African Caribbean

Dr Patrick Boateng: Coping with racism with a clear sense of identity.

6X4A2990Patrick was born into an affluent African family in the city of Kumasi in Ghana. When he was born in 1948, it was the start of the self-government movement, which led to full independence from British rule by 1957; it was the first African nation to break free from European colonization and was an inspiration to the other countries in the continent.

Patrick’s father Kojo Adusei, was a clever businessman, a UAC cocoa broker and money lender, and accumulated land in the Ashanti region of the country. Patrick lived in a world where his uncle, Yiadom Sefa Boakye had a number of cars, he was driven by chauffeurs, there was a cook in the house, there was a security person to guard the property – he wanted for nothing. As his father’s land portfolio increased rather than staying in the countryside at Wamahinso, Patrick moved out to stay with his Uncle in Kumasi.

At an early age Patrick could see that he was in a privileged position and he started asking “ How come, some people have got this, and others don’t”. He would try and get hold of any old clothes and give them to the poor children in the City. His sense of equality and social justice was born amongst his black brethren in Ghana.

His uncle, was an established proprietor of Kejetia Hospital in the city where he worked, and during the holiday periods Patrick would spend time there. His thirst for knowledge and education drove him to find out more about the medical practice. The Nurses taught him how to take a patient’s temperature, and also to give injections. His uncle was totally unaware of this amateur activity. One time, when Patrick was 14 years old, his uncle caught him giving an injection. Quietly, and calmly, he called him into his office. Patrick thought he was going to be severely punished and not allowed to come again. Instead his Uncle said “I didn’t know you were interested in medicine? Be careful! If you give the wrong dose you might kill someone”. Patrick’s responsibilities increased including taking money to the Bank and also purchasing medicines and drugs from the chemist – at times when they were not available locally he would travel to Accra by air to get them.

Patrick was inspired to continue with his “medical career” but he could see that his uncle was deeply troubled by the problems of his patients, and particularly if one died, for any reason. He didn’t want to go through the same trauma as his uncle. He decided to study Hospital Administration but he couldn’t do that in Ghana – his uncle decided that the best place for him was the City of Westminster College in London. In 1966, aged 18 years he left Ghana, on his own, to venture into a new land, of which he had heard so much, with great excitement and optimism.

He was fortunate that he was able to live with a family friend in a prosperous part of London. However his first impressions of the City were not like the pictures that he had seen before, it seemed more drab, foggy, and more depressing. It was clear to him from the early days that a black face in London was a curiosity and, at times, worse than that. His sociable upbringing in Ghana meant that he would be friendly to people in the street with simple pleasantries. But his attempts at that in London were met with blank stares and ignorance. When he was on the bus, and it was full, with people standing, no one would sit next to him. Occasionally people spat at him in the street. He joined the local church to continue his worship, and after a few weeks he was approached by the vicar who suggested that he find a church somewhere else.

His greatest indignity was walking through Hyde Park, when a young woman was walking with her 4 year old son. As Patrick walked past them, the boy said “Where is his tail?”, the mother didn’t respond, the little boy tugged her hand again, “Where is his tail?” Whilst he was shocked, he was concerned about the parental diet of thoughts and prejudices surrounding that young boy that made him ask that question.

This time was very traumatic for Patrick, it was a culture shock that he didn’t expect, and it affected him psychologically. He began to stutter very badly, and he never managed to overcome it, to this day. He contacted his uncle and pleaded to return, but he was encouraged to persevere, and continue with his studies.

Towards the end of his college years, there was a coup d’Etat in Ghana, and his uncle was arrested. The money he needed to support him from his Uncle stopped. After having put up with so much he decided to continue with college. He was in new digs, and he had to find work whilst he was studying. He couldn’t afford to heat his flat so he used to travel on the Tube, back and forth along the Northern Line, doing his homework, keeping warm. His shoes, cracked and split, so he had to pack them with paper, the damp took its toll, and his feet would often swell and be painful.
After he graduated, he took the earliest opportunity to leave London. He felt he didn’t belong, and the racism was overt and oppressive. The daily routine of discrimination and seeing signs saying “ No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” was soul destroying. He moved to the north and found his way to Derby, hoping that it may be different.

