Being Black and British feels different now I’m at an Ivy League university | Amandla Thomas-Johnson
I hadn’t even reached Ithaca, the tiny university town in upstate New York – my home for the next six years, as I studied for a PhD – when the confusion over my Blackness and British accent began. I was ill-prepared for Matt, the skinny white American in a cap sitting beside me on the plane. “But you don’t seem like you’re from London,” he said (I’m from Hackney, and very proud). Matt had never been to the UK, let alone London.
This response emerges from the US’s own unique history of race and class. The British accent remains for some the epitome of white privilege, reviving memories of high-born English settlers and exuding an air of aristocracy. Blackness signifies the opposite. The property of those settlers. The lowest of the low. Slaves. And so I was violating the US’s time-worn prejudices. Matt was trying to put me back in my place.
As for Ithaca, its charming Queen Anne homes bear Black Lives Matter signs on their manicured lawns; and, come election night, it is a rare patch of Democrat blue in a sea of red. But, with reports of Confederate flags and Donald and Melania posters in bedroom windows, I think twice when crossing the road at night and hurry when I see a police car: a reflex that is as much response to the state violence that killed George Floyd as the realities of growing up Black in London.
My mistaken identity, however, is more than simply a matter of Black and white. Late one evening, I found myself in the company of west African students and, as we ate jollof rice, one stood up to announce they had found me out: that my accent was fake. The group crowded round as my doubter sat me down and put me through a painstaking interrogation. Humoured, I went along with it. I carefully repeated several words, first in my supposedly “fake” British accent and then in my apparently “real” American one. She asked me to sing, listening out for a revealing twang in a croaky rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Lately.
On another occasion, a student said she heard in my accent the British imperial soldier in his khaki uniform and pith helmet that colonised her corner of Africa. I found this especially curious because it appeared as though I was being held partly culpable for Britain’s imperial atrocities. Rather, the British accent as voiced by a Black person reveals empire’s underbelly. My own betrays the kidnapping of my African forebears, their trafficking to the Caribbean, a brave resistance against colonialism and my parents’ eventual migration (as British citizens) to the UK as part of the Windrush generation. The cadence of the Black Londoner contains the sounds, forged over centuries, of the colonial consequence the Sri Lankan scholar-activist Ambalavaner Sivanandan spoke of when he said: “We are here because you were there.”
However, the days when my Caribbean and American cousins could dismiss me as “English man”, an oddity with no identifiable culture, are thankfully coming to an end. Just as my generation grew up on Black American music – Biggie Smalls, 2Pac and Lauryn Hill – so a younger one has been raised on Black British artists like Skepta, KSI, Giggs, Ella Mai and Khaled Siddiq. Drake has done a lot to introduce UK artists to US audiences, while the TV series Top Boy, featuring Asher D (Ashley Walters), played its part. The direction of cultural exchange has not always been one-way traffic: Paul Gilroy notes a Black Atlantic of diasporic cultural flows that has existed for time immemorial. It’s still remarkable to me though that UK drill music – reformulated from the Chicago-born genre on a Brixton council estate – has found a cult following at my US Ivy League university.
There’s also no shortage of Americans willing to embarrass themselves with stabs at “yes bruv” and “wagwan”. It’s music to my ears when I meet up with other Londoners (I’ve counted four so far) and we lay on an accent so thick some poor kid from Nebraska doesn’t know what language we speak.
As UK Black culture continues to alter perceptions of race and class, for some Americans, it seems, Britain is starting to look and sound a lot more like Daniel Kaluuya than it does the Queen.