What does it mean to be black? What is black culture? And how do we overcome our oppression when the media would have you believe that we seemingly can’t be harmonious as a people.
These days, these questions are all that plague my mind as we struggle to find a voice for black liberation. The beauty of social media has shown us the various cultures of black people all over the world. We celebrate the reach of our diaspora and try to find relation through our shared complexions. ‘Wakanda forever’ has now become our chant of resistance, a phenomenon that, admittedly, took me a while to understand – that something, a piece of unassuming fiction brought forth layers of complexity, opening the dialogue for a much needed conversation; the struggle between the homeland and the diaspora, and ultimately what it means to be black.
I am a black woman, born to Ghanaian parents, born and raised in the UK. I now live and work in the United States.
Growing up, I didn’t really question my identity. I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community where almost everyone around me was black. When anyone asked me where I was from, I would automatically say Ghana, and it was accepted without question. The default was to differentiate by ethnicity and not by race. After all, we were all black. Our geographical proximity to West Africa meant that our parents, in leaving their homelands, often for a better life, never really left their cultures behind. We created mini Accras and mini Lagoses all across London. It wasn’t, and still isn’t unusual to go into places like Peckham or Tottenham and not hear a word of English, just a fusion of many African/Caribbean languages. I took comfort in this.
It wasn’t until my first visit to Ghana when I was 12 that my identity was first brought into question. I proudly said I was Ghanaian at the border control and they quickly rubbished me. That experience repeated itself throughout my first visit and I got used to being called ‘Obroni’, a term I thought was reserved for white people. I came back to London and heavily reflected on my identity and for the first time, I felt my ‘other’. If I wasn’t thought of as Ghanaian in Ghana, a country I had so proudly boasted of, then what was I? I certainly wasn’t English, only (white) English people could be English – a fact that I was constantly reminded of during my school years when I made the dramatic transition from an inner city state school with almost all black people to a private boarding school in the country, which was almost exclusively white.
In my years at boarding school I understood what it meant to be a minority. I clung to my Black Britishness with such ferocity that one would assume I had been forced to declare my allegiance. In fact I think we all did. The music, the slang, the culture… a fusion of African and Caribbean cultures that created a new identity. Black British. I was still proudly Ghanaian, but I no longer romanticised the prospect of returning home, a dream I had inherited from my mother and so many in the diaspora who emigrate with dreams of returning once they’ve made it, only perhaps sadly to never fully return. The UK was now my home.
My next culture shock came when I moved to New York and realised that I didn’t immediately fit in and upsettingly, I had my first racist encounters. I felt like an outsider and I felt that being black was a negative thing, perhaps in my own naivety I had never felt this before I moved to the States. I was also introduced to a people who didn’t have an easy answer to the question ‘where are you from?’
As a direct result of slavery, the consequence of an unknown ethnicity is the constant search for identity. That is a traumatic experience in America, especially for African Americans who have been demonised in the media at home and abroad, with no real sense of belonging to a country that continuously punishes them for being there. In England, whenever we watched films or listened to African American music they were always portrayed in a negative light. I immediately realised my privilege in being an immigrant, in the way I was treated and received by white people. I still had my racist encounters but they were not nearly as bad as my African American brothers and sisters.
Ultimately, the black experience is as diverse as any other on the planet, and it is wrong to think that they are one and one in all. That is why I believe that the diaspora conversation needs to happen. We all need the chance, wherever we are, to share our black experience with equal weight and reception, because when we do, we will realise the beauty in our differences and I would argue, perhaps more importantly, the strength and community in our shared experiences. As hard as it is to digest, we can be different and the same at the same time.