‘Diaspora’ is not a word you tend to learn early in life. Still, the concepts of culture and conformity occur to us from the onset of socialisation—from lunchtime in kindergarten and geography lessons in primary school.
Many Black Britons today are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, still in a dialogue with our heritage; mediators between tradition and assimilation, not entirely devoted to British culture. (Or at least, the orthodox idea of British culture). Insofar as the gauge for British identity is forged from White history, customs, sensibilities and experiences, being Black and from Britain seems like living a duality: our lives unfold in at least two distinct cultural settings and we’re aware of this in our earliest memories. Again, “diaspora” is not a word you tend to learn early in life. That is to say, one of the fundamental struggles of Black Britishness, besides profiling, is that we don’t often discover the language and concepts to (circum)navigate insecurity until we’ve grown with our frustration.
The feeling of “otherness” is akin to a dull, obstinate cramp; it doesn’t quite paralyse you, but it does nag at your every attempt to participate. It’s wearying, to say the least. Often our earliest instinct, underscored by British nationalism, is to escape the duality—to commit ourselves to the cultural spaces and symbols of Britain’s majority. But the bottom line is that not all of these are relevant or considerate to us, and we’re not offered space to introduce our differences into the British canon. Ineffectually, many spaces that claim to be the quintessence of orthodox Britain are proud refuges of “political incorrectness,” of overt suspicion towards migration; pubs are a notorious example, depending where you are in the UK. Escaping into the hegemon isn’t an option.
Where does that leave us? It’s at the tail of this concession that an alternative, more promising resolution rears its head: reconciling our nationality and our heritage. There’s no cultural road map or framework for this outside of the one we create; this is a unique challenge for us and anyone other than Black Britons obviously has no stake in this. Hence, it’s an improvised journey to conceive a niche—both mental and material—through which we can blend the otherwise distinct backdrops to our lives, individually and collectively. There’s straining. There’s stumbling. But as recent history has written, from this emerges what we appreciate as Black-British culture and community, ever evolving to adapt our growth as a population.
The soul of the Black British community is embracing our duality and redefining it into one landscape. Strawberries and cream are as beloved on a sunny day as an ice-cold malt; the gloves will come off over the perfect cup of tea as well as the standard garnishes to jollof rice; there’s usually both a ball and a bashment on the annual agenda. We discuss the realities at the intersection of cultures with confidence. Fusion in our music, food and visual arts has inspired and continues to inspire business. We write stories on paper and on screen that confirm our experiences and conventions. We design our own spaces and symbols to outline our profile within Britain. Everyone whose home is Britain is right to unpack.
The diaspora isn’t an immediate oasis for everyone Black and British. If you’re gay/bi, trans or intersex, you’re acutely aware of homophobia and transphobia as the status quo in Africa and the Caribbean, and first question whether some hold that as “culture” when entering Black spaces. The destigmatisation of mental health also faces particular hurdles in our community. Not a week goes by where we don’t address colourism. Like any society, we have our battles. And like any society, intersectionality progresses us: our spaces include enterprises and forums towards activism, where we already share a level of context, where we can speak in nuances. Black Pride, the Black Feminist Bookshop and formerly Black Mental Health UK, for example, are all rooted in the premise of an explicit Black British community.
Make no mistake—our community isn’t a refuge from wider British culture. It’s an extension of Britain’s culture, normalising (or shall I say naturalising?) our own experiences within Britain. We’re synthesis in motion, forming something new and native. We’re Black. We’re British. We’re out here.
‘Many people assume that Black history is slavery and because of that assumption, they believe that to talk about Black history is to talk about a painful episode in their history. Now I always make it clear that the definition of Black history I use is Maulana Karenga’s definition, which is, “History is the record and process of people engaged in struggle to shape the world in their image and interest.” Therefore, history is what we did to Africanise the world.
Once you define history in this way, then slavery is not Black history, because during slavery Black people were not shaping anything, we were being shaped. Our history during that period is what we did to fight against it. Now what did Black people do to Africanise the world? We did quite a lot. When you put that “quite a lot” into perspective then the 500 years of slavery is actually a very small part of that story.’
— Robin Walker