Culture

'SAFE' Depicts Black British Masculinity in All Its Glory

We spoke to Derek Owusu about the new book of essays he's curated, and what it means to reclaim space.

by Alex Mistlin
01 March 2019, 9:00am

Derek Owusu. Photo courtesy of Derek Owusu.

There are many negative consequences of racism, but perhaps the most wide-ranging is its impact on the way the victims see themselves. Personal histories are distorted, negative associations are formed and, all too often, what's left is a detachment between the individual and their time and place.

As a black British man, this detachment is something I've wrestled with frequently. I didn’t see the things I liked about myself and my family reflected in the media narrative. Some of the athletes I admired were black, sure, but they often seemed to be unfairly singled out for criticism either because they dressed differently or because they didn’t "care" as much as their white teammates. The few black politicians I recognised, people like David Lammy and Diane Abbott, seemed to only ever be talking about "black issues" as though criminal justice reform or closing the education gap were somehow less important because they would disproportionately benefit ethnic minorities.

The relationship between Britain and its BAME community is a complicated one that suffers a great deal from the legacy of the British Empire. Colonialism casts a long shadow, and its influence is both pervasive and unnoticed, a situation that isn't helped when public figures like Akala – rapper and author of Natives attempt to rectify it and are deemed incendiary and accused of race-baiting.

At present, 13.6 percent of the population identify as non-white (this figure includes people, such as myself, with mixed ancestry), and still, BAME people are chronically underrepresented in public life. Just 8 percent of MPs, 7 percent of judges and 6.3 percent of police officers are from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is not simply unfair towards the people of colour who find their advancement blocked. There are real consequences for the communities that find themselves on the sharp end of the justice system, most notably young black men who are nine times as likely to be in custody as their white counterparts. Twenty years on from the Macpherson report – the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence which found the Met Police to be "institutionally racist" – the Met are still struggling to recruit and retain enough people of colour.

The depressing state of race relations in the UK was a source of inspiration for Derek Owusu throughout the gestation of SAFE: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space. Curated by Owusu, the book is an anthology of essays by 20 black British authors addressing the conflicts and complexities of being a black man in Britain today. "The inability of black men to construct their own narratives was at the forefront of my thinking," Owusu tells me.

While racism and the personal toll it takes might be an underlying theme across the essays, SAFE isn’t really a book about racism. It’s really about the multi-faceted nature of the black experience, how blackness intertwines with society, masculinity and sexuality to form a coherent identity that is at once universal and unique. Therefore, the goal of SAFE is not to criticise as much as it is to humanise.

As a consequence, SAFE is rarely polemic, its aim is not to influence policy, but to depict the black British experience in all its messy glory, thereby showing that young black men have rich and varied lives.

The motif of images is present throughout. Images internalised, projected and self-idealised crop up in places where you might expect them ("The Black Male Image © White People (til date)" by Nels Abbey), and others you might not; in "Why It Is Important for Young Men to Floss (Not Their Teeth)", performance poet Suli Breaks deftly sketches the problem with rappers using rented cars in their videos. In "Blacksistential Crisis", competition winner Kenechukwu Obienu describes how his teachers began to neglect his academic achievements, instead preferring to acknowledge his athletic prowess because "the black athlete" was a role they recognised. It’s an instructive reminder of how images shape expectations and failure to conform is rarely an option for those whose darker skin places them firmly in the minority.

"I looked at what people outside the black community were saying about us and tried to knock the conversation down to its core," says Owusu. "We wanted a space where black men could be quite honest about some very difficult things. We talk about homophobia (Musa Okongwa's excellent 'the good bisexual'), we talk about mental illness and self-harm." The dialogue around these subjects, which is stilted even in mainstream-white media, takes on a more radical complexion when one considers the general willingness of black men to embrace a prevailing narrative that emphasises their hypermasculinity. When there are no faithful depictions of your reality, it is easy to fall prey to misguided ideas about who you are and where your true power lies.

As with the good immigrant / bad immigrant binary, black men are cursed with the need to constantly prove themselves. To prove that they aren't lazy, deadbeat, violent or criminal. We live in a society in which you are innocent until proven guilty, but all too often this principle does not apply if you look or speak differently. This is an issue that can't simply be blamed on the Tories and racist police. Lazy stereotypes are perpetuated by media organisations that all too often prioritise their bottom line over issues of representation and diversity.

In his career as a poet and literary podcaster, this has been a source of great frustration for Owusu: "In the UK, there's a massive diversity problem when it comes to publishing," he says. "Most literary agents are middle class white men who won’t understand what you’ve written unless it’s a slave narrative or someone 'from the streets'. They have a moment where they’re like, 'Well, where do I fit in?' Penguin is starting to do something with [Stormzy's imprint] #Merky Books, but it’s all happening very slowly."

SAFE serves as a timely corrective. "This country doesn’t see black men as three-dimensional, and this is what the book is really trying to do," says Owusu. "What we need right now is for people to recognise the humanity [of black men] rather than the media caricature."

Owusu also hopes that the book isn’t just read by the white liberals who dominate publishing and TV. It’s also about giving young black people "the chance to see that there are other people of colour talking about being bisexual, or the conflict that comes from being a gay man in church".

Even the name SAFE – a play on the uniquely British slang term – is an attempt to relate to black British men on their terms. "I really wanted to move away from the African-American experience," says Owusu. "Of course, there are striking similarities, but we have a completely different history. For example, we have to contend with colonialism, which imposes another mindset."

This is music to my ears. Like many black British people, I’ve learned to have confidence in my identity through American hip-hop. This role has been supplanted in recent years by grime, a culture that allows young black men a platform without forcing them to pretend to be from Compton or Queens. Important as it's been, grime is just the beginning. You shouldn’t have to be an MC to authentically express your blackness; there is a need for black poets, black artists and black novelists if the black British experience is to be a fully realised part of Britain’s cultural landscape.

Owusu is adamant that there’s a lot of good news to be found, if only those in power would take a look. "I’d like to see positive portrayals of the great work being done on our estates and ACS societies at non-Russell Group Universities," he says. Moreover, he is deeply invested in encouraging young black boys to read, because it is by fostering a love of literature in young people that the next generation of writers will find their voice.

Owusu is at the heart of a virtuous circle; a greater number of black writers will see an expansion in the ability of people of colour to construct and promote narratives which resonate with them. After all, stories are not only the mirror which reflects our reality, but the tools we use to create it.

@amistlin