When I Think of Home by Cheryl Martin

A Black woman speaking into a microphone. She is wearing a strappy dress and a necklace. Part of her face and body are in shadow.

 

Sung [by Cheryl, a capella]

HOME from The Wiz, songwriter Charlie Smalls

When I think of home, I think of a place

where’s there’s love overflowing

I wish I was home, I wish I was back there

With the things I’ve been knowing

 

Wind that makes the tall grass bend into leaning

Suddenly the raindrops that fall they have a meaning

Sprinklin’ the scene

Makes it all clean

 

Spoken

I’ve been talking to my mother during lockdown.  A lot. I just turned 60, and she’s 86, so she had me at 26.  I now think of 26-year-old’s as children — though in 1960 to be 26 and married was very grown up.  Plus she had a civil service job.  Black woman with a civil service secretarial job, married to a black man with his own civil service post – computer systems analyst.

They must have seemed like a picture-book black couple, the definition of respectability. Mama was very pretty:  high yellow with high cheekbones from her half-indigenous mother.  And you couldn’t tell by looking at Daddy – not when we were little, anyway – you couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was a stone unrepentant alcoholic.  Or that she was his Enabler.

Though for a long time that’s how I defined them: Alchy and Enabler.  And deep down, I blamed them – not exactly for that, but because their preoccupation with those roles meant they didn’t support me when my mind turned on itself.

But then, I was suicidal by the time I was eight.  That would’ve been hard for anybody to understand — let alone two put-upon young black people trying to get the American Dream.  They got it.  The house they owned.  The new cars, every three years. The children at a fee-paying school – low fees, subsidised by the Catholic Church – but still.  Fee-paying. And every last damn one of us went to university.  NYU Law.  Williams.  Cambridge.

From the outside we were all perfect.  Especially when we were kids.  Sporty – even the half-dead asthmatics.  Really good at it, too.

I never knew how much they loved me — my poor parents.  My mother told me yesterday she wanted to be a writer when she was at primary.  That she wrote little books.  I started crying silently – I almost always make no sound when I cry.  I learned to hide all that sadness when I was eight.  Made sure no one could hear.

My mother had wanted to be a writer. But she truly hated that I wanted to be one.  She refused to read my poems – but then, reading poems by a suicidal eight-year-old must have been a bit trying, I guess.  Anyway, she never did, not that I know. And I never stopped writing.

Does she remember any of this?  Our memories of the same periods of time are so different, we might as well have been on different planets.  She remembers every time some racist tried to block me getting an award or a job when I was in high school.  I remember none of it.

But now, finally, I realise this was the other problem preoccupying her.  And Daddy. Trying to make sure we children could actually do the things and have the lives our potential said we should.   So they had me and Fletcher – he’s two years younger than me – they had us IQ-tested before we were five:  before we went to school, so they’d know what kind of grades we were supposed to get, not just what white teachers wanted to give us. Mine was sky-high.  Fletcher’s was even higher.  I lived up to it.  He never could.

And Mama told me a few weeks ago that when I was in high school in Colorado, some racist teacher let me know I would never be valedictorian, even though I had the highest grades in the class.  Which meant I should be valedictorian – and give the big speech at graduation.  Because this white boy whose father owned the biggest bank in town was going to be valedictorian.  Not me.

When I told my parents that, they packed the family up – all five kids – moved us all back to DC, where we came from.  Washington, D.C.  Seventy-percent black, back then.  Black mayor, black police chief, black doctors, teachers, lawyers, black everything.  The black majority universe I come from.

They moved the whole family so I could have my chance.  And I was valedictorian of my all-girl, Catholic, fee-paying high school.  And I used my chance to go to uni hundreds, then thousands of miles away.  Mama and Daddy both thought and they both said I was ungrateful.

I was pretty pissed off about that.  Why should they control me?  They never could control me.  They couldn’t even potty-train me – my grandmother had to do it. I had my bottle until the day I asked Daddy for it and he decided, if I could ask for it, I was too old for it.  My poor parents.  Children.  With a spoiled, smart kid.

I had to leave home.  It was toxic – their Alchy/Enabler relationship and the emotional chaos it caused – too much for me.  I wouldn’t have survived if I’d stayed.  But I couldn’t say that.  I couldn’t tell them that.

And they thought I was ungrateful. But they never told me they left that huge, pretty house in Colorado, where we counted as rich, for me.  I didn’t know.  Until a few weeks ago.

Or that my mother wanted to be a writer.  Not a doctor, or a lawyer, Like she kept telling us — like my little sister grew up to be.  She dreamed of becoming a writer.  Just like me.

 

Sung [by Cheryl, a capella]

When I think of home, I think of a place

where’s there’s love overflowing

I wish I was home, I wish I was back there

With the things I’ve been knowing

 

Wind that makes the tall grass bend into leaning

Suddenly the raindrops that fall they have a meaning

Sprinklin the scene

Makes it all clean

 

Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back

Now that I have some direction

(Maybe there’s a chance I will get back home)

It sure would be nice to be back at home

Where there’s love and affection

 

And just maybe I can convince time to slow up

Giving me enough time, ooh, in my life to grow up

Time be my friend

And let me start again

 

The End

 

A Black woman with locks, smiling.Cheryl Martin, two-time Manchester Evening News Theatre Award winner – as writer and as director was Guest Curator for Liverpool’s Homotopia 2018, the UK’s largest LGBTQ+ festival.  A Co-Artistic Director of Manchester’s Black Gold Arts Festival, Cheryl’s acclaimed Homotopia-commissioned show, Rent Party is still touring nationally after two years on the road.  She was also selected for British Council Australia’s 2019-2020 INTERSECT programme.     

Her new solo show One Woman, R&D-supported by Made at HOME, won an Unlimited Wellcome Collection Partnership Award main commission and is headed for the Southbank Centre in 2021. Her 2018 play on HIV for Contact, I Am Because We Are is to tour nationally and internationally in 2020. Cheryl’s first solo stage show, Alaska featured twice at Contact’s Flying Solo Festival before a national tour including 2016’s A Nation’s Theatre and still touring, having featured in the 2019 Summerhall Edinburgh Fringe.  It was inspired by her Polari Prize longlisted first collection of poems, also called Alaska, published by Commonword’s Crocus books. Cheryl started her career as part of Identity workshop, still going strong at Commonword. She was a former Associate Director, New Writing/New Work at Contact and Director-in-Residence at Edinburgh’s Traverse. For more information on Cheryl Martin go to her website or find her on twitter @cherylalaska

Published 29 July 2020.