It isn’t her that causes the rupture, though, in the end. She thinks about it but doesn’t act. It’s her husband who acts. I felt angry with the men, her husband and her father, who presumed to tell her that Guyana wasn’t for her, that she would never belong there. Her white husband tells her she will never be black, having found an authentic Guyanese black woman for himself, while Williams was searching for her truth, distracted from being his supportive expat wife. Her colonial black father tells her that Wales defines her, not Guyana. Both tell her to go home. The arrogance of them infuriated me. It doesn’t matter that Williams felt her difference herself, that she also knew that she would never call Guyana home. It was neither man’s right to instruct her.
She does return to Wales, the place she nominally calls home. “Home, the place you know, the place that knows you, the place you leave, the place to which you return, that place filled with memories and dreams, a place of ties and connections, that special hearth.” But Wales isn’t quite home, either; “… there’s a twist in the dragon’s tail.”
Rejected by her father, rejected by Guyana, rejected by her husband, rejected by Wales, a woman who belongs nowhere; amidst all these rejections and not-belongings, Williams decides to claim Wales for herself, on her terms, not mediated by her white mother or white husband. In doing so, she recognises a Wales as mixed up and confused as herself.
I arrived back to find Wales was itself in an angry mood. 20 years of Welsh-language politics had risen from a simmer to a boil. The conflict about housing had shifted to jobs. Whilst English-owned holiday homes weren’t being burnt down anymore, the battles were being played out behind closed doors in county hall and on the frontline in the public offices and in the schools. I went back to lecturing at the university and continued to dangle uncomfortably between the English / Welsh animosities. … Language politics filled the air. I remember experiencing the sense that things were changing but that I wasn’t included in the battle. I couldn’t empathise with it at all because for the great mass of us the agitation was unexplained, decontextualized, something to do with a history in which there were only two sides – Welsh or English – and for those of us who didn’t sit comfortably on either, there was no rôle at all.
In her attempts at understanding the social battle she returned to in Wales, Williams traces her family history back to the slate mining village of Bethesda, near Bangor. She explores again her concept of the Welsh being the Black community to England’s whiteness through the exploitation of the slate miners by the Anglo-Welsh quarry owner, Lord Penrhyn, and through the resistance of the miners by their adherence to the Welsh language in the face of its suppression by the English government. This ancient subjugation of Wales and the suppression of Welsh language and culture from the 16th century up to the Welsh Language Bill of 1992, which gave Welsh equal status with English in all public bodies, was the frame for the unrest Williams returned to. She makes the point, too, that her generation didn’t learn Welsh and had it pressed upon them that to speak it would hold them back, with the result that her lack of a sense of belonging in the country of her birth has a parallel in her lack of its language.
In Lord Penrhyn’s wealth, she eventually finds the intertwining of her dual heritage.
… this whole empire would not have been possible at all had it not been for the huge fortune Richard Pennant made from what he called his West India interests. It was the cruelly driven slaves; men, women and children who toiled and sweated for the huge sugar profits that built the industries in Wales. Out of the profits of slave labour in one Empire, he built another on near-slave labour. The plantocracy sponsored the slateocracy in an intimate web of relationships where sugar and slate were the commodities and brute force and exploited labour were the building blocks of the Welsh Empire. My slate memories and my sugar memories are forged together.
Having found her way towards forging a relationship with Wales, Williams returns to Guyana and reconciles with her husband; if she can make her relationship to her Welsh heritage work, she can make her marriage work. Out of this comes a peace with her Guyanese heritage, too, and ultimately the conclusion that, for her, home is not a place but a state of mind.
After a difficult start settling into this book, down to my reading of it in snatches, a long weekend gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in Williams’s writing. Immersion is what this book deserves. Once I travelled as a companion, rather than read as an observer, the richness of its disjointed narrative was my reward. Written a couple of decades before the current push by heritage organisations for decolonisation of their histories, this memoir has much for white people to learn from.
I’m pleased Paula chose it for Dewithon. I wouldn’t have encountered it otherwise. It’s out of print now, but I was lucky to find a copy in the wonderful Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Centre that I could borrow. Paula has written an introduction to the book and explained why she chose it for Dewithon here.