June 7, 2016
In Letters To Finkelstein
Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer. She is a law graduate of King’s College London. Her essays have appeared in Transition Magazine, King’s Review, Pambazuka News and Foreign Policy Journal.
In an excerpt from her essay In the Beginning, she recalls her early memories of childhood in Ireland where she and her siblings were the only African children in the country, even featuring in a local newspaper. It was a happy childhood marred only by racial bullying and intimidation. They were delighted to be shown pictures of Muhammad Ali, the only other person they were aware of who looked like them outside the small circle of Ugandan students, and even more so to be told that he was the ’Champion of the World’.
Muhammad Ali, the Champion of the World
Vindication was important in our house. Years earlier our parents had taught us about the colour bar and that we were meant to fight it. They had been foreign students at a time when the colour bar meant what the law of torts calls vulgar abuse, rather than the more subtle ‘racial discrimination’ of later times. But I could never bring myself to shout “Pinkie, Pinkie” in the middle of Fitzwilliam Street whenever disembodied voices shouted “Blackie, Blackie” as we passed.
It had been Christine McDonald’s idea, Mummy’s friend from church. Christine used to take us out of town, to pick berries and to the seaside to swim. Where our parents tried to ignore the shouts, Christine would become indignant.
“Tell them they are Pinkies.” She would say encouragingly.
“But they will come and beat us.” I would whimper, looking fearfully towards the alleys from which the voices had come.
“Can we go home? I don’t want to go anymore.” We would offer. Anything but the shouting. But her hands and later Mummy’s would tighten around our wrists, “Say it. Pinkie!” Sometimes I could manage a whisper.
We were also taught not to cry, even when the boys on the pavement “hit us for nothing”.
“Did you hit him back?”
“Next time hit him back.”
We hit back vicariously through Muhammad Ali. Whenever he fought, our parents rented a television so we could watch. We stroked his photographs in Time and Newsweek and Life magazines. That is how we knew that Muhammad Ali had refused to go to Vietnam to fight the Vietcong, for nothing.
“Muhamma Dali,” we cooed , “is the champion of the world!”
Apart from ourselves and our small circle, he was the only other Black person we knew of.
“Yes,” said Mummy, “and he is like you.”
And we cut out his pictures and stuck them in our scrap books.