Monica Bolley – My Story – Part 1
Monica Bolley is Synodical Secretary, and has been a member of Diocesan staff since 1981. She is sharing this narrative as a black woman in London.
The hope is to inspire all to feel that they have a key part to play in the demise of racism.
Below you can either watch Monica sharing her story, or read her narrative for yourself. The full story – all three parts – can be read on this PDF.
Golden opportunity to tackle racism
I write this narrative – which I am content to be passed to others – as a black woman. I hope that as a reader, you do not only feel sadness at what I impart of the pain and difficulties that arise as a result of the affliction of racism on black people. My hope is that, particularly if you are white, you will feel that you have a key part to play in the demise of racism. I do believe that we all have a contribution to make in this endeavour, and that in order for change to occur, it is as much about the efforts of individuals as it is about anything that happens at organisational and institutional levels.
My hope is that my story and insights that follow will inspire you as a reader, and lead you to seek out what your contribution might be, or give you fresh impetus in what you are already doing. I hope that my courage in writing this narrative might encourage you in the steps you take or are already taking. Writing this has taken several months, and during this time I could quite easily have said ‘It’s all too difficult!’
This narrative has turned out to be a kind of testimony, which is because my faith in Christ – who I came to own as Lord at the early age of 14 – is key to my life. A few years ago I discerned the purpose and mission of my life as being: ‘To serve God, to be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, and to be open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit’.
The well-known story of the paralytic brought to Jesus for healing in Mark chapter 2 has been a source of prayer and contemplation for me over many years. It conveys something of my demeanour in writing this narrative, and also portrays how I see others before God. In the story, Jesus prays over the paralysed man brought to him by his friends. Thoughts about ‘humility’, ‘knowing our need of God’,’ letting others minister to us’, ‘trusting God’, ‘allowing God in Christ to break through our fear, and release us from the things that bind us’ – have all resonated with me from this story.
I am very grateful to Bishop Sarah, Bishop of London, for inviting me to write this narrative. The challenges in writing it have been considerable and have involved a great deal of prayer: both mine and others’, which I have sought. These challenges have been due to the emotional upheaval involved for me as a black person looking deeply into racism and its effects, and also because I am writing with frankness about white people, which includes people with whom I live, work, play and worship. Basically, people I love and with whom my life in its fullness, is interwoven.
One might wonder why I bothered to write at all, as it has been such a challenge! It is because I have a profound sense that because of the person that I am, and the circumstances in which God has placed me, my story and insights is a ‘unique contribution’ that I alone can make to what has already been written and said about racism. My hope and prayer are that it might be used to God’s glory and for the furtherance of His kingdom.
A golden opportunity
I think that the current time presents a golden opportunity for us all to grasp at the roots of racism. I have been struck by how perturbed I have been by the events of 2020, surrounding the death of George Floyd in the US which reverberated around the world. I have been greatly affected, and I have wondered why. I think it is because I have now been in the world for six decades, and these events have heightened my awareness that the foundations of racism are still intact, and that its roots go deeply into our human life and experience. The pernicious nature of racism and its firm grip on humanity have hit me afresh. That racism persists in the face of black people holding high office, frankly, makes me shudder, for it conveys to me the deep complexity and tenacity which marks out racism.
Catastrophe on the human landscape
I am acutely aware that God created us His children in His image, as equals, and I believe that the enslavement, trading and dehumanising of black people (being chained like animals in the bowels of ships) by white people, is a catastrophe of seismic proportions on the human landscape. It is as though an earthquake took place which fractured the earth’s surface leaving one plate – white people – elevated, and the other plate – black people – depressed. How can we know that this atrocity does not remain, like a sealed container, in the past, but has a bearing on us today? How does what our forebears did (as white slave masters), or have done to them (as black slaves), affect us today? How can it be that we all have a part to play; a contribution to make to undo the damage and move forward? I hope that my story and insights go some way into shedding light in these areas.
My life’s journey
I was born in London to black parents of the ‘Windrush’ generation, who came to England in the mid-1950s from St Kitts in the Caribbean. The hostile environment which greeted them included signs for accommodation stating, ‘no blacks, no dogs, no children’. A bus driver once refused to drive the bus because my father was on it. Tough decisions had to be made for any headway to be possible in England, and so, I was sent to spend a few of my early years in St Kitts with relatives, later returning to England. These proved to be fruitful and memorable years.
I have been blessed with parents who conveyed to me what the equality of God’s children truly means. In spite of their difficult experiences, racial prejudice was an alien concept in our home. My parents taught me about the love of Christ by their words and actions towards other people. My mother was always quick to point out behaviours in others that it was worth learning from and emulating. My parents also instilled in me a sense of dignity, pride, and confidence in being black. This prepared me well for my encounters and relationships with white people from early on in primary school through the rest of my life. That I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, as my favourite Psalm 139 states, has been with me throughout my life.
In the practically all-white school, which I attended from the age of 12, I recall feeling like a kind of ‘ambassador for black people’. I had a close friend with whom, as teenagers, we would share conversations about our parents both being post-war immigrants to England. Hers seeking refuge from a non-English speaking country, and mine responding to the UK’s calls for labour from the Caribbean. We would often discuss the disparities in the way in which the world beyond school saw us and treated us: she as a white person, who as such was indistinguishable from other white people in the population, and me as a black person.
The experiences which my friend and I compared, included when I would be asked on numerous occasions in my life outside school – both at that time and in fact also later into adulthood – by white people, ‘How is it that you speak so well. Where did you learn to speak?’ My white friend was never asked this. It was as though black people were, for some reason, inherently incapable of marshalling their thoughts and delivering clear speech. The awful irony was, of course, that my parents were from an English-speaking country, whereas hers were not, and so had to learn the language. Another question I would be asked was, ‘How come you have such good manners?’ A question which, again, my white friend, was never asked. It was as though black people were by nature unruly, and not in command of themselves, so it was a surprise to come across a black person who did not match those expectations. I would also be asked, ‘Where are you from?’ When I would answer ‘London’, this would be followed by, ‘But where are you really from?’ For my white friend, it was invariably sufficient for her to simply say she was from London. The painful reality for me was that these people saw being black as incompatible with being from England, however deep a black person’s roots here might be (and for some it is hundreds of years). My thoughts were that the people who asked me these questions, were not ‘bad’, but in a state of profound ignorance. My sincere hope was that they would not be complacent in their ignorance.
Extract from: ‘My Story’
© Monica Bolley
27 November 2020
For part two please click here