What Being Black Is And What Being Black Isn’t

I went to the reading/signing for this book last week, as part of Islington’s Black History month. I’ll be honest and say I knew nothing about the book or its message for Black Britons. But with a title like that, I was curious, it could either be very good, insightful, inspiring and challenging or it could be just another book that waxes lyrical about the Black community and culture and doesn’t really add anything new and has no real relevance for me or anyone else reading it. Fortunately, the former was true! I was really impressed with how the author Jacob Whittingham presented himself and his reasons for writing the book and the ideas expressed within. I loved the way he brought two of the young people he works with to explain their respective experiences of being Black British and trying to rise above the negativity or ‘niggativity’ as they called it, drama and chaos that surrounds them. Even better, was reading the book for myself.

At a time when the most powerful man in the world, the American president is a Black man, and Black people are coming up and succeeding in areas outside of sports and entertainment, still about 70% of teens murdered in London are Black and 12% of the UK prison population is Black. I remember a period in 2007 / 2008 when it seemed to me that not one day went by when a young Black person was murdered for one thing or another, usually really unnecessary reasons. It was and still is depressing to think about because when you look at the reasons why, you can’t keep blaming the system, you can’t keep blaming racism, you can’t keep blaming any thing else, you actually have to start taking some responsibility and look at yourself and your community and ask what is going on? Have we somehow become complicit in our own destruction?

This is broadly what the book discusses in breathtaking detail and from the sheer amount of statistics and references, this book is not to be taken casually. It was written for a young audience to get them thinking deeper and more seriously about their lives. Specifically the main themes are: get an education, get a job – a legit one, save your money to buy a worthwhile investment such as a house, rather than spending the little you have on a flash car or clothes from labels that you can’t really afford. To quote:

‘Blackness always has been and always will be, about getting a university degree regardless of the school you went to, taking care of your children despite the estate you grew up on, and being on time, even if you had to ride the bus’

Whittingham skilfully unpacks every stereotype that a significant minority of Black people, (and let’s be honest a lot of White people too)  are cashing in on, and highlights just how unproductive some of the so-called keys to the kingdom are.  For example,  thinking that there is much money to be made in the music industry. True, there is, but not so much for the artists, much more for the record execs and the record label owners. Furthermore, the perpetuation of the idea that emulating 50 Cent with all his chat about being a gangsta, pimp, dealer and, let us not forget, being shot nine times is progressive and cool is ridiculous, when frankly there are far more important things like example, social justice or Black unity, to focus on. Furthermore, since when was killing another person for looking at you wrong something to boast about, especially when that person is a member of your own community. Time was when I was younger, Black kids were scared of White kids running about the streets, especially skinheads. Now, Black kids are scared of other Black kids running about the streets. To paraphrase a point made in the book, when did we become the Black chapter of the BNP or the KKK?

My favourite ‘issue’ had to be the discourse on the use of the N-word. I don’t like it, I don’t use it, in any context, but that’s just me. What irritates me is when people say they use it because they are ‘reclaiming’ it and making it positive. What? Really? How does that work? Just how do you wear an insult like a badge of honour? Seriously people. So you can imagine my delight, when such thinking was soundly demolished with a few home truths about the history of the word, what it really means and how ‘re-claiming’ it makes no kind of sense at all and just shows the ignorance of the person who ‘claims’ they can. Using the word just gives licence to other idiots to use it because they think it is now ok. It’s not. Just saying.

In many ways, What Being Black Is and What Being Black Isn’t reminds me of Lynch’s Road, as both talk about the same themes and address an audience that appears to be intent on its own destruction, in an attempt to make them wake up and see the reality of their situation: Slavery may have been abolished but you all haven’t lost the slave mentality. But the difference I personally find between the two books, is that WBBIAWBBI despite not being a novel is presented in a very accessible and humourous manner that in no way undercuts the seriousness of its message. It doesn’t come across as preachy and didactic, but more like your elder, wiser brother giving you some friendly advice, and leaving you with a sense of how to achieve some worthwhile goals. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh, difficult or controversial topics nor does it sugar coat them. Most of all, I came away from the book feeling hopeful, inspired and also proud of being a Black woman, proud of my culture and heritage and wanting to do more to reflect it positively in every way. I came away praying that young people making ‘street life’ their game would take note of this message and turn things around. I can’t recommend this book enough to people, young or old, Black or White, it’s well written with excellent resources and references to go back to and do your own research and filled with nuggets of truth and good sense. Mr Whittingham and Biscuit, I salute you!

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One thought on “What Being Black Is And What Being Black Isn’t

  1. Thanks for this. I would have loved to have being there, instead, I was out and about looking for Attica Locke’s new book: The Cutting Season and Hilary Mantel’s book Wolf Hall.
    I agree with the comments regarding ‘blackness’. Perhaps we have an over preoccupation with education, chasing that job, and keeping it. I know this affects everyone else but with us, it has gotten so that perhaps there is no time to think about whether or not you on the cultural track, you have to focus on surviving. The scary thing is in all the years of growing up in London, and the hard work that the first generation has put in to make sure there is some sort of legacy remains/is present, you are seeing their effort being quitely eroded right before your very eyes! Black History month may appear an irrelevance in the eyes of many, but it has to be there just to remind everyone that we are here and very much a part of the historical landscape!

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