“Too Nigerian to be British and too British to be Nigerian”
“Too Nigerian to be British and too British to be Nigerian.” A rhetoric I know all too well. Is it possible to be Black and British? Let me delve into this
My name is Olajide, “Jide” for short. Those of the smart ones in the room, you know that my name is unmistakably “foreign”. It’s a Yoruba Nigerian name; undeniable but not stereotypical. For the record, I actually have no ‘English’ or ‘Christian’ names and while growing up I found a MAJOR burden, these days I openly embrace whole-heartedly.
My parents? They immigrated from Nigeria in the 80’s as two, young educated persons looking to settle down, have a family and a better life. The natural choice, as is for many, is to move to Britain…but as two people living in diaspora the racial challenges you discover are all too real. My mother recalls being pelted with eggs while walking through Bermondsey once and my father having to use his English name while job-seeking and even then, as qualified as he was, he could only get the most menial of jobs. This is a narrative that many Blacks past and present have experienced.
The ‘Empire’ were so desperate for our contributions in the World Wars and were so eager to welcome us over to help rebuild the nation yet failed integrating us into the British community by shoving us specifically into certain areas and restricting our access to the full range of resources that others had. Like, were we only ‘British’ when they needed us?
So what does it mean to be British? When you think of Britain, you of course think Union Jack, Bulldogs, the Royal Family, Tea and Soap Operas. There are certainly two important things that we as those living in the diaspora and those native to this land all share. For one, the accent. Whether north or south, the British accent is unmistakable to the rest of the world regardless of variations. Spend enough time here and you’ll pick it up too. Additionally, it’s this Liberal-Capitalist way of thinking. At times, we in diaspora are less community-orientated and pride ourselves too much on personal advancement solely to outdo our white counterparts.
Then what does it mean to be Black? We are unique, distinct from the others. Our complexion- dark chocolate to caramel, our hair – afro kinky coils to wavy curls. What was once considered a curse is now a celebrated blessing. Our music is loved and copied by absolutely EVERYONE. But being Black is deeper. It’s about a sense of shared struggle and spirituality. Some things we Blacks all identify with. The stigmas, the friction…yet a deeper sense of meaning – a force bigger than all of us – carrying us through our journey.
Black-British? Now, I understand to be synonymous with one word – CULTURE. Call it what you will but Black British culture is unlike anything else. The nostalgia from some of the things we used to do. Who remembers instrumentals on Sony Ericsson phones? Just Do It bags? Gel-slicked baby hairs and the Bebo ‘editz’? Even in music, we appreciate the pioneers whose contributions birthed Garage, UK funky…GRIME. More so, we acknowledge those we revere highly; the Lenny Henrys, the Trevor McDonalds, Wileys, Ozwald Boatengs, Mary Seacoles – too many to name. We have taken the little we’ve been given and made something which we can be proud of. Mix heritage with a need for love and sense of identity and you get Notting Hill Carnival, one of the biggest of its kind.
We Black Britons have made the best of this life but I worry. I can’t help but fear that we may lose our Afro-Caribbean identity. I’ve seen countless instances of our young boys and girls professing to not be Black but rather ONLY British or ‘English’. At the end of the day, self-hate is self-hate, however you dress it up. Also, I’ve met quite a few Africans who are adamant on not wanting to return to motherland and seeing where they came from. Africa is not perfect but the disheartening truth is that we have become so accustomed to Western life that we feel no need to go back. Sometimes I find myself questioning Where do your priorities lie? With the Afro-Caribbeans or Blacks in our communities? When we get older and richer and become more compelled to give back, to whom are our main concern?
So can you be Black and British? Can you have the best of both worlds or is it a case of you can’t have your cake and eat it to? We should not look at it like being Black and being British are two polarising opposites. English is an ethnicity but being British is about nationality. Therefore, it’s reasonable to see how both can stand together. Being Black should never be understated but it’s the mix of the two that birthed many great things and given us depth to our identity. My identity of being Black and British is a sign of pain and struggle yet victory and beauty.
By Jide Tijani