By Pete Kalu
I began my literary life as a storyteller visiting classrooms across the UK. I found in the major cities — London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, pupils in one class might collectively know up to fifteen languages. In these same classrooms there would be children of amazingly mixed backgrounds — Turkish-Pakistani, Nigerian-Polish, third generation hyphenated Jamaican-Ghanaian-English-Irish children.
This hybridity is not an exclusively UK phenomenon. In Hong Kong I met third generation Indian-Chinese; in Lebanon I’ve met Nigerian bartenders who spoke fluent English having picked it up from American movies but who also spoke fluent Arabic and were engaged to Lebanese women. I’ve met Kashmiri villagers in Pakistan who spoke Scottish-English on account of Britain’s colonial ventures there hundreds of years ago!
Black identity is endlessly complex once you start to look up close. And to compound that complexity, culture (which forms a significant part of identity) is never static — it’s always on the move: absorbing new influences, throwing off the old. This is nothing new. I once traced a story that originated with the Mende people of Sudan and moved down into West Africa in different versions and which has now spread across to the Caribbean. In each location the story adapted itself, absorbing local influences. Hybridity is as old as the African hills.
Overlaying this aspect of hybridity and the resulting diversity of identity is the negative phenomenon of racism. Racism’s effect tends to be a flattening of the uniqueness of individuals and of the shifting variegation of cultures and their replacement with a monotone stereotype. Racism takes away individuation; it impresses its own images on individuals and communities. So Being Me tries to push back by exploring and celebrating the many complexities and ambiguities that black identity possesses.
In Being Me, Adele has an Ethiopian grandmother, a father who identifies as Italian and a white Liverpudlian mother. Adele considers herself black on account of her grandmother, but her father, who has a fine line in racism (see my first YA novel, The Silent Striker) considers her English-Italian. Adele occasionally speaks a form of urban slang which she attributes to her black grandmother. It is her confused way of boosting her ‘blackness’, as a means of pushing back against her father. Her frenemy Mikaela meanwhile has darker skin and two dark skinned parents. When annoyed, Mikaela rejects Adele’s attempt to identify as black and ridicules her for it. But if we hold the mirror up to Mikalea, Mikaela’s black identity is not ‘normal’ either. Mikaela’s parents are rich lawyers. Mikaela would prefer them to be poor in keeping with the stereotype of urban black families that she considers would make her look cool at school. To make things even more complicated, Mikaela’s parents were once Black Power militants and still champion the radical voices involved in anti-racism and pro-refugee campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and #refugeeswelcome. The whole bag of assumptions and expectations get thrown in the air in Being Me when Adele’s historically racist father inexplicably starts an affair with Mikaela’s mum.
To return to the source, as a storyteller, I would go into classrooms, tell a story or two from my life, then ask: what is blackness? Is it the way someone speaks? The way they walk? Is it where they are born? Their family? One story I would tell them from my own adolescence was of how a white skinned Jamaican man arrived in Manchester, UK and set up a kung fu class popular with second generation Jamaican children. We were astonished when this white man opened his mouth and spoke more fluent Jamaican nation-language (patois) than any second generation UK born Jamaican kid. It had us all re-examining our understanding of Jamaican-ness, which at the time, was the coolest kind of blackness.
The school students loved debating this stuff and teachers said it was the first time they had had an opportunity within school to talk like this, there were no YA novels that gave UK black identity anything more than a token examination.
Coming back to Being Me, in the background of the novel, the questions I am considering (we novelists never have any answers — only questions!) relate to the nature of black consciousness as a lived experience. Does a black kid think any differently to a white kid? If so, when? All the time? If not all the time, then in what circumstances?
Take a math problem as an example. You might think on the surface everyone looks at a math question in the same way. Yet a black kid might go into class with reservations. One of racism’s early messages was that African people are not adept at scientific thinking. This translates down as black people cannot do math. When entering the math classroom, what examples of black scientific successes has the black kid seen, what role models of people good at math has she or he picked up, how does their black peer group see the idea of being good at math and what cultural influences have affected that wider peer group?
Add all this up and a black kid by the age of 14 may have been delivered a sufficiently negative message about their math ability as to be much more hesitant going into a math class.
