There was, I thought, nothing I did not know about white people. After all, I was a Hoosier, born and raised, like a chicken, in Indianapolis, Indiana. My birthright of invisibility made me an observer, not a participant. I concluded that I was stranded in a land of rednecks, hillbillies and crackers who, rich or poor, ranked high on the list of the enemies of promise. A leading businessman once confessed to my father: ‘I used to think all you people were lazy. Now I understand. It’s sickle cell.’
I made up my mind to leave the ‘All-American City’ to the Americans. I leapt, it seemed, in a single afternoon, from Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I found my true homeland in a world of dreams, and right in the middle of the American heartland I suffered from a volatile and obsessive love – England.
Indianapolis was an unlikely soil for the growth of this passion. Perhaps I adored England because I imagined it as the opposite of America. Perhaps all that mattered was that it was not America. No, my family was not Jamaican, not Trinidadian, not Barbadian – just black. As a child in the sixties, I, abysmally absorbent, in need of rescue, devised my secret strategies of compensation and retribution. One day, I told myself, I would be better than what I was, someone baptized and recreated in the flood of British freedom. I would, one fine day, float in a barge triumphantly up the Thames, and then America would be sorry for having despised me. The books, the images of that far country, were readily available. So, as my grandfather used to say, no need to force a door that stands wide open.