Ah ha, apparently, there are around five hundred Black Madonnas – a black version of the Virgin Mary, who various scholars suggest is a pre-Christian mother figure with the goddess Isis as an ancestor – scattered around Europe and three of them are in Harlesden and Neasden. The Black Madonna is also said to teach us to embrace our dark and light sides, our negative and positive characteristics. Very much my kind of woman in this case.
But instead of visiting two of these local Black Madonnas – the priest at the Catholic Our Lady of Willesden church in Harlesden is on his day off – I find myself at a shop called All Eyes On Egypt on Park Parade that has been intriguing me for some time. Is it the home of a mysterious cult? I must be following the Isis thread instead.
He sparkles and crackles with preacherly zeal, but on the side, I can’t help seeing that he’s a bit of a laugh. “People are robots,” he says in an American accent, “they don’t want to know the truth or talk about the deceptions. This shop is about education.”
A few weeks ago, I saw a poster on the window of the One-Stop Jerk Chicken shop in the High Street, advertising a talk entitled The Angry Vagina, which was taking place here at this shop. “Oh yeah,” says Amsu Re, ”the author, Queen Afua was over from the US so we launched her book Overcoming The Angry Vagina here.”
Queen Afua advocates natural remedies and the health of the womb. In other words, don’t let the medical world intervene and remove wombs when it’s not necessary. She’s also concerned that young women ‘don’t give themselves away too easily.’ Originally called Helen Robinson, she’s now an African queen. I love the idea of re-appropriating names in this grand re-positioning manner. I want one myself. Maybe not African but more appropriately Celtic. Similarly, Amsu Re was probably born with a name like Colin Walker but has become the vastly more mysterious and kingly, Amsu Re.
Queen Afua – she’s a holistic practitioner who’s worked with Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu – asks a vital question. Is your vagina happy or angry? Or more appositely, is your spouse’s vagina happy or angry? She also makes suggestions of ways to increase vaginal contentment – to men and women. And watch out, because she has hinted that her next book could be about the Angry Penis.
There are pictures of Bob Marley, natural oils, soaps, posters of black women and men who fought against slavery and for women’s rights, then there are those of sports stars like the magnificent Usain Bolt. All Eyes On Egypt seems to be about inviting black people to become more aware of the richness of their culture. Instead of being in the media as the victim or perpetrator of a killing. A re-education.
Mercifully, Amsu – who tells me he was born in Paddington but later brought up in one of the towers at Stonebridge, “I remember us all playing outside together in an innocent way” before he and his family went to live in the US – has a sense of humour too. “You know why Usain Bolt can run so fast. It’s because Jamaica is where all the rebel slaves went,” he says, “so they had already learnt how to run away from their owners.”
And Egypt is African and the cradle of civilisation. “The word Egypt means those with brown faces, “ he explodes with passion, “and ancient Egypt included North and South America.”
Mmmm, did it? And then, he adds – “Did you know that John Hanson was the first black President of the US in 1781, forget Barack Obama?” he says in an authoritative fashion. There are photographs of this black ‘President’ around the shop but later I check out the facts around this assertion and discover that John Hanson was more probably a white merchant which is what white history recalls, and the black John Hanson was a 19th century senator who promoted the relocating of black people to Liberia. This seems to be a photo of the latter as photos weren’t around until the 1800s.
So truth takes a strange turn at All Eyes On Egypt. I agree with their premise – redress the status of black people in history – but advise caution on some of their wilder shores. Amsu Re despite being charming, committed and fun, has a conspiracy theory edge to him, which is a step too far for me personally. There are books about Jay-Z being a member of the Illuminati, the Moorish Paradigm and much more.
However, it makes me smile to see one of their posters is the pope kneeling in front of – guess who – yes, a Black Madonna in Poland in 1999. “Yeah, you see, even the pope respects the Black Madonna,” he grins.
He also shows me two photos of dignified black women from the early 19th century in the US. “This one is Harriet Tubman,” he says, “and she escaped from slavery but went back to the plantations to rescue another seventy slaves using something called the Underground Railroad which was a system of safe houses. She was an abolitionist and suffragette. The other one is Sojourner Truth who was also a slave who ran away. She was the first black woman to take a white man to court and win the case. She managed to get one of her children back from a slave-owner.”
At home, I read about these incredible women and when the text says “born into slavery” I feel instantly moved by what that actually meant. They were incredible women. And Amsu Re? “I’ve seen a lot of unjust things, “ he says finally, “you can make a choice in life and I try to be a better person.” And I believe him.
There’s a sign above a door saying ‘Hold On To The Rope’. What does it mean? “Stay firm,” he says giving one of his ever-ready smiles, “don’t give up.”
