Andy laments the inherent violence of the Black male experience
At the start of last year, before pandemics, lockdowns and masks, I visited my uncle in New York for a few days. Whilst I was there, he held a New Year’s dinner party, hosting a few friends in his Brooklyn apartment to celebrate the promising year and new decade which had just begun. Food and drink flowed, and the ensuing conversation proved to be wide-ranging and riveting, with all manner of topics discussed, including my waxing lyrical about my recent trip to Ghana for the ‘Year of Return’ festivities, and satisfying the other guests’ curiosity about Black British culture. It was when the subject moved to race that the dinner took a fascinating turn. That being Black in America became a topic of discussion was perhaps to be expected given the political climate – at the time, Donald Trump was still the incumbent and it was, of course, an election year – and the fact that, other than myself, all bar two of the guests were Black first generation immigrants – the other two guests were a Pakistani immigrant and an African American. This particular guest let everyone at the table know how proud he was to have traced his family’s ancestry through generations (all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation), and revealed his son had recently caused quite a stir online after becoming embroiled in the reparations debate and testifying before Congress. Although this introduced me to the ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) movement and taught me more about the arguments for and against reparations in America, what struck me most was discussing this son’s identifying as “American first, Black second”, an assertion to which another guest – an Afro-Latina of mixed Ghanaian and Caribbean descent – quipped, “he’ll know he’s Black first when the cops pull him over!” Her reply, and the somewhat heated exchange which followed, set my mind racing with interesting considerations regarding race and identity. The importance of understanding one’s identity, particularly as a racialised individual in a white-majority country, cannot be overstated, and these considerations have stuck with me for over a year, sustaining me through last summer’s racial unrest following the police murder of George Floyd.
“American first, Black second”
In his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, African American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois ventured some way to answering the question of what exactly it means to be African American. He describes the “double consciousness” – a sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others – which exists in oppressed groups. Despite having been born and raised on American soil, shaped by and contributing to its culture and economy, this feeling of “two-ness” persists and they are relegated to the margins of society as its perpetual “other”. Although Du Bois was describing African Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the visceral reaction to an African American choosing to identify as “American first” demonstrates that this internal conflict holds true today, over 100 years later. To be African American is to almost be a walking oxymoron. Acknowledgement of this inherent contradiction goes some way to explaining the anger of members of the ADOS movement, who clearly feel that, given the history of violence perpetuated by the state against Black bodies, a sense of racial solidarity should supersede any sense of nationalist, patriotic pride for an African American. Many parallels can also be drawn for the Black British community as, similar to the African American context, to be Black British is to be the embodiment of two warring ideals – Blackness and Britishness.
“He’ll know he’s Black first when the cops pull him over!”
In 1992, Sir John Woodcock, then HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said with regards to policing:
“What is happening to the police is that a nineteenth-century institution is being dragged into the twenty-first century. Despite all the later mythology of Dixon, the police never were the police of the whole people, but a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes.”
It is important to dispel any notion that the police exist to protect and serve, or to preserve law & order. Even if this were the case, this would still be inherently violent towards those on the margins of society because the law doesn’t protect them anyway, it protects the interests of the wealthy from them and their perceived threat. The primary function of policing is to protect the status quo, the state and its property. Accepting this fact makes conversations about policing more bearable and provides some explanation for the inexcusable acts of police brutality – such as the Metropolitan Police’s response to the peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard in London last month – which have always been routine practice. One could go as far as to say that the concept of the police system globally inherently criminalises the Black body. With this in mind, the tactics of the police – whether it is the SARS police force in Nigeria or 20-year-old Daunte Wright becoming the latest tragic victim amongst the countless cases of Black people murdered at the hands of the police in the US – become less surprising (although no less shocking or traumatic). Instead, Black bodies brutalised by police might be treated as symptoms of a flawed system in and of itself, rather than aberrations of that system.
With all that said, in unpacking the jibe in response to the “American first, Black second” assertion, the overwhelming question to further interrogate regards the impact of defining one’s identity around the violence that may befall them at the hands of the state and its institutions – including, but by no means limited to, the police – which continue to routinely fail Black people. Race pervades all aspects of (Western) society and, as such, there are few spaces which provide Black people with an environment free of violence of some kind. There is something to be said about the potentially damaging effect of defining Blackness in terms of this violence and it could be argued that this causes internalised victimhood to become inherent in one’s Blackness. Kendrick Lamar vividly illustrates this on one of my favourite songs, his 2017 track ‘FEAR.’ Having grown up surrounded by gang violence and police brutality, he dedicates the second verse to his fear of an untimely death at age seventeen.
