If not now, when? A spearheaded question. Cuts through the noise and provokes contemplation for real change. Fay Charles, an east London resident, raised this question following the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. From her pondering, Fay brought together an intergenerational group of black people made up of her friends and family to start having conversations about the things affecting them as a community.
Interview by Ikesha Avo
Published 15 May 2022
It’s the 11th September 2020 and I turn down a cul de sac in East London. The glance of the street opening always triggers a feeling of warmth and embrace from my childhood. I am heading to Aunty Fay’s. Today though was about something new.
Cities and suburbs across almost every continent are in the aftershock of protests. It’s a reverberating response to the killing of a man named George Perry Floyd Jr. at the hands of a police officer on the 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis, United States.
Aunty Fay as I know her, or Fay Charles, is a friend of my Mum’s. During the period of a panic stricken world in the grips of a pandemic and social uprising, Fay, along with her good friend Donna, sparked an idea to call together the elders and the youngers to have a conversation.
One conversation led to another and before long the group began to gather regularly to discuss topics from race and mental health to long-standing assumptions within black culture.
An intergenerational group formed. Originally named Black Lives Matter: If not now, when? it later became Beautiful Skin: If not now, when?
I sat down to unearth the roots of Fay's decision to activate in the way she did during the movement. Our conversation leads us on a journey into Fay’s background and early formative years.
Ikesha Avo: What made you start this group?
Fay Charles: It’s time that we look at ourselves and stop looking for help from outside of ourselves.
Within the time of the riots loads of things stirred up about race. Loads of things that I did not really think that I would be thinking about at this level at this stage in my life.
I had accepted things as they were; this is how it is. But when the riots came it made me sit up and think.
Could there possibly be change?
Fay was born in Barbados in 1961 and came to London at the age one with her mother. Ironically, she grew up in a building called Grenada House on an estate in Limehouse, East London.
As she describes ‘it was like a really beautiful community. Everyone’s Mum was everyones Mum, and everyone’s Dad was everyone’s Dad. We had this big square where we would all play together”.
As Fay began to talk about her childhood, we enter into the unfortunately familiar space of the introduction to racism and racialisation that is common for a black person to experience in a country like the United Kingdom.
FC: I think it was more in school that you would hear the term 'golliwog'.
IA: From who?
FC: From kids
IA: White children?
A flashback that I have is of storytime. So you’d be sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and the teacher is telling this story about Little Black Sambo. It was about this little black boy - it turned out that actually he was a little asian boy.
Then we had things like the golliwog on a jam jar. That was acceptable back then. But that never affected me mentally, no.
You know what was kind of weird about it is that we just got on with it. Whereas today we wouldn’t. Our parents were from the era of “Shh! Keep the peace”.
Other than that I didn’t even feel like I was living in a foreign country, I was just living. Because of my mentality I could just shrug it off. It didn’t get into my bones or make me angry. It wasn’t all bad. But today I think, well why should any of it be bad?
Back then it was just surviving and living. Plus, we were kind of naïve. In school, you just did what they said.
IA: What did being black mean to you in terms of your personal perceived identity?
FC: Great. It was amazing. I loved it. When I got to 14 and the music started coming, Bob Marley - we had an identity!
I had the Dax and the afro comb in my hair. The boys started turning up - Mum sent us to school where it was all girls - the boys came to the school gate.
IA: (Girl’s schools are like a magnet for boys. No way to save your daughters)
FC: Then the jerry curl came out, and the film Roots came and the turban style came out. It was different moments for us that we could connect with something. Our identity. We could look in and there was a reflection back. We were not trying to fit in. We were becoming one so we were kind of congregated, the black people.
We used to go to Dalston every Saturday and into Marks & Spencers because they had the box pleat skirts and tie up blouses. Then we’d meet in Roman Road outside the record shop because then we could buy our lovers rock. It was amazing. It was the best thing ever. I’d never not liked my blackness.
Fay Charles as a teenager. Photos courtesy of Fay Charles
The aesthetic that Fay and her peers - who were the youth of the 1970s - formed was a hybrid of influences of their home country the United Kingdom and the home countries of their parents in the Caribbean. The latter meant imports of powerful messages and tones that met them in their experiences.
IA: One of my favourite lines from the Rastafarian musician, Bob Marley is ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds’.
It’s one of my favourite versus because it is about what power we have within ourselves.
What was it in Bob Marley in particular or reggae artists that you listened to that might have connected to you, if they did?
FC: It was more a music that automatically felt familiar. Even if you hadn’t heard it before, it kind of felt right.
Like, right now, I think lyrics really symbolic are ‘Get Up, Stand Up, Stand Up for your rights’. It felt like coming home in some respects. Even though a lot of us were born here, our parents were from the Caribbean so they brought that with them. They had their little record players or their stories.
When I was 17, I went to Barbados for the first time and I was dumbstruck. On TV there were black people and I had never seen that before.
