‘I am not American’
Matt Gibson: Windsor Terrace, 2020 (CC)
Lori Tharps makes the case for capitalising black: “Black with a capital ‘B’”, she writes, “refers to a group of people whose ancestors were born in Africa, were brought to the United States against their will, spilled their blood, sweat and tears to build this nation into a world power and along the way managed to create glorious works of art, passionate music, scientific discoveries, a marvelous cuisine, and untold literary masterpieces. When a copyeditor deletes the capital “B”, they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” Unlike Tharps, though, I am not American.
My ancestors were not brought against their will to the country where I’m currently living. In fact, most black British people are now black Africans, which means recent immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from independent African nations. The particular historical relationship between the transatlantic slave trade and black Americans does not neatly apply to the contemporary black British population. Pretending that it does would be to deny the history of my people, to borrow the argot of Tharps. Black people in Britain are essentially immigrant communities — the average black American, by contrast, can trace his ancestry further back than the average white American.
But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the catch-all framework of “Black Lives Matter” was imported to every corner of the planet, even though race relations are not the same throughout the world. They are instead mediated by a country’s unique history and culture. Now as then, insufficient attention is paid to the different contexts of the black people who do not live in America; we are simply put in the mould of black Americans.
It was bizarre, watching the majority of liberal democracies use the example of America to make sense of race in their own countries. People on the streets of central London were screaming “hands up don’t shoot”. British university students were passionately denouncing discrimination against BIPOC people — black, indigenous people of colour — without recognising that speaking for the interests of indigenous people in Britain makes one sound more like Nick Griffin than 20-year-old Molly studying History at Bristol University.