My Uncle Castus would like to be me. He claims otherwise but it’s true. He teases me. He says I’m not really black, that at best I am an alternate black. What self-respecting black man, he wonders, would live in Brighton, ride a bike, prefer lentils to chicken, allow his children to call him by his first name and read feminist literature?
I can only do all of that because of him, he tells me. ‘Somebody has to stand up and do the black thing.’ And, warming to his theme, he says, ‘I’m black so you can do all of those white things. I’m black so you don’t have to be. It’s a full-time occupation.’ While instinctively and aesthetically I reject Castus’s premise, I sometimes wonder about it. Has the passage of time made it easier to ‘code switch’ and ‘pass’ as non-black? Perhaps. Castus and his generation, who arrived in the UK in the 1960s, were constantly made aware of their colour,
‘Yes! We had more skin in the game,’ agrees Castus, taking off his glasses to ensure that I understand the gravity of what he is about to say. ‘This is some serious shit. Back then a black person was something. What is he now? Nothing special. Just like everyone else, whining about nothing.’
Back in the fabled cinnamon-scented past, Castus and his spars took setbacks and insults on the chin. Now they roll their eyes at ‘dis younger generation’ and their ‘whinging’ about microaggresions at the hands of the white man. Castus is particularly irked by the latest iteration of this trend – a billboard advertising a ‘race’ book in which the author declares she’s no longer talking to white people. He calls it a public airing of a lover’s tiff – the ‘I’m not talking to you’ note you leave your partner after an argument, now amplified on a giant billboard.
‘Well that’s brilliant, isn’t it?’ I ask Castus. ‘Don’t you want to know why she’s sending white people to racial Coventry?’
My uncle emits a long weary groan. ‘Stop your noise!’
It’s what he always says about over-familiar arguments. He’d like to know when black people are going to stop complaining. He says he’s thinking of updating Robert Hughes’s book to the Culture of Black Complaint. ‘It’d be a bestseller! Bigger than your friend, Baldwin.’
‘What the thinker thinks,’ says Castus, ‘the prover proves.’ In other words, he continues, ‘I’m not discounting that there’s prejudice all around us, especially when it come to dis younger generation, but dear God man, get a bit of perspective. I’m not going to hold my nose anytime the white man farts.’
The twentieth-century pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey believed that the problem black people faced was the way white people perceived them. But Castus maintains that selective perception goes both ways. It obscures reality. He is unmoved when I begin to recount my latest slight at work. Correction, my ‘perceived’ slight. He doesn’t want to hear it, but I tell him anyway.
Our department has been relocated to a new open-planned office. A week or so before the big move, the seating plan was sent round in a group email to all of the members of the unit, including the fifteen or so colleagues with whom I share a job description but not a skin colour.
Though I’d received the email, there was something decidedly odd about the seating plan. All of my colleagues were included in the plan but there was one name missing: mine. No matter how many times I re-examined the plan my name did not materialise. There was no designated desk assigned to me in the new office.
I sent a jokey email to the planners saying ‘Is someone trying to tell me something?’ My email went unanswered. When I wrote again, I received a terse response. There were not enough desks for everyone in the new office but a ‘hot desk’ would be available for me.
It had always been the case that temporary ‘hot desks’ were reserved for freelancers who came in to the unit on a project-by-project basis. Nothing much had changed since the 1950s, when V.S. Naipaul wrote of the BBC’s barely furnished freelancers’ room on the second floor of the Langham Hotel, and the ‘anxieties of the young or youngish men’ who worked there, freelancers who would have given anything to be staff.
Being consigned to a freelancer’s hot desk would not have mattered if I’d fitted Naipaul’s description, but I was not young or a freelancer: I was mature, and had long been part of the staff.
I faced a dilemma about how to proceed. Over the last decade I’d had a few confrontations with managers: they had never gone well. Since then I’d adopted a Buddhist attitude of avoiding conflict. Though slighted, I decided (with some residual sense of shame) not to pursue the matter; I let it slide.
And so, to the present. A month after the move, I wandered into the open-planned space; and I felt as I had done when I first arrived at the corporation twenty years ago, like a trespasser.
I spotted a friendly face: J.B. We weren’t close but I’d always liked J.B. He was one of the more genial and erudite members of the department, with a wry sense of humour that verged on the subversive but was ultimately consensual. Until recently he’d been on attachment – on loan to another department – but had returned in time for the office move.
J.B. waved me over: ‘I haven’t seen you around for a while.’
‘No, I don’t have a desk.’
‘You on attachment somewhere?’
‘No,’ I repeated but without added emphasis, ‘I don’t have a desk.’
‘You haven’t left, have you?’
‘No, like I say I’m desk-less. I was never assigned one.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well look around you? What’s different about me would you say? And I’ll give you a clue: it’s not my height.’
