Lenny Henry: “Culture is our best hope for answering the question of why each of our lives really matters”
Black lives matter. Before it is an organization or a capitalized political movement, it is only a simple observation. Black life is important and has meaning. All too often, however, when we discuss the meaning of the sentence, we frame our discussions of how our lives are not valued.
It’s a cry that has resonated across the world against the worst excesses and horrors black people face, whether in response to police murders or the toppling of statues commemorating slave traders.
It is undeniable that the racism we face in British society is shocking. But the end result is that our lives are often portrayed as negative, defined by bigotry and prejudices that try to coerce us.
This is why we decided to edit the book Black British Lives Matter, a collection of essays and conversations from black British figures on why black representation in their respective fields is so important. It’s also about the unique contribution we make to all aspects of British society: from David Olusoga’s Black British Historians Matter to Doreen Lawrence’s Black British Mothers Matter.
We want to recognize the racism we face, but we also want to frame our lives in a positive way. The tension in this lens is captured in the final chapter, where my fellow editor Marcus Ryder recounts an argument he had with his wife at the breakfast table over our book:
“When Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death, Doreen Lawrence did not start an anti-knife charity. She didn’t even start an anti-racism charity,my wife told me. “Doreen started a charity for young budding architects because that was Stephen’s ambition and it was life that was cut short – it was the lives of black Britons that mattered. These essays focus on the architects of the future, they do not dwell on the knife.
“But this book aims to capture the unique experience of black Britons,” I answer. “Police brutality is part of our reality.“
“There’s more to our reality – and I feel like that’s all I’m hearing about.“
We end our breakfast in silence.
The truth is, we cannot be silent. We must constantly find ways to tell our stories, but frame them in a way that reflects both the negative and positive forces in our lives. Our art and culture is the best way to achieve this, and that’s why we jumped at the chance when we were approached by The Guardian to resume their Saturday cultural section because we fundamentally believe in Black British Culture. Matters.
We believe that the art produced by a community, the music it creates and the stories it tells about itself are essential to how that community sees itself and its place in the world. We also believe that there is something quite new artistically happening in the UK black community (or should it be communities?) Right now. As Kwame Kwei-Armah writes in his chapter of our book: “A society is measured by the quality of its artists, not by the quantity of its accountants. And culture is our best hope for answering the question of why each of our lives really matters. Lenny henri
“With confidence comes a willingness to criticize Britain while embracing it” Marcus Ryder
We are in the midst of a British renaissance, led by black Britons. As with the rise of the Young British Artists during the British Art and Britpop era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, evidence of a British cultural renaissance has been clearly visible in these pages, week after week, in all spheres of culture. .
From Daniel Kaluuya to Michaela Coel, black actors and screenwriters are at the forefront of their art. Writers and political commentators like Afua Hirsch, Akala and Emma Dabiri are reshaping public discourse. Acclaimed visual artists Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and sculptor Tom Price have achieved resounding success and are joined by new names such as non-binary painter and illustrator Ashton Attzs and figurative painter Somaya Critchlow. A striking feature of this cultural movement is that, with a few notable exceptions, they are all 40 or younger – and this is no coincidence.
We often speak of the Windrush generation as paving the way for black Britain as we know it; my mother was in that category. And while the Windrush primarily refers to migration from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1950s, as independence was gained across Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, African families also began to to go through.
I am the first generation of British blacks born in the UK. My generation was no longer the Caribbean or African doctors, nurses or bus drivers with a [suitcase] above the closet ”because they constantly had an eye on the way home. We were the generation that not only fought racism, but demanded equality – because if you can’t be equal in your own home, where can you be equal?
Sir David Adjaye, in his essay for Lenny Henry’s and my book Black British Lives Matter, writes that my generation was the one who “extended the debate on expressive culture … born in the Empire.” In college, I got involved. remember I was asked if I considered myself a British Black. My darkness was not in question, nor was the idea that I was allowed to call Britain my home. C was an existential question. Did I see myself as “British?” Was it a label I wanted to be identified with?
This debate was still raging in 1992 when Linford Christie draped himself in the Union flag after winning gold at the Olympics. The sight of a black person embracing their Britishness and a symbol that had previously been seen as synonymous with colonial oppression, slavery, and racist political movements such as the National Front was something many blacks struggled with. Black people I knew all wanted Christie to win, but there was no denying the internal struggle to see this as a British victory, as opposed to a black victory.
The black British renaissance we are witnessing today was born out of the first generation of black British people who do not suffer from this cognitive dissonance. They are black British and proud. They see no contradiction in embracing their British black identity. Hirsch titled her hit album Brit (ish) – not British ?, which might be how the generation before her would have phrased it. And Akala, in his seminal book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, talks about a short crisis he experienced as a black British musician: being real hip-hop. Fortunately, I got over this crisis in a week and have never rapped like I’m American since. This generation has both literally and metaphorically found its voice.
It is this confidence that is at the heart of this renaissance that we are witnessing. And with that confidence comes a willingness to criticize Britain while embracing it. There was no contradiction when Stormzy chose to pose with a union flag vest over the Heavy Is the Head artwork.
When I was editing Black British Lives Matter with Lenny, this generational shift was deeply visible to our writers. “What strikes me when I talk to people in their twenties, students, people who have protested, they have aspirations and ambitions that never even occurred to me to entertain,” writes the 51-year-old historian David Olusoga. “So when you talk to these kids, their goal and what they see as their generational mission is to destroy racism and eliminate it from their society. It never occurred to me. “
And just as Oasis and Blur were completely different expressions of Britishness in the heyday of Britpop, and as Tracey Emin brought something very distinct to Damien Hirst’s British art with his sharks, this new rebirth is one. flowering of the multiplicity of British black identity. It is a confidence to express personal British and other identities while centering darkness.
We see this capacity for difference in everything from black British visual arts, where there is a wide variety of mediums, styles and subjects, to the new British black jazz movement, where there seems to be a clear rejection of any ‘good way ”of creating jazz. For example, drummer and Mobo Award winner Moses Boyd describes his music as “an extension of black music, the diaspora,” which is inspired by afrobeat, soca, reggae, drum’n’bass. and jungle music, while bands like Sons de Kemet embrace rock, Caribbean folk and African influences. Art movements are often marked by the way they react to times of crisis. For my generation, it was without a doubt the murder of Stephen Lawrence by racist teenagers and Doreen Lawrence’s fight for justice. The event that marked this new generation is surely the murder of George Floyd. The key image of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK is that of actor John Boyega, shouting into a megaphone, acknowledging that he could not separate his art from his politics and, most importantly, his British black identity. It is a provocative image, imbued with Black Britishness.
One might ask: do we see this time as a Black British cultural renaissance, or is the role of black artists now so central to society that it should simply be seen as the British cultural renaissance? Basically, it’s about what Lenny and I are trying to achieve in Black British Lives Matter: a reminder that the lives of black Britons are crucial to every part of society – not just in the UK but around the world. Our lives matter. Marcus ryder
Marcus Ryder, author, is Director, Media Officer and President of Rada. Black British Lives Matter: A Clarion Call for Equality edited by Lenny Henry and Marcus Ryder, is published by Faber November 16.