What does it mean to be black?

I would like to take this time to give a massive shout out to the melanated people around the world who don’t fit the conventional stereotypes but still feel as black as the midnight sky. The brothers with small schlongs and the sisters with no asses. Those with no rhythm, who skateboard and listen to punk rock. If you don’t like watermelon, chicken or spicy foods and have yet to benefit from the myriad uses for coconut oil. Perhaps your vocabulary is slang free, your library Eric Jerome Dickey free and your bathroom cabinet Dax free. If you don’t chew the marrow out the bone… I feel you!

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Across Africa’s 54 countries there are around 2000 languages spoken and about 3000 tribes. How can we all be the same?

If you think everything I have said is ridiculous, so is the notion of universal blackness. Across Africa’s 54 countries there are around 2000 languages spoken and about 3000 tribes. That’s before you even take into account the global diaspora. By my calculations, that would mean there are probably more variances between people of African descent than there are between us and other races, but we are expected to believe in and uphold this concept that the black experience is the same the world over. More to the point, failure to abide by these unwritten rules will result in you being expelled from a club your pigmentation should have granted you lifelong membership to.

It was way back in my early teens that I was made aware of “code black”. Growing up in a Rastafarian household where knowledge of self was the order the day, my bible was the Isis papers and other black history books. Young Gifted and Black would be playing in the background while my mum would tell my brother and me about our pre and post slavery history, so it’s not surprising I thought I had this whole being black thing on lock.

However, a young man I once knew duly informed me that my love of power ballads and Charles Dickens cancelled all that stuff out. A few years and more of those types of comments later, I at times found myself in some strange racial limbo. On the one hand I had people telling me I speak/think/act white because a lot of my interests were not on the “approved” list; but on the other hand, my university class – predominantly white and middle class – would delight in telling me how ghetto I was because I wore my hair in braids and would reference black authors they had never heard of. To this day, the jury is still out on which comments offended me most, but it became very clear that blackness could almost be described as a perception that was external to the individual. 

Some of you reading this will probably say something like: “People who would make those kinds of comments are just ignorant,” but the truth is, the easiest way to know what you are, is to know what you are not. In every facet of our lives we draw lines that we wouldn’t dare cross for fear of becoming the “other”. While I believe that approach does at times have its merits, it’s a contradiction in terms to tell people to think outside the box, but expect them to live snuggly within it for the rest of their lives.

“It’s because,” my mum told me “we learnt how to be black from our parents. They lived in a different time and their experiences with white people limited what they could do and achieve – even dream. Things shifted a little bit for us and we passed that experience on to you. Now I see you young black people doing things and going places my generation wouldn’t have been able to. Things are constantly changing.” 

Things are changing because the whole concept of race is socially constructed and is under constant negotiation. At best, what we accept as “black culture” are local cultural practices that have become popularised in the mainstream. Think about the way African- American culture –- most notably hip hop –- dominates and is used as the bench mark in discussions on blackness. Recent spats in the media about cultural appropriation have made me wonder: are those of us born outside of the States and raised with our own culture and traditions as guilty as white people of hi-jacking African-Americanisms since we now claim them as our own? Or do we get a free pass because we share the same colour skin? 

I’m not particularly keen on the idea of a few dance moves and a style of dress being the logo of black people across the globe. But it is less harmful than some of the other prominent imagery in circulation including the gun toting ex-slave who will copulate with your children and smoke weed with your wife.  

Many of the narratives prevalent in society are not authored by us, but are taken as read by almost everyone including ourselves. Even the politics around what we are called is decided at meetings we haven’t been invited to.

“When I was young we used to be called coloured. I don’t exactly remember when it changed, but all of a sudden we were black,” said my mum giving more insight on what it was like to be amongst the first generation of blacks born in the UK.

Within my lifetime I have seen the term black do a complete 360. “You know when I fill out forms I don’t tick the Black British box innit?” my friend once told me back when I was 18. Instead he would proudly write Nubian probably much to the confusion of the recipient. While we did have a laugh about it, it made perfect sense. According to the rhetoric at the time, calling us black was not an upgrade from nigger, negro or coloured. You only had to consult the dictionary to see all the negative connotations attached to that word. Now in 2015, the idea of black is beautiful has been reclaimed and modernized to include metaphysical analogies such as: in the beginning there was black and all life starts in the blackness of the womb.

If I had to describe the black experience in any sort of way, I would have to say it is elastic. Those of us that are brave enough will stretch it as far as it can possibly go. From minor things like ordering your steak rare, dressing up as Spok at StarTrek conventions and letting your pets have free reign in your house; to more epic things that have the potential to change the complexion of conversations on blackness. I always marvel at the way black people are penetrating areas traditionally seen as off limits to them. My ex-boss Daniel Taylor made JP Morgan’s Top 100 Power List while heading up a design and build company. Chuka Ummuna quickly rose through the ranks of the Labour party and more young black females are enrolling in science, technology and maths courses around the world. The leader of the free world is black for Christ’s sake. It’s fair to say that the glass ceiling is starting to develop hairline cracks because of the way we are constantly hammering away at it.

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Ravon-Symone has had people gasping with her recent outbursts including declaring she is not African-American and that she wouldn’t hire someone with a name like Watermelondrea

However, a feature of elastic is its ability to snap firmly back into place. I would be lying if I said that I personally had experienced overt instances of racism. In that respect I have been quite lucky. Growing up in a diverse part of London has made me practically invisible and the fact I’m a woman has made me a less likely target for police harassment, but I can’t say that has been the experience for everyone else I know. Black youths in the UK are twice as likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white counterparts. The Home Office reported 42,930 race hate crimes in 2014/15 which it makes it clear that black skin is like a beacon which can attract some of the most negative attention imaginable. We are still barred from certain clubs and if Raven-Symone is anything to go by: you might find it hard to land a job if you have a name like Watermelondrea.

After 30 years on this planet, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one true way to be black and that is to be proud of the fact you. If you take pride in being able to name all of the Greek Gods, make sure you know their true Egyptian names. If you appreciate the classic works of Dickens, Chaucer and Shakespeare don’t forget we also had Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes and Richard Wright. But more important than that, do not be bound by your ability to project someone else’s version of what your skin colour dictates you should be.