This is Not America by Tomiwa Owolade review – a British take on Black identity

The term cultural cringe makes an early appearance in Tomiwa Owolade’s This Is Not America. Coined by the Australian critic AA Phillips to express the fawning relationship of some of his fellow citizens to traditional British culture, Owolade believes it applies to the attitudes of many contemporary Britons towards the US. America is often accepted as the primary shaper of truths. Its landscapes, myths and histories can seem closer to us than our own. Like it or not, we’re all, to some degree, in its thrall.

Black British people are even greater consumers of American ideas than other demographic groups. African American culture is often downed neat and uncritically. Its vision of a seemingly coherent community with an identifiable middle class, centuries of “blood in the soil” and racial solidarity go some way to assuaging the familiar, rootless condition described by the author Joan Riley as “the unbelonging”. African American experiences inform our lives and have come to underpin our dialogues around identity. They are central to what it means to be Black in Britain today. But how appropriate or helpful is it to play this subaltern role?

Owolade hits the ground running with some well-aimed attacks on the unfiltered transfusion of American standards and values into British media and academia. He is good at picking apart lazy language and impractical acronyms. To whom would the “i” in Bipoc (Black, indigenous and people of colour) logically refer in a British context?

Comparing the historical Black experience in both countries, Owolade demonstrates how African American opinions and positions forged in the harsher racial climate of the US fail to correspond to the experiences of Black people in Streatham or Stranraer.

Owolade is British of Nigerian origin and is cognizant of the fact that Black Britons, unlike African Americans, have extremely diverse perspectives. In his own case, his unbroken connection to the African continent means that he can only relate second-hand to the experiences of enslavement and white supremacy that are central to the lives of those with Caribbean backgrounds.

Flowing through this book is an acknowledgement that demographic change will affect Black identities more than any attachment to American culture. Those of African heritage have comprised the majority of Black British people for more than two decades now. African Caribbeans are now a minority within a minority. The baton has been passed. What could this mean for the teaching of Black history? What might a Black politics that does not necessarily centre the legacies of the slave trade look like? Owolade decries some responses to the murder of George Floyd. American-style affirmative action in education is an anathema to him. It would not be unfair to align him with Kemi Badenoch, Kwasi Kwarteng or Bim Afolami – all prominent African British Conservatives unlikely to subscribe to progressive ideas imported from the US.

But the fact that Owolade does not credit Britain as an independent site of Black revolutionary thought and practice is a major omission. The Black writers and activists of the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries shaped the abolition movement and also, later, Pan-Africanism. How are the opinions of Ottobah Cugoano, Robert Wedderburn or Theophilus Scholes not foundational to any analysis of Black British thought? Despite occasionally acknowledging imperialism and ongoing structural racism, Owolade somehow manages to conclude that “ultimately, it is only by accepting the fact that Black British people are already integrated into British society that we can build an effective form of anti-racist politics”. But metrics by which this integration could be demonstrated are unclear.

This Is Not America is ultimately an attempt to redefine Black British identities by placing them inside the framework of broader British culture. According to Owolade, “Black Britons share more in common with Britons of other backgrounds than with Black people in other parts of the world”. In order to make this point he seeks to define those areas of national experience where values converge. He lists sport, music and Christianity (could there be a more American trifecta?). Interestingly, the youth lingua franca, multicultural London English, is heralded as a positive and uniting influence. I’m curious to know how that particular cultural touchstone would be received in broader conservative circles.

Owolade’s book is a timely exploration of difficult questions. Proudly unorthodox, sometimes provocative, it has the merit of engaging even when it enrages.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site