CW: sexual and physical abuse, racism
Illustrations by Rachel MacNaghten
‘My Name is Why’ is a harrowing walk through the early life of writer Lemn Sissay. His birth mother was from Ethiopia and had come to England to study but fell pregnant and was sent to St. Margaret’s House – a place for unwed mothers to have their child and then, often by force, relinquish them to the state. From here, he was fostered by a white family called the Greenwoods in Wigan, who went on to have three biological children. However, as the years went on, they began to make up lies about him and treat him differently to his white siblings, and they eventually gave him back to the local authorities at the age of twelve.
This, of course, was not the end nor the beginning of Sissay’s mistreatment based on his racial identity. As a baby, his name was changed from Lemn to Norman, since his given name was not white enough to force him to fit in and assimilate to a culture that refused to acknowledge his roots. This pattern continued into his early childhood, wherein his adoptive parents would not call his skin anything other than ‘chocolate’ and avoided addressing the cruelty of children on the street who called him names and bullied him for his appearance. His Ethiopian roots were kept from him; swept under the rug like it were dust dirtying the mantlepiece. Despite all this, he remained a bright and positive child in school and was loved by his primary school teachers.
‘I got positive attention because I was a positive child and I got negative attention because of racism.’
Understandably, Sissay began to act up a little in school when he was sent to the Woodfields Care Home by the only family he knew. Surrounded by strangers and in an unfamiliar environment, it is only normal for an adolescent to try and communicate distress in such a way. Yet he was shown little empathy, little attention, and little love. ‘I was becoming untouchable,’ he says; though it was not in a does-whatever-he wants kind of way, but rather in an unhuggable-unlovable-untouchable kind of way. The staff ignored him and the other children there, so that at twelve years old he was a chronic smoker.
The other kids around him, in both school and the care home, were very little kinder than the staff. His first friend, a half-Chinese and half-white lad called Peter Libby, named him ‘Chalky’ after the stereotypically lazy and poorly spoken West Indian character Chalky White, created by white comedian Jim Davidson. As a slightly older boy, Sissay looks back and appreciates that this was a move to harden his skin in preparation for racial mockery by other youths around them – knowing how cruel they can be. But Sissay grew to hate the nickname, for good reason. It allowed other kids from school and the care home to call him slurs because he could ‘take a joke’. In reality, their jokes and laughter ‘with’ Sissay were a poor excuse for thinly veiled racism.
After less than a year at Woodfields, Sissay was moved to a care home on Gregory Avenue, after being singled out from a group of other boys for acting out and so-called anti-social behaviour. It made him lose even more faith in those adults around him who should have been protecting him and bringing as much stability to him as possible. As the title states: ‘hurt people hurt people’. Although, it was perhaps for a greater good that he managed to escape that place for a while. Between the 1970s and 1990s, there were over 40 complaints made about excessive use of violence and sexual abuse at Woodfields. He faced strip-searching and a complete lack of privacy.
The cruelty of the foster care system is especially felt by people of colour. The system is designed in a way that continues to harm those most at risk in society. The hurt people. Around 25% of those in care are people of colour, despite only making up roughly 14% of the population. This is one reason why children and young people of colour are more at risk of sexual abuse, human trafficking, and grooming. There is also a higher rate of young offenders within the care system, and with that a higher risk of reoffending. The cycle continues. Hurt people hurt people.
It has been over 40 years since Sissay began his journey in the care system, and the trauma of that itself still lives with him and many others he grew up with to this day. Very little has changed – much more needs to be done to protect our young people in care, especially those at higher risk due to their ethnicity. So, yes – hurt people hurt people. But this is no excuse to continue a seemingly never-ending cycle of institutionalised child abuse and exploitation. It is, and has been for a long while, time for reform.
Listed below are some resources and foundations that can be found in the back of the Canongate 2020 edition of ‘My Name is Why’
A Child of the State; TEDXHouses of Parliament, June 2012
Lemn Sissay tells his story of being a child in care, and discusses why literature is so fascinated with orphaned, adopted, and fostered children.
Superkids: Breaking Away from Care; Channel 4, November 2018
A BAFTA-nominated TV documentary in which Lemn Sissay meets seven young people who are in the care of the council and helps them to express their experiences through words to perform to a packed theatre of decision-makers.
The Memory of Me; BBC4, May 2020
Following the publication of his new memoir My Name Is Why, writer Lemn Sissay tells Alan Yentob what it was like to grow up as the only black child in a sleepy market town outside Wigan in the 1970s.
A charity that has been supporting and advocating for children in care and young care leavers since 1985.
The Care Leavers Association (careleavers.com)
A national charity aiming to improve the lives of care leavers of all ages, improve the current care system, and improve public perception of those in the care system.
Family Rights Group (frg.org.uk)
This charity works with parents in England and Wales whose children are in need, at risk, in the care system, or in the care of wider members of the family. They help families have their voice heard, be treated fairly, and with early intervention help.
The Fostering Network (thefosteringnetwork.org.uk)
This is the UK’s leading fostering charity. They are the essential network for fostering and making the foster care system the best it can be.
The NSPCC help all kinds of children in the UK. They work with children in therapeutic settings for a number of reasons, including to help support them and their families after abuse and neglect. In addition to this, they work with professionals and communities to help make the best decisions for children and young people, as well as working to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
A voluntary service which helps to support children and families trapped in the care system.
The Gold From The Stone Foundation (thechristmasdinners.org.uk)
Established by Lemn Sissay in 2017 to combat loneliness of young people in care. Its main focus is the Christmas Dinner Project, which is aimed at care leavers aged 18-25 and provides a venue, chefs, and dinner for Christmas Day. There are a number of ways to get involved, including by:
- Buying gifts
- Gift wrapping and decoration making
- Volunteering to be a helper on Christmas Day
Donating at www.thechristmasdinners.org.uk/the-foundation