Image: Florence (left) consoles Lola (right) in a performance at the Button Factory, July 2015. Photo by Yan Bourke.
In this post, Florence, a much loved member of Discovery Gospel Choir and a student of Tallaght IT, shares her experiences of growing up in Ireland, and how education and music have supported her and helped her to grow.
“Oh deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, someday”
I remember my first day in primary after moving to Dublin from Athlone. Me and my sister were the only black people in the school. We were in the yard, and within two minutes, we had a bunch of white kids around us touching our skin, our hair, staring at us. I was so scared – I just wanted to play. Instead of play and getting to know my classmates I felt so separate, so excluded from them. I didn’t know what was going on. I will never forget.
The bullying started immediately. Even though it was occasionally physical, it was the name calling that got to me. It served as a constant reminder that I was not the same as everyone else. Teachers weren’t a source of support – maybe it was their first time to teach african kids, maybe this was all new to them too, but either way they didn’t stop it. One example that sticks in my mind is when we passed a black car on the way to the swimming pool. The Teacher was leading the group, I was at the back walking alone. When we got to the car, one of the kids started shouting “camoflague” and pointing at me, making everyone laugh. I was already shy, I didn’t like being the centre of attention. But I couldn’t control it. I was different and I was constantly reminded of it by the other kids. I was so sad.
The bullying didn’t stop in secondary school – but there were two other African girls in my year. It wasn’t good, but at least we had each other. When I left secondary school, I left convinced that there was no such thing as equality – not for me and my friends. Irish people were very much “they”. I felt that maybe we could co-exist, but never truly understand each other.
I look back now, and I strongly feel that when we are educated, truly educated about each other, the things that I have experienced simply do not happen. I remember text books that showed only pictures of emaciated Africans – but no mention of the fact that Africa is home to over 50 different cultures, hundreds of languages, artists, writers; hard-working people who were just like them. Yes there were places that were underdeveloped, yes they need to be acknowledged. But there is a bigger picture. Ignoring that picture leaves us with a half formed idea of someone’s personhood – but eductation can heal this.
Beginning college in the IT Tallaght was my turning point. I chose to study Social care practice. Just to have my classmates treat me as a person, asking me if I wanted to go to lunch, and genuinely trying to get to know me – it helped me to embrace myself more. I was able to acknowledge that I was African, that I was black. It helped me deal with the low self-esteem that I’d been harbouring since school. It was a social education; one that helped me to accept who I was and see my differences as something to embrace. I could come to class wearing my African headress and really enjoy my roots and my personal story. My lecturers encourage me to see my heritage as something valuable, something I can use to connect with the people I’ll someday work with. The course has really expanded my thinking and helped me to understand that there’s more to everyone than what we see at first glance. I’ve learned it’s good to be me and it’s good to care for others. My course has showed me how much education – social and academic – can enrich our worlds by helping us to see each other.
I was I still in my first year in college when I found Discovery Gospel Choir. I was interested in learning more about other groups of people, and I wanted an extra musical challenge on top of a choir I was already in. My Aunt pointed me in the direction of the group – she’d heard they were having auditions. I called up and discovered that there were auditions on that day – I ran into town and sang O Happy Day for the musical director, Aisling, and Esosa (a long term member). They kept reminding me to look up and smile. I had an interview with Peter (the welfare officer) and Philip (the chairperson at the time). I was so honoured when I was accepted to join the group.
I have so many happy memories. During my third rehearsal they got me cake and sang to me on my Birthday. I remember getting my first solo – all the support and the praise and encouragement. I remember my Grandmother coming to one of my concerts and saying she’d never seen a group of people so joyful and unified, and that she’d never seen me so happy. When I think of Discovery, I think of people who believe in me, who challenge me in all the best ways. Having people who believe in you so important.
Discovery has a motto: Discover the beauty in everyone. And that motto says it all. With Discovery, the first thing you see is how many different ethnicities are in the group. You hear that everyone has a unique voice, a unique character and comes from a totally different culture. You see the differences and you learn how to work with them. You learn how to adapt and to enjoy them, and you learn about how you work and what to do when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t work the same way you do. Even your differences in musical backgrounds – your experience is a part of the puzzle and no-one is less. You’re encouraged to push your own boundaries and come out of your own shell.
We’re not all on the same page in terms of faith, and we don’t always have the same opinions, but we accept each other. We actively work to respect and accept each other and that’s why diversity thrives in this group. And what I’ve found is that while this group has challenged me to discover the beauty in everyone, it has truly helped me find the beauty in me.
Where you’re brought up matters. Your background, how you were raised, where you were raised, they’re part of who you are and how you see the world. This does not need to be a bad thing. We should be able to see our differences not as things that make us a target, but as something to embrace, because these things are your story, and they are part of who you are and who you will become. And that is beautiful! When we talk about diversity and racism, it is not about liking everyone. It’s about embracing difference – all of the “perfect imperfections”. When you understand someone, you might not like them but you can respect them, and you can work with them. Making that effort to be diverse and educate ourselves helps us to embrace each other, and to deepen our own self-respect. Education and music can help us all to do this, because when you are educated, truly educated, you can see the world in a different way. You can transcend any differences you face.