What was supposed to be a week spent reading and writing about the Indian Diaspora somehow became one consumed with fascinating books about Blacks in England. Oddly enough, my curiosity brought me to three books in the library that I devoured with speed and interest. All short texts, Roy Kerridge’s The Story of Black History, Phil Cohen and Carl Gardner’s It ain’t half racist, mum, and Tessa Hosking’s Black People in Britain 1650-1850, consumed my week with a whole new world of history, racism, quirky nostalgia and well earned pride.
It may seem odd that this combo of white advocacy and white criticism was entertained fully by my skeptic brain, but the excuses it provided to procrastinate and also to empathize shouldn’t be underestimated. Sifting through Kerridge’s thinly veiled superiority complex as both a historian and a bastion of knowledge on black authenticity, I learned about the SS Empire Windrush that brought many West Indians to England in 1948. And while pondering Melissa Harris-Perry’s most recent departure from MSNBC in response to their lack of support and undermining behaviors, I read Cohen and Gardner’s account of Alex Pascall’s experience with his radio show Black Londoners in the late 1970s and 1980s. I learned the names of Ignatius Sancho, Tom Molineaux, and Francis Barber from Hosking, and experienced a burst of reminders about white sympathizers like Granville Sharpe.
More important than names and dates, these texts resurrected Pan-African understandings that I have – for a long time – not explored. They also reminded me that while so many people draw inspiration from African-American images, they know very little of African-American realities and instead cling to stereotypes at both extremes of the socio-economic spectrum. These texts mentioned the many African-American British loyalists who found themselves in England at the end of war for independence, only to be treated as unwelcomed hangers on. They made mention of the Sierra Leonians and the diversities of experience and histories between those returned from the Americas and the natives who took them in as neighbors *unclear if done so willingly*. All told, one thing all these British texts had in common was a reminder that Black British history wasn’t African-American history. In fact, Kerridge makes it a point to remind people that African-American history, no matter how Nubianized, has become revisionist history for Blacks all over the world – something he deems wrong and historically inaccurate.
What do I take from this? Probably not what you’d expect. I take the pride in being of the ancestry of slaves and deep pride that that history has been exported, invented, reinvented, spread and mimicked around the world and infused into daily actions of people who barely know our names. I take great pride in realizing that while we may be greatly misunderstood, domestically and internationally, we are ever present. In British history books our presence is to be countered. On the mainstage of MSNBC our presence is to be critiqued. And somehow, being present is an act of militancy.
I suppose this take away speaks more about where I am in life, than what these authors expected their readers to absorb. As an African-American who is often asked about my expat lifestyle, about my identity now that I am married to an African, about how African I feel, I have struggled to find responses that I am not later ashamed of. They could have been better worded. They could have paid homage to multiple realities. They could have been more open, more closed, more accurate, more imaginative, more or less…entertaining. I have to ask, am I making a Diaspora of my own in my travels? Is that question, in itself, self-serving or trivial?
I’m pondering greatly what my presence means. Whether or not being an expat makes me a migrant, an immigrant, an interloper or an interpreter. Being present has been a privilege, but it hasn’t been without responsibilities. Living while Black isn’t easy anywhere, but living while Black in Africa, representing a politics of the West, studying a people of the East and eeking out, dangerously, some semblance of normalcy in the short 24 hours I’m given daily – feels militant. It feels defiant. It feels counter to expectation, counter to understanding and, for me, just surreal.
People have asked me to start talking about my experience more – as a traveler, as an academic, as a professional. To be the story has always been my goal, but never my lived reality. To do so would be to be exposed. To do so would be to show vulnerabilities in a veneer of strength, to expose a brain behind the face of so many transposed expectations, to give words to deliberate, self-preserving, silences. Silent presence helps to hide self-consciousness and inarticulate descriptions of what it means to be me, today, in this world of worlds, in these spheres of power and in the banal spaces of daily life.
So what started out as a week of reading about a series of others has been a very critical site of academic and personal metamorphosis. It’s the moment when I learned to write my presence, not just in the stories about me, but in the stories that have come my way by virtue of my presence – in the workplace, in the interviews, in the academic spaces that I transit.
In the coming year, I hope to be less preachy and more exposed. I hope to share my field notes here – explaining diversions that make no sense to me – and expressing feelings that Psychology Today may say have no name. What all these three writers have given me this week is a history that demands a voice. It demands that trivial events are written, in the hopes that they will later become a history – a history of boring questions, fleeting moments, principal characters – as complex and confusing as the lived experience.
I hope to give you mine… and one day, may it become a history, so that those same voices who silence us daily won’t plain write us out forever.