Like many black people in the diaspora, I cannot trace my family history any further than the Americas. I may have a longing to connect with my African motherland but it’s hard when my mother’s land was actually a council estate in Wythenshawe, in Manchester. My mum’s dad never even went back to his home in Saint Ann, Jamaica, never mind on a spiritual trip to Africa.
But I do have family in the US — in Maryland, my father’s birthplace. And as a playwright, scriptwriter and hip-hop artist, the black culture I have drawn from most heavily is African-American. At a deep level, the African-American experience – which, to quote Martin Luther King, gave ‘the negro people a bad cheque’ – has made me question and investigate everything. For a writer, this is very useful.
I first went to the US when I was four years old. Soon afterwards I came to think that America was a black country. (It’s about 13% African-American — probably less at the time of my first visit.) This was because my American experience was nearly all black. I remember cutting my leg open on a chainsaw, and seeing the sea of concerned black faces that greeted me and my protruding shin bone afterwards.
I made it to church the following Sunday, which was again a solely black experience. It has been said that America is still segregated on Sundays. Black churches in America are open to all races (as proved by the Charleston church bible study group welcoming their future killer in with open arms); it just so happens that they’re in predominately black areas so it’s mostly black folk who go. And as a four-year-old, seeing my black family and their black neighbours and their black church, it was easy to think that America was, well, black.
It was after that summer, when I started primary school in Yorkshire and heard all the racial epithets that came with it, that I became aware of race. It was then that America became a black country in my mind and I claimed its culture as my own. I had the Cosby Show, Michael Jackson (when he was still black), the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and hip-hop. It was the speeches of Martin Luther King that I memorised not those of Nelson Mandela or Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba; Malcolm X that I looked to, not the Jamaican freedom-fighter Paul Bogle. I know I’m not alone in this; I have many black British friends who look to the US in the same way, even those without an American parent. It is their history. Mandela on Robben Island looked to the African-American Civil Rights struggle for inspiration.
The impact this has on my writing is immense. When I started writing hip-hop lyrics it was my African-American peers I was aspiring to emulate even though I was a kid straight out of Midgley, Halifax, not Compton, L.A. In my scriptwriting, too, my cultural references are often American. When the people in the barbershop are talking about ‘yard’ (home) that has always meant America, for me, and not the Caribbean. I’ve always felt like an ‘other within the others’ and my protagonists share those outsider characteristics — in the Woody Allen tradition of the lead character being at war with himself.
I went to Maryland again recently. The state lies just south of the Mason-Dixon line, which meant that freedom was just one state away to the north. (That led to a lot of runaway slaves, the most famous being the slave-turned-abolitionist-turned-writer Frederick Douglass.) My father grew up under Jim Crow segregation laws just a couple of miles from the plantation where his great-grandparents probably toiled. It is still running today. After a bike ride with my uncle through herds of grazing Angus cattle I saw what would have formerly been the slave master’s house — one of those that Malcolm X said the field negroes wanted to see burned to the ground. It was a beautiful remnant of the ugliest of institutions.
Luckily, it is now the stench of the new imports (the cattle) that fills the air rather than that of slavery. But many of the legacies remain. On my last trip, I flew into Baltimore, parts of which had burned to the ground only weeks before. Riots had broken out after a man, Freddie Gray, died in the back of a police van — one in a long line of black men to suffer such a fate. The subsequent protests, turned riots, turned lootings, were in part a consequence of economic inequality. The 40 acres and a mule promised to former slaves never materialized and, generations down the line, many black people have been unable to make their way up from nothing in a capitalist society that relies on some people remaining at the bottom.
In America there is a more visible black middle class than in Britain, but greater numbers of black people also live in abject poverty. For black people, and especially black writers, America is pure Hollywood: it’s all or nothing, the White House or the penitentiary, and it is that quintessentially boom-or-bust African-American experience that I draw on in my writing.
That, and the distinctive culture African-Americans have carved out for themselves. Segregation was justified by its exponents claiming that it was ‘separate but equal.’ Of course this wasn’t the case, but it did enable African-Americans to forge a distinct culture — whether this is soul food like the collard greens we had at our cook-out on Memorial Day, or the gospel music I heard in the church with my cousin Damonte on drums, or the hip-hop music my cousin Donyae played for us in the car going home, or the Ebonics I heard spoken throughout my stay. We carved out our own niche which isn’t African, it isn’t American, it’s African-American and is distinct from the mainstream. (Until someone like Elvis Presley comes along and sells it to the masses.)
When I’m in the US, I feel I belong. And those themes of identity, belonging and searching for a place in the world are brought to the fore when I return home to write scripts featuring British characters. With its sharp contrasts of rich and poor and just and unjust, and its still-segregated black and white cultures, America offers me a kind of creative clarity.
The more muddled physical reality of my heritage was brought home to me at the end of my last stay in America, however. My Uncle John shared with me the results of his DNA ancestry test. The results were: Nigeria 33%, Ivory Coast / Ghana 17%, Africa Southeastern Bantu 15%, Benin / Togo 8%, Senegal 8%, African-other 4%, European 12%, Asian 3%. I don’t know how accurate the test was but it is fascinating to see the myriad of African cultures bundled together — fascinating to remember how, with their native tongues banned, the slaves were forced to toil, live and breed together as one.
No wonder African culture has been forgotten by many black people in America today. Slavery systematically destroyed it. What grew up in that space, however, was a distinctive culture — and one so powerful that its energy and politics is drawn on by black people all around the world. Even hip-hop playwrights and screenwriters from Yorkshire.