Monday 18 July 2016

Thought Picnic: Being black and knowing

Being black in America
Observing the recent events of black people killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in the USA has been disheartening and very sad.
I have watched anger, protest, hashtag and campaign to bring to the fore the urgency and the prevailing compelling message that Black Lives Matter.
It is more than a pertinent point to make and it was amazingly sympathetic to notice the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, write, “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” [The Hill] How insightful!
Been black a long time
Then in Dallas, 5 policemen were assassinated in a black-on-white vengeance spree, the black chief of the Dallas Police Department, David Brown finds himself straddling the intersection of race, history, culture and community which has become a national narrative.
He was asked how he bridged these communities and he responded, “I’ve been black a long time, so it’s not much of a bridge for me. It's everyday living. I grew up here in Texas, third generation Dallasite. It's my normal to live in this society that has a long history of racial strife. We're in a much better place than we were when I was a young man here.” [NBC News]
The histories we live
I could very well relate to the highlighted part of his response and maybe more if I had the history and experience of David Brown, and he has suffered grave personal losses in that environment. Yet, I realise that being a minority in any setting comes with a communal history and personal history.
The communal history of David Brown evidenced in what he said might have dictated that he as a black man cannot successfully be a police chief with the burden of African American history that pervades, yet his personal history allows him to confidently operate in that office.
In the UK where I live, there is a spectrum of communal history related to being Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME), the communities one belongs to, the motivations or accidents of being here, how that might define you and possibly dictate your personal history.
Understanding personal blackness
My parents came to study in the UK in the 1960s, successful as they were with their academic pursuits, they faced a communal history of racism which until today probably colours their views of racial relations in the UK. My father once wrote to me that I would be a second-class citizen in the UK and by inference implied I was a first-class citizen in Nigeria, yet, my personal history suggests I was neither.
My personal history refines the context. I am by rights a British citizen by birth, then I grew up in a multicultural setting in Nigeria. In my education and life, I did not have to run the gauntlet of the race and deprivation politics of the 1970s and 1980s in the UK.
My sojourn in Nigeria confirmed in me my blackness, such that I am quite comfortable in my own skin. I do not then strive with my blackness nor take too much offence when racially abused as it mostly provides an opportunity to educate. That probably means I am rarely agitating to be identified or recognised, my personal history and experiences have created my self-esteem and self-assurance in whatever environment I choose to exist in.
Not despising myself
I draw comfort from the words of a letter of a black father wrote to his son in the light of the killings, the shootings, the turmoil and the angst. [Time Magazine]
Quoting James Baldwin from “The Uses of the Blues” and I have obtained the full context, "In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don’t know what ‘the Negro Problem’ means to white people, but this is what it means to Negroes." [Time Magazine]
It does not have to be Negro, a contemporaneous word of the 1960s, it could be anyone, anyone can be despised, the hope is something in the communal and personal history of that person ensures that person does not in turn, despise themselves. I am blessed with the thought that enough was put into my development to accept myself for who and whom I am.
At that point, there is no bridge to cross, you are yourself, whole, happy, contented and thriving. It is not the end of the war per se because many others still fight that battles that define them from participating fully in our common and shared humanity out of what is man’s inhumanity to others.

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