Lola Shoneyin: Feeling the pain of racist abuse

I HAD no idea what a golliwog was until my father sent me to an Edinburgh prep school at six years old. I have often asked him why he chose to educate me (and my five brothers) so far away from home. His answer is always the same: He wanted the very best.

But why did a man of such lowly beginnings decide to send his children to boarding school in faraway Scotland? He wasn't born into a rich family. In fact, his father before him was nothing more than a local village herbalist who never quite grasped the value of education.

So, knowing his dad would never send him to secondary school, my father worked from a young age and used his savings to buy exercise books.

When his wealthier, more fortunate agemates friends returned from big city schools, dad would borrow their textbooks and painstakingly copy down the words and the diagrams. For years, he educated himself, snubbing the mastery of medicinal leaves and barks that his father offered.

When the modern school exams rolled by, my father sat in a secondary school classroom for the first time and scored the highest results in the region. His unflinching determination to succeed would eventually win him a scholarship to study civil engineering in London in the late 1950s.

Over the years, my awareness of the racism that black people faced in the Britain has grown. My father has grown too. Now, at 80, he tells of his experiences in Britain which have merged into two anecdotes. The first is about two young men at university who asked to see his tail.

The second is how, while slapping worn shoes against the London streets, he observed better-born undergraduates zip past him in sports cars.

He will forgive me when I say I suspect that these were the two experiences that shaped his aspirations for us – his children. The first time I touched down at Edinburgh Airport, I could barely contain my excitement. Although I knew I was going to be separated from my parents, and the sun that had warmed me all my life, all that mattered was settling into the life that my father promised would make me a "well-rounded individual" – whatever that was, I was more interested in the Swiss apple charlotte that my brothers spoke about.

I was one of only two female boarders at my new school so there wasn't a girl's dormitory at first. We both lived in a room in the headmaster's house. I like to say I will never know the glory of snow because, even at six, I hated going out into the fields for games in the winter. I didn't care for Latin either. But those minor discomforts evaporated every time I walked into the loving embrace of the headmaster's wife. Not only did she make me feel accepted and loved, because of her I never experienced the homesickness that made some of the other children cry.

My mother often remarks that my impulse to be physical with people was derived from this experience. I smile and press a big kiss on her cheek. If only she knew, I think to myself. If only she knew how proud I am that she acknowledges some legacy from the woman who faithfully filled her shoes all those years ago.

But there was one thing that the wife's loving arms couldn't protect me from and that was the conspicuous melanin that I wore. While I bumbled along making friends and doing all the naughty things that kids do, I was stunned when, one day, a schoolmate called me a black Sambo. I didn't immediately understand the significance of this name. I remember calling him a "white Sambo". It was the best I could come up with.

Later that week, I went to the school library in search of a book I knew I'd come across several times. I found Little Black Sambo and was horrified to find a drawing of an ugly charcoal-faced creature with fuzzy, unkempt hair. I stared at the sickly smile on Little Black Sambo's bulbous lips and knew, even then, that it was a caricature, a patronising misrepresentation of black people.

The name calling didn't stop there. After "black Sambo" came "golliwog", "nig-nog" and the unforgettable "oh-the-black-nigger" rendered in a deep, growling voice.

It wasn't that I didn't know that my skin was of a different colour to my schoolmates but, to me, it held no more significance than the array of eye colour or the shades of hair I observed. Nevertheless, these names aroused a deep sense of frustration about my blackness because, understandably, I didn't want to stand out in this way. And I certainly didn't want a nickname that suggested that I had something in common with the ever-beaming, vulgarly-dressed character on a jam jar. I didn't have anything against the golliwog per se; it was infuriating that the golliwog was constantly cited as my kinsman. We didn't have anything in common.

I am 35 now and I haven't been back in Scotland for 25 years. But that has nothing to do with my childhood experiences. I have many, many fond memories of my years at Cargilfield. Now that I am a writer, I can only thank those teachers who fed my curiosity and forced me to read for 45 minutes every day. The haggis I buy from delis never tastes quite as good as the one my palate recalls and my four children may never, ever understand my love for black pudding with warmed plum tomatoes.

I visit the Cargilfield School website often and hope that the little black girl in one of the photographs will not be writing a similar account to mine in 30 years time. I doubt that she will. This society has changed so much, and for the better.

I have recently sent my 11-year-old son to a boarding school in Oxford, less than an hour's drive from home. I am happy to report that his predominantly white schoolmates have never called him names with racist undertones. My father and I are just so pleased that he is growing up with children who are aware of the pain that such names inflict, and how horribly unfunny they are.

Lola Shoneyin is a secondary school teacher and published poet. Her novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, is out soon.