BLACK BRITS AND AFROPEANS

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by Candice Nembhard

The black British existence is inherently unique. It not only samples cultural flavours or practices from Africa and the Caribbean but seemingly blends those influences into standardised British behaviour. For many black children in modern Britain, the divide between our race and nationality somehow leaves a gap for white or even non-black people of colour to make assumptions as to who we are.

Our social identity is affected by colonial academic spaces and texts, and our history is overshadowed by that of the great black American struggle. Every October, our heroes are sourced further and further away from our own history and we are left unsatisfied. That’s not to say there isn’t great merit in the discussion of black Americans, nor is it to rule out the overlap. It is to simply state that ‘African-American’ does not equal ‘Afro-Caribbean’, nor does it pander to the identity of black British people.

In recent years, the discussion of political blackness has risen to the surface. In layman’s terms, the unionising of a struggle. ‘Black’ has become the pigeonhole for uniting a worldwide issue of systemic racism that falls into different structures, depending on one’s heritage and nationality. Although the concept of political blackness is understandable, its practice often eradicates the personal day-to-day hardships of being black and what is central to exhibiting positive displays of blackness. By that stripe, we have allowed the black British moniker to be represented as fighting for a history most individuals were never inaugurated into. Furthermore, these individuals are then vilified for suggesting their allegiance lies with an alternative past.

The words we use to address our oppressors originate from using the master’s tools to construct our safe spaces.

We are constantly reminded both inside and outside of academic spaces that our voices do not belong to us; English instructions in English education. At home, we laugh and joke in Patois, break bread in Yoruba, and dance in Swahili. Our tongues do more work than most as we translate our anger and frustration of being misjudged and mistreated into a popularised form. The words we use to address our oppressors originate from using the master’s tools to construct our safe spaces.    

In some sense, political blackness has robbed us of our social identity and voice. The struggle is further exposed when the Patois, Yoruba and Swahili is not only replaced by English but by French and Spanish too. Although we take pride in our ability to speak across nations, its roots trickles down to an abusive and greedy history that has inducted us to be complicit in our oppression. Make no mistake – speaking, reading and writing in English has benefited me greatly, but the benefits of a British passport is not enough to outweigh the great loss of feeling unable to connect and express love for my roots.

My grandfather is a Hamburg native who speaks both Deutsch and English. Although both proudly German and proudly black, he does not have the luxury of marrying the two cultures. This goes for many black Germans, who are often contextualised as Caribbean, Afro-Deutsche, schwarze or even n*gger. With far-right groups on the rise in Germany, one asks if we have overlooked the difficulties of not only black British people, but those of our black and European cousins across the channel.

Europe, much like Britain, has a long standing history in simultaneously building and denying its colonial empire. From the French in the North to Belgians in the East, Africa’s pre-colonial history is now favoured for a pity narrative that looks into modernised and global initiatives that have dominated the continent. Those that were brought over to Europe have had to adapt to a new way of living but carry with them shame of their African ancestry.

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The life of the Afropean is one of delegation. British writer and television host Johnny Pitts looks into how we come to know the contemporary Afropean. Having mixed heritage himself,  Pitts examines black Europe from its cultural outputs to migration patterns. Take France – a country that became a safe haven for many black Americans in the 1920s and 30s. James Baldwin and Josephine Baker became flâneurs à la mode who renounced their American citizenship in favour of the metropolitan planes of Paris. That’s not to say they did not experience prejudice, but the vision of Europe as a liberal, artistic and respectful place gave hope to many black Americans who wished to write about America without being confined by it.

Fast forward to today. Although still no metropolis, within Europe’s capitals small pockets of black communities continue to grow. These are exemplary products of Europe’s involvement in the Caribbean and Africa. From Montmartre in Paris to Cureghem in Brussels, so called ‘urban’ areas, home to many black Europeans, are now being placed into the public eye – and rightfully so. Britain and Europe often shy away from their colonial past in favour of tolerant, ‘inclusive’ legislation, but fail to act accordingly in times of need. The so called ‘migrant crisis’ is an example of colonial conquests rearing its ugly head.

I respect a belief and support of nationalism, but I cannot support prejudice, righteousness and alienation.

Even as a British born child, I am intrigued to see what light will be shone on Europe post Brexit, post Paris attacks, post Calais Jungle. Is is not wonderfully ironic to once stake authority, and by that I mean legal dominion and ownership over a country, and yet refuse service, care or entry to these people when they arrive at our gates? Western nations have developed a superiority complex so overgrown that we cannot see beyond our own self-imposed barriers.

The identity of modern day Britain and Europe is one of mixing and, ultimately, confusion. I respect a belief and support of nationalism, but I cannot support prejudice, righteousness and alienation. Our birth is a matter of luck and chance. It is by those measures that I am in receipt of a British passport, but it is also by those measures that I will use it try and benefit other black Brits and Afropeans like myself who are affected by a history taken and resold to them.

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