Windrush 75: 'Who am I?' - Sam Messam on family, fighting racism & achievement

This extract is from a longer piece titled ‘Who am I?’ penned by Basketball England Talent Programme and Pathway Manager Sam Messam on his blog for Black History Month. A child of the Windrush Generation, Sam explores in his piece experiences of racism, injustice, success and self-identity.

A former senior lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Lincoln, with a wealth of experience in basketball, education and coaching, Sam previously spent nine years as course leader in sports coaching at University Centre Bradford College and has also held positions at Bradford College, Stephenson College and Greater Warwickshire Sport.

Sam is also one of just 10 to hold the UKCC Level 4 Coaching Award, and is working towards completing his Doctorate in Elite Coaching Practice.

In a non-exhaustive list, Sam has coached English national teams, Yorkshire regional squads, the University of Warwick and Bradford Dragons basketball teams and worked as head basketball coach at the Bradford College Basketball Academy. In 2021, he took up a position at the City of Leeds Basketball Club to lead the U16 boys’ premier team.

Beenie Man poses a profound question in his hit single, ‘Who Am I?’. This characterisation question seeks to unravel notions of personhood and self-identity towards the conceptualisation of self, and the distinct features of one’s personal identity.

In responding to the question, I lean on the culinary, musical and social characteristics that have fashioned the man in the mirror. Indeed, I enjoyed Sunday dinner made of stewed brown chicken, yam, callaloo, fried dumplings and peas. However, Who Am I is also a reflection of the numerous battles that I have faced and continue to face. It is both an internal and external mêlée, one that I have tussled with, sought understanding from, and one that continues to define me.

A time when overt racism prospered

I, like many of African-Caribbean descent, grew up in a lone parent family household. My father left shortly after my third birthday. He was a strong man, born into abject poverty in 1941 in Clarendon, Jamaica. He spent his childhood years in a small ranch like construction, no more impressive than a makeshift shelter. He did not enjoy the privilege of formal schooling, travel or play. Yet, when presented with the opportunity, he joined the Windrush Generation and made his way to Britain. 

My mother, the daughter of a GI bride, spent her early life in the southern States of America, in itself a challenge. On returning to Britain following the collapse of her mother’s marriage, she lived a humble life prior to meeting, and later marrying my father. This was all at a time when segregation, discrimination and overt racism prospered.

Mum was and is a strong lady, cast in high morals and values. She could put her hand to anything and often would in support of her children. She was diligent, hardworking and a task master to herself, always providing, always teaching.

Of equal measure, pops was a welder and spent 30 years building bicycles at Raleigh, which was one of the focal points of Nottinghamshire industry landscape. More importantly, from a life lesson perspective, he was also a Special Constable in the Nottinghamshire Police Force. He would attend football matches, large gatherings, and policed every night of the Hyson Green Riots. Our house was opposite the police station, and we would watch him march out in full riot gear, the lone officer of colour to defend the rights of others.

Sam's father (back left) in his role as a special constable

Ridiculous caricatures of what it was to be black

I was born October 1970. My early childhood was littered with dreadful acts of racism, all of which were accepted behaviour in the ‘Me Decade’. The overt distaste and disrespect for people of colour flourished, and to which I fell victim, over and over again. The ridiculous caricatures and the outlandish perceptions of what it was to be black penetrated my exterior and stained my soul. Indeed, the barbed insults, such as ‘Monkey’, ‘c**n’, and ‘w*g’, in themselves were excruciating, but the reinforcement of these thoughtless imitations of blackness left me indignant. Yet, it is not the case that these epithets were so ingrained and perpetuated by popular media, rather that they were unconscious terms wherein the agent did not understand the hurt and level of upset exacted upon me. In other words, to them they were not always used as insults, which made their use even more heinous. 

Throughout my formative years I lived in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hyson Green, a ward overwhelmed by poverty, prostitution, drugs and violence. This socially constructed habitus was my daily worldview, my socialised existence, considered by cultural participants and outside observers to be nothing more than a frozen norm. In other words, just the way it was.

School was punctuated with daily incursions by ‘enemy forces’ occupying many and all fronts. The playground bully, the local gangs, and even the professionals charged with my care. Every teacher in my junior school was white, they didn’t look like me and they didn’t sound like me, yet for some reason they boasted of knowing exactly who I was. I was ‘trouble’, I ‘had an attitude’, ‘a look about me’ that would get me nowhere in life! My father would scoff, “na bodda wid dem, jus tek wat yuh need.”  This would be an education, the capital required to develop self, to better prepare for the world at large. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. School was difficult, the daily thrashing of the cane, reminiscent of the vicious punishment depicted in Roots. I found both the portrayal and the reality painful. 

Having survived compulsory education, I enrolled on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) as opposed to considering my place in further or higher education. During this period of my life, and as a young man living in Nottingham in the 1980s, I, like many people of colour, endured the popular Police stop and search procedures of the time. The strategy has been widely reported to be disproportionately employed in an overly aggressive manner towards young men of colour.

Basketball was and continues to be my safe space, a place where I am recognised as a person, a player, and a coach. I was introduced to the game at Hyson Green Boys' Club by a community leader, Lloyd Patterson, a dedicated Rastafarian committed to helping young men get out of their own way and succeed in life. My first few years were nothing more than observations and life lessons, what it meant to be part of a team, others over self, and commitment to an end goal. It wasn’t until senior school that I first attempted to put the ball in the basket, and I haven’t stopped trying since then. My very first shot was an 8-foot set shot from the wing, I didn’t venture much further than this throughout my career but have enjoyed every bit of trying.

Sam (left) with Jim Wright and Mark Lloyd on their UKCC Level 4 Award in Coaching Basketball graduation day

Enjoyed success in many quarters

I have attempted to present my early lived life with verisimilitude. In doing so, I am able to reflect on the brutal physical and emotional reality of living black in the UK. Unfortunately, the sentiment of racial inequality has not dwindled in frequency. Time has failed to soften the tenacity of the racist, it merely offers cover, and at times, authenticity to the thinking behind the behaviour.

However, in spite of it all, I have enjoyed success in many quarters. I am a five-time graduate currently engaged in Doctoral study. I am an Advanced HE Senior Fellow and National Teaching Fellow recipient, the first to be recognised from Higher Education in Further Education. I am the first black UKCC Level 4 coach, and one of the first three coaches to complete the programme. I have been nominated three times for the UK Coaching ‘Coach of the Year’ award and am a recipient of the 2019 Basketball England ‘Regional Coach of the Year’ award. 

I wear these achievements with pride. They provide me with a sense of accomplishment despite the treatment exacted upon me. I can say that I have coached and taught hundreds of young people, and that I have been recognised for my contributions to their lives.

Reflecting on my own sense of identity isn’t possible without considering my father's journey into Southampton on the 26 June 1961. Thus, Who Am I is to ask who he was? His exploration to the UK, his battles with abject racism, discrimination, and the continued lack of respect paved the way for his children to understand who they were, are, and aspire to be. The Windrush Generation were forbearers, trailblazers into industry, science, medicine, and sport. They reflect possibilities beyond their years, opportunities they couldn’t have dreamed of, and most importantly of all, they have handed the baton over to second and third generations of entrepreneurs fuelled by their bravery, by their sense of adventure, and as Bob Marley sang – resisting against the system!



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