An Op-Ed piece by Yomi Adegoke for London’s Guardian.
Black British” is often seen as oxymoronic. An identity inherently at odds, two opposing existences sitting uncomfortably in the psyche of one rather confused individual. At times it can feel like the epithet is actually black or British, and for those of us who (at times awkwardly) identify as such, it’s not been an entirely easy ride. “British” can imply “white” and “black”, often African-American; if black Britons aren’t fighting our way out from behind the shadow of white Brits, then we’re often attempting to be heard over the “black” discourse usually centred on the black American experience.
An American-centric understanding of black history and identity makes Black History Month in the UK something like looking into a broken mirror. You see yourself reflected within its fragments and the shards create a picture, though the whole thing is distorted. And at no time does this distortion become more apparent than in October, where the blackness presented is one we can identify with only in part. But this year, a shift that has been taking place for some time has come to a head.
Calls for a British focus during October’s celebrations are not new, but they are now louder than ever. Across the country, African and Caribbean societies at universities are prioritising black Britain’s history over retellings of important, but often overrepresented, historical moments and movements from overseas. “The theme for this year’s Black History Month is black BRITISH excellence”, Sussex University’s social media pages reminded students. At Kent University, a talk is being hosted by the musician and writer Akala on the history of black people in Britain, and at Birmingham University, black British art is taking centre stage. None of this should be particularly groundbreaking, but it is.
Back in the day, the great fight was for black history to be taught in schools full stop, let alone black British history. The chronology of our history as per the curriculum was as follows; slavery, Jim Crow, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, postracial bliss worldwide. The various historical acts that took place in the US have informed and inspired many movements in the UK, but it’s fascinating that pupils are more likely to learn of the aims of the Black Panther party than those of the Brixton-based iteration, the Black British Panthers. Even the Windrush was regularly omitted.
Now, those who were taught about the horrors of the slave trade are also self-educating on the horrors of colonialism that were obscured during school. The historian David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History documentary series and book were both a universal hit, no doubt in part due to the gaping historical hole left by education that many are desperate to fill.
October is as much about showcasing black history as it is about showcasing black excellence. And the ubiquity of US culture often leaves more local heroes sidelined. But black British pioneers are increasingly being accorded the reverence previously reserved for African-American icons. Just look at last year’s BBC series Black is the New Black, which highlighted the stories of our own black public figures. Or the relaunch of the 100 Great Black Britons campaign, originally created in 2003 in response to the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons campaign, which failed to list a single black person (Freddie Mercury was the only person of colour listed).
Depictions of blackness on television in Britain are scarce, and when present have often been of an experience of American blackness that we can only lay claim to parts of. But the ability to carve out a space for our own differing black identity online has seen our lives reflected as never before. Shows such as Kayode Ewumi’s Hood Documentary and Cecile Emeke’s Ackee and Saltfish started on YouTube as a direct response to a black British audience desperate not only for a portrayal of blackness in the midst of a predominantly white TV landscape, but one they wholly recognised. The two were soon picked up by the BBC, and Channel 4 has recently given Elijah Quashie, also known as “the Chicken Connoisseur”, his own show off the back of his YouTube channel reviewing the most British of institutions: the chicken shop.
This “black Brit boom” has seen old favourites rebooted, too, with Noel Clarke’s cult classic film Kidulthood being reimagined as a series, and Netflix picking up award-winning gang drama Top Boy, originally shown on Channel 4.
Many of us have never quite felt fully British, nor fully identified with wherever our parents may be from. We’ve straddled two worlds, and sat uncomfortably at a junction of “either” and “or”. But for the first time – in my memory at least – we’re comfortably embracing both. Black Brits aren’t simply welcoming bits of our identity, but all of it at once, creating and strengthening an identity within itself: a black British one.
The answer to “who/what are you” has always been political and complex: say “Britain” and you may be accused of denying your roots. Say somewhere else, and others may feel that you’re attempting to call a country you’ve never even been to home. But despite it being by no means new, the label “black British” has a renewed sense of solace for a generation that often feels it doesn’t quite fit.