Black Man or Woman in a White World

It is known by some that international superstar Michael Kiwanuka is now settled in the Southampton area, and I have been an admirer of his work since I first saw him in his earlierdays in Brighton. It is great to see that Southampton now boastsat least three acclaimed Black artists that have been successful internationally…. that include Roger McKenzie (Wildchild) with Renegade Master and Craig David.

I always remember an astonishing track from Michael’s “Love & Hate” album called “Black Man in a White World” which captures the isolation of a Black person operating in a white environment, and how that has impacted on his life.  Michael’s parents emigrated from Uganda to the U.K. in the ‘70s, during the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin. Michael, like myself,  grew up in London in a white working/middle class area and although there were a few overt acts of racism…. he always felt different and still now perplexed as to why few Black people go to his gigs…. and that perhaps his music was not Black enough; whatever that means! The messages from that song started a chain of reflections and I started to analyse retrospectively moments in my life where that condition resonated more strongly. Although Michael says Black man these circumstances are equally applicable to Black women with some variations.

Some argue that feelings about who you are starts from childhood and there is an interesting controversy taking place in America regarding a book called “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi, which argues that from the time you are born you are subjected to influences that determine the value that you attach to people according to their Race;  and that may impact not only on how we see others but also how we see ourselves. He argues that babies are taught to be either Racist or Ant-racist and there is no in-between. Sadly, mischievous critics argue that this implies that all babies are born racist; and of course, that is not what is being said.

My memories from primary school are fragmented, but I do have vague recollections of difference but at that age it is very difficult to interpret those reasons with any precision as there are so many variables. At that age one can only measure difference by how differently you are treated, and it is hard to put a name to it and sometimes it is not about Race; but Race is a strong contender!

However, secondary school is a very different experience, and I was in a school where there were only two Black boys and the other one strangely had the same surname as myself (no relation as far as I know), but he was always conscious not to make eye contact with me. I figured he was trying to show his white schoolfriends that he was one of them and not the really like me. This condition is one that I have became conscious of in later life particularly with some Black people who did not want their well carved identity in the White world to be tainted by association with another Black person consciously retaining their Blackness!

Going to my first proper job was an altogether different experience. This was at HM Treasury Whitehall and the name fully expresses the dearth of Black people in that building. Yes, this was the seat of government where most of the Black people were either cleaning or serving; but not me, I was an anomaly “A Black Man in a White World” with aspirations. My early days are a bit of a blur, but I can remember someone saying that another Black man had left one week earlier and whether I knew him….sounds like a comedy and ironically it was Errol Brown (for those old enough to remember) who became an international singer with a band euphemistically called “Hot Chocolate”…You couldn’t make it up! The second Black man to arrive a couple of years later was Linton Kwesi Johnson the internationally recognised Jamaican Dub artist and his thinking influenced me greatly…and although we have been in touch occasionally over the years, I don’t think I ever told him that.

Another irony, not lost to me, is that my Relocating to Southampton from allegedly cosmopolitan London was my first proper immersion in what was a genuinely a multi-racial environment and was the best antidote to some of the unwanted experiences I had endured at a time in my life when I was developing the wherewithal to properly analyse those experience from a better position of greater self-awareness.

As a Black man in a white world, you can approach that condition in a number of ways, some of them are:

You can on the surface ignore your difference, and with that lack of consciousness can delude yourself that you are independent of your Blackness and should not be compared to the half a dozen stereotypes that White society may be familiar with. You can be what I would call “ultra-black” and adopt all the ingredients that define you as Black person by white society, or you can be consciously Black and navigate the two worlds you operate in a balanced way; and this is the road I have tried to take. Sometimes navigating these worlds can come at a cost and you find yourself having to choose particularly when you are seen as not “Black” enough to be Black and not White enough to be white and I remember Craig David saying that to me in an interview I did with him some years ago…..and hasn’t he done well!

So where does that leave us. If you are a Black person living and operating in a White world you have the option to be whoever you want to be….. but knowing where you came from socially, ethnically, and genetically can provide you with the tools to determine how you have become who you are…that evidence, if you choose to search for it, will never change whether you acknowledge your Blackness or not, but the position you take will be better informed

Don John