Wednesday 23 June 2021

A Black Englishman? He laughed

An Englishman he is

He scoffed on the verge of derision; the thought of a black Englishman of Nigerian heritage was beyond him, 'How is that remotely possible?' He remonstrated. A docket for which he could not find a pigeonhole as the more common black British of Nigerian heritage would have gone down better with him.

Obviously, I was being asked to follow him down the classification of Black British, which broadly, I might be, but particularly, I am not. Great Britain comprises the three nations of England, Scotland, and Wales. The identities being English, Scottish, and Welsh, the United Kingdom is of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Whilst I can understand there are elements tending to hijack the English identity for nationalist purposes, what we cannot allow is for them to rob us of how we choose to identify just because some have deployed that identity to nefarious ends.

An Englishman I am

That I identify as an Englishman is quite fundamental by reason of birth and with an appreciation that the British influences that moderate my sense of being are exclusively English and quite different from if I were born and bred in Scotland or Wales.

I became acutely aware of this when I lived in the Netherlands and between the question of where I was originally from and what my heritage was, people still found it difficult to understand that in the last century or so, with much travel, immigration, emigration and settlement, the question of identity is rarely fixed by parenthood alone, the congenital elements notwithstanding, the rest can be so radically different from your forebears.

And a black man too

Living in Nigeria, I looked like everyone else until I began to speak, as my accent was not typically local. It set me apart in advantageous and sometimes disadvantageous ways, what they call a British accent is anything but, accents are regional, and they can also be influenced by teaching and conditioning; that mine became a smorgasbord of Black Country in the West Midlands, a bit of Received Pronunciation in school and Nigerian hearing, it has become literally nondescript whilst tending to an accent you might hear in England than anywhere else.

I now find that depending on where I am certain aspects of identity projection breakout more than others. My being black has never been in dispute though I could remember the shock of arriving in Nigeria to see that there were more black people than white people, until then, I knew a different world, but that sojourn in Nigerian solidified my black identity, I am comfortable in my own skin.

European to the core

Returning to England, there was a time of adjustment, whilst I was fully aware that I had every right by birth and by the law to live and work here. However, my sense of identity was in flux, I was in a phase of just being Black British until I found that I could be broadly European too and with that, I emigrated to the Netherlands, and there, I was an expatriate rather than an immigrant; an Englishman abroad. Funny, the issue of identification tags.

I guess the dominant side of my European identity came to the fore when I went to South Africa, even though the complexities of racial identity still bedevil interactions, you begin to see the intersections of identity and propriety in how where you are, what you do, how you speak, and so on puts you in the system whilst setting you apart again. That I can understand Afrikaans and nothing of Zulu leaves people questioning and a long story if I could be bothered. Yet, I have felt more European when in South Africa than anything else.

I identify as my identity

Now, where were we? I am a black Englishman of Nigerian heritage; I think that portrays a keen sense of identity with a lot of detail and no need for extraneous justification. That one chooses to identify as such is one’s prerogative and whatever anyone thinks about it is totally irrelevant.

Yes, I always tick the ethnicity box of Black Other or write in Black English. I am sure the Scots or the Welsh would take umbrage at being classed as broadly British when they have a keen sense of their primarily national identities, why does it have to be different when you are Black or any other colour for that matter?

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