J.B. looked perplexed. But gradually his expression shifted to a kind of hurt, and then to affront and finally to outrage: ‘That’s rubbish. Being black has nothing to do with it!’
Within the space of a minute, no more, J.B. managed a lengthy retort that included the words ‘playing the race card’ and ‘chip on your shoulder’ – the latter hadn’t been levelled at me in a dozen years.
I suppose J.B. was as surprised and discomfited as I was to fall into such an unprecedented conversation. All along I had been mindful that we were in an open-planned office, so I’d barely raised my voice above a whisper. Even so J.B. demanded to know why I was being ‘so aggressive’!
Just a few hours previously I’d walked past the billboard shouting about the uselessness of ‘talking to white people about race’, and I’d thought rather superiorly to myself: a little crude, no? But now I found fellowship with the sentiment: there seemed little point in further discussion with J.B., who had begun to squirm. Trying to make light of the disagreement, he suggested I could have his desk on Fridays when he wasn’t in. I declined, saying – in a way that I later felt was childish – ‘I want my own bloody desk. I’m staff!’
It took a little while to regain my composure, but I did. ‘What’s going on here is a default to domain assumptions,’ I said.
J.B. was intrigued. ‘What do you mean by domain assumptions?’
‘There are some who seem rightfully, unquestionably to belong,’ I stretched out my arm and gestured round the new office populated by white people. ‘And then there are those who are other.’
J.B. was silent, and some part of me was sorry about that. But I regretted too that I’d exposed my racial anxiety. I’d revealed my own unsophistication and broken the unspoken pact that I’d made with all of my intelligent colleagues of J.B’s sensibility, which was never to broach a subject as crude as race. I’d spent many years attending to the fragility of white colleagues like J.B., and he looked genuinely aggrieved and unsettled. No doubt, he’d grown accustomed to the idea that I, thankfully, wasn’t like those other angry black folk. In our rarefied world of broadcasting J.B. had never had to take recourse to saying, ‘Oh, you’re playing the race card’ (which in my experience is actually the card white people play when they don’t want to talk about race; shutting it down). Perhaps J.B. was disappointed with himself and with me for having forced from his lips such clichéd sentiments.
‘You’ve not been paying enough attention to your friend Baldwin,’ says Castus at the end of my story.
I should point out that when Uncle Castus says ‘your friend, Baldwin’, it’s a taunt. The words come with a little sting in their inflection, the tail end of the whip. Castus is not a fan. He complains that Baldwin’s blackness gets in his way, that it precedes all of his writing.
‘What about Giovanni’s Room?’ I say. ‘There are no black characters in that.’
‘Name another one,’ he says.
The truth is Baldwin tried to escape writing about race but it drew him back, like an addiction. It was the wrong time. The country or situation had not advanced sufficiently for him to leave it behind; he had no choice but to be defined by his blackness.
‘I suspect,’ I say to Castus, ‘that your real complaint is that I defer to Baldwin rather than to you.’ Castus is closer in age to Baldwin than to me.
‘It’s more than that,’ Castus fires back. ‘It’s that you and every other liberal I’ve ever encountered have always relegated the black man in England and his experiences to a level lower than the African American. Our lives are not mediated through black American lives. I have never eaten grits, my friend.’
Castus is right, to a point, but I sometimes worry that his blackness and anger gets in the way of being heard; that he’s starting to sound like the bredren that ‘chant down Babylon’ (invoking the destruction of the establishment). He’s starting to sound a bit like Mandingo.
I’d first been confronted by Mandingo at the library in Brixton. At the end of a book reading I was giving on the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey (whom J. Edgar Hoover labelled the most dangerous negro agitator in America in the 1920s), I asked into the customary silence if anyone had a question. A light-skinned black man in his fifties – noticeably wearing, on this warm summer evening, a heavy overcoat and crocheted cap – stood up from his seat. But he didn’t say anything, not at first. He walked up to the stage, climbed the steps and, turning his back on me, addressed the audience. He proceeded to spell out, amongst other things, why I was a fraud. Mandingo’s ire had been piqued when I’d had the gall (as any self-loathing black man would) to question the validity of Marcus Garvey’s title ‘Provisional President of Africa’. Mandingo howled with indignation at my fraudulent assertion. I was ‘nothing’ in his estimation; I hadn’t achieved anything, whereas Marcus Garvey had been elected the ‘Provisional President of Africa’ in the 1920s. He dismissed the niggling detail that a mere ninety African American delegates in Harlem had bestowed this honour on Garvey, without soliticiting the opinion of anyone on the African continent.
