“Being black in the UK doesn't mean the same as being black in the US,” said writer and international journalist Lola Adesioye (1980) at the end of her spoken words performance in the PenTales Travel and Migration event (see video).
During her performance the London born Cambridge graduate of Nigerian descent, who now lives in New York, also talked about identity, being a "search culture kid" and about one question that irritates her the most. "One of the most annoying questions is 'where are you from'. Because I really don't know how to answer it. Especially when I am in England."
But after her performance she said something she didn't explain. “Being black in the UK doesn't mean the same as being black in the US.” Because I wanted to know the answer from a black British perspective I asked her if should could explain the difference. So in her own words, the answer.
"For a start, everyone who is black in the UK, is a black person from somewhere else. We know that we are all children of immigrants. We are now on the 2nd and 3rd generation born of black Brits, but we know that we are not English ethnically (English still denotes white anyway), and we also know that British is a catch-all term that is meaningless in many ways because there isn't really such thing as "British culture", being that Great Britain is a conglomeration of a few countries that don't have much in common with one another.
SO, we are all black people with a strong sense of having come from somewhere else - Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Barbados, and wherever else. We still have ties and links to our heritage and ancestry. Even if a black Briton has never been to their parents or grandparents homeland, they are still raised with a sense of being African or Caribbean. There are people in the UK who still ask British-born blacks where they are from, meaning where you are originally from. This wouldn't happen in the US, unless they are asking what part of America you come from.
This can be a strength because it means that a black Briton's definition of black is somewhat broader and is more connected to age old traditions from Africa and the Caribbean - I think this is very healthy.
In the US, they are several generations and hundreds of years deep when it comes to being black. Most black Americans have no idea where they originally came from due to slavery. So their understanding of being black is within an American context. It is not related to Africa or an island or to a culture outside of the US.
This means a few things: 1) black Americans have created - have had to create! - their own culture - and ways of being. There is a black American experience(s) and a distinctly black American expression. You see this with fraternities, sororities, colleges you can go to, areas you can hang out in, shops, dances, lifestyles, politics, organizations. There is a whole black American world that exists in America and it is also sub divivided.
You could be black in the US and not really mix much with white people if you didn't want to. Black America is a pretty self-reliant world (even if black Americans don't think so!), and there is a perspective on what it means to be black that black Brits don't have. I think black Britons are still struggling to find their identity in the UK and I think there is less sense of solidarity and community than there is in the US, although this may change with time.
Black Britons do not have anything like the level of self organization, identity or ways of being that black Americans have. One, because we are a much smaller population, also because we still have strong links back to our original heritage, because we came as immigrants and that came with a sense of the UK being a host nation, and also because the history was not so segregated as to allow for the development of a particularly strong black British identity.
Also in the UK, there is more interaction among the races even if there is not as much advancement as black Americans have. I'd say that in the US there is less integration but more advancement, or opportunities for advancement.
I also find that black people in the US are a lot more proud to be black and make no qualms about it, whereas black Brits are almost afraid or ashamed - somehow they think it's being racist to be black and proud. Black Americans also will claim their space and claim their rights because America is THEIR country, whereas black Brits I think still give the impression that they have to wait to be granted opportunities rather than going and taking or creating them - although it wasn't always that way.
I also think that black Britons can't help but have a bit of a colonial mentality going on whereas black Americans don't have that. America is the only place many of them know, and they have no ties that they know of to anywhere else, so they have to know and claim their rightful space."
Also, as an educated black middle class person I've found many more people like me in the US and I no longer have to downplay being privileged or feel weird about it like I did in England. Nor am I now just the only one black girl in the room all the time. I can be proud to be black and not feel weird about saying it. I can talk about issues that impact me as a black person and have room to do so and not pretend it's not real. And then I can also not do any of that and be a black Briton here in the US.
There are similarities of course... I think racism and inequality for example operates in pretty much the same way everywhere, or has the same effects. But there are some fundamental differences."
Check out her website at http://lolaadesioye.com/