The next morning – yes, this is a walk in two parts – I’m going to find a real Black Madonna. I’m straying a little out of Harlesden into Neasden and is actually the parish of Willesden – to St Mary’s Church.
St Mary’s – C of E but high church, anglo-catholic, as they say – is an unexpected pleasure. I walk down past Roundwood Park – formerly the grounds of Victorian grandee in these parts, George Furness who had a manor house here – but now a wonderful council-run park, and up to Church Road. Over the bypass and next to a big roundabout, I come upon an unexpected vista. Suddenly, the grim urban surroundings melt away, and there is St Mary’s looking as though it is still set in a village. Yes, a village.
A place of worship – there were a series of wooden churches that burnt down – has been here since 938 and it is the ancient shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. Pilgrims came from far and wide to visit ‘The Black Virgin of Willesden’ and the well to which miraculous powers were ascribed. By 1475, it was an unusually popular and drunkenness and gambling were reported. But, in 1538, Thomas Cromwell stripped the church of its carvings and the Black Madonna was burnt in Chelsea.
I push open the heavy fourteenth century door and the scene is pure Vicar of Dibley. It’s 9 30 am on a Saturday and a couple of the ten parishioners welcome me in a very affable manner. Suddenly, the vicar sweeps in and kisses one of the alters on his way. Singing, incense, Hallelujahs and communion all follow. I try to keep up – there’s a delightful mixture of black and white stalwarts. My eye wanders over to a plaque, which commemorates Cyril Verres Davis, the first black churchwarden here from 1985 to 2000.
At the end of the service, the vicar, David Clues shakes my hand. Immediately warm, friendly, witty and urbane – he oozes confidence and obviously adores his job, his congregation and his church. He reminds me of the Cameron/Clegg tribe with a bit of Ben Bradshaw thrown in. And it turns out, that he is also a Lib-Dem counsellor, the only one in this ward to be re-elected.
“Come and have coffee with us,” he says shunting me into a backroom which takes me back in time to the 1960s in an institutional way, it reminds me of my own childhood Yorkshire village church, “you’ll have to be brave, they all like to talk a lot.” He waves me in and like a perversely young father – he’s in his 40s, they’re all older – tells them to be nice to me.
They are. Of course. There’s a lot of bustling going on – staple guns at the ready for programme work – because they are in full preparation for the annual pilgrimage next week. “Oh, it’s great fun,” says local historian, Roger Macklen, who informs me that he started off as low church and has ended up high, “pilgrims come all over the country, there is a procession and balloons.”
There’s a flurry of excitement as I ask about the oldest part of the church, and Steve, an ex-engineer who’s been a member of this church since 1972, leads me to the other end. “Look at this pillar,” he says proudly, “it’s from the 12th century and was discovered in 1872 during some renovation work. You can see this was originally the outer wall before this extension was put on to make the church bigger. In 1800, there were 200 people in Willesden, by 1872, there were 20,000, they needed more space in the church.”
Finally, David stops running around and sits down. He’s a bit of an X factor vicar. He likes the limelight and doesn’t mind admitting it. He’s theatrical in a charming way. “I’d heard about St Mary’s because of its soup kitchen,” he explains, “which was fantastic and happened every night. But last Xmas, we sat down to eight turkeys and there was only one homeless person. Other places had opened up similar provisions so we called it a day. We suffer here geographically, there used to be streets of terraced houses around here but they were all pulled down. Now we’ve got a bypass and a roundabout around us, but not so many people. But we always keep the doors open because I believe we are a valuable place of refuge and solace.”
At last we’ve come to the Black Madonna moment. We step out into the church again and there amidst all the finely carved 19th century sculptures sits the Black Madonna and Child. It is a bold, modern, primitive piece of religious sculpture. Baby Jesus stands on his mother’s knees with his arms outstretched in a gesture that is surrendered, trusting and welcoming. Funnily enough, it reminds me of the major arcana tarot card, the Sun. In the 19th century Rider Waite pack, a child rides naked on the back of a horse – it is a powerful image, which urges you to trust the universe and not to fear it.
“I’m tremendously proud of our Black Madonna,” says David, “it was commissioned in 1972, and a woman sculptor, Catharni Stern carved it out of lime wood. They were uncertain political times and I think its solidity gives reassurance. Pilgrims do come to visit and also take holy water from the well. It’s very special to us.”
This Black Madonna looks out of place in a good way here. She’s got solid peasant woman limbs in a church that is full of slender figures. No-one knows what the original statue was like – Cromwell had it burnt in 1538 – only that it was in black wood (and some think it was candle soot-blackened) and covered in silver plate. But for hundreds of years, people came to worship her here.