Mandingo was not much older than me, but he carried himself as an elder; he was solid, weighted with facts and experiences which evidently he believed unique and enviable. But if he was used to being listened to, his bearing also suggested a satisfying relish in being able to speak, and for listeners to recognise his passion and scholarship. He was reminiscent of the customer at a restaurant who enjoys the presence of a waiter at his side, silently and respectfully awaiting his verdict on the wine he’s taking the first sip of. Mandingo brandished another book on Garvey as if it were a bible. ‘We have Tony Martin’s book. Why have you written –’ he, stopped short, barely able to speak through his exasperation. ‘We have Tony Martin’s book!’ he repeated, as if that settled everything. I did not have the temerity to argue that while Tony Martin’s book rightly countered some of the negativity of Garvey’s enemies, my work took a different tone, that of a critical friend. The facts suggested Garvey’s downfall was the result of human error and the avoidable mistakes I outlined in my book, rather than the conspiracy theories widely promoted elsewhere.
Mandingo appeared at more of my promotional events, always in heavy overcoat and cap, speaking as he had done before, sometimes from the crowd if he couldn’t make it onto the stage. I had begun to feel wary of him, as if he was a kind of guilty conscience made manifest in my portrayal of Garvey, aspects of which would have given succour to prejudicial white people prone to question black competence.
I ask Castus what he thinks about Mandingo’s interventions.
‘Let’s just say, the brother doesn’t want to sit around taking tea with you with a napkin in his lap and a china plate of cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off, fool . . . No he wants to take you round the corner in the dead of night and introduce you to the finer points of a baseball bat.’
‘Don’t hold back,’ I say to Castus. ‘Give it to me straight’. Castus needs little encouragement.
‘He hates you, and for good reason,’ my uncle laments. ‘For centuries you have told him that deep down the white man is your powerful friend, when we all know that he is the devil. You have given a fine impression of Sitting Bull’s appeasement. What Mandingo wants is the absolutism and titanic certainty of Geronimo or Nat Turner. The time for reasoning is over; this is a time of rage. He don’t want no peace, as Brother Peter Tosh would say, “Peace is the diploma you get in the cemetery”.’
‘No need to invoke Tosh,’ I say. ‘You’re always shoe-horning Tosh into any conversation.’ But Castus’s words are no less unsettling for being absurd. I tell him I’m not going to be intimidated into declining events because Mandingo might reappear.
‘Your funeral,’ says Castus. ‘Dem sure to scalp you. When are you going to wake up to the fact that though you think you’re black, you’re not, not like them?’
‘C’mon. Don’t give me that!’
‘Well are you? Are you like them? Dem diss you at the BBC and you jus’ stand up there skinnin’ your teet’. You think a regular black man would let the man ride them like jackass? Let me answer. No. No self-respecting black man would stick around and be treated as a nigger. Look at you. Where did all that quiet diplomacy get you? A hot desk at the BBC. They insult you and you go back for more. Fool. No man, you have to call the t’ing by it’s name. Call it!’
Not fool. I’m not accepting that from Castus. Playing fool, yes. There’s a long and noble tradition, first practised in the days of slavery, of what Jamaicans call ‘playing fool to catch wise’ – seemingly adopting the unthreatening stance of a simpleton to deflect the authorities.
‘Have you never stopped to think I may be sticking and staying to make it easier for the next black man to swing through those doors at the BBC? Maybe I’m black so he won’t have to be!’
‘That’s just plain stupid,’ answers Castus. ‘There won’t be another one after you. Not a real black man, anyway. You fulfil the strategy that they never have to encounter a real black man. You’re like that grinning fool that allows them to say, “Well, how can you accuse me of being racist when one of my best friends is black?”’ He put on a voice and pointed to me as he said this last phrase.
I would never allow someone other than Castus to speak to me like this. But sometimes even he goes too far.
‘You should pay greater attention to your “friend” Baldwin. You are the disagreeable mirror pretending that they, your liberal white friends and employer, are not what they are. Don’t waste time reassuring white people that “they do not see what they see” – I’m quoting Mr Badass Baldwin here. It’s utterly futile, since “they do see what they see: an appallingly oppressive and bloody history that they would rather not be reminded of.” And yes Colin, you do help them in that regard; you enable them.’
My uncle and I have been talking like this for years, decades even. We confirm the notion that when two or three black people get together, invariably the conversation defaults to race.
I remark that almost a century on from Langston Hughes’s ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, in which Hughes chastised a young black poet for saying ‘I want to a be a poet, not a Negro poet’, it stills seems impossible to frame our lives outside of the reductive description of being black.
It’s a long history and a hard one to shake. In many societies a premium was placed on lightness or fairness of skin colour, and a tradition emerged of marrying out of your colour (and class) by finding a partner who was lighter than you. After all, as Vivian Durham wrote in the 1940s, in places like Jamaica, ‘It was the ambition of every black man to be white.’
