Our Folks Were Real Superheroes. We need more of their stories.

The mild clanking and clinking as the mechanism stirred was itself mesmerising, and then the needle touched the plate. There was a momentary “zzz” sound and then the music opened.

If only I was skilled enough to read music as a direct correlation of my father’s moods, but I was too young. In any case my interest was curtailed by a stern warning not to touch his prized gramophone -with the teakish wood veneer finish and gauze netting as speakers.

My Ghanaian father, not unlike others who came to Britain soon after Ghana’s independence, faced gnawingly sinking hardships and racism. Yet he and my mum rarely, if ever, spoke about these events to us children.

To complain, perhaps could be misconstrued as weak. Yet I would later from my father’s end observe an Ashanti trait — one of many, in which resilience could be misinterpreted as a weakness, a mistake to those who misunderstood this.

English rule had meddled with Ghana’s already developed customs, and memories of the British treatment of the Ashanti King, exiled, and later the Gold Coast’s independence as Ghana still framed wide narratives.

My father’s way for bringing attention to wrong doing could be a swift index finger pointing to the base of his eye; observations even when actions aren’t taken.

The plan was for him and his cohorts to study in the UK and return to Ghana to help rebuild a new country. That, at least, was the plan.

In the UK, in the 70s as a young lad all this was little understood. How could it not be? And any explanation of political dynamics , racial impediments or offensive tirades my folks encountered were kept hidden from me and my siblings — even to the point when I became an adult.

Ashanti communities and families were bound by an unswerving hierarchical respect for authority and within family. Words tumble out of folks’ mouths as isomers of parables and matter-of-factness. A well known akan saying says: “Obanyansofoo yebu no be, yennka no asem” which translates as when speaking to wise people use proverbs not plain language.

In need of an identity, refuge was often sought in several domains including the magical world of Marvel Comics and animation where to be different was welcomed, if not celebrated. This is not to trivialise. Going from one foster parent, into care, and back again meant the world of magic-realism actually existed. I bought UK first editions of the Fantastic Four and Spiderman, printed in black and white and treasured them. I really was Spiderman, made to face towards the corner and miss tea when I got animated at my foster parent’s place, until I wasn’t.

I mourned for days when one late afternoon back with my parents, I returned home to find my collection disappeared forever like old newspapers. “Surely not!”, as I eyed up the rag and bone man crying out his services as he drove his horse and cart down our street.

To avoid what was seen as the extremis of the UK, many Ghanaian parents took their children back to Ghana in the 70s. It also met the need for their own return, coming during a heightened exasperating period: a hike in unemployment, new anti-immigration laws, a racially unguarded police who records would show acted with impunity, and a welling debilitating educational crisis amongst British-blacks. Facing these multiple evils, my father had had enough. Move on up — newly released by Curtis Mayfield became a rallying cry on our gramophone, as did a number of records, such as Gaye’s What’s Going On’ — all of which later would be acquired for my own record list.

We were carefully bundled off to the never-felt-before humid climes of Ghana to new schools earning the name, “Been to”. Comics continued to be an outlet at boarding school and became tradable commodities. “I’ll lend you my comic to read, if you give me a can of milk”. Been tos: been to London, been to New York, were plentiful and would grow up in communities devoid of the insidious colour-bar racism.

Ghanaians generally knew not British racism. Cultural-ism, a different matter! In a population of mainly black people, skin colour was not an identity shoving one towards potential hardship and discrimination. ‘Obroni’, or white man, as sometimes those with fairer complexions like myself might be called was a habitual amusement for some or quaint indifference for others. However it was the tiny minority of whites in Ghana who might sometimes try to exercise a hegemonic right, which was continually challenged.

After form five at college, another de facto ritual, many Been tos were allowed to return to the UK. As a teen this transition couldn’t be more confusing: “I was so naïve to racism that barely back in the UK I all but walked into a baying mob of skin heads not understanding their animous whilst chanting”. A new friend rescued me.

There followed studious lessons, conscious and experienced. Painfully and paradoxically it emboldened me to step into its jaws when I chose to live and work as a broadcast journalist in Apartheid South Africa at a time when its chains were being broken physically. Psychologically? That required more time.

Our folks were superheroes reframes the herculean sacrifices fathers and mothers endured, in paving the way for their charges to follow. And the zeitgeist and success of Marvel comics helps explains this non-phenomenon. There are story lines between the storyboards as relevant today. Our folks did not wear capes. But their hidden narratives which envelop superhero status are extraordinary — as they become known.

Poet and author Maya Angelou, of course delivers the words: “I think that we live in direct relation to the heroes and sheroes”, she says, “and I honour all our ancestors who tried to stay alive and be somebody so that we could be here this evening and try to accept that we’ve been loved, each of us..”

My father’s ritual parties on the 24th and 31st of December were as legendary in the UK as they were back in Ghana where he once hired the great band Osibisa to play at a venue, which was in fact our home. He tried for Fela Kuti, but the deal fell through. I wished I knew the story when I interviewed Fela years later who by then had become a global superstar.

A rising police officer in Ghana, my father forsook that for jobs in the UK that he would not mention. My mother fulfilled, albeit, with great difficulty and restrain a career that was a trajectory of her nunnery upbringing; she became a nurse. She too shied away from any narrative of her turmoils. “zip” she would action with her clenched fingers swiping her mouth.

And then one day she started talking, before she realised she’d undone her own oath and veered off subject. Too late. For the first time ever, I had the presence of mind to record her. It provided a rare glimpse into her past.

I never digitally captured my father’s stories. My major regret. One of my favourite radio programmes on BBC Radio is Fi Glover’s The Listening Project. It is captured narratives that might explain humanity were aliens to land on earth. I often wondered why there aren’t more curated around the experience I and many people I know have traversed.

In thinking around my folks I’m drawn to my shelf and to Staying Power: the history of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer. I recently learned my uncle who worked at the British Library was one of his friends and he’s only begun sharing insights with me. In lockdown, I unearthed in my garage hordes of records, many an homage to my folks — my father in particular.

It made me recall the last thing I said to him with hours to live. I loved him. It was my first recollection of doing so. I’ve since been methodically combing their pasts. Our folks were true superheroes.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.