No black America, you aren’t the custodians of the diaspora’s experience and culture
Earlier this week, a friend put me onto a Hot 97 interview with Samuel L. Jackson where he spoke about the influx of black British actors in America. Indeed, many black British actors are experiencing stateside success and Jackson was somewhat aggrieved that this was taking the roles of his compatriots and peers. However, what I took umbrage with was the subtext of Jackson’s comments on his perception of the validity of the black British experience representing the diaspora. This was when talking about black British actor Daniel Kaluuya being cast in Get Out, a horror comedy about contemporary racism.
“I know the young brother who’s in the movie, and he’s British… There are a lot of black British actors that work in this country. All the time. I tend to wonder what would that movie [Get Out] have been with an American brother who really understands that in a way. Because Daniel [Kaluuya] grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. Britain, there’s only about eight real white people left in Britain … So what would a brother from America have made of that role? And I’m sure the director helped. Some things are universal, but everything ain’t.”
Since it was aired, the interview has had plenty of media coverage, much of it surrounding Jackson’s criticism of black British actors taking US roles (Jackson has sought to clarify his comments saying his criticism was more of the system than targeted at British actors). Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that there was a clear undertone in Jackson’s utterances that he, like many African Americans, see themselves as the custodians of the diaspora’s experience and culture. Although, not only is that not a role they undoubtedly do not possess, given contemporary African American culture, one could argue they aren’t qualified to assume it either.
I like and respect Samuel L. Jackson. Despite some questionable roles, he has a solid body of work and cannot be denied as a talent and veteran within the arts and the black diaspora. But when it comes to talking about black British culture, identity and experience, it’s something he’s hugely ignorant to and therefore needs to fall back and pipe down because he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.
On interracial relationships in the UK, they are surely growing but the 2011 UK census showed 2.2% of the British population identified as mixed race while 86% identified as white. It’s hardly the erosion of the white race in the UK that Jackson alluded to. Furthermore, despite increased acceptance, interracial relationships are still somewhat a taboo in the UK which would suggest that the struggle of interracial harmony in the UK is very much present.
That struggle is compounded by the history of race relations in the UK. Black America doesn’t have a monopoly on the hardships of the diaspora when it comes to achieving equality and positive race relations. The British were responsible for the enslavement of millions of Africans; of whom many African Americans are descendents of. Then there was the subsequent British empire that replaced slavery with colonialism. Post World War 2, many blacks came from black majority colonies to settle in the UK, only to be met with hostility and abject racism that was the product of centuries of such attitudes in British society that are still present today.
As a result, British contemporary history is littered with race riots and unrest within the black British community. Notting Hill Gate in 1958. Toxteth in Liverpool in 1981. Brixton in 1981 and 1985. Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in 1985. The list goes on. Needless to say, the black British experience is absolutely no stranger to adversity. To suggest otherwise as Jackson has is unfounded and asinine. It’s part of our past and our present and we know just how real it is.
Jackson’s sentiments aren’t exclusive to him. There’s almost an African American ‘privilege’ that so many black Americans assume when it comes to being an authority on and an authentic representation of ‘blackness’. As a black British person who’s spent time in America, many African Americans are amazed that not only are you from the UK but that there are others like you. They feel your ‘blackness’ is perhaps less credible and less authentic because you aren’t from America and therefore can’t possibly have a valid black experience that would be akin to theirs. It beggars belief that a group that often considers itself an authority on the diaspora would be so ignorant to the diaspora beyond their own borders.
Black America undoubtedly has a troubled and anguished history itself when it comes to race relations which is well documented and arguably worse than that of black Britons when it comes to contemporary history. Just don’t attempt to reduce ours in articulating that we don’t know the struggle because we know it just as intimately as the rest of the diaspora.
Admittedly, generations of the black diaspora of yesteryear once looked to black America as a bastion of the culture. The Harlem Renaissance showcased black consciousness and promoted positive black identity and the influence of subsequent civil rights leaders transcended African Americans as its audience and inspired the diaspora as a whole. Yet that’s since changed, largely due to the lack of inspiration offered by black America and the disengagement that the rest of the diaspora has with it.
In contrast to the 70s, 80s, 90s and even early 00s, if you speak to black British youth today, they have little regard for or association with African American culture. The same goes for black French youth and the rest of the diaspora. America is no longer the stronghold it was once perceived for credibly representing the culture.
Even in representations of popular black culture such as music and the wider arts, African Americans are no longer considered to produce a quality product that represents the culture better than their peers elsewhere. Instead, black America has consistently diluted and damaged what were once authentic representations of the diaspora and some of the worst representations of the culture arguably come from black America.
It’s fair to say that no section of the black community has further bastardised the diaspora’s culture en route to aggressive commercialisation and monetisation than contemporary black America. Hence it’s difficult to refute the argument that black America doesn’t even deserve to be a custodian of the diaspora’s experience given the damage it’s already done.
I was discussing this very topic with some friends and commentators on the culture and we remarked on the plethora of African American celebrity endorsements of products that are ills for the community. This isn’t what Malcolm X, Martin Luther King et al wanted and black America has undone much of the work of such inspirational leaders who were rightly figures that the wider diaspora looked up to.
Black America isn’t without credible, respected and inspirational figures such as Cornel West and Dr Boyce Watkins. But America is also home to many modern day house negroes such as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson (who compared slaves to immigrants) and YouTuber minstrels and Trump acolytes Diamond and Silk.
Despite generations of hardship and inequality, it’s hard to see black America as a safe pair of hands and mouthpiece for the diaspora when such attitudes are present within their community. Don’t get me wrong, we have black British house negroes of our own but none as visible or vocal as those within America. What does that say about the dichotomised black American experience today?
Black America’s heritage is undeniable. Similarly, the African American experience is one that sears through the often painful narrative of the diaspora. Though this doesn’t give black America a right to assert itself as a custodian of the diaspora’s experience or to claim theirs as being more valid than that of the rest of the culture. To assume that role, black America has much work to do and statements like that made by Samuel L. Jackson suggest they’re the last ones to realise it.