The early years in Derby were a respite from London, and he was lucky to secure a job at Rolls-Royce. As a major employer in the region, and one that had recruited Black and Asian people there was an expectation that things would be different but this was still the 1960s. Personnel policies were still antiquated and there was no notion of equality of opportunity which meant that promotion for a Black person was non-existent. Also the racist attitudes and opinions of individuals were clear. Patrick had one boss who openly admitted that “He hated black people, particularly those educated ones”, which didn’t bode well for him. A colleague asked him once whether he had noticed that his name plate, outside the office, was much shinier than that of his boss. It transpired that, each morning, his boss, spat on Patrick’s name plate and left it for the cleaner to wipe it off. This was investigated and his boss was moved out. Patrick was very philosophical, despite the hate inherent in the actions of this man ; “If you become angry – you’ve lost it” was his view.

Patrick was an active and ambitious man, and it was impossible for him to make any progress at Rolls-Royce because he was black. After 8 years he left, and moved to the Voluntary sector.
The way black people were being treated in the UK, and especially young West Indians, was something that troubled Patrick, and he wanted to do something about it. He was appointed Head of an organization in Derby called Ujima ( Swahili for self-help / self-determination). He had seen that too many young black people were coming out of the education system with no qualifications, or any motivation to aspire to do anything. This is something he wanted to address. He brought together a group of 12 black youngsters who had not been successful at school, and with a grant from the Local Authority, recruited black teachers to educate, excite and inspire them. They were on this course for a year and it proved to be successful with most going onto higher education, social work, and one even became a solicitor.

“How come the education system has failed these young people – they go onto a course for 1 year, then progress.”

He had seen for himself, first-hand, in the class-room, how when the teacher asked questions of the pupils that, despite the many occasions when the black children put their hand up, they were never called to give an answer. Over time it was clear that this would be demotivating, and after a while they would give up. Patrick had the benefit of a solid upbringing and the support of his Uncle who was devoted and passionate about his education. For the young people in Derby, they were 2nd generation immigrants, and the children of people who had come to support the regeneration of the country following the war. Life, in many ways, was much tougher for them.

The success of the educational project was extended at the request of the Youth to include housing as homelessness was a major problem for them. The many trades and professions associated with maintaining, and managing houses gave opportunities for black tradespeople and professionals to become involved and to develop their skills. This was Patrick’s vision , as well as increasing the available housing stock for the homeless black youth. This was called Ujima Housing, Derby.

During his time at Ujima, he was known for being active in the community, and this had caused some concern for the Police. The Chairman of Ujima suspected that Patrick’s phone was being bugged by the “attention” he was receiving and the tell-tale clicking on the line during calls. The incidence of this seemed to have been inspired by the inner-city riots of the early to mid-1980s despite Patrick not having any involvement in those events. Nonetheless, at the request of Police, Patrick arranged a meeting between the Chief Constable and black young people to discuss their concerns.

By 1987 Patrick had taken Ujima as far as he wanted to. He needed another challenge in a different area, so he joined Derbyshire County Council in Matlock. When he first arrived, the man on reception in the Council Offices couldn’t believe that a black man would have any business there – “he must be in the wrong place” This was an early sign that there was much work to do!

His role at the Council was in Community Development, within the Equal Opportunities and Race Relations Dept. This was an emerging function and one where Patrick brought his own style to it. In the past the Council had a policy of “Doing things for the community, not with the community”, and it was Patrick’s style to talk to people, understand what they wanted, so that services could be tailored for their benefit. This was most valuable for the minority ethnic communities, as the County Council was not well represented by people from those groups.

His strategy was to ensure that the different groups had an active voice in the Council and this he did by creating specific forums ; Women, Disabled and Ethnic Minorities. These 3 groups were made up of key people within the community who knew about the issues in people’s lives and could represent those positions right at the heart of the Council process.

In many cases the changes didn’t have to be profound, but then sometimes promoting inclusion is about attitude rather than great financial investments. On one occasion Patrick was approached by the person responsible for the parks in Derbyshire and asked why he thought that they were not being used by ethnic minorities. All of the text was in English and, all of the people on the leaflets were white.