So a simple task — the square root of nine — may be contemplated with completely different attitudes by a black kid and a white kid. That’s without any reference to the actual mathematical processing brain work that the task requires. The reverse might happen at Physical Education. Black people are expected to be good at that. How does it feel if you’re black and actually rubbish at sports or dancing or any of the other stereotypical things we are meant to be good at?
So much for being black in school. How about daily life? The UK born black journalist Gary Younge stayed for 12 years in the USA writing news reports for major UK newspapers, including the Guardian. He wrote recently about his decision to return from the USA, describing how his very young son did not want to walk down a certain street because he felt threatened. His son, even at that early age, was already adjusting his thinking and his behaviour to the fact of his blackness. Do all black kids come to learn which streets it is not safe to walk down, both literally and metaphorically?
Some might say, what about our common humanity? Surely we have more in common than that which separates us? Extending this reasoning, some writers consider that black consciousness (if I can use that phrase in a narrow sense of being aware of being black in society) is not central to the black child’s personality or experience of life: black awareness is an intermittent experience. It’s an argument that may hold some truth.
Such writers could therefore presumably write black characters as white and merely swap the name John for Kwame and, with a few extra touches here and there, arrive at a convincing black YA character.
To take the other extreme, if blackness or racism determined every aspect of a character’s life, what room would there be for individualisation, for showing the deeply felt unique emotions and distinctive intellectual life which we each have as individuals — is all that flattened out by racism? Does racism make us all the same?
The Holy Grail for a writer concerned with black identity is to create a black character who has a deeply felt emotional life, a highly individualized experience of the world and a fully active intellectual life, while not ignoring the societal structures which impinge on their world. Ultimately, I guess the emphases you choose as a writer when depicting black characters depends on your own experiences, observations and judgements.
With my own two YA novels I’ve plunged in and given two different takes on black identity. In The Silent Striker Marcus has a vociferous white mum who is a trainee magician and a proudly Nigerian postal worker dad who wants to be pop singer only he has a voice like a cat with its tail caught in a door. Marcus suffers racial bullying by a teacher and some of his classmates. In his own, Marcus looks set to go under. But his true friends rally round (including Adele, his sort of girlfriend) and in a ‘Spartacus’ moment help him oppose his scapegoating, lift his chin and get his dreams back on track.
In Being Me, Adele and Mikaela are best friends and worst enemies. Mikaela calls out Adele’s ‘skin privilege’ — the way Adele’s life is easier as she is lighter-skinned than Mikaela. Adele herself longs to be what she considers more authentically black but has wrong-headed ideas about what being black means. Teen life is a time of working out who you are. For Adele and Mikaela, bumping up against assumptions, trying out stereotypes and challenging expectations is part of their growing up. It is their enduring friendship that pulls them through it all.
Those are my two tales. Two approaches. There is room for a whole range of other takes on black identity. Currently there are very few YA novels with contemporary black characters published by mainstream publishers whether in the US or the UK.
As evidence of that I recently visited a Manchester branch of Britain’s leading bookshop chain. I randomly chose some YA stories that looked as if they were set in the UK in the 21st century and wrote down the first girl’s name I came across. Here’s the list.
Rose. Minny. Penny. Eden. Zahra. Poppy. Mary Harriet. Anna. Georgia. Emmy. Evie. Lily.
A very white list. To find a black character anywhere on those YA shelves I had to leave contemporary YA fiction and look among books set either in a distant time, a distant land or in a fantasy universe. It’s time for YA fiction to fearlessly place black characters in the now. We are part of this world. We belong.
Peter Kalu is well known as a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date. In 2002 he won the Kodak/Liverpool Film Festival Award for his script, No Trace. In March 2003 he won the BBC/Contact Theatre’s Dangeorus Comedy Script Award for his play, Pants. He has lived in Hulme/ Moss Side/ Didsbury, Manchester; Edinburgh, Scotland; Leeds, Yorkshire; Lagos and Abia State (briefly), Nigeria; and San Francisco, USA. He has a degree in Law and further qualifications in software programming, Internet coding and Marketing. He runs a Hulme based Carnival Band called Moko Jumbi (Ghosts of the Gods) which takes to the streets at Manchester Carnival every year in July on three feet high stilts! He is learning to tightrope walk.
Being Me is now available.