Black and Green

Black and Green
Kentish Town 1961 – Gus with his two brothers and sister

Adam Shaw spoke to Gus Nwanokwu who has written a book about growing up as a mixed race Irish Londoner

No Blacks No Dogs No Irish

London 1966

These words were displayed all too frequently across London in the 1960s and 70s by those letting accommodation.

As one can imagine, it would make particularly uncomfortable reading for someone who was either Irish or black.

What about someone who was both? Gus was born to an Irish mother and a Biafran-Nigerian father in 1957.

He grew up in London, where, in many places, his father, Michael, was looked down upon not only as a black man but as a black man who was with a white woman. His mother, Margaret, would suffer similar taunting and, given that she was Catholic and her husband was not, would, for many years, be ostracised by her family back in Ireland.

Tough situation

It was certainly a tough situation to be born into. But as Gus explains through his book, Black Shamrocks, he had a loving family and the confidence in his own abilities to overcome racism and build a successful career.

Black and Green

“We were very poor and at a huge material disadvantage, but we had the love and support that gave us the hope to succeed,” he said.

“It showed the impact of having two very positive people behind you. There are other children in similar situations that don’t have the support and they struggle.

“That’s not to say that they didn’t have the ability, they’ve just not had the structures in place to help them.”

He acknowledges that he was simply lucky, that his understanding parents ensured he would remain on the right path in spite of the intolerance he suffered elsewhere. And it was the combination of both figures, and both their cultures, that allowed Gus to thrive.

“My mum was very strong, very proud to be Irish, and she was responsible for politicising us growing up,” he explained.

“But I didn’t develop a mixed race identity; I developed a very black identity because it helped me survive in such a society.

“However, the Irish side of me also gave me a lot of strength and a fantastic insight into the concepts of race and racism.

“I’m very proud of the history of both my parents’ countries, how they both struggled for independence and, although Biafra didn’t achieve it, we now have an independent Ireland.

Black and Green

Black Shamrocks isn’t just about race, however, and Gus believes it has the potential to resonate with a large number of people. He added that the book carries an historical overtone, giving readers the chance to learn more about Anglo-Afro-Irish relations.

It covers his mother’s upbringing in Co. Limerick and Co. Tipperary and how the barn she lived in was utilised as an IRA hideout. It conveys his father’s shock at seeing so much racism first hand, particularly in schools, since this was something he was unaccustomed to back in Nigeria.

And it is dotted with facts about issues such as class divisions and slavery – Gus, like many, was surprised to learn that 50,000 Irish were sent to the Caribbean as slaves before black people were.

Black and Green

“It was a learning experience for me, hopefully it will be for others, and I hope people who read it can relate to it,” he said. “I’d like to think a very broad base would benefit from reading the book – it’s about people, it’s about life, it’s about perceptions.

“It covers a wide range of issues that still affect young people and I also talk about various historical developments and their impact on today’s society.

“If we can unravel these issues, I’d like to think that people would be more tolerant, more understanding, more positive and more productive.”

The book might have started out as a few notes, a quasi family history for Gus to pass onto his children, nieces and nephews. But a positive reaction turned it into something more concrete, while subsequent praise means this is unlikely to be a stand-alone project.

The first-time author admitted that he’s unsure what his next move will be, though, given his complex background, he’s not short of follow-up themes.

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