Migration can remould the psyche, even in areas as profound and personal as desire. In 1975, the year before my family left Jamaica for England, I had just begun to be interested in the opposite sex. And almost inevitably, because I was brought up in the Caribbean, my objects of desire were the black boys that grew up around me. But it was not until I was thirteen that I enjoyed my first kiss, with a boy called Michael; charmed by his neat Afro, golden-brown skin and long gangly legs. It was a chaste and innocent locking of lips, not least because my sister and her little friend were peaking over the hibiscus bush in front of us and giggling. But even with these little spies to dampen the mood, I still felt as if something warm had dissolved in my stomach.
There was no thought then of going further, since the social scene of middle-class Caribbean teenagers was well chaperoned. And so girls and boys really had no chance of ‘getting off with one another’, as my British contemporaries later dubbed petting. But even now I can recall our parties: glorious hot nights, the not so innocent sensuality of adolescent boys and girls twisting and turning, swaying in the sweaty dark to the rhythmic strains of lovers rock. Our passion was even more intense because of the impossibility of anything more happening than, perhaps, a kiss and a short-lived fumble. The parties were even more memorable because they went on for so long, well into the dawning of the following day. Oh the thrill of it! Decades later I can still remember my first dance with a boy, my nose nestled into the spicy crick of his neck, my head resting on his broad chest.
But when we settled in Britain, all was different. The boys we fraternised with came from the school next door, and their get-togethers were fuelled more by the illicit consumption of alcohol than the sinuous mating rituals of dancing. (Indeed it was a repeated joke among my black friends that white people just didn’t know how to party, returning home when black people were just setting out.) And it was hard for me, a girl brought up on the smooth-talking muscular charms of black men, to feel attracted to the pale snaggle-toothed teenagers that I now came into contact with. And I too was rather an exotic flavour for the boys I now encountered, one that only the most adventurous of boys contemplated. And so my burgeoning sense of my own attractiveness, so fragile and recently developed, withered in this less than fertile ground. Black, I later realised, wasn’t yet beautiful in 1970s Britain. It would seem extraordinary, just a few years later, that an African American musical trio of black women called the Three Degrees were whispered to be favourites of the Prince of Wales; or that at the university I eventually went to I would have adjusted my erotic tastes so much that I would learn to enjoy the androgynous charms of ‘the thin white duke’: David Bowie. And yet, when I would return to the Caribbean, my attraction to black men would resurge, rising in my blood like heat, reminding me not just of the erotic pleasures of my youth, but of a time and place in which I was grounded so strongly.
As I grew up, these sensual confusions continued. I recall, for example, an acquaintance, a rather austere female publisher, who took me aside and explained sternly that I was getting a reputation as ‘a tease’, because I was always touching people. I remember at the time being utterly mortified, and dismayed that I had been so misunderstood. But then immediately, I flashed back to my mother and father and our other Caribbean relatives, and the way that they patted, stroked and hugged one another frequently and naturally. Surely, I said to myself, being tactile couldn’t be that terrible? But even though the answer in my mind was no, I accepted that I had to readjust my behaviour to fit into this strange new world, and become more circumspect about how I touched and related to my new countrymen. I, the migrant, must yet again go against my natural inclinations in order to fit into the mores of this strange new country.
Artwork © virtually_supine popping in and out