Black History Month: Cheryl Martin

Black and white image of Cheryl Martin

Photos from John Lyons, Tang Lin and Cheryl Martin

A celebratory personal historic moment

The first time I had sex with a woman, the next day I had to work in Liverpool. It was early September; it was sunny; it was hot; and I remember how high I was on the train, just from the revelation of the night before. I had never understood people who threw everything away for love – or for sex, I thought. How could you wreck your life for an orgasm? But this is when I discovered there are orgasms, and then there are orgasms. I had never understood why people carried on about sex so much – fun, yes; but life-changing, no. Until that night. And the morning after, I remember thinking the grandmother I grew up with would be so happy for me, and thanked the grandmother I never met for taking care of me and making sure I didn’t die when I tried to commit suicide, so that I could live to feel that joy.

Your work

Right now I’m Co-Artistic Director of Commonword, a black-led literature Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. That’s a pretty dry description. What Commonword really is: the ones who got my career started way, way back in the day; the ones who helped me make the turn from being an academic page poet to a performance poet who has never stopped getting gigs even though I have only ever memorised one poem – the one in the solo show I got funding for because Commonword published my first collection six years ago and I used their money to catch more money from the Arts Council; the ones who were there, week after week, when I needed to get confidence and feedback for my work; the ones who recommended me for my first residency as a playwright with a real, live professional theatre company; the ones who have been there the same way for loads of black writers my age; the ones who are still here developing, finding, platforming Global Majority writers. The ones who know that black artists aren’t just for Black History Month – we’re for life.

Photo of Cheryl Martin in the 1980's

A black person you respect

My grandmother, Effie Frances, who half brought me up. My mother’s mother, half Indigenous American; born 1900; worked cooking food for white people in the Southern United States; married to a coalminer; had ten children, nine of whom grew up; five of whom left her house full of books to get civil service jobs in Washington, D.C., including my mother who met my computer systems analyst civil servant father there in the 50s; who followed her children to D.C. to become the grandmother every child dreams of having; who had the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in a real person’s house, with zillions of decorations her children added to every year; who took care of me after I tried to kill myself and never let me see her cry about it. Whose brother was lynched by the Klan, and she never told us grandchildren until I brought home a white spouse [divorced now, and very happily so] because she never wanted us to hate white people. Who was so respectable

she had to ban me and my closeted gay fave uncle from playing bridge on her porch Sunday afternoons. Whom I missed so much after she died that I dreamed for years that I was back in her dining room, a little girl again, hiding under the table so I could listen to my aunts and uncles gossip, waiting for dinner to be ready, with extra helpings of candied sweet potatoes. An oasis of calm. What unconditional love looks like.

What’s next?

I was shielding on my own for nearly 18 months. An awful lot of time to think. Time, it turned out, for the specialist therapy I’d had – for Borderline Personality Disorder – to bed in. I realised that the rest of my life doesn’t have to be like the last 50 years – depression, inner chaos. It’s over, except when I do solo shows about it. I realised I’m more important than a show. Time to write about something else. Time to write something funny, and fun, and to direct theatre again because it’s angst-free for me and easier than anything else I do. And to work on making sure the black artists who come after me have a chance to do what I did – be an artist who never needed a side hustle. Not to say I don’t hustle – hustling every second of every day at the moment – but I get to juggle artistic stuff. I’ll never have any serious money. But I know now I can be happy. Deep down, that love – from my grandmother, my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, my parents – that love stayed with me, until I could feel it again.