Read an exclusive #Merky Books extract from Dreaming In A Nightmare

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‘My name is Jeremiah... I come from a difficult environment. And I want to change the world for myself, and for everyone like me’

Identity, My Mother’s Story

I have a good friend called Kenny, a social entrepreneur who has worked on a number of charitable projects with a man named Lord Hastings. Lord Hastings was, Kenny told me, a life peer, the Head of Global Citizenship at KPMG, and a former head of public affairs at the BBC. A big deal. Fast-forward a few months; I was speaking at an event in London. As I came offstage, a black man, maybe around sixty years old, came over to say hello and to ask me about my speech. We had a chat, and at the end he handed me his business card. It said, ‘Dr Michael Hastings, Baron Hastings of Scarisbrick, CBE’. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Lord Hastings!’ Whenever Kenny or others described him, I had always imagined him as white— a middle-age, upper-class white man. I had never thought he might be black. But he is. One of the 100 most influential black people in Britain, in fact. 

I wrote to him a few days later to thank him and he replied, saying, ‘Jeremiah, I would love to know who you are.’ I was a bit confused, as we had spoken a little bit about what I did, but I tried to explain: ‘Dear Lord Hastings, my name is Jeremiah. We met backstage at the event the other day. I founded EMNL Consultancy, I’m a youth activist and entrepreneur . . .’ and so on. He came back almost immediately: ‘Jeremiah, I didn’t ask what you do, I asked who you are.’ 

I remember staring at the email when it arrived. I couldn’t get my head around it. It spun me. What did he mean? What else could I say? I’m Jeremiah! It took me a day or two before I could think about how to reply. Eventually I came up with, ‘My name is Jeremiah. I was raised in a single-parent family. I come from a difficult environment. And I want to change the world for myself, and for everyone like me.’ Or something like that, anyway . . . It was a much better answer, and a more accurate one. Lord Hastings thought so too. He said: ‘Thank you. I understand who you are now.’

Before that, I don’t really think I knew who I was. I never really gave it any thought. I’m not sure many people my age do. Who you are and what you do are two very different things. This is a question of identity; it’s an important question. We don’t know who we are. And that can have significant impacts in the short and long term. The first question I would like to ask is, who are you? The second question to ask is, who do people think you are? The third question is, which is true? These answers will shape every aspect of your life. As I said to Lord Hastings, I was brought up in a single-parent household. We didn’t have much. I am also a young, curious, ambitious person. I believe in my community. I believe in my friends. I would also describe myself as British. Ignore for now the fact that I only became a British citizen in 2007, seven years after I was born here. I’m a citizen. I am British. But if someone asked me where I’m from, I don’t think I would say British. Not first of all, anyway. Does that make sense? 

Dreaming In A Nightmare: Finding A Way Forward In A World That’s Holding You Back by Jeremiah Emmanuel is out on 20 August from #Merky Books, £12.99 hardback.

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