Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams
Nation.Cymru is delighted to publish an extract from the start of Sugar and Slate by Charlotte Williams, winner of Wales Book of the Year and now re-published in the Library of Wales.
‘It is Williams’s Welshness that makes the examination of her mixed-race identity distinctive, but it is the humour, candour and facility of her style that make it exceptional…an engaging and perceptive voice describing an engrossing and particular personal story.’ Gary Younge
Sugar and Slate
I grew up in a small Welsh town amongst people with pale faces, feeling that somehow to be half Welsh and half Afro-Caribbean was always to be half of something but never quite anything whole at all. I grew up in a world of mixed messages about belonging, about home and about identity.
It’s a truism that those who go searching for their roots often learn more about the heritage they set aside than the one that they seek. In the 1980s, serendipity took me to the Caribbean, to the country of my estranged father and I began a journey I had not anticipated.
It was a journey that took me across a physical terrain spanning three continents and across a complex internal landscape.
If I set out with the idea to document something of my searching as a second generation black Briton, what began as an account of a journey became an account of a confrontation with myself and with the idea of Wales and Welshness.
This is a story of childhood and youth, of Welshness and otherness, of roots and rootlessness, of marriage, connection and disconnection, of going away and of going home.
Africa to Wales
I’ve got a hundred Africa stories. I’m not so sure I have always understood why they are so important to me; why they are more than just a collection of memories.
Some years after the African man waylaid me with his comment about finding Africa if I dig deep enough, a journalist friend and neighbour, Ivor Wynne, took me to the graves of the Congo boys.
It’s a long forgotten piece of history, which has come to hold a lot of significance for me. As I stood one Sunday morning in the overgrown graveyard at Llanelian I remembered that long ago Ma had told me that there used to be a college for black fellows in Colwyn Bay, but at the time it hadn’t registered.
Now it has become one of those ancient trails I retrace over and over again as if to print myself onto it.
I regard it as my own mini version of the Pan-Am pilgrimage only all I have to do is take a right at the roundabout at Old Colwyn and walk up the road.
When I visit the graves of the Congo boys I feel just like those pilgrims to the slave fortresses at Elmina in Ghana who stand in the ancestral spaces and recreate the past in the present.
It is as though through each retraced step the slave experience is owned by them. They have to go back to make sense of themselves in the present.
In one single moment they are the past, the present and the future all rolled into one — the recollection, the recreation and the restatement of the whole thing gives them a profile.
I once read that diaspora peoples without a collective historical event to refer to invent one in order to define their presence in their inherited country.
It took me a long journey to understand why the Congo boys are part of my Elmina. A hundred years separate me from the Congo boys, a small cargo shipped from the Dark Continent to little Wales.
N’Kansa and Kin Kassa, were just eight and eleven years old when they were brought to Wales by their new guardian, the Reverend William Hughes.
The boys arrived at Llandudno pier in September 1885 on board the steamer St Tudno, after a journey that had taken months of travel down long rivers and across vast oceans.
The final leg was by pony and trap along Llandudno promenade, over Craigside and along the coast road to Colwyn Bay.
William Hughes had left Wales like so many others in his time to evangelise and civilise the natives of Africa.
Yet nothing of his studies at Llangollen Baptist College had prepared him for the Africa he found — so wonderful and yet so treacherous.
Charlotte Williams OBE is a Welsh-Guyanese award-winning author, academic and cultural critic, whose writings include academic publications, memoir, short fiction, reviews, essays and commentaries.
Her writings have taken her on travels worldwide but her heart and her home are always in Wales.
She is a Professor Emeritus at Bangor University and holds Honorary fellowships at Wrexham Glyndŵr University, University of South Wales and Cardiff Metropolitan University.
She will be speaking about her writing and Sugar and Slate at Palas Print, Caernarfon on 10th September. Full details can be found here.
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