“People didn’t feel it belonged to them, they felt excluded”

It might seem like a small point, and possibly petty. Patrick arranged for new photos to be taken, and the text to be translated to help the new arrivals. Within the year, there was a noticeable change in the numbers visiting. The diverse faces on the leaflets was not about being politically correct, it was about being inclusive and welcoming – Patrick saw that.
Later on, his position on providing automatic translation evolved to one where it would only available on request.

“If we mean business about integration, rather than putting money into translating perhaps it would be better to put it into ESOL (teaching people to speak English)?”

Initially this was seen as controversial but the point was valid. In some cases documents had been translated into Hindi, but a form which no one could read. This was another example of why Patrick’s philosophy about consultation was so important…nobody had bothered to find out from the community the language that they actually spoke.

Patrick’s time in the department was supported by the long-standing Council Leader, David Bookbinder who understood the value of the work. When he retired it was only a matter of time before the team was disbanded, people were retired off, and Patrick had to find a job elsewhere. He moved into the Human Resources Department which allowed him to continue to promote his principles of transparency and equal opportunity. It also gave him an opening to pursue his PhD at the University of Warwick where he had previously completed his Masters degree..

Despite his efforts to drive through a more equal and fair form of recruitment, it was slow progress, and he felt that his own career prospects were hindered by the old process of recruiting from a known pool. Whether his colour remained a barrier was a moot point; but the system could not avoid it being considered as a possibility.

In 2011, he decided to retire from the Council and become active in supporting voluntary organisations and continuing his life-long work in helping people, and particularly the black youth.
Reflecting back on Patrick’s time in the UK, he could have easily have become disengaged with the racism that he experienced, overt and covert and that could have caused him to be less principled about how he conducted himself in his jobs and in society. I asked him what advice he would give to young people, particularly those from minority ethnic groups.

“Be yourself, and make sure that whatever aspirations you’ve got – you stick to those”

He also reflected:

“People are different. Because of who I was, and the way I was brought up – I had enough belief in my abilities. I am proud of who I am and, nobody, irrespective of what people try to do, that can’t change… that is unshakeable.”

His clear identity with an African culture in Ghana, and an upbringing based on a rich heritage gave him that strength.

He recounted a story from the 1960s of his friend, Mr Johnson, who was from Jamaica. He had gone for a job interview and sat in the waiting room with all the other interviewees. Eventually, he was the last person left. The interviewer, kept coming through the door, to have a quick look then left. After a while, the interviewer finally said to Mr Johnson, “Have you seen Mr Johnson?”. To which Mr Johnson replied “I’m Mr Johnson” The interviewer, paused briefly, and then told him that they had no time to do the interview.

Mr Johnson was distraught and annoyed and asked Patrick “What African name can I have? At least then I know where I stand” The interviewer could not relate to a black man being called Johnson – a “white British name”.

“The difficulty for Mr Johnson is that he felt he didn’t have his own language and culture. I always think back and ask myself – how would I have coped if I didn’t have my own language and culture – how on earth would I have coped? You need identity. You hear stories about those who have an identity crisis or people who walk around not knowing who they are or where they belong”

I asked Patrick why Mr Johnson, and by extension, some West Indians, feel that they don’t have a culture. His response was quick, and to the point “ In which case why did he ask me for an African name?”

Although this is not a universal theory of all black people in this country, I felt that his point was extremely profound and thought-provoking. The defining characteristics of Patrick that made him robust through his years of racism, discrimination and change was his clear attachment to an unambiguous identity rooted in a clear sense of belonging and legacy to his birth in Ghana. For many West Indians who found themselves in the UK after a heritage and ancestry scrambled by the slave trade, were in a different place, and were in a turmoil as to where they actually belonged, who they were, what was the nature of their identity, and where “home” truly was for them.

2 replies »

  1. Your are a hero Mr Boateng. I envy your resilience. I wish i can sit down and have a chat with this man and share with him my experience as a student social worker.

  2. I first met Patrick in March 2013, ostensibly, to join the inception of his employment skills training project. I’ve never looked back. I now work full-time and my dignity is restored. Patrick is such an inspirational, yet, uncomplicated human being, that any modern member of our society would wish to feel his warmth and fervour when acquiring essential skills.

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