Crewe Street in Normanton, in the 1960s was a much simpler place to live. Life was more binary; it was more black and white. Summers were always sunny; life was tough as money was scarce, but in many ways it was much easier than today.
Bev was born in 1963 to parents who were some of the first people to arrive in the UK from Jamaica in 1955. Already in many places, they were confronted with signs saying “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” which left them feeling unwelcomed. Their plan was to stay for 5 years, make some money, and return back to Jamaica to kick-start their lives with a healthy savings pot.. Bev was the youngest of 6. The first 2 children who were born in the late 50s, were sent back to Jamaica, as small babies, to be brought up by their grandparents; it was difficult to support them in Derby. As they became more established in Derby, and more children were born, the original 5 year plan lapsed. After 10 years, her older sisters returned back to Derby, to live with the family.
Her fond memories of her early years, are playing in Normanton Park, running around Crewe Street, and the few roads surrounding it, scrumping, bike riding, annoying a grumpy Polish neighbor, and having fun. In the wonderful naïveté of childhood, she didn’t see herself as different in any way, the colour of her skin, and her ethnicity were not part of their games, it was not relevant. Many of her school friends were white, however her main friends were from within her extended family.
Her first taste of “multi-culturalism” was when she went to secondary school and she had to mix with people from the far side of Walbrook Road. For Bev and her friends, this was a new, larger place, a foreign land – people from the other side of the “border”. It was the simple emergence from childhood – her world was expanding.
Her teenage years were not helped by her eczema, and her self-consciousness affected her confidence. To cover up her embarrassment she wore cardigans, long dresses, and socks above the knees. It was difficult for her, as she saw herself as the ugly duckling and boys would look the other way, but that was not concerning nor the only issue. She became aware of a form of “colourism” that was emerging within the black community. Although there were very few mixed-race at the time, it was noticeable that the girls with a lighter brown skin and longer hair seemed to attract the black boys more than girls, who had a much darker skin. These girls were far more confident than Bev; years of being told that they were pretty had helped them.
When Bev was 16 there was never any question about going to University – that opportunity just did not exist. It was straight into work. After proving her initiative by getting to East Midlands Airport, alone, she managed to secure a job at British Midland Airways (BM). This was a turning point for Bev. In the 1970s BM epitomized the era, and was a white, male dominated and sexist organization.
She was now mixing with people who had never met a black person. They were fascinated with her hair and her skin. They used to enquire, with simple inquisitiveness.
“People used to say ‘What do you do with your hair?’ …..It was as though I’d just arrived from Mars. I felt people were ignorant – it irritated me, because black people had been here for a long time”
But for Bev, her greatest indignity in those early days was at the BM Christmas party. For the rest of the 250 people it was a hilarious episode. When the DJ started to play Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” – they all formed a large linked circle, and pulled a shy, 16 year old Bev inside.
“I laughed it off but I really hated it and wanted the ground to swallow me up. That memory has stuck with me, and that’s been there since 1979…and it was ok to do that, then”
It was a time of overt sexism, a time when “women sleeping with the boss for promotion” was not that uncommon, and when making fun of people’s differences was acceptable, and mainstream. This was not the ethos that Bev was brought up in, and not normal for a girl from Normanton. She was scared and anxious and felt like a “fish out of water”.
As a young girl in her first job, she tried hard, but her boss never seemed to be pleased. She felt that he was picking on her, and for Bev, it was just like being back at school – constantly being reprimanded by “teacher”. For her, it was just a continuation of school life. For her white friends at BM, they had a different perspective:
“One of my friends came up to me and said ‘Excuse me Bev, I don’t want to be funny, but…..do you think your problem is because of your colour’ . And I was shocked…. The worse thing is, I didn’t see it – someone had to tell me, and it was a white person that had to tell me. “
This was the moment that she truly realized that her colour meant something negative to other people
She stayed at BM, after moving sections and developed a career in the company that involved more travel, increasing responsibilities, meeting many different people, cultures and religions.
