Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE is a space scientist, an Honorary Research Associate at the UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy, a TV presenter (of BBC Two’s The Sky At Night)– and most fundamentally, she is an optimist. Her conversation is peppered with laughter; as a journalist, I’ve been trained to avoid exclamation marks, and yet when I transcribe our interview I find myself dropping them in liberally, because she speaks with such enthusiasm.
Our interview comes the morning after we’ve both seen the new documentary Black Is The New Black, which airs on BBC Two tonight. She is one of dozens of prominent black Brits who has contributed to the series – including Sir Trevor McDonald, Denise Lewis, Thandie Newton and Chukka Umunna. The documentary explores what it’s like to be a first or second-generation immigrant, and the challenges and advantages of reconciling your parents’ culture – whether it’s from Jamaica, Ghana or the West Indies – with that of your white peers. It’s very funny in parts, but it also made me cry, I tell Aderin-Pocock, and she agrees: “I had tears in my eyes as well – sometimes angry tears.”
The moment that stands out for both of us comes from the actor David Harewood, who recalls going to a football match on his own, and taking his seat to the sound of hundreds of fans making monkey noises and shouting racist slurs. He was eight years old. When I mention this, Aderin-Pocock is silent for a moment, then says thoughtfully, “It’s nice to make viewers aware of what happens to people, and also of the consequences of their actions.”
She knows a little of what Harewood experienced: as the daughter of Nigerian parents, growing up in England in the 1970s, she suffered playground bullying. Her reflections on it are empathetic. “I always think that kids spot any difference and latch onto it,” she says. “So it might be ginger hair, it might be the colour of your skin, and I don’t think it’s unique to being black. I just think kids spot the differences and they go for your vulnerable bits.” Her defence, at the time, was to double down on her own cultural background: “I was very proud of being black, and as a child I used to say ‘I’m not British – I’m Nigerian!’ I’d never been to Nigeria, but it gave me an identity that I wanted to latch onto, because I was being rejected here.”
Aderin-Pocock’s father arrived in the UK in the late 1950s, and her mother and eldest sister joined him later – Maggie was the third of four girls. She grew up in the wake of the 1969 moon landing, “a hubbub of space excitement”, and was obsessed with all things astronomy. “Seeing Star Trek was lovely, because I was getting taunted at school for being different, but here was an international team going on space adventures,” she recalls. “The colour of people’s skin or where they came from didn’t matter, so it was the ultimate goal for me.”
My idea is that we need to recalibrate people. People see a black woman, they think she’s a secretary, they think she’s a cleaner, they have all these assumptions
Her parents’ relationship ended when she was four, and she moved frequently as a child, attending 13 schools in total. “I didn’t feel like I really belonged, although I did have a few close friends,” she says. “But school was hard for me because I was dyslexic, and it remained undiagnosed for many years. I remember having the feeling I was being written off by the teachers.”
Her life at home was a different story: her father always said matter-of-factly that she would be going to university. “He thought education was the key, and he would say, ‘So, what college in Oxford do you think you’ll apply to?’ He wanted to set my aspirations high.” It planted a seed of self-belief. “I remember when I started at one school, they said, ‘Which stream should you be in – lower, middle or upper?’ I just lied through my teeth and said I should be in the upper stream. I thought, ‘I’ll start at the top and just see how I get on.’”
These memories heavily influence her work today. She spends much of her time visiting schools, and estimates that she’s seen a quarter of a million kids in the last eight years. She tries to make her “tours of the universe” as imaginative and engaging as possible; she gets plenty of laughs by telling the children how astronauts go to the loo. “Sometimes the teachers say, ‘Don’t worry about this group of kids. They’re not really interested in school’ – but those are the kids I’m really aiming at,” she says. “That was me, and I know that if I can do something to spark their imagination and re-engage them, then it will change their lives.”
By sixth form, Aderin-Pocock had begun to excel – she took A-levels in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths. “When you start school, it’s all about reading and writing, and that’s a dyslexic’s nightmare,” she explains. “But as you go on, you pick up other subjects and you find aptitudes in other areas, and that’s what happened to me.”
Several of those interviewed in Black Is The New Black say that their parents told them, “You have to work twice as hard as the next person to get the same recognition.” Aderin-Pocock jokes that in theory she should be working four times as hard, because she’s both black and female. While studying for her PhD, she once attended a lunch at which someone mistook her for a secretary. “There was a clatter of a fork and the table fell silent. Everybody looked at me, thinking ‘OK, she’s going to blow him up on the spot.’ And I thought about it for a second, and I said very calmly, ‘Actually no, I’m studying for my PhD here,’ and he said ‘Oh I didn’t realise!’ and continued the conversation.” She laughs. “My idea is that we need to recalibrate people. People see a black woman, they think she’s a secretary, they think she’s a cleaner, they have all these assumptions. And so my idea is to get role models out there to show, yeah, she’s a black woman and she’s a scientist. Those assumptions aren’t so readily available if we have a much wider range of role models to see.”
Aderin-Pocock knows that one day, she will have to explain these challenges to her daughter, who is now six. “When I was growing up, I was very much aware that my father feared for us in the UK,” she says. “The thing is, I do have fears for my daughter. They think she probably suffers from dyslexia as well – so I have fears about her education, and I think sometimes the label of being in a remedial class, for example, might be more readily applied to her because of the colour of her skin. But at the moment, she’s six. My husband comes from Somerset and my parents are Nigerian, and she just sees herself as golden, because I’ve always told her she’s my golden girl.”
This year, Aderin-Pocock visited Nigeria for the very first time. “I want to discover it for me, but I also want to discover it for her,” she says. In the meantime, they have already travelled together to Japan and all over America; her daughter is an “international girl”, she says. “To me that’s the Star Trek scenario: everybody has their own culture, but they share everybody else’s as well.”
Episode 1 of Black Is The New Black airs on BBC Two, Wednesday 9 November at 10pm.