Back in the seventies, there was a television programme in the UK called The Black and White Minstrel Show. It would, as the title suggests, feature white entertainers in blackface make-up, doing various singing and dancing things. A different time; different sensibilities.
Such things are not seen on our screens anymore. The likes of the National Front, a right-wing organisation of my youth, and no-go areas in parts of London town are pretty much consigned to the past. I even live in one such area these days, with no thought of my safety being an issue because of my lifelong, deep tan.
The lot for the black man – and woman – has definitely changed in the preceding decades here in the UK, as it has in the States. Though they do have many issues of overt racism and oppression still prevalent in their society, conversely, they also have many examples of stunning success and role models to aim for and emulate, something that is sorely lacking in the UK.
Our “heroes”, for a black person growing up in the UK, are mostly American. Black history is not a big topic in the United Kingdom. There was no civil rights movement on these shores; no MLK, no Malcolm X. The incidents of racial attacks, slights, mistreatment and oppression never gained the sort of traction or garnered the kind of attention that becomes a “Roots” mini-series or “Mississippi Burning” Hollywood film.
Some may think this a good thing. We obviously never suffered as much as our American cousins; were never treated with the same contempt. If only that were true. There are reasons why it may seem that the black man’s lot in the UK is better than that of his US counterpart.
With the global reach of the internet and proliferation of video cameras and mobile technologies, the sins of a few can be related to the world moments after they have happened. So we know of the continued oppression of black men by those who wear badges Stateside.
We know that they act with little fear of punishment because all who have committed similar crimes have walked away, the lives of those affected less important than a rabid animal. The USA is a country that has embraced gun culture, much to the detriment of many a passed, black soul.
Still, they have black moguls at the other end of the spectrum. Oprah, Tyler Perry, Jay Z and Beyoncé, are a few of the modern moguls, but before them, there was Berry Gordy, James Brown, and even Sam Cooke, names adding to the rich history of black achievement in the USA.
In the UK, names of well-known black people are harder to come by. In the traditional fields of sport and entertainment, we still maintain a credible presence, beyond that? It is a struggle.
Since the eccentric enunciations of Sir Trevor MacDonald, there has not been a black face that has regularly graced our television screens. A quick google of ‘UK black newscasters’ throws up Sir Trevor, Moira Stewart and June Sarpong!
In music and sport, the proliferation of black personalities is of course higher. Having said that, the ‘superstars’ of our national sport, football, are all white. The music business is more interesting. In the traditional black music genres; soul, dance, jazz, and rap, the dominant artist of recent times, lauded and acknowledged for their sound, have all been white.
The avenues to advancement in this country, as it tells itself that it is fair and liberal and modern, offer very little for those that are dark of skin, regardless of the field. It is no accident that young black boys are routinely pointed out as amongst the worse academically performing demographic. They have no one to follow or aspire to.
That is not to say that all black people are struggling hand to mouth. There are many well-educated, working, middle-class black people. What there are very few of are those making the step up to the top table, having the ear of those who help to shape society. There are a few, the former trade union boss, Lord Bill Morris for one, but they are rare and largely not immediately recognisable to the masses.
Is it racism? Is it cultural inertia? Is it, as some would have you believe, that we, as a people, are just not that smart? Perhaps it is all of those. Some say that as people, we are too fragmented, and don’t embrace family the way that say Asians do. Yet are we not the same people who have managed to create one of the largest, most famous, street parties in the world – The Notting Hill carnival – for half a century? Even as Notting Hill became more affluent and the well-heeled residents tried to end the tradition, it maintained.
As a people, we are as capable, intelligent, inventive and attractive as any other in the UK, so why, after so many years, in these supposedly enlightened and colourblind times, do we still seem to be lagging behind everybody?