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By Lawna Elayn Tapper

Monday, November 9, 2009.

Has the Age of Affluence left a mark of complacence that has scarred Black Britain? It is well-known that a people become most fiercely political when they are deprived of their basic needs. Likewise, in the absence of any such deprivation, the inclination to protest is numbed and the sense of cultural cohesion dissipated.

For clues about the politicization of the black psyche, one can take a peep at their music, theatre, the statements they make using their hair and style of dress, the names they choose for their children, how they categorize themselves racially, and their press.

Mainstream black music is as funky as it’s always been, but its main theme and preoccupation is sexy stuff and vanity; when black people go out to see a play it’s often a performance by Blue Mountain Theatre – involving little inquiry about anything of substance and a lot of opportunities to laugh at themselves – this is fine, the problem is the absence of an alternative.

Black men are good at loving their natural hair, on themselves, but not on their women, who love it straight, sometimes blond and generally European-looking, until the approach of 40 brings home the damage done by years of chemicals, and the suffocation of their hair follicles, too long covered by weave and wigs.

That’s when they decide they want Sister Locks! This is not to suggest that there should be limitations on how black women style their hair, but again, the fact that this is so the norm suggests an arguable sense of self-hatred. Many see this apparent frivolity as a sense of satisfaction that blacks seem to have with the status quo. One gentleman I got chatting to referred to Britain’s leading black newspaper, The Voice, as ‘…a trashy tabloid, with inane coverage – as a black man I feel terrible that it shows my people just aren’t thinking!’

Doubtless, since their passage to the West, black people have come a long way. The suffering that was once bursting in their veins, from the moment they opened their eyes in the morning until the time they lay their heads to rest at night, is not nearly as obvious as it once was; the Windrush generation trailed the streets looking for jobs or housing, passing signs in windows which read, ‘No Irish, No Blacks and No Dogs’;

Blacks were told that they weren’t allowed in dances because they were nig-nogs; as was when Kelso Cochrane was chased and stabbed by a white mob in 1958 – no convictions! The stench of racism hovered around black people wherever they went. They believed fiercely in the power of education, but there were more immediate considerations to tend to - a sense of having ‘to do’ – create, develop and even fight for themselves and their rights.

The time brought Garveyites, Panthers and the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. Black life remained highly politicized during the generation that followed, and the sense of oppression fed into the words of musicians: ‘Many Rivers to Cross’; ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud’; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’!

The children of these pioneers then grew up. They faced an education system that showed no recognition of their history, their abilities or their aspirations, and by their coming of age in the 70s and 80s, and whilst being unjustly searched and brutalized by the police, they looked around and barely saw any positive reflections of themselves.

They responded by ‘locking’ their hair, and grooving and bopping to Bob Marley and Dennis Brown. They called their children ‘Elijah’ and ‘Nikeesha,’ and made sure they knew about their African heritage. Their racial category advanced from ‘coloured’ to ‘black.’ This empowerment heightened a sense of disempowerment that led to rioting across the country in the early 80s.

So what changed? The economic growth of the 80s produced yuppies but, more importantly, it produced buppies – the black yuppies. Also, going to university became less of a novel idea for young blacks. The mode of protest had changed. So when Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by white thugs, there was no Kelso Cochrane response - by 1993, black Britons had perhaps become ‘too sophisticated’ for rioting!

Despite the fact that no one is truly in a position to say racism is a thing of the past, black representation can be seen in many of the higher echelons of British society today. There are black politicians, broadcasters, teachers, actors, writers, doctors, lawyers and the most prolific numbers in the sports and music industries.

British blacks have long looked to African Americans as their older brothers and sisters. They are the forerunners in black financial and political autonomy. Globally respected names such as Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones represent huge pockets of money, but more importantly they represent possibilities for blacks in Britain and around the world.

And now, with the entrance of America’s first black president, the opportunities seem endless! A young university student told me: ‘I think British blacks are doing well – our community’s becoming wealthier, especially in America, and wealth is power. And now, the most powerful man in the world is a black man; well, the sky’s the limit!’ She chuckles confidently.

Yes, many blacks are quite settled with their achievements. And the likes of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (and the many unsung heroes and heroines in black history) have taught western leaders that if they insist on being racist, they’d better learn to express their bigotry much more subtly, and they’ve learnt well! So much so that today some wonder if there is much to protest about. I made this suggestion to someone recently, and this was her response:

‘Nothing to protest about – are you serious? If there was any other nation whose young people were so disproportionately represented in prisons, mental hospitals and single parent families, they wouldn’t be so calm about it. If it was their kids underachieving in school, or being stabbed and shot like black kids, they’d be thumping down the door of 10 Downing Street! Listen, if we don’t get our finger out, forget the European Parliament, the BNP will have seats in the British Parliament, and not just on Question Time!’

So yes, black people are still politically conscious, but their approach is fragmented, and the mainstream understanding of oppression too localized. I asked a youth worker his opinion on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza and his response was: ‘Do they even like black people over there though? Listen, if it was me in their country they wouldn’t be fighting for me, my concerns can’t really reach Iraq…I’m concerned with my people here!’

For many blacks these conflicts have little relevance. But until their approach to oppression becomes more globalized, leaps in progress will remain limited. Blacks need to take their evolution to the next level – they must look honestly at where they’ve come from, what they’ve achieved and who they’ve become. They must stop being in such awe of the global powers that be and remember they had a culture before assimilation.

An examination of great African civilizations such as Kamit, Kush and Harappa, alongside the culture into which they have assimilated, may teach them much about thriving without the need to be individualistic, commercial and exploitative.

As always, the dissenters live on the fringes – those who know that the new and real consciousness has no colour - it’s a human consciousness. It’s about self knowledge, not money, power or even charity. And if the objective of black consciousness is to merely mimic the ‘achievements’ of their oppressors, all their suffering will have been in vain.

There isn’t a race that is better placed to teach the world the true meaning of Martin Luther King’s words: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Maybe this is the true lesson to be learned from the experience of black oppression. May they bring it to the table soon!

Lawna Elayn Tapper is with Rice'n'peas magazine, where this piece was originally published.

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