Anti-Blackness knows no borders: How nation-centric understandings of Blackness fails us
Anti-Blackness knows no borders. It is always underneath the surface, even in the polite confines of British society.
Near the end of May, the more melanin-infused parts of the internet were set ablaze by a questionable scene in the second season of She’s Gotta Have It, the Spike Lee-produced Netflix series based on his 1986 film of the same name. Within what many already saw as a weak portrayal of Black millennial life, Lee managed to take things up a notch by injecting his own debatable politics on non-American Black people into the mix.
In the season’s fifth episode, main character Nola engages in a hair-raising conversation with Nigerian British character Olumide “Olu” Owoye about the supposed widespread issue with Black British actors playing Black Americans in film and television. In a brief clip that’s now been panned all over Twitter, Nola bemoans the success of actors like John Boyega and Chiwetel Ejiofor (whom she mockingly refers to as “John Puerto Rican Bodega” and “Chewy-toy Ijeda-tofu” respectively) for taking roles from perfectly qualified Black American actors. Olu refutes her by arguing that Black Brits are better suited for American roles “because they don’t carry the burden of fucked up Black American history, of lynching, slavery, Jim crow, all that.”
Neither of their views could be farther from the truth, though Lee presents Nola as “winning” the conversation when she fires back by referring to Britain’s dominant role in the Atlantic slave trade, proclaiming that Black Brits “have Stockholm syndrome and fell in love” with their captors.
This misguided sentiment that other Black people have somehow found themselves above the anti-Blackness of Black Americans isn’t anything new. Within America’s borders, the rules behind who gets to lay claim to the catch-all title “African American” has been a matter of dispute as the Black population stateside has expanded over the last half century. Not long after the release of Get Out back in 2017, Samuel L. Jackson similarly questioned the casting of British lead Daniel Kaluuya in the film in an interview with HOT 97 FM. In a reply to criticism of the scene by a commenter on Instagram, Lee pretty much stood by the words espoused by Nola. Lee and Jackson’s viewpoints are as common as they are insular.
The need for Black people on either side of the pond to distinguish their historical hardships as “worse” than their counterparts is a proverbial shot in the foot to the collective advancement of all people of African descent. On top of already preexisting borders, this sort of criticism does little more than create more dividing lines, teetering on the edge of erasure. It’s falling for the trap installed via centuries of colonization.
Take one look away from America’s continued denial of its own atrocities, and you’ll find that Britain was the major player in the slave trade and spearheaded the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans via the dreaded Middle Passage. The mythical post-racial society that Lee and Jackson believe Black Brits reside in is nothing more than a fairy tale. In an interview with GQ a week after Jackson’s comments, Kaluuya responded to the critique by expressing the sense of separation he’s felt in different arenas:
“I’m dark-skinned, bro. When I’m around black people, I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’”
Doubts regarding his struggles with anti-Blackness lack any real muscularity. Similar to America, the vestiges of slavery remained in Britain centuries after emancipation in 1833, with many of Britain’s most influential figures today having familial ties to the slave owners of yesterday. In many instances, the Black experience in Europe can mirror the ugly features all too present within the U.S. During his time working on the UK TV series Skins, Kaluuya recounted being in a supermarket in Lithuania where he was met with “a parting line of white people” in every aisle he turned to.
Anti-Blackness knows no borders. The fear and suspicion that he witnessed was always underneath the surface, even in the polite confines of British society.
There’s just not enough connective tissue to say Black Brits don’t experience the same colorism or misogynoir (albeit in different forms), when it all stems from anti-African violence perpetuated largely from Europe. But Nola’s comments are even worse than dismissing anti-Black violence outside of the states: They lean on anti-Black tropes themselves by assuming certain Black people are too ignorant to even be aware of their own struggle.
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Anti-Black colonial histories cast a shadow spanning generations. It was there when the white denizens of Thatcher’s Britain trembled at the potential changing face of the country sparked by a second generation of Brits of Afro-Caribbean descent. It was there when the police force employed their own form of stop-and-frisk, harassing the young men of London’s Black enclaves in a policy colloquially known as the ‘Sus’ law in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The subsequent fervor — amplified by a 50-percent unemployment rate among young Black men in the area — erupted into the powder keg more infamously known as the Brixton riots that rocked the borough of Lambeth in April 1985. If that narrative sounds familiar, the same beats can be heard in every case of civil unrest prompted by police oppression of Black people stateside.
From Lambeth to Los Angeles, Tottenham to Ferguson, the ties that bind are stronger than the narrative of colonization would lead you to believe. Our communities have suffered under the anti-Black societies we live in, and we cannot call home anything but sweet.
The lack of transparency from authorities and calls for reform that followed Ferguson were at the epicenter of the Tottenham riots back in 2011—the aftershock from both quakes still reverberate to this day. While reforms have been made over the decades, solutions to the underlying structural problems have been nominal at best. So if the deck is stacked against us all, why should one fold while the other lingers?
Solidarity does not have to come at the cost of identity. Of course Black Americans experience anti-Blackness differently from other Black people, but they also experience it differently from each other (based on gender, color, geography etc.). The arena might change but the tactics of oppression remain evergreen, and rejecting one another (which is different from holding each other accountable) is just another instrument in the toolbox. To completely dismantle the systems that continues to subjugate us, Black unity is vital. Failure to do so does little more than prevent us from recognizing new forms of subjugation under the guise of economic development both in the states and abroad.
During his speech to a newly autonomous Ghana on March 6, 1957, president and revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah put it best when he stated that Ghana’s independence was “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.” That same energy must be carried on today. The prosperity of all Black people — regardless of country — must be a priority.
Dalvin Aboagye is a freelance writer and student at Stony Brook University. His work runs the gamut in terms of subject matter but he’s particularly focused on dissecting the meaning behind different media.