IA: How do you think that affected you?
FC: I just kind of thought “Damn…this is interesting”. I just found it interesting. It made me look at the difference.
This is just a small insight into Fay’s teenage years and Black British Caribbean experience. In my view, during 2020, her life’s journey and mentality amalgamated to a conviction that resulted in an exemplary action: to respond (not react) with an offering of healing amidst a world where the social climate was swaddled in stress. This offering was something with the potential for change - a space to talk, Beautiful Skin: If not now, when?
IA: When the Black Lives Matter movement arose again after the killing of George Perry Floyd Jr. where was your space of encountering it?
FC: Facebook, but now I’m questioning it.
#BlackLivesMatter was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi following the murder of 17 years old boy Trayvon Martin in Florida, United States. Following his death, the resulting acquittal of murder and manslaughter of his perpetrator led to #BlackLivesMatter formation as a more formalised agenda.
Fay made a decision to disassociate from the name Black Lives Matter from the group she had brought together after learning that it was an organisation rather than just a statement people were repeating. The group collectively discussed and chose a new name for themselves that reflected their ethos. It became Beautiful Skin: If not now, when?
IA: What do you want to do within the group? What is your thinking behind it?
FC: I just think it’s a great place to find out different people’s takes on what’s going on. Giving people a platform to maybe demonstrate or promote, or get support. And giving people the opportunity to speak freely and to see what comes out of it.
This is a safe space for us to talk and share, empower, inspire and give each other hope
A safe space to pull apart all the things that we probably just took for granted or accepted. Let's just have a new take on it.
The young ones, they’re coming from a different place to the elders. But the young ones haven’t been through what the elders have. So we are going to give ourselves little ‘ah ha’ moments, little ‘epiphanies’.
IA: What I’m hearing from you is the strength of your positivity and your ability to just stick to what you see to be right. I think that’s very powerful and important. How do you think you’ve come to form that kind of way of being?
FC: I think, is it nature or is it nurture? I think it's my nature. My mum always said I was her most stubborn child. I think it's because if something didn’t make sense I would challenge it. And you know the elder’s mindset of ‘you ain’t supposed to be challenging that’.
The words ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘have to’, ‘must’ – they’re my bugbear, I don’t like them.
If you say to me ‘you should’ – I respond, ‘well why should I?’. I like an explanation, I like to break things down. I don’t like to make assumptions. I like to look at the whole picture. Where does it come from? I think for me, it's just a part of my make up.
Fay and I discuss some of the experiences of her upbringing, the stern discipline familiar in many Caribbean households of her generation. Yet, this part of her journey enabled her to eventually gain her ‘freedom’.
FC: I’ll tell you one of my biggest things that is really important to me is liberation. It's giving people a platform to be free, to be who they are, speak your truth.
If they say, ‘I want to do this’
- well why I can’t you do this?
Why shouldn’t you do this?
How can you do this?
How can we help you to do this?
Mulling over this idea of freedom and liberation, it would be interesting to imagine what this would look like for black people in the UK today. They are by no means enslaved but some may be experiencing the legacy and burden of the systematic racism Fay spoke to in sharing her own childhood experiences.
IA: Many US activists called for longstanding authorities such as the Police to be dismantled in some way following the killing of George Perry Floyd Jr.
However, I find it interesting that at the same time pockets of the black community in UK were also talking, similar to you, about the change we require among ourselves as black people and the ideals we need to pull apart or reexamine.
FC: The time has come for us as a people to relearn a lot of things that we have been taught, and start to look at our existence through new eyes, a new mindset. I feel that begins with helping our own to identify where change needs to occur, what works for us today, and what is no longer relevant.
We need to create pockets of support systems where we can understand and support each other without the struggle for acceptance of who we are.
We need our up and comers to know that they are worthy and capable of being, Doctors, Judges, Lawyers, Astronauts etc.
Our youngers need the inner belief that they can think outside of the box and really go for something that makes their heart sing instead of settling for something because they feel that is all they can be.
If you are angry, let's find out why? Where does that anger come from? I feel it is time to heal some of the pain that we have gone through, therefore, as a culture.
Talking therapies are a must for those who can’t express themselves, which will then in time enable them to move forward with clarity in their heart.
Activating, gathering and speaking is vital to begin the possibility of change. Fay demonstrates that it doesn’t require a formal institution to do this. All that’s needed it the safety, respect and comfort of a group of people - even just starting with the ones closest to you.
The initiative and wisdom exercised in creating a talking space provided a safe environment for black men and women of various ages and backgrounds, to share and reason. In doing this, they most importantly moved forward positively together.
Publishing this article almost two years on from the killing of George Floyd in the United States, we are still challenged to consider the breakthroughs needed in the United Kingdom.
How are we responding to the injustices in our society?
How are we dealing with systematic racism?
How are we remaining organised and sustained in this struggle to purge racism from our world?