Ponder the following with me.
Is there such a thing as black culture?
How exactly does one define black history month?
When Miley Cyrus “twerks” what do we mean by the term cultural appropriation?
Are the MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards prejudicial?
What exactly does it mean to be black?
How you answered those questions in many ways will depend on your experience and world view.
How you answer this question can definitely shape how you enter and exit any conversation on this controversial, some say nebulous, term.
I find it troubling sometimes and wish I could find something else. Yet Afro Caribbean, Black British or even AfroSaxon tends to confuse more than anything else, so I stick with black. I still want to change it though.
From a young age I always felt that this identifier was a reaction to a system.
When people spoke about Britishness I felt somehow that didn’t include me. People would ask where I got my surname from. How come I spoke so well? Racially tense arguments could end in me being told to go back where I came from and leaving me bemused as to why people wanted me to return to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
Perceiving myself outside of the mainstream I steeped myself in what I would call black culture. A place where my heroes, in terms of skin tone, looked like me. Where people could code switch between Queen Standards English and back slang, patois, creole and a host of African dialects. Where I could read of heroes like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Marcus Garvey and Thomas Sankara who encouraged economic empowerment and strong self identity. Poets like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Linton Kwesi Johnson who all sat outside the works presented to me in school. Music like gospel, soul, calypso and dub which spoke stories to my journey and those of my family and friends who were like me.
This was a safe place. A refuge where a strong identity allowed, in most instances, epithets such as nigger, coon, wog to not offend as much. Oh how times have changed. Songs such as “I’m Black and Am Proud” by James Brown and Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” reaffirmed this strengthening identity.
But it still felt like a reaction. Why did black culture feel like a reaction to something or someone as opposed to something I could happily dwell in regardless of outside forces? What exactly was or is black anyway?
What is Black Culture?
Growing up black culture was the sum of music, religion, politics and other forms of identity which didn’t seem to be part of mainstream culture. Britishness as it were.
Black culture then morphed into something more for me as I became exposed to more music, poetry and literature, business and professional success stories from people who looked like me.
On TV Seeing the likes of Sidney Poitier on TV commanding lead roles was amazing. A generation of peers celebrated when we saw the likes of Nichelle Nichols aka Lt Uhuru in Star Trek. Add to that Shaft, Huggy Bear and Foxy Brown. We smiled yet cringed a little when Love thy Neighbour debuted but things got better with The Fosters, Empire Road and Desmond’s. The Cosby show was a godsend, A Different World and I know for my kids watching My Wife and Kids was a most positive thing to see on the TV. Good quality programming that they could relate to.
There was a certain nuance and opportunity for community education when a show liked Desmond’s came on. Self deprecation was ok as well as being able to pull back the curtain a bit into the lives of us. Our views on social mobility (buppies), interracial relationships, the tensions betwixt Caribbean and African immigrant cultures with the UK.
In music give or take a few american import shows our tastes were confined to weddings, shubs, blues and pirate radio focused weekenders. The rare grooves, dub plates, soca and other non mainstream music we wanted to hear was restricted to the white labels given to DJs because we couldn’t hear it any where else.
LWR, JFM, Horizon and Kiss (in London at least) were the holy grail. The “black community” were pulled together by music and media as platform for socialising, political activism and empowerment. TDK mix tapes were the currency. This is what bound us in our reaction to a wider community that seemed hell bent on still seeing us as different. But the sands were shifting.
Black culture morphed into a new phrasing. Urban. Yuck.
The Problem in Seeing things in Black and White
There are real problems in seeing the world as a binary of black and white.
Is it truly possible to see or define black culture without alternatively seeing white culture too?
What is white culture? Are all whites homogenous just because of their skin tone, and if not then can the same be said of all blacks? If not. Then whence cometh the idea of black culture?
What other cultural or ethnic groups are limited or defined by their colour?
So many questions.
This brings us back to the whole idea of seeing a people, a culture a person as just black.
Take the icons lauded in Black History month. Bob Marley. Alexandre Dumas. Barack Obama. Frederick Douglas. Booker T Washington. W.E.Dubois. Dorothy Dandridge. Mary Seacole. Lena Horne.
All of these are mixed race but will be lauded as black icons. Mainly because of the one drop legacy.
What is it about them that makes them black? Why can’t they be mixed race. Why is there this default?
I find the term black community or black culture problematic in that it is too much of a blanket term. Sometimes to the positive when describing music, arts, etc (urban?) and sometimes to the negative when describing crime and justice, educational inequality. One of my best friends is of Grenadian descent. His mother is of African lineage his father of Indian lineage. Yet for many, primarily because of his complexion and Caribbean association he is black. Yet he does not define himself as such, so how do others do this?
And what do we mean by black music? Does that exclude artists who are amazing classical, operatic, dare I say rock music, because the term refers primarily to reggae, soul, hip hop or other “African/World” music?
So what then is white music?
Nothing Changes. Everything Stays the Same.
I bring this up and whole host of unanswered questions because I think one of the main reasons discussion around race and equality have not moved forward is because of the binary of black and white. Culturally I have more in common with a pale skinned English male than say a melinated dude from Ethiopia or Kenya but that changes if I am classified as black (a race) instead of English (a culture).
Our society is designed in such a way that it polarises by default. Terms such as white privilege, cultural appropriation, black underachievement are such a core part of the vernacular that it would probably take generations to change it. Does it even matter? Shouldn’t we all be colour blind? Shouldn’t we just live and let live.
I am all for celebrating our diversity and what we bring to the table as different ethnicities and social groups. How we can share yet maintain, or in the case of those who are “mixed race”, combine distinct heritages. This is all well and good but there is something that tells me it serves more of a socio-economic purpose for countries and economies to keep the black white distinction to maintain a status quo. To keep a dividing line known as black and white culture. It doesn’t settle with me because I think it reinforces too many stereotypes and biases on both sides of the spectrum.
Can we move forward? Beyond describing culture in terms of colour/race?
I hope so, although I remain very, very doubtful. Coffee?