In the latter chapters of his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, UK rapper, author and activist Akala discusses how violence, although not exclusively, is a male phenomenon, and reflects on his own performance of toxic masculinity in his adolescence due to insecurity and fragile ego. Societal measures of masculinity seem to all involve violence of some sort – if not towards other men, then definitely towards women. It could even be argued that the true measure of a man is his ability to be violent, or at least to be comfortable with violence. Of course, other groups can be, and often are, perpetrators or victims of horrific violence, however my lament is that there exists this toxic dynamic in which violence appears to be a prerequisite to being masculine. This is further exacerbated when considering Black masculinity, which is situated at the intersection of masculine entitlement and devalued Blackness, as Stuart Hall interprets.
Last year, I read Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, which is effectively an anthology of essays from Black British men. Blackness is both despised and highly valued and, when we’ve been misrepresented and made both invisible (or hyper-visible) for so long, collecting our stories feels like an act of survival. With the modern emphasis on diversity & inclusion, it’s important that Black British men’s voices and stories are also thrown in the mix. In the book, JJ Bola notes in his essay “Rapper, Actor, Athlete – Other” – which deals with Black male identity and the colonial imaginary – that, when considering colonial projections and impositions on the Black male identity, there is the issue of a certain self-fulfilling prophecy which arises; that is, a false definition of a situation evoking new behaviour which makes the originally false conception come true. In Black men, salacious hypermasculinity – sexual insatiability and aggression, athleticism and violence – is almost stereotypically expected and these stereotypes are perpetuated and exacerbated in the media’s representation of Black males to such an extent that these conceptions can become internalised by other people, particularly by young Black males themselves. For Black people, the importance of being intentional about the music, entertainment and literature consumed and engaged with – and how Blackness plays an integral role in shaping thinking – when constructing a sense of self identity and self awareness cannot be stressed enough.
Blackness is perceived as a threat. In his “Treddin’ on Thin Ice” chapter, Jesse Bernard writes, “I was aware from a young age that my life depended on my calmness”. This sentiment is echoed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her novel Americanah, where she writes, “And if you are a man, be hyper-mellow, never get too excited, or somebody will worry that you’re about to pull a gun”. This particularly resonated with me; not because I’ve ever been in a life or death situation (fortunately), but because, by virtue of being Black and navigating the microaggressions that come with that, the importance of policing my tone, especially around white and non-Black people, was impressed upon me early. There is a certain bicultural competence which comes with being privately educated at a Boys’ school and attending white higher education institutions, and with this come mechanisms for dealing with always being in the minority. I also recognise that, by virtue of being (rightly or wrongly) regarded and identified as “highly intelligent” as a result, in addition to my perceived “well-spokenness”, “middle classness”, and my ability to code switch in order to better assimilate in white and non-Black spaces, I am largely shielded from violence and, to an extent, able to define Blackness on my own terms, outside of the stereotypical perception that white and non-Black people have attached to my race. How far code-switching and respectability politics shield Black people from violence is debatable, given the unfortunate reality that, whether a Black man has an imposing physique or is slight of stature, society perceives Black masculinity as threatening for its mere existence. Furthermore, whether transcending the stereotypical perceptions attached to Blackness should be considered positive is also another debate in itself entirely, given the fact that these racist stereotypes implicitly associate Blackness with ignorance and an inability to properly articulate oneself, and the white gaze is still centred in any attempt to break these stereotypes. The fact which remains is Black people are not afforded the luxury of being able to freely express themselves (outside of socially acceptable realms of public expression, like football matches) because impassioned Black expression is perceived as threatening. In order to make life easier for yourself, there’s a degree of respectability politics that must be strictly adhered to in order to reassure white and non-Black people that you are non-violent and non-threatening. We mustn’t shout too loud, even if the anger is righteous and justified (evidenced by the response to protesters expressing their outrage at the murder of George Floyd). This double consciousness – this constant consideration of how even the most harmless behaviour may be perceived by others – subsequently becomes inherent to Black existence. As the famous Toni Morrison quote states: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction”; this constant shrinking of oneself to accommodate others is in itself maddeningly distracting, infuriatingly frustrating and, quite frankly, exhausting.