Multifacted Blackness

The discovery of my global self has been multifaceted and ongoing. I have a tendency to process experiences in retrospect and this has especially been the case while discovering my blackness.  As an African who grew up in a colorblind society more divided along socioeconomic lines than racial ones, it took moving to London and then returning to Ghana to open my eyes.

A clear example of this colorblindness was during my primary and secondary education  in Ghana. We learned about the Transatlantic slave trade but, as obvious as it seems, I never understood the role of race in the slave trade and the following subjugation of Africans as a racial “other.” Factors such as economics were much more apparent to me.

I remember my sister telling me once that after a lesson about the slave trade, one of her classmates decided that she hated white people. My sister and I could not understand why.  For me, it was the wealthy Europeans who enslaved the poor African population, not white people who enslaved black people. I was unaware and unappreciative of the dynamics of race and colour even when situated in what could be considered one of the most overtly racially motivated events in the history of humankind.

Moving to and living in London likewise did not open my eyes to the issues of race. Not because those issues were not present or because I was not surrounded by them, but because I simply was not aware enough to spot what was all around me. My friend and spoken word artist Indigo Williams reminded me a few months ago about a magazine cover we had analysed back in university. It featured a black athlete carrying a white woman, designed to evoke the imagery of King Kong carrying the movie character Ann Darrow. At the time, Indigo had called the cover racist but I could not see it.

My immediate reaction was to dismiss what I viewed as “angry black people syndrome” — seeing racism around every corner. It was easier for me to see the fabricated outer layer of innocence than to take a more critical look at the filth beneath the stereotype.

It seems like it should be the case that a black person surrounded by black people should be the most adept in the knowledge and experience of blackness. But this has not been the case for me, and I suspect for a lot of black Africans. I am certain that this is because the construct of blackness is best experienced when contrasted against the backdrop of the racial diversity of the rest of the world. The lack of said contrast almost blinds us to the full experience of what it means to be black on the global stage. This is likely similar to how black people across the globe struggle with their sense of Africanness.

The discovery of blackness is an important topic that benefits from varied and insightful perspectives. The most poignant point in the discovery of my blackness was in learning that a sense of self-loathing had been imbued in me. I was very judgemental and in fact afraid of blackness due to the portrayal in the foreign media that was so heavily consumed in Ghana. I failed to recognise the implications of the resulting prejudices I adopted.

When I lived in London, my first and unfortunate instinct was to cross the road when a black man or a group of black men in hoodies walked towards me. It was an irrational fear informed by propaganda which suggested that blackness represented fear and danger. This fear was not helped by the way I was socialised into the society. I remember quite clearly taking a walk with my aunt when I first moved to London; as we headed back home I saw a group of black boys huddled together, talking, laughing and just generally having a good time. I kept staring, wanting to be there rather than here with my “boring” aunt. She noticed I was looking at them and said sharply in Ga that I should not stare. “These boys are dangerous and can do anything,” she said. It was obvious that when she spoke in Ga, it was not only to shield what she was saying (even though they were out of earshot), but also to draw a line that would separate me from them. How then could I ever see myself, an African boy, as one of them? I did not see myself in the danger of blackness that was constantly being shown to me.

In my view of myself, I was not black. I was simply African.

However, I quickly learned the hard way that in eyes of the world, I  was no different than the boys I saw while with my aunt. I was just another black boy when I was walking into a market one winter and the police asked me to take down my hoodie. I was yet another dangerous young black man, whose body was in need of policing. This was not an immediate realization. In that moment, as far as I was concerned, I was simply breaking the rules and deserved to be told to take down my hoodie. It was not until I had moved back to Ghana and started to engage more openly with racial politics that I finally understood the limitations of my worldview.

The experience of black identity is diverse, and with each new account, we broaden the understanding. I think about black Africans from my parents’ generation and how unaware they are of what it means to be black in a global context. I think about the many times I have heard black Africans criticise the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, for being “too much” and I realise the conversation has not yet begun. I am more than happy to add my voice to the chorus of black Africans across the globe who are expressing what it means to be black.

The discovery of my blackness has opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of the black experience and the potential to unblur the lines that divide us. I am hungrier for a world that is not colourblind, but that is instead more conscious of colour and race, more analytical about the effects of racial divisions, and more empathetic in acknowledging the work still to be done.

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