Marking Black History Month: Johanna’s story
To mark Black History Month, WAY volunteer Johanna Pereira shares the story of how she navigated the cultural challenges of being widowed and Black – and how she is helping other WAY members to find connections with other people who understand some of those challenges…
I was widowed aged 39 in May 2018 when my husband Mike died from a Glioblastoma – the same type of tumour his mother had died from 18 years previously. He died within three months of diagnosis. We had been together for nine years and married for four years.
I have two daughters, a 24-year-old and a now 8-year-old, but my youngest daughter was then 3 years old and was diagnosed with autism a few months after my husband’s death. It was a time of immense loss and grief along with fear and worry for my newly diagnosed daughter.
I was grateful to have found WAY Widowed and Young and joined the peer support network in July 2018 – six weeks after my husband died.
"When I thought I would have to face the biggest change and challenge in my life alone, I found WAY and it was like finding a light at the end of the tunnel."
Although I didn’t have the emotional energy at first to attend face-to-face events, I joined WAY’s closed Facebook group and members only website, where I was able to draw comfort and strength from others like me also facing the path of young widowhood. When I finally did attend a coffee meet up, I was welcomed by the kindest most understanding WAY members, some of whom are now close friends.
I was born in Namibia, so I consider myself Black African, but I grew up in Portugal and have a Black family and White family. My mother was a refugee from Angola, and my grandfather was White Portuguese. I always understood there were differences. Growing up in Portugal made me more culturally European, although I am African.
My father is Black and although I didn’t get to meet him, I have always associated with that part of my heritage. I left home at 18 so I could explore my own history. I read a lot about history and connected with other Black people. I worked hard at making a connection with Africa and my African roots.
When I went to university in Sussex and the Oxford, I met other African people who were just themselves. There was no pretence. I was able to remove my hair extensions and accept myself for who I was. In Oxford, I made friends from all cultures. It’s when I really connected with people.
When I met my husband, he was very culturally British. He hadn’t travelled a lot, and he had been married to an Afro-Caribbean woman.
When we married, we moved to Somerset. We were one of the very few mixed-race couples around. It felt odd because Somerset is very conservative and homogenous culturally. It took a lot of adjusting to that. When Mike died, I was dropped and completely alone. It was such a hard time of my life.
I considered moving but I realised there’s a lot of stability, even if there aren’t a lot of social connections. I have a home, my girls are at school, and I have a job as a civil servant not far from the town I live in. For me, it’s a decision between stability or social connections.
Without WAY, I wouldn’t have those social connections. It helped me to feel connected, even though at first, I only talked to people through Facebook and the members only website. I remember feeling I don’t feel I can share anything, but I feel I can belong. I was able to take steps to leave the house and meet in a small group – all things done with the encouragement of WAY. I was so frightened of leaving the house, but other people in WAY helped me to be brave and connect and get out.
In 2020, I became a local volunteer for WAY, leading walks and other events. I am also involved in different subgroups for WAY, including a group for people from different ethnic and cultural groups and for those whose late partner was from a different ethnic or cultural background, which has 53 members.
Our main conversations revolve around the separation of cultures and the cultural aspects of funerals. A lot of mixed couples feel as if they’ve been disconnected from their late partner’s culture. People with children have found that it is particularly difficult for them. This group (WAY – Culturally & Ethnically Diverse) recognises that there are people who feel the same way. It offers reassurance that there are other people who understand our unique challenges. I am no longer an admin for the group but I’m a member and am very involved.
We are open to people of all cultures. The moment we create a safe space for Black and Asian people, it sometimes feels ghettoised. We don’t want to be regarded as separatist.
I am also a member of WAY’s Cultural Diversity Working Group, which is bringing people from different ethnicities together to help create a supportive and inclusive culture, where those with diverse experiences can participate and contribute. In line with our Strategic Plan, it is WAY’s hope that EVERYONE, married or not, with or without children, inclusive of sexual orientation, gender, race and religion, know about WAY and know that they are welcome to join if they have lost their life partner before the age of 51.
Celebrating Black History Month
Recently, I’ve noticed there are more mixed-race couples on adverts and TV. Once you start seeing that, you feel so represented and seen. I think that’s why Black History Month is so important: because it makes you feel seen.
As a young widow, you already feel like such a minority. If you’re also from an ethnic minority, your world feels even smaller.
Marking Black History Month is important for me because it will bring about more awareness and change.
To mark Black History Month, Johanna will be sharing her story via Instagram Live on Tuesday, 24 October at 8pm. Please look out for more WAY activities and events happening throughout the month of October to mark Black History Month.
Your donations are always welcome.Donate
WAY member Selina has also shared her story for Black History Month:
Johanna recommends a free talk on Friday, 29 September at 19.00 by Professor Hakim Adi – the first historian of African heritage to become a professor of history in Britain – about Black African and Caribbean people in Britain. Find out more.
She also recommends Professor Adi’s book: African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History.
Johanna also has several book recommendations for lone parents raising children of mixed heritage:
Look Up! by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola (illustrator)
I Am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo (illustrator)
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison