Dear my past self by Maxine Beneba Clarke


As part of The Stories We Tell Ourselves, we commissioned 12 writers from Australia and the UK to write a letter to their past or future selves. In response to the question “Who are we now?”, these writers consider what conversations and stories need to be had and created for us to reimagine, rethink and rebuild the world around us.

Writer Maxine Beneba-Clarke writers to her past self:

“Dear smart, determined, kind, 12-year-old Black girl. 

I’m writing to say keep your head up, to remind you that you know the way. 

I’m not writing to say don’t be scared. That is a cliché that doesn’t belong in your story. There are good reasons to be afraid. Don’t let anyone minimise the struggles you’ll face, the hatred you’ll encounter. How you face that fear will be the making of you.

I know these things, because I was you. You know these things because you became me.

I know things are difficult for you right now, there on stolen Gadigal country, just beginning to understand what it means to be a child of Afro-Caribbean descent and Black British legacy, born and living in so-called Australia, at this particular moment in history. 

In just over 20 years, your story will live on bookshelves and in hearts around the country. In 30, your story will be on the grade 12 school syllabus in your home state. Your memoir The Hate Race will remain the most challenging of all the books you’ve written – now numbering over 10. Yeah, you made it. Though your ancestors learnt to read at risk of whipping, at risk of death. That saying: I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams? You were. You are. You are Black Girl Magic. Your latest work is a picture book: When We Say Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter is a global Black civil rights movement, founded by three African American women, and is what some of that energy fighting against racial injustice over centuries has culminated in. I won’t lie to you: existing as a Black girl – woman, in the world is still exhausting, but Black joy is real too, and you will always find your way back Home to it.

Dear Beautiful, some change did arrive – in your life and the world. The Unites States has seen its first Black president, and vice president. Bookshelves started to diversify. Same sex marriage was legalised in Australia. Some things, unfortunately became worse.

I write in the midst of a global pandemic, from a burning world, from the edge of inequality. The seasons are shifting. Bushfires, hurricanes and tsunamis have become more common. On Fridays, kids your age all around the work skip school to protest climate change. 

War is not a thing of the past. Nor violence against women. Nor genocide. Nor police brutality. For around every 103 people in the world, one is an internally displaced person, asylum seeker, or refugee. The gap between the rich and the poor is ever-increasing. Sometimes things seem as hopeless as they ever were.

There are so many other things I’d like to explain to you. iPhones. Beyonce. E-books. The two beautiful children you’ve raised; the strong Black woman you grew into. 

There are so many things I want to tell you: Floss every night. Don’t straighten your hair in eighth grade. Pop Tarts are not real food. You’ll eventually have your first kiss behind the Baulkham Hills Pizza Hut. His breath will smell like pepperoni; it will be shockingly underwhelming.

But really, what I want to say is this: despite the chaos of the world that is, you are proof of progress – of fairer lawmaking, of greater racial understanding, of how education opens doors, of years of campaigning for women’s rights, of a changing world. Your life was gifted to you by the struggles, persistence and vision of those who came before you.

This is how we’ll get there: gathering good people around us, and stepping, one foot in front of the other, towards everything that is right, and fair, and kind, and humane and decent.

Dear smart, determined, kind, 12-year-old Black girl. 

Your one job, on the page or outside of it, is to just keep trying to make the world a better place.

I know you know that, because I know it too.”

Maxine Beneba Clarke is the ABIA and Indie award winning author of over nine books for adults and children, including the critically acclaimed short fiction collection Foreign Soil, the bestselling memoir The Hate Race, the Victorian Premier’s Award winning poetry collection Carrying the World, and the Boston Globe/Horn Prize winning picture book The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van T. Rudd. She is the editor of Best Australian Stories 2017, and Growing Up African in Australia. Her forthcoming poetry collection is How Decent Folk Behave (Hachette, October).

The Stories We Tell Ourselves is a partnership between Spread the Word, The Wheeler Centre and Melbourne, City of Literature. It is part of the UK/Australia Season; a joint initiative by the British Council and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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