Black People: What’s in a Name!

Rosa Parkes once said that there is only one Race…..The Human Race. Nonetheless as Human beings we have always found interesting ways to accentuate our differences and attach a value to that difference. Our exposure to western influences added another dimension to how we, as Black people, valued the differences we had contrived.

When we entered the UK in significant numbers we were called “Coloured People” which was supposed to be a nice way of saying “Black People”. The thinking at that time was that even Black People did not want to be Black, and many people thought it was impolite to remind them….that they were Black! There are still some, Black and White, who are more comfortable with that term…..Coloured.

However, as time went by there was an appreciation that these “Coloured People” all came from different parts of the world like Africa, The Caribbean and the Indian Sub-continent and the general public began to simplify it down into Nigerian, Jamaican and Pakistani and the term Coloured was a good fit seemingly without causing offence…..and the narrative was that all these countries were always changing their names anyway and this was playing it safe. Of course, many of us did not fully appreciate that the names our countries adopted were not even of our choosing and sometimes some of us choose to forget, or never knew, that Western nations carved Africa up like a Xmas turkey ignoring natural borders, language and religion.

….and then ,of course, we have what I call the Black/Brown debate where we make choices about which label suits us best. It has also provided the opportunity for some ethnic groups to make a clear distinction between those from “The Dark Continent” and those who would rather not align themselves with a much-maligned part of the world. I must confess that sometimes the choice of the word “Brown” has an uncomfortably apologetic flavour and some parties have consciously opted for this seemingly softer definition. Furthermore, It is ironic that the many White people on the planet seem to have little problem with the different shades of White and sometimes unknowingly include some whose origins are Black……or Brown.

….and then came the 60s/70s and people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X started to make some noise and the term Black was re-appropriated and Black became Beautiful. However, its association with civil rights and “making trouble” made some Black people anxious and making them more comfortable with the less aggressive definition of “coloured”…..and “People of Colour” became the new apologetic definition! There are, of course , many from the northern part of the African continent who are very loud in proclaiming that they are decidedly not “Black”.

So one of the big questions we have to ask ourselves is “What’s in a Name”; particularly those of us who still carry our slave names as a constant reminder of that history which can either be a learning point or an acute case of denial! The definition of “Black” has had an extraordinary journey and very often as an adjective followed by an expletive and like “horse and carriage” secured a special place in English vernacular. As Black children many of us have grown up with negative associations with the word Black, which is religiously reflected in the media, the church, literature and much of what embodies the western cultures that permeate our very being; seeping into our consciousness and sub consciousness and sometimes determining the actions that we take or the actions that we do not take.

It is no secret that terminologies like “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter” are difficult concepts for many White people to grasp absolutely ……but let’s not deny they can be sexy concepts for some Black people to dabble in…and then dabble out when those particular potatoes get too hot! It seems to me that the term Black is invoked when there is a political dimension to what needs to be said. Also, there are many who do not want to be seen as “political”  and fear that asserting their Blackness may be provocative and diminish their chances to fit in and not seen as “troublemakers”.

However, the biggest betrayal has been the manner in which we as Black people have been persuaded to deny our own Blackness and not appreciating how the impact of our histories as made us not value our Blackness. History tells us that such denials originated in the colonies when we absorbed western culture as a superior cultural trait and adopted the traits that western cultures valued. Even the notion of wanting our children to be doctors, lawyers and civil servants was very much a British tradition. Doctors I understand, lawyers and civil servants I am not so sure about!

The trend currently seems to be to adopt the cultural nominal identity of our parents. So, if your parent is from Jamaica, even though you were born here you are Jamaican and the same would apply to Nigerians and any other African or Caribbean background. This differs with Black Americans who use “African” first and then “American” to create the widely accepted term “African American”. However, more recently in America the first-generation African migrant prefers to identify with their family’s country of origin, and this is becoming the trend in this country. Does this reflect Black people not wanting to be British and wanting to hedge their bets and a desire to hold on to options and a belief that a western educated Black person may be valued more in the parent’s county of origin than someone born there which may be a direct consequence of colonialism….. and does this contribute to the significant numbers of our colonial brothers and sisters choosing to be overseas students in the UK.

So, what’s in a Name! For hundreds of years, we were all called Black, and we captured that as a definition that united us regarding the unifying way that discrimination was applied to us. Clearly the history of slavery contributed to the destruction of our individual identities, but we should remember that we have also contributed to the erasure of our own history by our reluctance to take ownership of our past. Sadly, the distorted history of our own people has been weaponised against us and the language of who we are has played its part.

It is my belief that some of the issues above have contributed to the absence of any truly great Black leaders in the West and certainly in the UK. I know it is a very different scenario, but America has produced scores of great inspirational civil rights activists and we in this country struggle to produce any in recent times. The 70s & 80s produced a few like Darcus Howe, Bernie Grant, Olive Morris and one or two others but the UK is sadly lacking in Black figures with inspirational qualities. Unlike America we in the UK suffer from not having a common identity that we can work with and as times go by, we have been divided into smaller interest groups divided by the desire to look after the small pool that we have found for ourselves. The old tricks of The Empire have returned to haunt us all.

Don John