MEMOIR: Julian Antonio McKenzie
IF YOU are expecting harrowing tales of dog excrement through the letterbox or name-calling in the playground then stop right there.
Wybourn Black: Life on the Wrong Side of Town written by Sheffield man Julian Antonio McKenzie may tell the story of one of the first black families on a South Yorkshire housing estate but the reality is not what you might presume.
Though television shows like the Love Thy Neighbour played on Britain’s struggle to come to terms with new Caribbean arrivals in the 1970s, McKenzie says his family was embraced in a community where black faces were few and far between.
“We lived in Wybourn at the height of immigration in a predominantly white neighbourhood, but the unique thing about it was that I didn’t experience any kind of racism at all,” the 44-year-old told The Voice.
“Love Thy Neighbour was one of my dad’s favourite shows so I understood there were tensions, but to me it was just comedy. I do know black families who said they suffered greatly but that wasn’t my experience. Was I one of the lucky ones? I don’t know. We moved to Wybourn to live our lives and that’s exactly what we did.”
Built in the 1930s, the sprawling Wybourn estate is home to more than 6,000 residents and up until recently was a predominantly white neighbourhood. The family’s choice to raise the children there raised a few eyebrows among the city’s Caribbean community.
McKenzie said: “It was my mum who took the decision to move and many of her friends thought it was a brave decision to make.
“If I understand it correctly, she wanted to give us an opportunity to mix rather than be lumped in one of the black areas like Pittsmoor and Burngreave. She wanted to spread her wings and we’re forever thankful.”
His mother, Beryl, arrived in the UK from Jamaica in 1956 on the ocean liner Venezuela and settled first in London before moving to Sheffield to fulfil her ambition to train as a nurse.
“She used to visit her friends up here and just fell in love with the place. She has been here ever since,” added McKenzie.
It was also here where she met McKenzie’s late father George – a Dominican – who worked his way up from bus conductor to bus driver.
Unlike the rest of the family who embraced a British identity, George was very much a traditional West Indian man.
“Dad was more strict and he spent countless hours ironing his uniform to make sure he looked smart. He used water and brown paper to get those razor-sharp creases which still intrigues me to this day.
“My mum definitely assimilated more than my dad. He would go ‘home’ frequently and up until the day that he died he thought of himself as a guest in this country. No one really asked me about my Caribbean roots because my sister and I were raised the English way. All of my friends are white but I have a few black acquaintances.”
It seems odd that a book about being black on a predominantly white estate has so little to do with race, but McKenzie said that is exactly what he wanted to portray.
“The book title mentions ‘life on the wrong side of town’ and for us the wrong side of town meant life in a white neighbourhood – we weren’t supposed to be there. I never wanted it to be just about me; it’s about the place.
AS THEY WERE: Children playing on Sheffield’s Wybourn estate in the 1970s
He continued: “Wybourn has suffered from bad press and I wanted people to know what it was really like. It was a proper community; solid, togetherness, everybody knew each other and it’s like that to this day. It’s a nice community to grow up in. The friends I made there are still my friends to this very day. I want people to get a warm feeling when they read the book.”
McKenzie now lives about 20 minutes away from Wybourn but many of his childhood friends are raising families there. The estate has undergone some regeneration but is more or less unchanged although the ethnic makeup, like the rest of city is far more diverse.
Sheffield – home to mixed race Olympian Jessica Ennis – has one of the largest Caribbean communities outside of London and Birmingham.
“Up here you look round and you’ll see a majority of young children are mixed,” said McKenzie whose own children have dual heritage.
If the father has not had to grapple with issues about his identity, will his children?
“They are who they are,” added McKenzie. “We don’t browbeat them and say you’re white or you are black. There is no choice. My attitude is you’ve been given life, so enjoy it.”
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