The art of being black

January 5, 1996

Claire Alexander goes in search of the complex identity of young black Britain that lies behind the popular stereotypes.

In the wake of the recent wave of media infatuation, I have to confess that it was pop singer Michael Jackson in a earlier incarnation who was a major source of inspiration for my interest in black identity. Or perhaps not so much inspiration as curiosity, particularly with the ways in which both the media and Jackson himself played with, perpetuated and took moral issue over his "racial identity" - or lack of it. In Moonwalker, Jackson complained: "They say I that I want to look more white. More white? What kind of statement is that?". What interested me was the notion that there was something that was "being white", or rather, that there was something that was "being black" that Michael Jackson did not want to be, but could somehow never quite escape. Then, in the summer of 1989, there was the explosion of Soul II Soul on to the youth scene, heralded as "The New Funki Face of Black Britain" (The Face). Again, the questions arose, what was this face, what did it represent, what did it mean to be black British?

"Being black" has in many ways proved to be a curiously unproblematical phenomenon - something which can be pinned down, dissected and packaged as a series of stereotypes and social problems. Defining and legislating blackness has always been considered a legitimate endeavour where its counterpart, "being white" has remained seemingly beyond the bounds of analysis. At one level, "being black" in Britain remains a readily available grab-bag of popular, media and academic images, a familiar role-call of muggers, Rastafarian drug dealers, illegal immigrants, single mothers, absent fathers, truanting teenage posses and yardies. That familiarity has not bred the contempt these images deserve is depressingly obvious in continued debates around welfare mothers, immigration control and, of course, the perennial attack on young black people, last year in the shape of Paul Condon, head of London's Metropolitan police. What bothered me was that these representations endured in the face of living contradictions - these images had nothing to do with my friends, people I knew, people I saw in the street. They seemed most especially alien to the young black men with their razor-cuts and designer shirts who stepped on to the dance floors in Oxford in 1989 with such optimism.

The most startling thing when I began my research was the absence of an alternative to these popular images even in the plethora of studies of "race" and race relations. At worst, some simply replayed images of deviance and despair, at best, theories of "race" and racialisation managed to ignore the fact that the subject had anything to do with real people at all. Although several studies had effectively challenged and dismantled the stereotypes (Hall's Policing the Crisis, the CCCS Collective's The Empire Strikes Back, and Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, for example), this left a crucial void. They made clear what black youth were not, but did not explore what they were.

In search of the alternative that promised so much in the lyrics and videos of Soul II Soul, I arrived in a flat on the 15th floor of a council tower block in East London in July 1990. The flat belonged to a friend of a friend, Ricky, a black British man of about my age, who sublet me his brother's bedroom for the year. The next day, a group of his friends arrived to look me over. It was then that I first realised things were not as straightforward as I had naively imagined. Quite pretty, nice legs but terrible clothes and a truly horrible hairstyle seemed to be the general opinion. I later learnt that this was a fairly standard formulation for women they met, but at the time my visions of a positive, politically conscious subculture went up in smoke. My skirts were not short enough, I did not wear enough makeup and I definitely needed tighter tops. It was not an auspicious start - for any of us.

Having abandoned the one vague theory I came equipped with, I spent the next six months trying to decide what to do instead. In the meantime, in dogged anthropological pursuit of an "objective" and "representative" group of black youth, I spent several days a week in a community centre in another part of London. The first two months I lingered in the office, finally braving the stairs and corridor to the main social area, before arriving at the kitchen, where I stayed and ate curried goat, fried chicken and rice and peas for several more months. Although the staff and members were unstintingly warm and supportive, I never managed to conquer a feeling of awkwardness and intrusion on my part. The overwhelming sense of artificiality and of distance left me frustrated and dissatisfied, as if I were on the edge of their lives peering in, notebook in hand. Meanwhile, at home in East London, "the boys" were taking me to clubs, fighting and gossiping in the living room, discussing music and swapping fashion tips, practising dance steps, falling in and out of love, inculcating me with the "essential" attitudes and artefacts of "blackness", going to work and coming home to their families and partners.

The decision to base my research on the boys came as a natural and obvious development from our increasing friendship. We were about the same age and, having negotiated a compromise on my dress sense (slightly shorter skirts, but no tighter tops), they were happy to include me in their lives as a matter of routine. All the boys were aware of my research interests, but because I was around so much of the time, these soon became a minor aspect of our meetings. In turn, the basis of friendship meant that I learned more about their lives and experiences as individuals, so that a solid basis of trust was established for when I finally did interviews in the spring and summer of 1991.

The drawback of getting to know the boys as people was that it was impossible to fit them into neat conceptual categories. As a woman of colour myself - of Asian descent - I have always maintained a healthy scepticism of neat classifications and convenient labels, only too aware of how little public perceptions had to do with me as a person. Perhaps this meant that I was more alive to this imaginative disjunction with the boys and to the games they constantly played with people's expectations. It also meant I was aware of the extent to which one was never quite able to get away from these expectations; that, as for Michael Jackson, the spectre of an imagined blackness was always there, like a shadow that was both separate from you and yet marked out your existence.

That the boys were also aware of this tension between themselves as individuals and what society expected of them became clear to me early on in my fieldwork. One night, outside a pub in Covent Garden, I was introduced to two new members of the group, Nathan and Arif: "This is Claire. She's an anthropologist and she's studying black men. She wants to know why we all stand around on street corners with ghetto blasters, mugging old white women". Nathan glared at me: "We don't all do that you know". After a dramatic pause, he added "Any white woman will do". Their awareness of the gap between these representations and who they were as individuals was something that the boys confronted, negotiated and played with constantly; the images structured their lives, yet were never allowed to determine them. Although all the boys were black, had been born in Britain, and were around the same age, the group was characterised as much by its diversity as its sameness. It ranged from Clive, who worked for a firm of stockbrokers in the City, to Ricky, who had been unemployed for two years; from Frank, who was a keen amateur pilot, to Shane, who was always on the verge of signing the one record deal that would make him a star.

What my study captured was a series of moments, in which they created themselves and were created by others; in which they played out, overturned and transformed the stereotypes that shadowed them - or failed to. It was not the alternative I had hoped to find, but it was a series of alternatives in which the outcome could not be predetermined. It was, finally, this uncertainty, the idea of identities in flux that was the only real constant. If the thing that the boys shared was "being black" what this actually meant was always open to new interpretations, new challenges, and new identities. It was as much about who they were as people as about the demands and expectations of those around them - black and white - in all the complexity that entails. Even while trying to capture that complexity, I still find myself saying most often "Well, of course, it is more complicated than that". Someone once suggested to me that it was actually more simple - that the boys were merely making themselves up like everyone else does. Despite my reservations about a view that ignores the continued inequalities and, in the aftermath of the death of Wayne Douglas, the dangers of "race", I can't help feeling that the ideal of black youths as people "like everyone else" is at least a start.

Claire Alexander is a British Academy post doctoral research fellow at the Open University. Her book, The Art of Being Black, will be published by Oxford University Press this summer.

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