Can the black author really write out of her or his colour? In writing about black characters can they ever escape race?
One of my earliest rejections came from the literary agent Giles Gordon, who told me he had little or no interest in ‘ethnic writing’. In his mind ethnic was a kind of sub-category, like travel or horror.
But things have advanced from these constructed silos of separation, haven’t they? In recent months, in certain publishing houses, the subject of race has almost become a privilege in itself – a bridge to a book’s success.
More race books will come as this trend continues, but is the focus too narrow? Does it resurrect an old idea of race-writing? Despite the best intentions, the funnelling of black writers into a niche or appendage to the mainstream is being inadvertently perpetuated with state-subsidised blessing; the arts council, for instance, recently channelled more than half a million pounds into a literary agency devoted to writers of colour. But isn’t the blockage further down the line of publication? More book proposals may be sent in to publishers because of the new agency, but are they any more likely to get through? Might it be more effective if funding went into projects placing people of colour in the room when the decisions are made about which kinds of books are acquired at publishing houses?
And what about the meme of race? Is there anything left to say? A century ago black writers had already grown tired of it. In the 1920s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, writers like Langston Hughes who thronged to the great Negro Metropolis, and whom Alain Locke dubbed the ‘nigeratti’, argued for artistic license. They only wanted to write about race when it suited them. But the Great Depression soon put paid to their boldness. Writers, especially black ones, struggled to make a living from their craft. At the end of the renaissance the “Negro” was no longer in vogue.
Forty years later Baldwin echoed that same sentiment of artistic independence as he took issue with Richard Wright, the premier black author of his day. Wright wore his allegiance to colour and class as a badge of honour. In Everybody’s Protest Novel, the twenty-four-year-old Baldwin mocked his mentor for the clumsy language and caricatures of Wright’s protest novel, Native Son, devised to do service to his race by shocking and garnering sympathy from white readers.
Baldwin, though, would soon be made aware that white publishers considered a ‘Negro writer’s’ colour to be his unique selling point, and that any departure from it would not be welcomed. After the success of his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin was determined to write the next, Giovanni’s Room, without including a single black character. It would be a difficult task, but at least he wouldn’t be burdened by race. Baldwin wrote, ‘I certainly could not possibly have – not at that point in my life – handled the other great weight, the “Negro problem”.’ But his publisher Knopf warned him that he could not afford to alienate his new and expectant audience.
‘This new book will ruin your career, because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before, and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you.’ Baldwin parted company with Knopf and found a new publisher – and critical success.
But it is not the unfettered, race-free writing of Giovanni’s Room which fires up black readers today, it is Baldwin the race warrior of I am Not Your Negro. We seem to have been here before.
Uncle Castus lets me talk until I can talk no more.
‘You’re tired,’ he tells me.
‘No, I don’t mean it the way you think. You’re tired of yourself. You’re tired of being black. I’ve seen it before. You thought you had a monopoly on suffering and oppression. But black women suffer more. You missed your chance to Mau Mau the flak catchers. You could-a been a race pimp but you were too prissy. Now it’s their time, they who are not so prudish; time for the angry black author to bite the hand that feeds and appeal to the radical chic.
You’re just scared of becoming irrelevant. But it doesn’t matter; it happens to us all. Look at your friend Baldwin. His writing fell off a cliff in the eighties, he couldn’t even get his later works reviewed. He was usurped by younger voices, fiery, more urgent, more relevant. But boom. He’s back – a poster boy for Black Lives Matter. You may matter again my friend, but it just might have to wait till thirty years after you’re dead.
Anyway, lots of folk suffer more than your privileged black arse. Four-hundred years of suffering ain’t nothing, but think about the Serbs under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarians; the Scots and the Irish under the yoke of the English. Tired of being black my friend? Try being Irish.’
I can’t argue with Castus; in fact I sometimes wonder whether we are one and the same. He doesn’t recall that the phrase, ‘tired of being black, try being Irish,’ sprung from my lips, not his, a few years back during one of our irreverent conversations.
Within his polemic there is truth; Castus is ultimately saying similar things to those younger ascendant writers whose experiences are two generations removed from his. The literary ground was not receptive when he attempted to reflect and make sense of the limited options open to him; it was caked over with frost. It wasn’t my generation but Castus’ who broke ground which others now more easily plough.
He doesn’t betray any resentment at that, and he counsels me not to either. He needn’t worry because on some level Castus is right. Despite my protestations, I’m not really black, at least not in the way he defines it. I’m grateful for the younger, newly-anointed writers who have relieved me of an imagined burden of interpreting black life for white people. The new generation have done and continue to do me a huge favour, they really have. They’re black so I don’t have to be.
Photograph © Thomas Hawk