Although Bev came from a Christian background, it wasn’t central to her.
“One day, I just looked at society and saw that it was getting mad. I remembered being invited to a meeting and then I just heard the preaching and the words – I felt there was a calling on my life, and I responded. That day was the day that I asked God to come into my life and became a dedicated Christian.”
It was Friday 13th November 1987.
Hearing, and appreciating the Bible words “We are all beautifully and wonderfully made. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” changed her outlook on herself and other people, forever. Prior to this she didn’t feel that she truly loved herself, and didn’t appreciate her inner qualities and that her lack of self- confidence was holding her back, and affecting her relationships. From this date on, her behavior changed, and she began to look at herself for what she was. This boosted her confidence, which allowed her to start to believe in herself and be convinced that “Anything is possible….”.
Bev’s career in BM, blossomed, as she gained seniority and presence, and travelled the world representing the company. Her Christian philosophies and personality were forever engaging and popular and helped her to become an effective part of that community. Despite the years that progressed, she was always aware that her colour could be an issue for people.
In her role at BM, she knew many people throughout the world, including pilots, who she had never met. Her particular style of flirty banter was an attractive quality, and when the pilots were in town, they would come and visit.
“You could see, when (the pilot) came into the office….and he saw me… and I was black….you could see his countenance changed….as before I was only a voice”
Despite being “beautifully made” it was a reminder of how she was still being viewed by some others.
Although being an inherently sexist environment some women did make good progress, and brought a different lens into the organization. The only female director – an American who she worked for had a more modern approach to matters.
“She grew me the most. Her ideas were out of the box, and she gave me the opportunity to do things and she didn’t see color, she just saw talent….and if you were able to deliver what she needed to do…..you were a star. And we did!”
The downturn following 9/11 took it’s toll and Bev was made redundant in 2002 after her maternity leave. This created the opportunity for her to become involved in Community work with a key focus on promoting educational and work opportunities for African and Caribbean people in Derby. From an early age, Bev’s Mother was keen to ensure that she got the best education but, at the time, the system was not well suited for differing abilities and ethnicities. It was also not evident to Bev, at the time, that she was dyslexic.
Many children, and adults, particularly those from people who came over in the 50s, and 60s and who did not plan to stay long, typically struggled in the education system; it was a product of the short-term mindset of the parents. This was exacerbated in sections of the white British community who expected the black African and Caribbean children to under achieve, and this belief inevitably influenced the outcome. Bev’s view is that this is still prevalent today.
For Bev, when she did a degree course at the University of Derby, in her early 40s, she felt that she, and her fellow black students, were unduly marked down, by one tutor in particular. There was a general belief that this person was consistently negative towards black students: her reputation was widely recognised. A dispute over the marking of her thesis, by the same tutor, led to the suggestion that getting a basic degree was “good enough” for Bev. Fortunately Bev ignored this comment, but it is easy to see how for someone in their early 20s, this would have been more difficult to ignore. The University seemed reluctant in taking these concerns seriously. Bev took this up with Office of the Independent Adjudicator ,however they were not in a position to be conclusive.
Her past influenced Bev to become more active in the community taking up roles as a School Governor, on the Neighbourhood watch, Vice-Chair of the BME Network, Council Boards and many more. Her aim is not to be a single-issue activist for Black rights – it is more subtle than that. She wants to be visible, present, have a presence, and be an advocate for an alternative perspective. She wants young black people to see the importance of engaging in the community, and being educated. And for society in general, she just wants more people to be familiar with seeing a black woman being ever-present in places of influence, power and relevance and, most importantly, being there on merit and operating with integrity.
The experience of being the “Brown girl in the ring” made her a different person – “she was never the same again”. Her Christianity convinced her that “anything is possible”, and anyone who meets her will realise that, but, whilst she is very proud of being black and her heritage back in Jamaica, she does not want to be defined by her skin colour. She is, like us all – “Unique, beautifully and wonderfully made” and spreading that realization is an important part of who she is.