Afua Hirsch’s book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, has peaked my interest. It’s the identify thing that I’ve been drawn to most, along the way. Something to do with the contrast between the otherness of blackness, and the truth that is the experience of being a person with black skin. As if by coincidence, artist and entrepreneur (and self-professed vegan) Jay Brave has been conducting interviews as part of BBC Radio 4’s One-to-One (20, 27.Feb and 6 March) series recently. One-to-One Jay Brave.
Opening with the declaration, “I don’t identify as black”, in the same way as a colour doesn’t define other ethnic groups. “But crucially, society sees me as ‘black’, and so this defines much of my lived experience, and many other people’s experiences.” He goes on to qualify this as a controversial subject, “there are many black people who take exception to this point-of-view, they identify as ‘black’ and it’s crucial to them and who they are.” Whilst, for some other people, just talking about race and identify makes them uncomfortable.
Through the three interviews that make up this short season he says he is seeking to “understand why the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ mean so much to so many people.”
First up is Kelechi Okafor, actor, fitness instructor and womanist.
As far as she’s concerned she’s a Nigerian – that’s her core identity – despite having lived in the UK for some time.
And so, she ascribes to blackness for what it means in terms of how black people need to move on politically.
She reflects that in Nigeria she was just a person amongst many fellows, but on arrival in the UK she was labelled, ‘this black child’.
“We didn’t choose all of these words that people have been giving to us, but I think there comes a sort of power in, reclaiming it.”
“Blackness is vast”, it has to encapsulate and accommodate so many experiences.
And in this she acknowledges that it would be a mistake to see blackness as a narrow homogenous banding; she expresses the view that it’s too early to start splitting off because there’s so much more work to be done.
Second up is Lawrence Hoo. Lawrence describes himself as a poet whose work is influenced by various experiences of growing up in and around Easton and St Paul’s, Bristol, exposed to a medley of culture, identity and heritage.
He was blissfully unaware as a child but came across the ‘black’ label when asked to choose a side at secondary school in Bristol, and then found that, “society labelled me black, so I ended up wearing the label society gave me”.
This didn’t appear that drastic, at first, but the impact of the term grew over time, until he’d assumed an attitude that; whatever happened to him (adversely), was because he was black.
In retrospect, he recognises a link between the label put on and adopted by him, and class. A kind of divide so-as-to-conquer; if you’re busy fighting amongst yourselves, then you’re distracted from those who you should be keeping an eye on.
His conclusion is simple; distinction based on colour is false, in the end we’re just Homo sapiens and our, “learning can come from anywhere”. “We’re a global tribe of people,” he believes, “and there’s no such thing as race.”
Third up is Chistopher-Sebastian McJetters, speaker on social justice and animal activism in vegan circles.
As a middle aged gay black man, he’s happy to see himself as and is comfortable with the term ‘blackness’, though he acknowledges the contradiction between this view and the perceived overwhelming or overarching architype of the dominant gangster thug types that black men are supposed to be.
Such images he sees as being codified in our subconscious by multiple endless repeat retellings of stereotypical ‘black’ portrayals by the media.
Jay contends that, “our people are intelligent enough to live with a dual history, not all one thing or one other thing but multiple human things.”
In the end despite having lived with the hype (inaccurate media portrayal and negative labelling) for the longest time, we simply remain ordinary people.
© Khome (editor), 2018