England to me means home. It means fond memories of school days; Sundays holed up in a pub drinking wine and eating a succulent roast while discussing the state of the weather with good friends; running to catch a train from Victoria station after a hard day’s work and breathing a sigh of relief once I’m on it and as the train rolls out of central London into the leafier suburbs.
England is what I signify to people when I’m abroad. My accent, my sarcastic sense of humour, my values and politeness (such as saying sorry when I really don’t need to) are all products of being brought up in England. “Oh! You’re from England!” people exclaim before asking me whether it really does rain all the time.
England is also a part of me that non-English people sometimes don’t understand. “Are there black people in England?” I’m asked that on a regular basis. Yes there are, but we clearly don’t fit into the idea of what Englishness means to others, nor are we often visible in mediums of communication such as TV and film so some people abroad really do not know that we exist.
The Englishness in me is sometimes an anomaly to people who don’t expect to hear a black woman speaking with an accent which to them sounds like the Queen’s. England is a part of me that sometimes forces people to change their perceptions, to do a double-take and to look and listen to me differently.
England is the ‘green and pleasant land’ described in Jerusalem, one of my favourite songs. At the same time it is also – being that I come from London – inner city and urban; a metropolis of sky scrapers and polluting cars and buses; a landscape dotted with parks which sit alongside historical buildings and cultural landmarks. It is at once inclusive yet at the same time, at times, hostile to immigrants and foreigners. It is both a melting pot and apparently tolerant yet also the country that has colonised and oppressed large sections of the world and gave birth to figures such as Enoch Powell.
What does it mean to be English? Is it interchangeable with being British? That’s a tricky question. I will always have a sense that although I was born and bred in England, I am not considered to be truly English. English is not as accommodating a concept as say, American; being “English” still has a connotation that does not fully encompass black people – I’m not sure that it ever will. It’s very possible to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time. “British” however – thankfully in many ways – is an all encompassing term, meaning everything… and at the same time very little.
In any case, I am proud of having being born and raised in England… I know and am well aware of England’s colonial roots and no doubt England has, for such a small place, created a lot of havoc in the world! As a person of colour I would be silly not to acknowledge that. But for all it’s sins, contradictions and paradoxes, it’s still home.
Lola Adesioye is a regular contributor to the Guardian who hails from London but now lives in New York.